Impurity and Separation?

April 5th: Tazria and Hachodesh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

The issue of the equality between men and women—in Judaism and in the eyes of God—comes at us immediately in this week’s Torah portion: “When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed.” That is if the baby is a boy.

 “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 sixty-six days.”  (Leviticus 12.1-5)

In an age where we see equal opportunity as both a right and a challenge, our minds wonder why having a baby should be any impediment at all—much less an impediment based on the gender of the baby. Should not all women, regardless of their menstrual or pre- or post-childbirth status be completely equal to men? Why are there a distinction and a separation from the religious community?

Perhaps some answers emerge as the text continues: “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 turtledove for a purification offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be pure from her flow of blood.”  (Verses 12.6-7)

While we may see such a separation as a negative, there is some evidence that the ancient women themselves were happy about it. The evidence comes from the experiences of Beta Yisrael, the Ethiopian Jews who lived a very primitive Jewish lifestyle in Ethiopia and then had to enter the modern world when they moved to Israel in the 1980s and 1990s. In a life that was difficult and featured lots of manual labor, a week off every month was seen as a welcome vacation rather than a shunning or time of exclusion. And, how much the more so would a rest be appreciated after the rigors of childbirth! (Actually, in Israel, the common practice is for mothers and new babies to spend several days at a maternity nursing home.)

Of course, this analysis does not address the differences in the period of purification determined by the gender of a woman’s child. To understand this, I find it helpful to turn to the thinking of Dr. Herbert Chanan Brichto, the late professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College. Dr. Brichto saw the worship component of the purification process as crucial to understanding the ancient sensibilities. If it were simply a matter of hygiene, then no sacrificial offering would be necessary. If it were simply a matter of a family thanking God for a new child, then there would be no need for the woman herself to bring the offering; her husband could have done if. If it were simply a matter of rest or even sexual availability, then there would be no need for a sacrifice—as is the case with the monthly menstrual period.

Dr. Brichto’s answer comes in Verse 4 where we read that during her period of blood purification, “She shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary…”  What is it about the sanctuary and consecrated things (utensils and clothing of the sanctuary) that seem to be the issue—the salient factor? Dr. Brichto notes that all the purification rites—for this and other bodily emissions—involve a period of separation away from sacred objects. He also notes how some of the priestly rules require the priests themselves to enter into a state of impurity and then separate themselves from sacred objects. These separations are always for a limited time, and they often involve a chata’t, a sin offering. Why would things commanded by God require a sin offering before returning to contact with sacred things? Dr. Brichto senses a concern that too much contact with sacred objects—with the life-force (or God force)—can be dangerous. Contact is thus dosed—which makes the separation from consecrated things a temporary separation from overexposure to the life-force.

This potentially dangerous contact occurs when the natural barriers of the body are opened: in menstrual periods, in childbirth, in emissions of semen, in sores that discharge pus, and in contact with any dead body (animal or human). When such exposure occurs, the prescription is to hold off on any further exposure for a specified time—until the dose has dissipated. Then, when the waiting time is completed, the person is allowed to reenter the sacred precinct and contact sacred things again.

The chata’t / sin offering is not required because the impurity is a sin. The sin offering is to protect against any sins committed during the state of ritual over-exposure and vulnerability.

Why is the time twice as long for a baby girl as for a baby boy? Because the baby girl has the same reproductive energy as the mother, and this double exposure to the mother requires an extra time away from sacred things.

Note: these separations are only for worship in the sanctuary; they have nothing to do with prayer or rights or respect—or food or shelter or anything else we associate with equal rights.


There is no doubt that women were subordinated in ancient culture, and there is no doubt that the road to full equality has been long and full of difficulties. It would wrong to think that Dr. Brichto’s explanation in any way excuses or justifies sexist discrimination. However, not every form of gender separation was discriminatory or excluding. Some might have been based on awe at the procreative power of women, a power that that was and still is prized and respected.