Shema Yisrael Home

              Fish&Soup.jpg - 12464 Bytes Subscribe

   by Jacob Solomon

This Week's Parsha | Previous issues | Welcome - Please Read!


G-d spoke to Moses saying, “…when a woman conceives and gives birth… she shall be ritually unclean … on the completion of the days of her purity for a son or a daughter, she shall bring sheep as burnt offering and a young dove as a sin offering… and the priests shall effect atonement for her and she shall become purified.” (12:1-8)

Several questions present themselves on the content and context of the above verses.

To begin with, what did the woman actually do wrong, for the Torah to requires her to bring a sin offering?

Secondly, the Torah places laws of childbirth next to the laws of tzaraat. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that tzaraat is not ‘leprosy’ as we understand it – but a Divinely imposed sign of moral deficiency. Tzaraat, proves the Kli Yakar (on 13:2) from sources, has its spiritual roots in the wrong-doings of gossip, haughtiness, and greed. Putting it crudely, why is a woman who has just given birth placed next to the gossips and other anti-socials?

Thirdly, the Talmud (Berachot 54b) brings the following tradition, based on Psalm 107. Four categories of people are required to bring a thanksgiving offering: those surviving journeys by sea, or desert, and those who recovered from dangerous illness, or were freed from perilous imprisonment. Surely it would be more fitting for a woman who survived the rigors and pains of childbirth to also bring a thanksgiving offering, rather than to have to bring a sin offering?

The burnt offering, according to Ibn Ezra, brings atonement for the resentful thoughts a woman might have had during her labor pains. The Talmud (Niddah 31b) states that the sin offering leads to forgiveness for the possibility that, in the agonies of childbirth, she might have sworn never again to live with her husband. These explanations contain the answers to the above questions: she sinned, she brings a sin offering; she used unfitting language, she enters the anti-social category; and she was, at least at that moment, manifestly ungrateful, which would hardly merit a thanksgiving offering…

This approach, however, appears to ignore the obvious. The excruciating pains of a woman in childbirth cannot be fully understood by one who has not personally gone through them. Indeed, childbirth deaths are still common within societies where up-to-date medical care is not available to all peoples and classes. Her words in such extreme circumstances are cries of extreme pain, rather than mere oaths and expletives. Why, therefore, is she still put next to the gossips, the haughty, and the greedy?v A look into Torah ideals suggests a deeper understanding this otherwise apparently extreme statement in the Talmud.

When a person living under normal conditions, he can adapt his or her conduct to fit in with his surroundings. But when under extreme circumstances, the very essence of the personality comes out. There are no superficial politeness and pleasantries. Thus Rabbi Akiva did not curse or use expletives when tortured by the Romans to death. Instead, the essence of his personality saw his extreme suffering as the great finale of his life where he was able to return his soul to G-d in the act of loving Him ‘with all your heart’ (Deut. 6:5). That ideal and state of mind is the one we recall twice daily in reciting the Shema – loving and serving G-d in all circumstances is the spiritual pinnacle that the Torah requires every Israelite to work towards.

An example within living memory, having taken place in 1944 in Block 22, Auschwitz-Birkenau, makes that point:

In great haste, or better said, while being chased, I once forgot my portion of bread on the cot on the way to the inspection and daily count. I need not describe that day in my life. If you were there, you would know its meaning. If you were not there, you will, in any event, never understand. I had nothing to eat all day and I knew that at night I would go to sleep hungry. But when I returned to the barracks, Reb Binyomin came towards me with the bread… He had found the bread and hidden it.

“Believe me, it was a difficult test,” Reb Binyomin told me. “You understand, after I finished eating my portion I was still hungry – and suddenly another portion of bread! I already held it near my mouth. But suddenly, I remembered that here in the camp, such miracles as extra portions of bread do not occur. I thought it must be either be yours of Yanek’s (the Polish gentile boy who shared their sleeping ‘quarters’). If yours, how could I eat it? And if Yanek’s – I could accomplish a double purpose. Firstly, I could give him a new life, and secondly, I could sanctify the Divine Name. Let non-Jews… know what it means to be a Jew who wears tephillin..." (Joseph Friedenson, recalling his fathers time at Auschwitz – in A Pathway through the Ashes p.166, ArtScroll Publications, 1986.)

Here is an example of person enduring exceptional suffering who nevertheless neither ate the bread that was not his, nor bemoaned the temptation to do so, but looked at his situation as a way of fulfilling the will of the Creator in a very special way.

Thus the Torah’s requiring the woman to bring a sin offering after childbirth reflects its highest ideals. Yes, it is ‘normal’ for a person in such a degree of pain to react in that way. But the ideal is to strive for such a degree of spiritual perfection that one relates to such agonies as a means of coming closer to G-d and His commandments…

Not every woman is in such a spiritual state of mind when giving birth to a child – when being ‘put to the test’. The Torah recognizes that the spiritual climb is the work of a lifetime – for that reason a person is given 120 years. Therefore a woman brings a sin offering – to remind herself that she still has to perfect her ‘inner essence’. Had she done so she would have not, in her pains, felt inclined to utter such words.

But what of a woman who did not use unbecoming language or have less that spiritually ideal thoughts? The sin offering – unlike the thanksgiving offering is not only a private one, but it also constitutes one of the communal ones. Thus her offering would be seen as communal one on behalf of those who had, indeed, behaved less than perfectly under extreme circumstances.



This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel