“וּשְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּשֵׁב בִּדְמֵי טָהֳרָה”
“בְּכָל-קֹדֶשׁ לֹא-תִגָּע, וְאֶל-הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא תָבֹא, עַד-מְלֹאת, יְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ.”
“And she shall remain in the blood of purification three and thirty days. “
“She shall touch no sacred thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled.” (Leviticus 12:4)
There is a very powerful verse in this week’s parsha that has forced many to question the true meaning behind purity and impurity. The Torah tells us that after giving birth, a woman must sit in her blood, forbidden from coming into contact with holy objects or participating in sacred ritual.
At first glance, there is something deeply isolating and perhaps even offensive about this commandment. Is there anything more Godly than bringing life into the world? Could any other experience possibly come close to this level of Imitatio Dei, Divine Imitation? Why, after partnering with God in such an otherworldly way, should a woman be banished from holiness?
It seems that Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg was also troubled by this verse. In his commentary on Parshat Tazria, he suggests that the word b’dmei, literally translated as “in the blood,” actually hints to the word d’mama – silence. After a woman gives birth, she sits in silence, treasuring and processing this deeply Divine yet phenomenally physical experience.
After being blessed to witness my wife give birth to five children, I know that the period following birth is anything but quiet. Whether a woman is in a hectic hospital, full of beeping machines and her roommate’s visitors, or at home, perhaps surrounded by her own brood of emotional and excited children, the days following birth are a loud and busy time. There may be a constant flow of gushing friends and family bringing meals and gifts, and there will definitely be the sweet cries of a fresh, pure soul adjusting to the reality of a brand new world.
However, many cultures share the ancient tradition of “postpartum confinement” for the mother and baby following childbirth. In China, the custom is called “sitting the month,” in India, jaappa refers to a forty day period of rest, and chilla is the first forty days following birth in Iran. And so on and so forth – in Korea, Latin America, Thailand, Pakistan, and more. In most of these cultures, the postpartum period is characterized by at least a month of rest and isolation for the new mother and child, including restorative foods and rituals and an exemption – or exclusion – from religious rites.
While of course, a woman needs to bond with her newborn and heal from the physical trauma of childbirth, the spiritual roots of this prevalent ritual run far deeper.
After being part of the highest and most miraculous act imaginable, teetering on the seam between life and death, how could a woman possibly relate to anything in this world? After reaching such an exalted state of body, heart, and soul, how can a woman be expected to reintegrate into the banality of life on earth? Even the most sacred ritual, even the Holy Temple itself, is nothing compared to being the conduit through which a soul enters the world.
The unspoken secrets God shares with a mother during childbirth are far beyond any revelation known to man. According to Reb Shmelke’s interpretation, this commandment does not intend to shut women out, but rather give them the necessary space to ease back into life on earth. After completing the act of birth, the new mother is granted a sacred grace period; a time to sit in the silence of this wonder, to bask in that which was revealed to her, and to take in all that she has learned. At least, in theory.