Purity and impurity in Judaism
We need to study the commentaries
of the Sages in order to understand this parasha.
Parasha Thazria describes mitzvot 167-173 and parasha
Metzora describes mitzvot 174-184 (there are 613 mitzvot
in the Torah).
The mitzvot deal with different types of impurity: following
childbirth, during meals linked to sacrifices, certain
tumors of the skin, wounds, burns, "leprosy"
in garments and on walls, issues in men and women's menstruation.
They set out the procedures of purification for each case,
and relate in particular to the poor and the role of the
The Jewish view of purity,
impurity and purification
What is immediately apparent is that the Jewish view of
purity and impurity is special, for it does not relate
to what is dirty or repugnant. The Jewish view is that:
impurity occurs whenever the process of life is stopped.
The process of life does not always move forward: after
pregnancy and childbirth, there is a stop in the development
of the mother's body and this then is a period of "impurity"
and of "purification."
Impurity also occurs when a process that is supposed to
give forth life is stopped (as with the issue of semen
Purity and impurity are linked to life and time.
Purity and the sexes
Since men and women have different concepts of time, they
are governed by different laws. Indeed men's relationship
with a fetus is very short, while that of women is long
and lasts throughout the period of pregnancy. Women have
biological rhythms, which are moreover lunar, while men
have no such links to the rhythms of life.
Without knowing the reasons yet, we understand what the
parasha tells us: the rules of purification for men and
women are different (seven days of impurity following
the birth of a boy and 14 days following the birth a girl,
then there is period of the blood of purification which
is 33 days for a boy and 66 for a girl).
The role of the Cohanim and of sacrifices in the process
of purification teach us that these rites do not just
concern material and biological life, but are rites that
draw us close to divine life.
He introduces his commentary to the parasha with a verse
from Proverbs: "A man hath joy by the answer of his
mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is"
Through this, Rabbenu Bahya shows us that creation is
structured around time and rhythms, and that to live in
this way is a source of happiness.
Man has to establish an order of life, and know what comes
before and what comes after: the same is the case for
thought, speech and for the way we live our lives.
Whatever harms or stops this order of life must undergo
a process of reparation and education so that the ideal
order can be re-established.
We saw, in the preceding chapters, that the role of the
Temple and the priests (the Cohanim) is to help the people
of Israel correct and repair the things that have been
harmed in this order of life. The cohanim represented
ideal man, in the image of the Creator.
The Shla opens his commentary on Vayikra 13, 2 thus: adam
ki yiye veor bessaro (a man who has on his skin a tumor..).
In relation to skin (or), he explains that the garments
of the Cohanim represented honor (kavod) and beauty (tiferet).
They correspond to the garment which the Creator gave
to Adam and Eve after their sin: a garment of skin (kutonetor)
in place of the garment of light (or) which they previously
possessed. The similarity between the two words stresses
the healing role of the Cohanim.
This is why, in Bereshit 3, 21, Onkelos translates "garment
of skin" (kutonet or) as "garment of glory"
in Arameic (levushin dikar). The Shla notes that Onkelos
links three expressions: garment of light, garment of
skin, garment of the Cohen.
(Note: Rashi does not refer to Onkelos's translation in
Bereshit 3, 21. Refer to my commentary on parasha Ki Thissa,
2nd level, for an explanation of Rashi's attitude to Onkelos.)
The Shla then goes on to cite Kohelet 2, 13 -- kiteron
haor min hahoshekh, light is superior to darkness - and
interprets it as meaning that Hashem makes purity come
out of impurity. He developed this theme in his commentary
on Shabbat Hagadol, which is found in Masekhet Pesahim.
In his conclusion, the Shla shows us that, through these
cases of impurity that seem strange to us at first, the
parasha is in fact dealing with the restoration of order
in our acts, speech and thoughts. This is the work we
must do on ourselves during the period of the Omer.
for personal development
The nature of women
" What do you feel is the role of impurity in Judaism;
adjust it according to the Torah as described above.
" Memorize the Jewish definition of impurity.
Through the rhythms and cycles of women, the parasha teaches
how to sanctify ourselves in relation to time.
Three spheres of sanctification
There are three spheres of sanctification which correspond
to the three gifts which God gave us: that of the Torah,
that of time which is oriented towards the "world
to come" (olam habba) and that of space which represents
the land of Israel, for leprosy in a house relates to
the houses in the land of Israel.
In opposition to this, the beginning of the parasha is
often wrongly interpreted as relating solely to the "impurities"
of women. This is wrong because the text refers to times
of impurity and times for the blood of purification. The
attitude of minimizing and distorting the nature of women
is part of a wider sociological phenomenon. It is important
to understand this process of distortion and what it represents,
for without this, humanity cannot evolve and the suffering
of women will persist.
It is therefore important to examine this theme.
Women's rhythms and cycles
Note the rhythms and cycles of women as outlined by the
One) seven days of impurity after the birth of a boy and
14 days after a girl (this is not interpreted as referring
to women's impurity but to the fact that a woman who gives
birth also ejects things from a preceding stage: indeed
Rashi notes that this does not refer to loss of blood,
for there are births that do not involve loss of blood,
but to a state of discomfort and illness, holi, due to
a reorganization of the system);
Two) circumcision on the eighth day; we have seen the
meaning of the number 8 (women therefore have the capacity
of causing this level to be reached);
Three) then there is the time of the "blood of purification."
This is a case of mistranslation for as Rashi notes, this
should be translated as "the bloods of purity"
(toar). He adds: "she is pure even when she loses
blood" (af al pi sheroa tehora) and he explains the
grammatical basis for his interpretation.
This then is a period of purity; time is accorded to it
and it lasts until this state of purity has reached a
level of plenitude, male (ad melot yemei tahora).
Women and the sanctuary
A linguistic study of the text reveals an important point
about women: Rashi uses the same term male when he comments
on the inauguration of the sanctuary in parasha Tzav (Vayikra
8, 2). He speaks of days of plenitude, yemei hamiluyim,
seven days before the month of Nisan. He writes in the
same vein about parasha Naso, Bemidbar 7, 1: "And
it came to pass on the day that Moshe had made an end
of setting up the sanctuary" (ve yehi beyom kalot
Moshe leakim et hamishkan). The word kalot means "everything"
but Rashi tells us that we should understand the word
here as meaning "bride": " kalot ketiv,
yom hakamat hamishkan hayu Yisrael kekala hanikhnesset
la huppa" (kalot, accomplishment is written, the
day of the inauguration of the sanctuary, Yisrael was
like a kala, a bride entering under the huppa).
From imperfect to perfect
Rashi helps us to understand the beauty of this process
of purification or gradual elevation which applies to
women. Moving from a state of imperfection to a state
of perfection is a gradual process and only the malevolent,
who do not see this process, describe others as impure.
Women, the universe and the
We can now see that the role of women is part of a wider
process of improving the world, as symbolized in all that
pertains to the sanctuary.
Indeed, Moshe built the sanctuary just as Hashem created
the world, in plenitude (refer to Rabbenu Bahya's commentary
on Shemot 38, 21 in which he shows the similarity between
the verses that describe the creation of the world and
those that describe the construction of the sanctuary
by Moshe, reflected particularly in the use of words of
"completeness" and "plenitude": va
yekhulu in Bereshit 2, 1: "And the heaven and the
earth were finished" and vatekhel in Shemot 39, 32:
"Thus was finished all the work of the tabernacle").
In the same way, after having described the dignity of
Aharon, who represents the re-incarnation of ideal man
and of Adam harishon, the Torah now proceeds, in this
parasha, to describe, as in the story of creation, a parallel
process of renewal in women through the bearing and giving
birth of a child.
Women's power of creation
The circumcision, in this cycle, removes what is left
of the orla (the foreskin, what is impure), the symbol
of the imperfection that began with Eve. This is why the
text says: "if a woman sows (begets) a male child,"
isha she thazria. Rabbenu Bahya brings together all the
teachings of tradition in his commentary on this verse:
from the moment of creation, Hava (Eve) was the hidden
power (koah ganuz) in Adam; Eve possesses the power, desire
and strength of her husband. This means she has the power
of his tziur (image), which, when it overtakes his, begets
a male child: reciprocally, when the power he has that
is in her tziur overtakes hers, it begets a female child.
The complementarity is always preserved. This is why the
Torah writes this astonishing verse: "if a woman
sows (begets) during the sexual relation:" this is
a far cry from the passive view of women as perceived
by Western culture.
Women's hidden strength is called dam hanekeva, the "blood
From the very beginning of creation, everything was conceived
in terms of masculine and feminine together.
The beauty in the Jewish concept
Contrary to the popular view of women as sexual objects
(to be used and despised), the Jewish concept of women
stresses similitude and reciprocity in strength, initiative,
and in the dynamics between what is hidden and what is
The commentators say that this can be seen in the fact
that the word "woman" has a prominent place
in the opening verses of the parasha.
Desire (ratzon) in men-women
It is important to understand that the hidden strength
and desire (ratzon) within men and women, this tziur ganauz
male koah, is itself linked to the creator. This is why
women are linked so closely to the desire of Hashem Himself,
and this is why women declare in their morning prayer:
"Blessed be Hashem our God, King of the universe
who made me according to his desire, barukh ata Hashem
Elokenu melekh haolan she asani kiretzono."
Here again, we find a distorted view in those who accuse
Judaism of misogyny because in this prayer a woman thanks
God for "having been made according to the ratzon
of the creator" while a man thanks God for "not
having been made a woman." But the text of these
blessings regarding women is simple and clear. It is also
clear in respect to men if they can truly see women as
they are and recognize in them the superior presence which
they do not have, but which they benefit from.
Women are connected to what tradition calls the highest
level of God's names, the ratzon and this is what women
thank God for in their blessing. Men do not have the same
level and they thank God for having to accomplish many
more mitzvot. This is what defines the respective worth
of women and men and the acceptance of their differences.
It is ignorance of the real meaning of the word ratzon
(desire) which led people to attribute a negative interpretation
to this verse and assume that women are made according
to the "will" of God.
Thirty-three days of purity
This allows us to understand Rabbenu Bahya's commentary
on verse 4 of the parasha and the 33 days of purity. On
the peshat level, this refers to the 40 days of development
of the baby (33 + 7 after birth = 40).
On the deepest level of interpretation, Rabbenu Bahya
writes that the 32 days of purification given to women
correspond to the 32 paths of hohkma (divine wisdom) and
to the beloved in the Song of Songs who finds perfection
in these paths. This is why the 33 days correspond to
32 and not to 33 they are completed in a union with the
"one" of divine wisdom. There is no concept
more supreme than this one.
Another example: women's "light-headedness"
One often hears people, who like to attack Judaism for
its alleged anti-feminism, cite the Talmud Sage who wrote
about the kalut rosh, the "light-headedness"
of women. The Shla describes such people with a Jewish
proverb that long predates the discovery of projection
by psychoanalysis: kol haposel, bemuno posel (those who
criticize others, are in fact talking about themselves,
Tractate Kiddushin, page 70).
The concept of "lightness" (kal), like that
of ratzon, is in fact a very elevated concept. Indeed,
in his introduction to the siddur (prayer book), the Shla
refers to names of God that use this concept of kal and
quotes Isaiah 19,1: hine Hahem rokhev al av kal, "Behold
Hashem rideth upon a light (swift) cloud." The Shla
demonstrates that this verse refers to the highest levels
of the merkava eliona (the divine chariot) which is the
source of benediction, for the word rokhev has the same
letters as that for benediction and the word cloud (av)
is based on the supreme 72 letter name for God. It is
impossible to go into the full explanation of these elevated
concepts, for this requires study of the Torah at its
highest level. It is sufficient to point them out in order
to show to what extent elevated concepts can be distorted
by those who do not know the tradition, out of hatred
for women and the Jewish tradition. Centuries of denigration
and persecution have led Jews to adopt these distortions.
They are the victims of a cultural Holocaust for they
have turned against their own tradition. But, in the end,
it is women who are the true victims.
Imperfection and holiness
Let us return to the beginning of the parasha which talks
about the period of purification that follows the great
changes a woman undergoes in childbirth. Keddusha, holiness,
is characterized by plenitude, and a woman gives birth
goes through a period of incompleteness and abrupt changes,
which takes her out of the state of keddusha. A process
of concrete and symbolic reparation and purification is
thus required. This has nothing to do with impurity due
to having being sullied. It is understandable that such
a process is required of a woman after the upheavals of
pregnancy and childbirth which modified her plenitude
and her being. Moreover, this process takes place in stages
and is not the same for a baby boy and girl, for these
boys and girls do not have the same make-up, power of
reproduction or relationship with their mothers.
These concepts teach us that
" study the Torah in depth
" learn the nuances and rules of the language of
" and avoid projections of our own prejudices, which
do not do justice to the wisdom and complexity of the
A thought on the relationship
of women to time
Given the above, we could ask ourselves why women do not
have to carry out the many mitzvot related to time, for
women's rhythms and reproductive cycles are very much
related to time.
The answer has many facets
1. The Shla, in his commentary on verse 7, 6 of Shir Hashirim
Rabba, quotes the Sages who stress that a woman belongs
to the perfect order of life and to Shabbat; she invigorates
our life like Shabbat invigorates the week. Like the Creator,
she gives forth life.
2. Linked to the rhythms of creation, women show us, as
in the beginning of the parasha, that we must develop
in stages, not just intellectually. Avraham also developed
in stages, through the 10 trails he underwent. All important
human developments are slow and take place in stages;
the lower species are characterized by sudden, rapid changes.
3. Tractate Berakhot, page 57, describes this process
thus: "a handsome house, a beautiful women, elegant
furniture enlarge man's knowledge" (shlosha marhivin
deato shel adam, elu hene: dira naa, veisha naa, vekhekim
naim). The Hebrew term daat (knowledge) refers to the
highest and most complete union between the sexes and
not just to intellectual knowledge. The term adam also
has a wider meaning and encompasses complete human unity.
If this process of renewal, which is described in the
parasha, is not integrated in the plan of creation, the
relations between men and women will disintegrate into
flames. This is seen in the components of the Hebrew terms
for man (ish) and woman (isha): if one removes the letters
of God's name of which each possesses half, all that is
left is the Hebrew work for fire (esh). Cut off from the
source of life, men and women and all mankind will turn
into dust, as described in Psalm 90, 3: tashev enosh ad
daka, "thou turnest man to destruction." The
word daka is made from the initials of the Hebrew words
dira, kelim, isha, meaning "house, furniture, woman,"
as in quote above.
This example shows us to what extent the Torah requires
the same in-depth study and knowledge that students apply
to other disciplines. Jews in Israel today think and study
in their own language, Hebrew. It is therefore time for
all Jews to quit their cultural exile and to stop projecting
on the Torah ideas and thoughts that are alien to it.
In the previous parashiot, the Torah presented Aharon
to us as the prototype of ideal man and as the repairer
faults committed since the time of Adam. In this parasha,
women are given a similar role and the Torah gives us
many examples of men and women we should follow: Shir
Hashirim (the Song of Songs), and the songs of Miriam
(Shemot 15, 21), Devorah (Judges 5), and Eshet Hayil (Mishle,
Each of these great figures
plays a part in the restoration of the state of holiness
between man and the Creator, till the Messiah.
King David shows us, in the Psalms and in his own history,
how necessary it is for man to combat his weaknesses and
others in order to develop. Tractate Berakhot, page 57,
notes that David uses the word "bless" (barekhi)
five times in Psalm 103, for he is straining to reach
the 5 levels of the soul (nefesh, ruah, neshama, haya,
yehida). His soul then fills his body, sustains it and
is pure. Combat and wisdom gained in time were David's
The above should make us sensitive
to the role of women, who are half the universe, as creators
of life and to their task to sanctify themselves through
the rhythms of time. Men need to know this in order to
love, venerate and support them.
Men also need to respect the periods of abstinence which
women need in order to restore their state of keddusha.
These periods of abstinence and silence are necessary
in order to enable true connection. There were periods
of silence also between Moshe and Hashem, and they are
also necessary in relationships between men.
- what are the number of days of purification necessary
after the birth of a boy and a girl?
- what does a woman bring to the Cohen after childbirth?
- what is the role of the Cohen?