The Torah’s discussion of purity and impurity in parshiot Tazria and Metzora begins, somewhat surprisingly, with the laws governing a woman who has just given birth. Unlike some of the other conditions discussed in these parshiot—such as irregular emissions from the genitals, or the scaly skin disease commonly translated as leprosy—childbirth is a natural process and generally a welcome one. And yet the Torah stipulates that after giving birth, a woman becomes impure. Even following her period of impurity, she must wait several weeks before coming into contact with sacred items or entering the Temple precincts. In the biblical and rabbinic worlds, impurity was associated with death – the highest form of impurity is a dead body. The laws governing purification following childbirth in our parsha remind us that birth and death are intimately connected, and that even today, childbirth is as much about confronting our own mortality as it is about life.
The Talmudic discussion of childbirth reflects an awareness of the dangers inherent in giving birth and the precariousness of new life. The rabbis teach that it is permissible to desecrate Shabbat so as to assist a woman in labor – if the laboring woman demands light, for instance, it is permitted to turn on a light for her on Shabbat even if she is blind and merely wants the light for the sake of those in the room with her (Shabbat 128b). The rabbis were aware that a woman giving birth is in touch with something very primal and elemental – they note that there are three sounds that resonate from one end of the earth to the other, one of which is the howl of a woman in labor (Yoma 20a). (One of the others is the sound of the soul leaving the body, which further serves to underscore the connection between birth and death.) The rabbis also note that a woman must bring a sin offering after giving birth because every woman, in the throes of labor, vows never to have relations with her husband again; since she will inevitably renege on this pledge, she must bring a sacrifice for vowing in vain (Niddah 31b). Childbirth was not just a time of danger and distress for the mother, but for the baby as well – the rabbis state that if a baby dies within thirty days of birth, it is not mourned, because it is considered a “nefel,” a stillbirth (Shabbat 135b). Although several modern halakhic decisors rule otherwise, in Talmudic times, it was only after thirty days had elapsed that a baby was considered fully viable (Niddah 44b).
Of course infant mortality rates are significantly lower in an age of medicalized births and increasingly sophisticated interventions. Yet even in modern times, a woman in labor pushes her body to extreme physical limits, and childbirth remains haunted by the specter of death. Women who are fortunate to have given birth to healthy babies are nonetheless likely to have encountered medical scares along the way. In so many births there is that moment of panic when the umbilical cord wraps around the baby’s neck, the fetal heartbeat plummets, the labor stops progressing. “When we talk about birth, we need to talk about death,” writes Dr. Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, in her recent book High Risk: A Doctor’s Notes on Pregnancy, Birth and the Unexpected. She describes the extent to which modern obstetric protocols are guided by an attempt to avoid stillbirth—this is the reason, for instance, that a woman who has passed her due date must receive regular fetal heartrate monitoring, and it is the reason that labor is often induced after 41 to 42 weeks of pregnancy. As Karkowsky and her colleagues are all too aware, childbirth remains a time of tremendous vulnerability for infant and mother alike.
“There are three sins for which women die in childbirth,” the Mishnah states in a tractate Shabbat, and then proceeds to enumerate them: “Because they are not careful about the laws of menstrual purity, the laws of separating a portion of challah for the priests, and the lighting of Shabbat candles” (M. Shabbat 2:6). Each of these commandments is specifically associated with women – this is evident from a rabbinic midrash about Hannah, who in pleading with God for a child, insists that she deserves to become pregnant because she has been careful about these three mitzvot (Brachot 31b). The rabbis ask why it is specifically in childbirth when women are punished for these lapses, and respond that “when an ox falls, sharpen the knife” (Shabbat 32a). It is easiest to slaughter an ox that has already been weakened by a fall, and likewise, whatever punishment a person deserves is more likely to befall her when she is already vulnerable. A woman is most vulnerable while giving birth; a man, the Talmud goes on to relate, is most vulnerable while crossing a bridge. “Only a bridge and nothing else?” the rabbis ask, and then respond, “Anything that is like a bridge.”
Childbirth is like a bridge – a woman birthing a child is shepherding a soul across the bridge into this world, and tragically, the soul does not always make it safely. As Karkowsky writes, invoking similar imagery: “On the day of a stillbirth and the subsequent labor and delivery, I feel like a hooded Charon, a guide across the river of death… She [the birthing woman] will never be grateful for this trip; it is still the worst day of her life. But having it only be the worst day of her life is the sole gift that Charon can give.” Karkowsky’s book reinforces the message that in that moment of crossing the bridge into life, we must remember that the journey is always precarious. Or, as the rabbis put it in their discussion of childbirth and bridges, “A person should never stand in a place of danger and count on a miracle – lest a miracle not happen.”
This Mishnah about mothers dying in childbirth appears in tractate Shabbat in the context of the laws of candlelighting, and it is recited between Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv as part of the traditional Friday night liturgy. This association with Shabbat hints at another aspect of the experience of childbirth. We observe Shabbat so as to imitate God; like the Creator, we engage in productive labor for six days and then rest on the seventh. Perhaps for the rabbis, it stood to reason that if a woman were not careful about emulating the Creator by keeping Shabbat, she would not merit to emulate the Creator by bringing life into the world. According to this understanding, childbirth is not just about crossing the bridge between life and death, but also about bridging the human and the divine by fulfilling our ultimate creative potential.
The ability to birth a child is a great privilege, but also a great risk. At a time when we can no longer undergo the Torah’s purification rituals or bring sacrifices to God, may an awareness of our vulnerability heighten our appreciation for the miracle of birth and the sanctity of all new life.