At the Core of Ritual Purity and Impurity

Understanding all the secrets of purity and impurity in this week’s Torah portion is beyond our reach, nevertheless, we can still find deep meanings in them * Most of the practical implications of purity and impurity do not apply without the Beit HaMikdash; only in Jewish homes, in the love between husband and wife, is the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash revealed to a certain extent * In the aftermath of the first man’s sin, the world fell from its high level; consequently, all joy is accompanied by pain and sorrow, and love is liable to fade * The days of abstention between husband and wife purify, strengthen, and enhance the love between them * When Tikun Olam is completed, there will be no need for crises as a lever to uplift us, and impurity will be done away with

Taharah (Ritual Purity) and Tumah (Ritual Impurity) in Married Life

With the kindness of God, during these days of isolation I began writing the laws of Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity), and since the end of this week’s Torah portion Metzora deals with the mitzvot of tumat and taharat nida (impurity and purification of a menstruating woman) and ziva (an unnatural emission from the genitals), and the beginning of the Torah portion Tazria deals with the tumat and taharat of a yoledet (a woman who gave birth), it is worth studying the meaning of these mitzvot.

This type of tumah has two aspects: one – the prohibition of marital relations and intimacy, the other – about the laws of the Mikdash and its sanctity, namely, that it is forbidden for someone who is tameh to enter Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount) and eat the meat of the korbanot (animal sacrifices). In addition, throughout the country the Kohanim (priests) had to eat the terumot (tithes) and challah (a portion of bread) given to them by their fellow Israelites in purity, and those who separated the tithes, had to make sure not to defile them. Since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the possibility of being purified of tumat met (impurity due to “contact” with the dead) by means of efer parah adumah (ashes of the Red Heifer) was annulled, as well as Kohanim eating terumot and challah in purity. Only within Jewish homes, in the love between husband and wife, is the sanctity of the Beit HaMikdash revealed to a certain extent in the laws of tumah and taharah pertaining to the laws of marital relations and intimacy – in order to direct, uplift, and sanctify the couple’s love.

Understanding Taharah and Tumah

The root of the mitzvah of taharah and tumah lies in the heights of the secret place of the Most High, in the Divine idea beyond our attainment, and therefore we will never be able to fully understand the significance of these mitzvot. Nevertheless, out of our emunah (faith) of knowing that God has given us all the mitzvot to sanctify us, and to grant us favor and blessing, as the Torah says, “God commanded us to keep all these rules, so that we would remain in awe of God for all time, so that we would survive, even as we are today” (Deuteronomy 6:24). And although we cannot explain the reason why God gave us these mitzvot, we can grasp from them deep meanings.

In general, taharah is associated with life, and tumah with death. The more highly developed a life form is, the greater the level of death is in its loss, and consequently, the greater the tumah as well. Therefore, man, who reveals the highest level of developed life, the tumah of his death is the most severe. A less severe degree of tumah is tumat nevelah (the uncleanness of an animal that died as a result of any process other than valid ritual slaughter) or sheretz (vermin). Plant life is less developed, thus, there is no tumah in its end, however, if man made from the plant life utensils or clothing, or grew from the plant fruits or vegetables – they can receive tumah.

The Womb – The Source of Life

The womb is the source of life and taharah of all human beings, and thus in contrast, it is also a source of tumah. Tumat nidah is when the egg that could have developed in the uterus into an embryo was not fertilized, lost and died, and came out in the menstrual bleeding along with the mucosa that was intended to help create life. The tumah of shichvat zera (spilling of seed) is also an expression of this – this sperm could have given birth to life, but was lost and died; albeit, its tumah is of a lower degree of impurity (Kuzari 2: 60-62). Incidentally, the womb is occasionally called by our Sages kever (a grave), for example, in the case where a fetus died, and an abortion was performed (Nida 21a).

Since the Sin of Adam Rishon

In the aftermath of the sin of Adam Rishon (the first man), the entire world fell from its high level, and death and tumah appeared in the world. Man was punished in that his livelihood entails sadness and sorrow, till the day he dies and returns to the earth. Even family life, marital relations, and births entail sadness and sorrow, as it is written: “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy. It will be with anguish that you will give birth to children. Your passion will be to your husband, and he will dominate you’ (Genesis 3:16). Our Sages interpreted: “‘I will greatly increase your anguish and your pregnancy’ – this refers to the two drops of blood, one being that of menstruation and the other that of virginity, to the pain of bringing up children, and the pain of conception” (Eruvin 100b). In other words, tumat nidah and ziva perpetuated from the sin of a Chava (Eve)… because before the sin, all women were deserving not to see veset nidah (menstruation) and ziva, rather, were taharot without blood” (Tzror Hamor, Torat Chatat 69).

The Tikun in the Mitzvot of Tumah and Taharah

In the aftermath of the sin, the world was shattered and filled with flaws and shortcomings. As a result, along with the joy of all the good in the world, everything is accompanied with sorrow and sadness. No man can fill his mouth with laughter in this world, and there is no joy without crises and pain. If a person tries to ignore the pain and shortcomings, he will fall, and crash with greater pain. Thus, human awareness of the punishment Adam and Chava received for their sin, and the pain and sorrow that accompany life, are the key to driving the process whereby they are able to gradually repair the fracture, until they finally reach a higher level than at first. This is because the virtue of baalei teshuva (those who repent) is greater than that of tzadikim gemorim (the completely righteous), because out of knowledge of the world’s peaks and abysses, they choose the good. The mitzvot of tumah and taharah give expression to the shortcomings, and pave the way for their repair.

The Renewal of Love, and the Internalization of Marital Values

The decline that occurred in the world in the aftermath of the sin also impaired a couple’s ability to express their love limitlessly, and maintain its vitality from fading and dying. That is why so many couples get divorced, or are left without love. The physical manifestation of the crisis and sadness accompanying life and love is the blood of nidah and birth, and ultimately death. By fulfilling the halakhot of tumah and taharah, we give the sadness that accompanies our lives an appropriate place and learn to deal with it, and thereby give room for love to grow and develop gradually, until the completion of the tikun in Olam HaBa (the World to Come). As such, Rabbi Meir explained: “Why did the Torah ordain that the uncleanness of menstruation should continue for seven days? Because being in constant contact with his wife, a husband might develop a loathing towards her. The Torah, therefore, ordained: Let her be unclean for seven days in order that she will be beloved by her husband as at the time of her first entry into the bridal chamber” (Nidah 31b).

The Mitzvah’s Ability

Any wise and honest person will agree that a fixed period of abstention is the most successful way to keep the fire of love between a couple burning. But without the mitzvot of the Torah, a man is powerless to meet this difficult task. We are unable to claim that this is the explanation for the mitzvah because the full meaning of the Divine mitzvot are beyond our comprehension; but since we know that all the mitzvot are for our benefit in this world, and the World to Come – it is incumbent upon us to reflect on the good we receive by way of the mitzvot. As well as the longing that renews love, during the days of abstention and longing, a husband and wife can also discard with the bad character trait of lack of appreciation – taking the good things in their lives for granted – and out of recognizing the good, they learn to be truly generous towards one another.

Permissible Days

Thus, from month to month, the days of abstention purify, strengthen, and enhance the love between a couple, until they reach middle age – then menstruation ceases, and their love becomes deeper and more binding, and they no longer have need for tumat ha’nidah to enhance their relationship. In the future, with the completion of the tikun, as we learn to ascend from one level to the next, and reveal in the Torah and the neshama (soul) endless new meanings, youth will be renewed, and life enhanced. Then crises will no longer be needed as a lever for uplifting, and the curse of death and its tumah will be eradicated. To a certain extent, this is what happens during the days of pregnancy and nursing, which, thanks to the upsurge of life created by them, their love also receives profound vitality that intensifies free of abstention.

Impurity of Childbirth and Its Purification

At the beginning of the Torah portion Tzaria, we learn that at the time of the birth, a woman becomes unclean. If she gave birth to a male child, she is unclean for seven days, and at the end, even if she continues seeing blood, she immerses herself in a mikveh, and is purified. Thus she remains ritually clean to her husband despite continuing to see blood until the end of forty days from birth, for all the blood that flows from her body until the end of the fortieth day is blood of purity. And after the fortieth day, she returns to her usual state, namely, if she sees blood, she is unclean. And if she gave birth to a female, her impurity and purification are double – her impurity lasts for two weeks, and after that, she is ritually pure until the end of the eightieth day from birth. During all these days, it was forbidden for a woman who gave birth to enter the Beit HaMikdash, and upon her completion, she would bring a korban olah (burnt offering) to give thanks for the birth, and a korban chatat (sin offering) for the shortcomings embraced in her birth. In this manner she may enter the Mikdash.

The Meaning of Impurity of Childbirth

In every lofty idea that descends to this world, there is a certain aspect of falling and death. The same holds true for every birth – the hopes leading up to the birth are endless. One’s heart is inclined to believe that after the miracle of birth, the entire world will change for the better – the new child will be perfect, wonderful and happy, wise and healthy, and in his day, the Redeemer will come. In reality, after birth we fall into the routine of life – the pain, and the exhaustion. The baby will also have to face challenges and crisis like all humans. The mother’s body feels it as well, and this is the depression that sometimes accompanies maternity in the postpartum period. The tumah related to birth expresses the sorrow for the hopes and dreams that will not come to fruition, but the blood of the birth itself is not impure, since it is blood that emerges with the birth of a new life. In the first stage, the tumah is more severe. It expresses the mother’s emptying of her dreams, and the fall of the fetus from the wonderful world in its mother’s womb, into this world, with all its sorrow and tears. In the second stage of blood of purity, the tumah is less severe, and it expresses the middle stage, in which life intensifies along with the recognition that they are accompanied by difficulties and crises, which only through coping with them, can progress be made towards the fulfillment of all dreams. Therefore at this stage, from the din (law) of Torah, a woman is not forbidden to her husband, but she is forbidden to touch sacrificial flesh or enter the Mikdash. And according to Jewish custom, since marital relations are also sacred, all prohibitions are practiced in this stage as well.

The Difference between the Birth of a Male and a Female

It can be said that the difference between giving birth to a male and a female, is that the tumah and tikun of the male is more evident – the tumah is expressed in the orlah (foreskin), and the tikun in Brit Milah (circumcision), and the whole process is shorter. In contrast, in the birth of a female, the tumah and taharah are hidden and deeper, and consequently, last twice as long. And just as the tumah expresses a more difficult fall, correspondingly, the tikun is also greater.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.

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