Is giving birth a sin? The recondite laws of ritual purity combined with the detailed and decidedly unglamorous catalogue of sacrificial offerings in Leviticus delivers a double-whammy: Giving birth renders a woman ritually impure for an initial seven days plus an additional 33 days after delivering a boy, or an initial 14 days plus an additional 66 days after giving birth to a girl. Following that, the woman must bring two sacrifices to the Temple: (1) a lamb as an olah; and (2) either a pigeon or turtledove as a chatat, a sin offering—yes, a SIN offering:
וּבְמִשְׁלַם יוֹמֵי דְּכוּתַהּ, לִבְרָא אוֹ לִבְרַתָּא, תַּיְתֵי אִמַּר בַּר שַׁתֵּיהּ לַעֲלָתָא, וּבַר יוֹנָה אוֹ שַׁפְנִינָא לְחַטָּתָא--לִתְרַע מַשְׁכַּן זִמְנָא, לְוָת כָּהֲנָא. וִיקָרְבִנֵּיהּ לִקְדָם יְיָ, וִיכַפַּר עֲלַהּ, וְתִדְכֵּי, מִסּוֹאֲבָת דְּמַהָא: דָּא אוֹרָיְתָא דְּיָלֵידְתָּא, לִדְכַר אוֹ לְנֻקְבָּא
On the completion of her period of purification for either a 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 sin offering. [The priest] shall offer it before Adonai and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood. Such are the rituals concerning [a woman] who bears a child, male or female. (Leviticus 12:6–7)
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary notes that the chatat offering “cleanses the sanctuary of the impurity generated by the mother’s severe discharge; blood from the sacrifice serves as a ritual detergent… Thus, while human blood or discharge is a source of impurity the blood of an animal sacrifice is what counteracts its effect on the sphere of holiness.” Presumably, however, the woman stopped bleeding long ago (these sacrifices are brought 40 or 80 days after the woman delivered), and following her immersion after the initial period of ritual impurity (seven days for a boy; 14 days for a girl). Torah terms the bird offering a chatat, which is usually translated “sin offering.” Why does every woman need to bring a sin offering after she gives birth?
In contradistinction to the poetic symmetry of the explication in A Women’s Commentary, Talmud offers a deeply troubling explanation:
R. Shimon b. Yochai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that after giving birth a woman should bring a sacrifice? He replied: When she kneels in childbearing she swears impetuously that she will never again have intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sacrifice.
R. Yosef said: Does she not [in swearing she will never have intercourse with her husband again] act presumptuously, in which case the absolution of [the oath] depends on her regretting it?
Furthermore, she should have brought a sacrifice prescribed for an oath [which is a lamb or goat, not a bird]. (BT Niddah 31b)
R. Shimon bar Yochai presumes that a woman, in the throes of giving birth with all its attendant pain, swears an oath that she will never have sex again with her husband, lest she become pregnant and have to endure labor and delivery again. In his mind, this oath constitutes a sin requiring atonement. The Gemara does not bother to question whether such a blanket assumption should apply to all women in every instance. Rather, it points out two concrete inconsistency between R. Shimon’s explanation and the laws of Torah. First: R. Yosef points out that if R. Shimon were correct that every woman swore such an oath while in labor (or even if only one woman swore such an oath) the proper procedure for releasing her from an oath of this sort is not as Torah describes. A rabbi (or priest) would need to speak with her to discern her sincerity before annulling the oath; a sacrifice alone cannot annul an oath. Therefore, R. Shimon’s explanation does not make sense. Second: Gemara notes that the proper sacrifice to bring following the annulment of an oath is a lamb or goat, not a bird, as stipulated by Leviticus 12:7. This provides a second proof that R. Shimon’s contention is incorrect.
If R. Shimon is wrong, why does Torah instruct women to bring a sin offering after giving birth? Because, Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom has argued, chatat should not be rendered “sin offering” but rather “purification” or “purgative offering.” He writes:
The very range of the hatta’t [or: chatat] in the cult gainsays the notion of sin. For example, this offering is enjoined upon recovery from childbirth (Lev. xii), the safe completion of the nazirite vows (Num. vi) and the dedication of the newly constructed altar (Lev. viii 15; see Exod. xxix 36f). In other words, the hatta’t is prescribed for persons and objects who cannot possibly have sinned.
Milgrom goes on to say that the term chatat should be understood in a verb form (pi’el) that connotes “no other meaning than ‘to cleanse, expurgate, decontaminate.’” In other words, the woman does not bring what we would consider to be a “sin offering” at all; she brings an offering to complete her ritual purification, just as the Nazirite and metzora do in order to gain access to the sanctuary. “God’s acceptance of the olah signaled the readmission of the individual into the religious life of the community.” In other words, the offerings have nothing to do with sin. Perhaps R. Shimon should have consider the assessment of his view found in another passage in Talmud, Keritot 26a, which cites his view and comments: “The sacrifice she brings is for the purpose of [restoring her ritual purity, thereby] permitting her to partake of consecrated food and is not expiatory [i.e., it does not atone for sin].”
And what about the the difference in time required following the birth of a boy and a girl for the woman to attain ritual purification? Why must the woman wait twice as long after giving birth to a boy? Is this evidence that males were considered superior to females, as so many have claimed? Talmud seems to think so:
And why did the Torah ordain that in the case of a male [the woman is ritually pure] after seven days and in the case of a female [the woman is ritually pure] after fourteen days? [Upon the birth of a] male with whom all rejoice, she regrets her oath after seven days, [but upon the birth of a female] about whom everyone is upset, she regrets her oath after fourteen days. (BT Niddah 31b)
Probably this is not the underlying concern of Leviticus, however. Leviticus is famously concerned to the point of distraction with life and death issues, and anything that resides on the boundary, especially disease, evokes enormous concern and anxiety. Giving birth entails spilling a great deal of blood, something that is associated with death. In the ancient world many women died in childbirth. Even today, modern medicine cannot prevent all high risk pregnancies or guarantee that no woman will experience any of a number of frightening medical emergencies. Even with excellent medical care, childbirth can be risky. Therefore, in the ancient world when the mother survived childbirth and delivered a girl there was the acute realization that the process brought forth one who would, some day, risk her life to deliver a child. Torah’s differential between the period of impurity following the birth of a boy and a girl may well have been an expression of the profound fear and anxiety that childbirth generated: for the mother who delivers now, and for the baby girl who will one day face the same risk.
But the different intervals of ritual impurity are probably not about sin nor about which baby is superior. Torah is assiduously death-averse and passionately life-affirming. Childbirth sits on the cusp between death and life.
One wonders why R. Shimon bar Yochai would make the claim he did about what woman in childbirth say. How many births had he witnessed? The answer is zero; women were attended by midwives and other women when they gave birth, not by men. His generalization is not only incorrect, it has a nasty, misogynistic ring to it. Why is it recorded in the Gemara? Furthermore, if it is so easy to disprove R. Shimon’s appalling claim, as R. Yosef and the Gemara almost effortlessly do, what is the point of including both R. Shimon’s claim and the simple refutations in the Talmud?
Perhaps the Talmud is modeling both a problem and a response from which we can learn and take strength. How often does someone with gravitas or political standing toss out an outrageous, bigoted generalization that simple logic and amply available facts could refute, but which has strong emotional resonance for a great many people who would love to believe not only the generalization, but its underlying implications? The current political climate in the United States supplies an alarming number of examples: “Muslims are… “ “Mexicans are…” “Women are…” “Liberals are…” “Conservatives are…” “X-supporters are…” Perhaps Talmud is modeling the proper response: Don’t ignore it, even if it patently absurd and don’t sink to the same level; rather, marshall the facts and reasoning to counter illegitimate claims. Keep speaking the truth. And let us hope and pray that those who stick to reason and facts will have the last word, the word that will be heard and prevail, as it does in this passage in the Talmud.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman