J.J Gross

Parshat Tazria: The source of matrilineal descent?

The phrasing of the second, eponymous, verse of Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:2) is unusual, even bizarre.

… אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר

While commonly translated as “If a woman conceives …”, the word ‘tazria’ seems to imply almost a unilateral, even botanical, sprouting; a spontaneous occurrence that seems to lacks any active partner. Normally Torah’s description of conception and birth is ותהר ותלד “vatahar va’teled” (and she became pregnant and gave birth), which more clearly implies the active role of a husband/male partner in the generative process.

The verse that follows (12:2) is both grammatically interesting and totally out of context.

וביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו

It may, initially, appear to make sense that the commandment to circumcise a male child follows a verse about birthing such a child. Yet, in truth the mitzvah of brit milah does not belong in a parsha that is otherwise 100% dedicated to ritual impurities. Circumcision has nothing at all to do with the ritual impurity of the mother – it neither causes it, nor mitigates it, nor purifies it in any way.

Indeed verse 3 manifests its separateness from verse 2 by making it abundantly clear that circumcision of the infant boy is not the task of the mother.

Again the conventional translation of Verse 3 is “On the eighth day the flesh of the foreskin shall be circumcised”

In truth Verse 3 could also be translated as:“On the eights day he shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin”, implying that the infant must circumcise himself, which is absurd; Or; “On the eight day he (another male, possibly but not necessarily the father) shall circumcise the flesh of his (the infant’s) foreskin”

Under no circumstances is there any possibility here of this being the mother’s task, or even for allowing a female to perform circumcision, as the verse is clearly gender-specific. (On the other hand if there is no one else available then, of course, it is the mother’s responsibility to make sure the boy does not remain uncircumcised, as evidenced by Tziporah who rose to the occasion when Moshe did not.)

Had the Torah wished to make the mother responsible, it would have said “timol”  (תמול)instead of “yimol” (ימול) –she should circumcise rather than he should circumcise. And had the Torah wished to be gender-neutral, it would have used the passive huf’al (הופעל) verb conjugation, i.e. “humal” (הומל) – and the foreskin shall be circumcised, which would leave the surgeon’s gender open to choice.

Our parsha is hardly loath to employ the huf’al verb where it deems appropriate, including one fascinatingly obscure one. Nevertheless, here where it would seem only natural to do so, it does not.

So what gives?

I would like to suggest that these two verses are not so much linked as they are juxtaposed. Verse 3 purposely excludes the male partner in order to lay the groundwork for matrilineal descent. In determining a child’s Israelite identity, who the male partner is and whether or not he is known is irrelevant. If the mother is Jewish so is the offspring. Paternity is at best a question mark, and can have no bearing on national-religious identity.

Having established this, and given such absolute identifying power to the mother, the Torah then draws the line by saying, this is where her power ends. The circumcision that follows must be performed by a male.

Why is this so? Possibly because a male surgeon would have more empathy for the child. Possibly to restore some pride of parenting to the presumed father. Possibly to initiate the male child into a lifetime of ritual responsibilities that are assigned to male members of the Jewish community. Yes, the mother has authenticated and legitimized her child as a member of the Israelite body, but she has no monopoly on the child’s ritual progress.

As for the two huf’als in our parsha:

1.Levitucs 13:2

אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו … והובא אל  אהרן הכהן 

“If a person has a se’eithשאת or a sappahatספחת, or a baheret – chr, – on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought (הובא) to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the kohanim.”

The Torah does not use the term “yavo” (יבוא) and he shall come. This may be for one of two reasons; (a) because one cannot expect one who has developed a social disease to step forward voluntarily, or (b) because the Torah prefers not to be gender-specific, lest we assume that only males can be afflicted by this disease.

2.Leviticus 13:55 and 56

… וראה הכהן אחרי הכבס את הנגע

“And the priest shall see it (the lesion) after it has been washed (huqabess – הכבס)”. The word “huqabess” is a one-off and makes no other appearance anywhere in TaNaKh. Perhaps the Torah wishes to make clear that it is never the kohen who does the washing, and, indeed, whoever does the washing would prefer to remain anonymous.

Any thoughts, comments or feedback would be greatly appreciated.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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