Saturday, April 09, 2016

On childbirth and ritual impurity

LEVITICUS: Torah Portion of the Week: The Dynamics of Impurity. Is giving birth to a child a sin? That seems to be the message of Parashat Tazria (Ariel Seri-Levi, Haaretz). Not surprisingly, the answer to the question is no. Nor is a "sin" offering required because the woman rashly vowed during labor never to have sex again, even though she may well have done so.
In his book, “Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics,” the late Bible scholar Jacob Milgrom explains the role of the hatat offering and the significance of atonement. Commission of sins, bodily secretions and various biological phenomena give rise to impurity – a dynamic force that in essence adheres to the sanctuary and all it contains, which can endanger God’s continued presence both there and in Israel’s midst. For this reason, the Torah prohibits the new mother from coming into contact with anything holy during the period immediately following childbirth: “she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled” (Lev. 12:4).

But, even if she remains at home, her ritual impurity adheres to the sanctuary and can accumulate there. The impurity must be purged from the sanctuary to ensure that God will continue to reside there. The disinfectant the priest uses to remove the impurity from the altar – not from the new mother – is the blood of the hatat-offering, which is sprinkled not on the person bringing the offering but on the altar.

We can therefore understand that the Hebrew word for this offering, “hatat,” is linked not to sin (het) but to disinfection (hitui), and therefore should be translated not as “sin-offering” but as “purification-offering.” Disinfection is also referred to as atonement – kippur¸ whose root in Hebrew is kaf-peh-resh. In Akkadian, that root means “disinfection” or “wiping away.” Thus the meaning of the atonement in the purification-offering is removal of the impurity, of a kind of filth.
Or, as I suggest when I lecture on ritual impurity in P, a kind of cooties.