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Tumah: Birth as Death

By: Rav Uri Cohen

I was lucky to be at my dad’s bedside when he died, and to me, it seemed so similar to when I gave birth. I mean, it struck me that watching my dad take his last breaths was like watching my daughter when she took her first breaths. I was taken totally off guard by the similarities.

– Sharon Zarozny, “Are Death and Birth More Alike than We Think?” The Huffington Post, 05/15/2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sharon-zarozny/deal-with-death_b_848265.html

THE DEATH THEORY OF TUMAH

In Sefer Vayikra, the Torah speaks about tumah (impurity) and presents many laws relating to it, but does not give any underlying reason for it. Probably the most well-known explanation of tumah relates it to death and decay, mortality and the loss of life.<1> Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik of Chicago formulates the theory as follows:

The verse “Yirat Hashem tehorah omedet la’ad – the fear of God is pure, it is everlasting” (Psalms 19:10) gives us a clue as to the real meaning of taharah (purity). Purity is that which is permanent. Purity is to be equated with permanence, continuity, and everlastingness. Impurity, on the other hand, is to be equated with deterioration, decomposition, and temporality. The corpse of a dead person is tameh (impure), because it represents the decomposition and deterioration of a heretofore noble existence. Neveilah (the carcass of an animal) is impure because it represents the deterioration of a former animal existence.<2>

What about the other types of tumah? The death theory can explain them as well. Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale refers to the above formulation of Rabbi Soloveichik and elaborates:

A dead body is considered a primary source of tumah, for it represents decay in the highest sense – not only because the corpse itself is in the process of decaying, but also because the living individual who comes into contact with the corpse usually suffers emotionally and endures a form of spiritual fragmentation, a counterpart of the corpse’s physical falling away.

The metzora (leper), whose body is encompassed with skin lesions, is also considered in a state of tumah. The leper is tameh because he is slowly disintegrating, while those who associate with him decline emotionally as they observe the wasting away of another human being.

The ba’al keri (one who has had a seminal issue) and the niddah (menstruating woman) may fall into the same framework, for they represent in the strictest sense the loss of potential life.

No wonder, then, the process of purification involves immersion in the mikveh, a natural body of water. This is because water is the clearest symbol of life – an appropriate spiritual antidote to tumah, which is nothing less than what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik described as “the whisper of death.”<3>

There’s just one problem with the death theory. At the beginning of Parashat Tazria, the Torah speaks about tumah for a woman who gives birth. How can the death theory explain this? Isn’t birth the exact opposite of death?

BIRTH IS LIKE DEATH

Several contemporary authors notice this problem, and each presents a different solution. Here are five of them.

First, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat points to the historic danger of childbirth:

I would like to suggest that the mother’s impurity comes from the fact that every woman who gives birth has a serious brush with death. During labor, the suffering may become so intense that the mother actually believes she is about to die. If something does go medically wrong, any doctor will testify that all of nature converges to save the child even at the expense of the mother. It wasn’t all that long ago that the greatest cause of death among women was childbirth. In fact, a woman who gives birth is required to recite birchat hagomel (the blessing of thanksgiving) in the presence of a quorum in the synagogue, the same blessing said after successful encounter with death.<4>

Second, Rabbanit Sharon Rimon of Alon Shvut focuses on the mother’s loss: “[W]hile the infant has begun a new life, the mother has lost a life which, until now, has been contained inside her.”<5> Rabbi Asher Brander of Los Angeles develops this idea:

A mother who gives birth has “lost” her child in the sense that the singular intimate closeness that she experienced as her child was safely ensconced in-utero is now over. Her child has left her world for the world. This may serve as a cogent psychological explanation for the phenomenon of postpartum depression.<6>

Third, Rabbanit Rimon presents a different aproach, namely that the “death” in childbirth is actually that of the placenta:

[A]t the start of the embryo’s development, some of the embryonic cells become the placenta, which takes root in the womb and nourishes the fetus during the pregnancy. At birth, the infant – emerging into new life – parts from the placenta. The placenta, which had started off as some of the embryonic cells, and later nourished the developing embryo and fetus and allowed it to grow, leaves the body, and in a certain sense one may say that it is dead. Thus, the birth of the living infant is accompanied by a certain sort of “death,” and this is the source of the birthing mother’s impurity.<7>

Fourth, Professor Rachel Adler of Los Angeles argues that tumah is less about death and more about the transition between life and death. Tumah is at the “nexus points,” the crossroads where “there appears to be a departure or a transfer of vital force. One of the most powerful nexus points, therefore, is childbirth. The infant who passes from the womb into the world undergoes a transition from potential life into life itself.”<8> Along the same lines, Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Manhattan asserts:

The passage from the womb incurs tum’ah because it is much like the passage from life to death. R. Yehudah ha-Chasid explains why a taharah [purification ritual – U.C.] is done for a dead person, by comparing death to birth: “Just as at birth the first thing we do is wash the child,” he writes, “so too at death we do the same” (Sefer Chasidim, p. 370, #560). Chazal connected the two by euphemistically calling the womb a kever [grave – U.C.] (Mishnah Ohalot 7:4; Niddah 21a; Shabbat 129a). Perhaps, then, the week of tum’ah incurred by a woman after the birth of a son is her way of “sitting shiv’ah” over the cessation of her son’s first existence.<9>

Fifth, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin of Yerushalayim has an out-of-the-box approach. He suggests a reason why tumah should be associated with birth as well as death:

To be sure, tum’ah is often connected with death and decay, and as such can be seen as antithetical to the idea of haShem, the living G-d. . . . [N]ot not only death and decay are opposed to the idea of G-d, but birth as well. HaShem does not die, but neither is He born. The flux of human life, birth and death together, is antithetical to G-d’s immutable and eternal nature. Tumah represents the waxing as well as the waning of life and has no place in the Sanctuary, the abode of the Eternal.<10>

BIRTH IS NOT LIKE DEATH

Nevertheless, Rabbanit Rimon adds, there is one key difference between the tumah associated with birth and the other types of tumah:

All of the others are caused by a pathological state, while the impurity of this woman is brought about in a positive and desirable way, through the creation of new life. . . . It is perhaps for this reason that the Torah chooses to address the woman after childbirth first, before the other categories of impurity.<11>

In other words, although there are some similarities between birth and death, ultimately birth is different, a gift from God. We can illustrate this with a beautiful story:

Just after Rebbetzin Leah Schwadron had given birth to one of her children, her husband Rabbi Sholom, the Maggid of Jerusalem, asked her, “How do you feel?” She answered, “The Sages, of blessed memory, say that the key of childbirth is not given into the hand of flesh and blood; it is in the hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, alone (Taanit 2a). I feel as if I’m in the hand of God.”<12>

 

NOTES

1. The first to present this explanation was R’ Yehudah Halevi (1075-1141), The Kuzari II:60-61. In the Hartwig Hirschfeld translation (Schocken, 1905), it appears on p. 120 (and online at http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/khz/khz02.htm). In the N. Daniel Korbokin translation (Feldheim, 2009), it’s on pp. 226-227.

2. R’ Ahron Soloveichik (1917-2001), “Torah Tzniut Versus New Morality and Drugs,” Tradition 13:2 (Fall 1972), p. 54. http://traditionarchive.org/news/originals/Volume%2013/No.%202/Torah%20Tzniut%20Versus.pdf

3. R’ Avraham (Avi) Weiss (1944-), “The Meaning of Tumah,” Shabbat Forshpeis, Tazria 5765. http://www.hir.org/a_weekly_gallery/4.8.05-weekly.html

4. R’ Dr. Shlomo Riskin (1940-), “Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Tazria,” 5768 (April 5, 2008). https://web.archive.org/web/20080723182508/http://www.ohrtorahstone.org.il/parsha/5768/tazria68.htm

He uses his approach to explain why the tumah and taharah times are twice as long for a girl as for a boy:

But since the act of childbirth was only a brush with death – mother and child emerging intact – the days of purity far outweigh the days of impurity, in a ratio of either 7 to 33 for a boy, or 14 to 66 for a girl, the days of impurity doubled for a girl because it is the female physiology in which the death-life drama is played out.

5. R’ Sharon Rimon, “The Impurity of the Birthing Mother and Her Offering,” Tazria 5768, The Virtual Beit Midrash (English).

http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/archive/parsha68/27-68tazria.htm

6. R’ Asher Brander, “Reflections Tazria-Metzora 5767: Concealment and Revelation,” The Westwood Kehilla. https://sites.google.com/a/kehilla.org/homepage/parsha-reflections-1/reflections-tazria-metzora-5767-concealment-and-revelation

Like R’ Riskin, he uses his approach to explain why the tumah and taharah times are twice as long for a girl as for a boy:

When the mother gives birth to a boy – she lost a life force from her midst – which is marked by an automatic seven day period, evoking an obvious comparison to shiva. When she gives birth to a girl – then she has lost a creative life force – for the child in her midst can also carry life. It is the personal loss of that life along with its potential to carry more life that explains the double tum’ah.

7. R’ Rimon, op. cit.

8. R’ Dr. Rachel Adler (1943-), “Tumah and Taharah-Mikveh,” in Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld, and Sharon Strassfeld, eds. The [First] Jewish Catalog (JPS, 1973), p. 168. This article presents a deep poetic understanding of tumah and taharah.

9. R’ Allen Schwartz, “The Notion of Human Impurity: A Leap of Faith,” in R’ Dr. J.J. Schacter, ed. Body and Soul in Judaism (New York Region of the Orthodox Union, 1991), p. 52.

Like the previous opinions, he uses his approach to explain why the tumah and taharah times are twice as long for a girl as for a boy:

The mother incurs tum’ah for two weeks after the birth of a daughter because the girl will hopefully one day give birth herself. Thus the mother is “sitting a double shiv’ah” both for her daughter and her daughter’s children. (I heard this explanation from HaRav Yosef B. Soloveitchik.)

10. R’ Yehuda Herzl Henkin (1945-), New Interpretations on the Parsha (Ktav, 2001), pp. 93-94. http://www.aishdas.org/asp/tumah-and-taharah-part-ii

Like the previous opinions, he uses his approach to explain why the tumah and taharah times are twice as long for a girl as for a boy:

Why is a woman impure for one week if a boy is born, but two weeks if she gives birth to a girl? Because the female is the more visible link in the reproductive chain.

11. R’ Rimon, op. cit. She gives credit for this idea to R’ Elchanan Samet (1953-), “Tumat Yoledet uMilah LiShmonah,” The Virtual Beit Midrash (Hebrew). http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/5-parsha/27tazria.rtf

12. R’ Yitzhak Buxbaum, Jewish Tales of Holy Women (Jossey-Bass, 2002), p. 119.

 

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