The Tum’ah of a New Mother

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Tazria

Rambam, Obligation 100, gives short shrift to the mitzvah of a new mother being teme’ah; since this is a double parsha, I hope to as well. [I pause to note my newfound dislike of the misleading English translation of the word tamei, impure or “ritually” impure. Tamei appears in many contexts in the Torah, and while all have some negative element, impurity does not express all of them accurately.

Here, for example, while the new mother is teme’ah for a week or two, she cannot re-enter the Beit HaMikdash for longer, as we will see. I think tamei indicates a status that interferes, usually with the connection to the Beit HaMikdash and its appurtenances.]

Mikveh Is Required for Tahara

Sefer HaChinukh portrays the tum’a of a new mother based on his idea of physiology and illness, a perspective current medical theory rejects, and that I think later halakhic authorities also do not see as the reason for tum’a. There is a discussion to be had about how we react when important Jewish thinkers hold theories we no longer accept, but not here (and I am not sure I am qualified to have it; in the Summer 2005 edition of Traditionmori ve-rabi R. Aharon Lichtenstein wrote a lengthy article defending a more positive view of marital sexuality than is prominent in rishonim and acharonim. I remember being happy to read it, preferring that view to what is found in earlier sources, and yet recognizing he was rowing hard against the stream.)

I often don’t get to Arukh HaShulchan, so I will look instead to his Laws of Mishkav and Moshav 112, where he summarizes the laws of a new mother in nineteen paragraphs. He reminds us bodily tum’ah lasts until the person immerses in a mikveh. A man or woman could have been a zav, zava, nidda, or given birth years earlier, all bodily traces of the experience gone, the tum’ah stays until s/he goes to mikveh (the zav needs mayim chaim, running water).

[I think the fact supports my claim that tum’ah is a status. All these forms of tum’ah start with a bodily issue, but the status, once initiated, can only be removed by immersion.]

A new mother has the right to go to mikveh after a week for the birth of a boy, two weeks for a girl [for reasons the Torah does not give and which I will not try to explain here, because there is no clear evidence for any particular view]. Should she go to mikveh, even if she never stopped bleeding, any blood for the next thirty-three or sixty-six days is tahor, by Torah law, has none of the status of the early days.

[Today, these laws are not practiced because of longstanding custom to treat all blood as if it is the most strict form. Not our topic here.]

In paragraph two, Arukh HaShulchan points out the blood itself will be tamei, should she fail to immerse in a mikveh. More than that she cannot remove her own status of tum’ah without mikveh, the blood the Torah declared tahor will only be so if she goes to mikveh. It’s remarkable because, as he points out, we accept the view of Rav that the blood changes status without any break; she could be bleeding continuously on the seventh or fourteenth day, go to mikveh, and the blood will change status. Without mikveh, it does not.

Her Status After Mikveh

If she did immerse, as she is supposed to, she is considered a tvulat yom arokh, has the tum’ah status of someone due to be tahor after mikveh, only her wait for the nightfall that will restore her to full tahara, full halakhic completion of the birth, is months rather than hours. At the end of that time, the Torah prescribed sacrifices for her to bring to mark her re-entry to the world of the Beit HaMikdash, of partaking of teruma if she is part of a kohen’s household, of eating sacrifices where relevant.

For sacrifices, however, she has to immerse again, as Megilla 21b says.

He spends much of the rest of the discussion trying to understand Rambam’s view of her tum’a status during these days, a topic he does not resolve and we can therefore leave for another time. A very brief mitzvah, for a double parsha.

Parshat Metzora: To Immerse in a Mikveh to Become Tahor

The mitzvah in Tazri’a already assumed the mitzvah I am sharing for Metzora, Obligation 109 in Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, the commandment to immerse in a mikveh any time a Jew needs to remove tum’a (it’s verse 15;16, he shall wash all his flesh in water, understood by Pesachim 109a and Torat Kohanim to mean water sufficient to cover all his body, the minimum size of a mikveh; Sefer HaChinukh 175 gives us the number, forty se’ah, with the translation to modern measurements a matter of debate. Bard for Google tells me it’s 750 liters or 198 gallons). If the water is still running—and a zav can only become tahor, remove his status of zav, in running water—no minimum is needed.

Not Quite an Obligation

Rambam spends time explaining how this mitzvah is not like tzitzit or ma’akeh. In those mitzvot, a man who wishes to wear a four cornered garment must wear tzitzit, a man or woman who wants to build a house must build a ma’akeh. For mikveh, the mitzvah is purely the set of rules set up for those who wish to be tahor. Should a Jew choose to remain tamei, Rambam thinks the Torah has no direct problem.

[Rosh HaShana 16b does speak of an obligation to become tahor on a holiday, which Rambam codifies in Tum’at Okhlin 16;10, in order to be able to be in attendance at the Beit HaMikdash. On the other hand, if a Jew is always far from the Temple on the fourteenth of Nisan and Iyyar, he will never have neglected the Pesach sacrifice. It’s a reminder the Mikdash can be less central to Jewish life than we might think.]

Sefer HaChinukh accepts Rambam’s view, with the addition that chasidim and anshei ma’aseh, the punctilious and people of good deeds, will not leave themselves in a tum’a state, because tahara elevates the soul. [He operates as we saw in Tazri’a, there is something bad or problematic about tum’a.]

Waiting for Evening, No Piped-In Water

He closes with a few laws, that mikveh does not complete the process, there always has to be he’arev shemesh, the sun goes down (really, the stars come out). Also, immersion must be done in such a way that the water contacts the person’s body directly, with no separation, chatzitza, in between. Sefer HaChinukh expands the explanation, Torah law cared only about if the majority of the person’s body was covered with material or matter the person would want to remove; rabbinic law added the need to remove any barriers to the water either for the majority of the body where the person doesn’t care or the minority of the body where the person does care. Beyond that seems to be acceptable.

Not so simple, though. First, Sefer HaChinukh is sure Torah law required the woman to check her entire body for barriers prior to immersion [for reasons he does not explain; I think he is assuming the ability to ignore a barrier on the minority of one’s body is not a lekhatchila, just fine, it is an application of the principle of rov, majority, but that since the Torah wanted the person to immerse his/her body, it must be that we are supposed to check that that is what we are doing].

Ezra mandated further preparation for women, washing oneself and cleaning one’s hair carefully in warm or hot water, combing out the hair with her fingers or a comb, to untangle any knots. Ideally, this happens just before immersion, although halakha allows doing it during the day when the night is Shabbat or Yom Tov. In addition, since a chatzitza she minds is a problem even on a minority of her body, women are careful to clean fingernails and sites of any possible dirt that will count as makpedet, material she prefers to remove.

Piped-In Water

Sefer HaChinukh also points to one of the most significant challenges in building a mikveh today, the need for the water not to be she’uvin, to have been held in a container. The rule is rabbinic, because the Torah just said a collection of water. [He doesn’t explain why; Rambam to Zavim 5;10 explains that Jews would immerse in brackish water and rinse off in a bathtub, leading people to think the bathtub  produced the tahara. To avoid the misimpression, Chazal ruled out water in a container, and declared tamei someone who came rosho v-rubo, his head and majority of his body, in such water.]

Why Water?

Let’s close with a bit of a thought issue that still reverberates today. Wondering why or how water produces tahara—since, as Rambam said in Mishneh Torahtum’a clearly is not a dirt to be washed off, Sefer HaChinukh provides two ideas. First, people will naturally see it the way Rambam just rejected, but it is good enough for them until they grow in their understanding, can consider the matter more fully [he did not discuss the middle stage we unfortunately see too often today, people who know enough to be turned off by the simplest reading, without bothering to delve further and find the deeper meaning]. Worth noting, he says this is good enough to tell children, until they grow into better comprehension. In that framework, some people might stay “children” long after their biological youth ends.

For his second answer, he says immersion has a remez, literally a hint, for the person immersing to cleanse his soul of all sin, just like water cleanses physical dirt. Rambam in Hilkhot Mikva’ot 11;12, a passage my teacher Prof. Twersky, z”l, was fond of noting, had this idea already, the person who comes to proper knowledge has “cleansed” him/herself in the waters of understanding.

[The idea of it being a metaphor bears discussion. It’s wrong and childish to say the water cleanses, because no one thinks tum’a can be wiped away by water. The metaphor suggestion says the spiritual cleaning should be accompanied by an intellectual/spiritual process akin to water cleansing a physical wrong. Of course, Rambam doesn’t think tum’a necessarily indicates an intellectual wrong, so we would have to do more work to understand his position. Sefer HaChinukh does see it that way, leaving us in the clear for the sources we usually entertain here.]

For Tazria/Metzora, two uses of mikveh, to change a new mother’s status from teme’ah to a long tevulat yom, someone gone to mikveh, waiting for nightfall, and the bare fact of mikveh as the method of tahara in general.

About Gidon Rothstein

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