Parashah (portion) Tazria – Metzorah – The Sacred Time of Giving Birth         
Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

This week’s Torah portion begins with:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her condition of menstrual separation. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for 33 days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for 66 days. On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a purgation offering. [Lev. 12:1-6]

On the surface, these six verses seem challengingly patriarchal for our modern egalitarian sensibilities. Besides seemingly painting women as contaminated pariahs, they also appear to paint a picture of a people who sought to dissociate itself from the body and its fluids. It is true that our male ancestors, who wrote these texts, had a certain aversion for blood — as it evoked death in their minds — betrayed mostly by their rulings around menstruation and, here, around the heavy bleeding that commonly accompanies the first days of postpartum. One needs to remember, as well, that menstrual cycles were not a private matter in biblical times. There being no hygiene products for women, menstruation cycles were mostly public knowledge. At the same time, it wasn’t uncommon for expecting mothers to die in childbirth which, for men, colored with dread and fear a process from which they were mostly excluded and, consequently, ignorant about.

Looking beneath the surface, however, we find that one of the striking aspects of these verses is the clear parallel between this postpartum purification ritual — especially in the case of a male child — and the mourning ritual in Judaism. That a woman remains “impure” for the first seven days after giving birth, echoes the first seven days of the “shiva” period for a mourner. In the same way, the “blood purification” which lasts about a month in our biblical passage, resembles the “sh’loshim” (month-long) period of mourning post “shiva.” And so, perhaps, for us to understand the deeper meaning behind this apparent postpartum segregation of women, we need to look at the “whys” behind these mourning rituals of shiva and sh’loshim.

Anyone who has ever observed for themselves or participated in the Jewish mourning process knows that one of the key aspects of carving out these sacred times of shiva and sh’loshim, is that they free the mourners from any personal or communal responsibilities in order that they may be fully present to their loss and engage wholly in their grieving process. Space is created around the mourners for them to simply be; to breathe through the deep emotional rollercoaster and, often, spiritual opening that come with such experience, and is mostly due to them being in more vulnerable and spiritually attuned states. It seems to me that a mother’s experience in the days following her giving birth resembles closely that of a mourner. It is not so much that the mother is ostracized from the community postpartum, it is that she is gifted sacred time and space not only to heal physically, but also to be emotionally and spiritually with her newborn child. She is, in fact, being protected from the burden of family and community duties in order to focus on the baby and herself. These Divine commandments were, perhaps, the earliest rulings in human history regarding maternity leave. Unfortunately for them, as we see here, the boys didn’t get to spend as much time bonding with their mother as the girls did. Then, like now, gender differentiation was a communal process that began right at birth.

One practice we have lost from those biblical days, that touched me when I read these verses, is the concluding ritual that the mother was blessed with. She would go to the Temple in Jerusalem at the end of the 33 or 66 days of her maternity leave, and — whether she gave birth to a boy or a girl — offered sacrifices as a way to mark the completion of her process and her transition back into the community. Though we wouldn’t offer sacrifices today, we might be inspired to revisit this powerful havdalah (transition) ritual for mothers to mark the movement from sacred time back into regular day-to-day life.