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TAZRIA: The First Law of the Parasha – A Feminist Law!

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a boy she shall be tamei, spiritually impure for seven days just like the separation-time of her menstrual period … if she gives birth to a girl her spiritual impurity shall last two weeks (Lev. 12:2,5).

At first glance, the opening verses of our parasha cited above pose a major problem – and not just for diehard feminists. It is hard to understand why the period of impurity – albeit that it is a non-physical impurity – prescribed for the mother of a new baby daughter should be double that of a son. Why is it twice as ‘difficult’ for a woman to re-attain a spiritually pure state after giving birth to a girl than after having a boy?

This question also bothered the students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (whose yahrzeit we commemorate on Lag b’Omer) two thousand years ago – so much so that the Talmud records (Nidda 31b) that en masse they asked their illustrious teacher about it. Rabbi Shimon’s reply is breathtaking both in its insightfulness and in its sensitivity to woman’s pain, both physical and emotional. When a woman gives birth to a child, the acute pain of childbirth can make her vow in her agony never to undergo the experience again. When the child is a male, she will normally regret her vow after seven days as it is precisely then (on the eighth day) that the child will undergo his initiation rite (b’rit mila) into the covenant of Abraham and the Jewish people. However when the child is female it will take a little longer for her to come round. With the birth-pains still fresh in her memory, she is anguished over the fact that her new daughter a generation hence will have to suffer those same labour pains when bringing another Jewish soul into the world. And as emotional turmoil hinders spiritual purity, the Torah prescribes a fourteen-day period instead of a seven-day period after the birth of a female.

There we have it! The Torah‘s rationale is almost the exact opposite of what we originally thought. When a woman gives birth to a female child she already turns her mind to the next generation. And this too is surely no accident. Because it is of course the female line which is the guarantee of Jewish continuity and survival.

It is erroneously believed by some that the principle of matrilineal descent (Jewish status following the mother) is of later Rabbinic origin and does not derive from the Torah. In fact, in Deuteronomy (7:3-4) we find: “Do not make marriages with them (the surrounding nations) … giv[ing] your daughter to his son or tak[ing] his daughter for your son. For he (your daughter’s gentile husband) will turn away your (grand)son from following Me.” As Rashi (based on Yevamot 23a) comments: your daughter’s son from a gentile man is called ‘your son’ (a member of the people of Israel) but nowhere do we find that appellation applied to your son’s son from a gentile woman. From here we derive that Jewish status is inherited from the mother.

The Midrash declares that Pharaoh was a foolish king. This may surprise us. Tyrannical and despotic, yes: but foolish? Yet when we reflect upon his desire to have all the male babies drowned at birth we may be inclined to concur with the Midrash’s judgement. Had this barbaric decree succeeded it still would not have ensured Pharaoh’s genocidal aim. Any progeny born to the surviving females, albeit from Egyptian fathers, would ensure the continuation of Israel as a nation. Had Pharaoh been ‘clever’ he would have investigated Jewish law and ordered the drowning of the females instead!

The birth of a girl is an insurance-policy for Jewish continuity.

Maybe this is why only the naming of a baby girl invariably occurs in the public arena of the synagogue. Her birth is a communal simcha ensuring as it does another Jewish generation. And far from the first law of Tazri’a being anti-woman, it is in fact one of the most ‘feminist’ statements in the whole of Scripture!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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