Tazria 3

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


A Vacuum of Life

Parshas Tazria

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This week’s portion starts out: “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel saying: When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be tamei for a seven day period” (Vayikra Ch.12 v.1). Four verses later the Torah states: “If she gives birth to a female, she shall be tamei for two weeks.” Another form of the word tamei is also found in relation to a woman later on in Leviticus: “You shall not approach a woman in the time of her tumas menstruation.”              


What does the word tamei mean? And why the discrepancy between a male child and female child?


There are words written in the Torah that defy simple explanation. For example, on Shabbos, we are forbidden to perform “melacha” (Shemos 20:10). Melacha is commonly mistranslated as work. If this is so, however, it leads to a frequently asked logical question: Why is schlepping a case of soda from the basement to the dining room on Shabbos permitted, while simply flicking on the television forbidden? If melacha means work, schlepping the soda should be forbidden, and turning on the TV permitted. The answer is that melacha does not mean work. What is the best way to translate melacha? There is no one word. Melacha is a concept related to the act of creating.                      


So too the word tamei. Many people mistranslate tamei, saying it means impure or contaminated. This leads to the recently popular accusations that the Torah (and traditional Judaism) are misogynistic.  


The truth is that tamei, similar to melacha, is a concept.                                                     


This concept is a vacuum of life. When a woman menstruates, there is a vacuum of potential life, i.e. her eggs; thus she becomes tamei. Similarly, when a woman gives birth, although she is doing the most beautiful act known to humanity, bringing life into the world, in regard to her own physical body there is a vacuum of the life she had been carrying inside her. And when a woman gives birth to a female child there is a double vacuum, as it is a life that can potentially create life; thus she is tamei for two weeks, instead of one.                                             


The highest form of tumah (tumah is the passive form of tamei) is a dead body, as where can there be found a bigger vacuum of life?


Unfortunately, there is a misconception that the Torah is anti-woman. Hashem Forbid! Men and women are equally important before Hashem. That being said, they are also much different, both physically and spiritually;  this shows her intrinsically high level of holiness. So much so, that only a woman can give life. Popular Kabbalah is much in vogue right now, as people claim that the ritualistic aspect of the Torah is too rigid and lacking in spirituality. The reality is that the words of the Torah are what has guided us for 3300 years. True Kabbalah and spirituality come from the rituals, such as the rules of tumah. Thus it is crucial for us to educate ourselves as to what the Torah really means.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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