The book of Vayikra, Leviticus, is called by the Rabbis “Torat Kohanim,” the Teaching of the Priests, because much of it is concerned with activities that fall under the jurisdiction of the Kohanim. In previous weeks, we read about the korbanot, the sacrifices that the Kohanim would offer on the altar. And today, in our double parasha, we read about the disease called tzara’at, traditionally translated as leprosy, but clearly not the disease we know today as Hansen’s disease.
But whatever tzara’at really is, what the Torah tells us is that it was the job of the Kohen to examine suspicious skin lesions and determine whether the person was indeed afflicted with tzara’at. If that was the case, the person was rendered tamei, ritually impure, until the required purification rituals took place.
But before we come to the topic of tzara’at, the Torah tells us about another source of tumah, ritual impurity — childbirth. It’s a very brief passage:
When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised…. If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation….
It hardly requires a scholar to see the problem — the mother of a girl remains in a state of tumah twice as long as the mother of a boy.
There have been numerous attempts to explain this difference. Perhaps the period of impurity is doubled for a girl because she will grow up and give birth in the future. Or perhaps the period of impurity is doubled when the child is not the preferred and more valuable boy. However, none of this really helps to explain the words of the Torah.
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman (late-19th/early-20th-century Germany), in his commentary on Vayikra, offers an intriguing explanation. He suggests that it is not the case that the one-week period of impurity for a boy is doubled for a girl, but rather that the two-week period of impurity that should have been the case for all births was shortened for a boy.
A distinction without a difference? Not really, because Hoffman tells us that the difference has nothing to do with valuing boys more than girls. Rather, the shorter period for boys was a special act of compassion for his parents.
In traditional Jewish practice, there is no physical contact between husband and wife when a woman is in a state of niddah, separation due to impurity. If the mother of a newborn boy were still considered tamei on the day of her son’s brit milah, the joy of the occasion would be diminished. Even more important, the parents could not hold on to each other for comfort and strength at the moment they heard their baby’s cry.
Today, there are many people — even some in the Jewish community — who object to the circumcision of infants. Their language is inflammatory: mutilation, child abuse, barbarity. Brit milah is none of these things, but even parents who are completely committed to Judaism, who would never entertain the possibility of not having their son circumcised, can’t help but experience a moment of anguish when they think their small son may be in pain.
So, the Torah makes an exception. Husband and wife should remain apart for two weeks. However, when their child is a boy, they are permitted to hold each other for comfort and in joy as their son is formally entered into the brit, the covenant between God and the Jewish people.