In Temple times, childbirth included two ritual elements that some may find surprising. One is a long period (40 or 80 days) of impurity and the other is a requirement to bring a sacrifice that includes a chatas, a sin offering (Lev. 12). Why does the Torah require for childbirth, a joyous occasion, this extended term ending with a sin offering? For this reason (and the Nazirite chatas), along with linguistic concerns, one modern scholar declares that chatas must refer to purification and not sin.

Maternity Sacrifice

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I. New Mothers

In Temple times, childbirth included two ritual elements that some may find surprising. One is a long period (40 or 80 days) of impurity and the other is a requirement to bring a sacrifice that includes a chatas, a sin offering (Lev. 12). Why does the Torah require for childbirth, a joyous occasion, this extended term ending with a sin offering? For this reason (and the Nazirite chatas), along with linguistic concerns, one modern scholar declares that chatas must refer to purification and not sin.1 However, classical scholars connect chatas with sin, raising the question what sin can be involved with childbirth. These two issues may be separate but they might be linked.

II. Seclusion

Ramban (Lev. 12:4) notes that in ancient times, a menstruant or woman who recently gave birth was shunned, forced to stay indoors. For reasons that are unclear, the Torah legislated this by declaring a woman impure at those times. The Rambam starts with the same data but takes it in the opposite direction.2 He argues that rather than sustaining the ancient practice, the Torah wished to subvert it. To the pagans, a menstruant or new mother was excluded from the public entirely, due to demons or other suspected dangers that accompanied her. The Torah only excludes her from the Temple but implicitly allows her to go everywhere else. As it does elsewhere, the Torah seeks to remove pagan practices by severely limiting them.

Baruch Levine connects this law to ancient worship of fertility goddesses. To prevent such fertility worship, the Torah forces a disconnect between childbirth and religious worship.3 In contrast, Abarbanel (ad loc.) disconnects this rule from pagan practices. Instead, he suggests simply that a new mother bleeds for a long time and requires 40 days to heal from childbirth.

III. Sin Offering

But what sin could prompt the chatas? Ramban (ibid., 7) quotes the Sages who suggest that a woman giving birth makes vows against her husband that she will never keep. Therefore, she brings the sin offering to atone for the broken vow. Abarbanel offers a curious answer. He says that women giving birth are in a life threatening situation and no one faces danger without having committed a sin. Therefore, new mothers must have sinned. This calculus is suspicious but perhaps we can add to it another possible meaning.

R. Ari Kahn notes that women suffer during childbirth because of Eve’s sin and punishment. The entire process of childbirth is framed by the fateful sin in the Garden of Eden. That is the reason women are placed in danger and, perhaps, therefore, why they must bring a sin offering. It is not for their own sin but for Eve’s.4

IV. A Woman’s Perspective

It is left to a woman — a childless woman — to turn this discussion around. All previous commentaries revolved around sin and impurity, for obvious reasons. Nechama Leibowitz sees it all entirely differently and connects the new mother’s lengthened state of impurity and sin offering.5

Childbirth is a miraculous process. It vividly demonstrates the greatness of God, who creates a living being inside another. In contrast, we mere humans shrink into insignificance and impotence. After experiencing childbirth, a new mother has greater cognizance of her own limitations and her own sinfulness.

Perhaps this explains the impurity and the sin-offering in the context of the woman after childbirth. The new life within her made her deeply conscious of the greatness of the Creator, as also of her insignificance as “dust and ashes” and impurity. Hence the need for a sin-offering.6


  1. Milgrom, Anchor Bible, Leviticus vol. 1 p. 253
  2. Moreh Nevukhim 3:47
  3. JPS Torah Commentary, Leviticus excursus 3
  4. Explorations, p. 243
  5. News Studies in Vayikra, pp. 176-182
  6. Ibid., p. 181

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

19 comments

  1. “Ramban (Lev. 12:4) notes that in ancient times, a menstruant or woman who recently gave birth was shunned, forced to stay indoors.”

    Ramban on Bereshis 31:35 regarding Rachel/Lavan quotes from a Bereisa in Niddah, and IIRC R. CD Chavel discusses this in Mossad R. Kook edition. Has anyone seen this?

  2. “Beraisa i Niddah.”
    Well…sort of. The status of “Beraisa de-maseches niddah” according to contemporary scholars is…complicated. (it is an interesting question how relevant that is if rishonim thought it was a normative tannaitic text.)
    see, e.g.,
    http://thetalmudblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/on-the-margins-a-review-of-e-marienbergs-la-baraita-de-niddah/
    http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2495-baraita-de-niddah

    that ramban creates obvious problems for current niddah apologetics, leading to its marginalization in contemporary discourse, i think. have not seen the chavel discussion

  3. “Abarbanel (ad loc.) disconnects this rule from pagan practices. Instead, he suggests simply that a new mother bleeds for a long time and requires 40 days to heal from childbirth.”

    How does this fit with the concept of dam tohar/”demei taharah”?

  4. r hirsch writes about this, claiming, if i recall correctly, that birth is such a supremely physical experience (true, imho) that it takes time for the woman to reenter the spiritual realm.

    i read that after the birth of my first child and felt he got it half right. birth, especially first brith, definitely disconnects you from the ordinary plane in which you live, but to say that i does so in a wholly negative, nonspiritual way, is problematic to me.

  5. “it is an interesting question how relevant that is if rishonim thought it was a normative tannaitic text”

    I believe R. Chavel discusses this. I first saw R. Chavel as a teenager, and since then wondered how to relate to the issue hashkafically(the question has nothing to do with the topic of Tumah per se; FWIW I found online a Conservative “Teshuvah” which discusses the Berisah, which is why I wanted to review R. Chavel).

    There was a discussion in Tradition Magazine in 2010 regarding rationalizing Tumah, and a response by a kallah teacher. The Editor wrote:

    “Jewish thought on this matter reflects two very different sets of orientation. Those whose thinking centers on Halakha and/or the classical heritage of medieval Jewish philosophy, down through its modern offshoots,tend to view tum’a in legalistic or symbolic terms. Those whose Judaism is mystical and those who examine the Torah from the perspective of comparative religion and ancient Near Eastern history, are inclined to identify tum’a with the kind of reified categories familiar from that anthropological milieu. The former maximize the distance between Judaism and pagan religion. The latter do not wish to ignore overlap in content and
    structure between Judaism and the ideas and institutions of the pagan world. The remoteness of tum’a from contemporary experience makes it more difficult to produce a comprehensive theology that does justice to these varied elements”(see rest of note in Tradition 43:4)

  6. Another opportunity to look up Douglas. From p. 182:

    When the stipulated time of her impurity is ended, the woman needs to bring a lamb for a burnt offering, and a bird for a sin offering, so that the priest can make atonement for her (Lev 12: 8) but there is no suggestion that she has committed a sin. The law suggests a different gloss on these sacrifices. Like circumcision it is likely that the rite of expiation or atonement also has a prophylactic effect, protecting the vulnerable mother and child, or in the case of a leper, warding off the recurrence of illness. Needing atonement is the main theme which links human reproduction with leprosy. The leper must make a guilt offering (Lev 14: 18, 21) and a sin offering (Lev 14: 22, 30-1) for expiation. The discourse on leprosy has many things in common with that on the inseminated woman. One, in a minor key, is the association with fertility by birthing and teeming, burgeoning, swelling and reproducing; others are the concept of impurity and the recuperative and prophylectic powers of the rite of atonement.

  7. Dani Schreiber

    Dr. Chavel is very upset about Ramban’s quoting of the “beraisa”. He wrote that he was very upset that Rishonim were fooled into thinking it was a real beraisa.

  8. (it is an interesting question how relevant that is if rishonim thought it was a normative tannaitic text.)
    ==================================
    imho it’s more than interesting, it goes to the heart of the question of what is halacha-a process whose results are less important than how you implement the process, a desire to recreate the “true” ratzon hashem (with the axiom that the closer the data to the original revelation, the more weight it is given) or somewhere in between (but how do you weight the 2?)?
    KT

  9. “in ancient times, a menstruant or woman who recently gave birth was shunned, forced to stay indoors”

    I can’t say anything about the beraita- from the links, it is only suggested that the version *we* have, not the one the Ramban quotes, may not be authentic- but regardless, this is certainly true even to this day among some societies. Even Ethiopian Jews did it.

  10. R. Ari Kahn notes that women suffer during childbirth because of Eve’s sin and punishment. The entire process of childbirth is framed by the fateful sin in the Garden of Eden. That is the reason women are placed in danger and, perhaps, therefore, why they must bring a sin offering. It is not for their own sin but for Eve’s.

    Is R. Kahn a literalist with regards to this story? SERIOUSLY???

  11. “Is R. Kahn a literalist with regards to this story? SERIOUSLY???”

    His explanation actually works better if you’re not a literalist, and “Eve” represents the entire female race.

    Anyway, if the explanation is correct, I might expect that men have to offer a sin-offering after getting home from work in the fields each day.

  12. ““in ancient times, a menstruant or woman who recently gave birth was shunned, forced to stay indoors””

    interestingly, in some cultures this could be spun not as “shunned and forced to stay indoors” but as “taken care of and not let to fend for herself.” (see eg http://www.huffingtonpost.com/linda-murray/care-after-birth-different-moms-different-realities_b_2970981.html)

  13. Parturient women of many different cultures stayed at home for weeks after childbirth well into early modern times. This had more to do with medical notions of how to best recover from delivery than mere superstitions. Lacking stitches and modern medicine, it was probably good advice.

  14. “Lacking stitches and modern medicine, it was probably good advice.”

    even with all that, i’d say it’s good advice. though for the “modern woman” the key is that its advice/guidance for most of the first few weeks, not mandatory for the entire time…

  15. Years ago, I read some of the tortured explanations for the chatat and found one that I liked better… it was a tikun/kaparah for the curse give to Chavah re childbirth. But if that were true, I needed to find a chatat for the curse given to Adam…
    A chatat was brought on each chag; it is explained that it was to atone for tumah bamikdash. But Shavuot has an extra chatat brought with the shtei halechem. Why bring another chatat for tumah bamikdash on the same day (when all the other chagim make do with one)? Perhaps because it is not for tumah but rather a tikun for the curse given to Adam.
    (On the other hand, I believe that in Menachot, the Gemara implies that this chatat was also for tumah.)

  16. of course, even if the whole community (=males?) brings a chatat at some point, that’s hardly the same as every single woman being held accountable for the sin of eve…

  17. Emma at 9:51am:
    “every woman being held accountable for the sin of eve…”
    Perhaps the korban chatos does not hold every new mother accountable for the sin of Eve but rather is a zecher to remind her of why she went through the ordeal of labor and delivery and who brought this punishment on all subsequent mothers after Eve. Also, perhaps Eve’s punishment was greater than Adam’s because she was the main instigator in the sin. Hashem’s “Plan A” was instantaneous, painless childbirth; only after the sin did “Plan B” the current method of labor and childbirth come into effect.

  18. Yisrael Herczeg

    The bigger the person you are, the more people you feel directly responsible for. For most of us, just being responsible for ourselves is challenging enough. When we get married, we become responsible for our spouses and eventually our children. You can’t feel you’re okay, if your children aren’t. Some people, e.g., the principal of a school, should feel directly responsible for many people. In sifrei chassidus we find people who felt responsible for all of creation to the extent that they actively tried to rectify the sin of Adam and Chavah. These include the Avos and Imahos, Yosef, and David. For the average individual to say that they were trying actively to rectify the sin of Adam and Chavah would be ludicrous. When a woman gives birth, the zechus of having brought a new neshamah into the world is so great, that she is on a level where she can directly contribute toward correcting Chavah’s sin.

  19. Yisrael Herczeg,
    I have to think more abt what you say, but I do like that, unlike most (all?) of the other explanations offered so far, yours accounts for both the positive and negative aspects of childbirth.

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