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