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March 30, 2012 2:41 pm

Menstruation and Circumcision in the Bible

avatar by Emmanuel Sanders

Abraham and Isaac by Anthony van Dyck. Photo: wiki commons.

Chapter 12 of Leviticus, the beginning of Parshat Tazria, is terribly perplexing. Above and beyond the general confusion of a modern reader in understanding the meaning of purification rituals, three questions stand out when reading this chapter.

In the course of presenting the purification procedure of a postpartum mother who has given birth to a boy, the presentation is interrupted by mentioning that on the eighth day of the baby’s life he must be circumcised. While the command of circumcision is not surprising in itself, it seems out of place in the context of a mother’s purification procedure. Indeed, there is no obvious connection between the two topics other than temporal conjunction. Why, then, is circumcision mentioned in this chapter?

The disparity in days of impurity imparted to the mother of a female child over and above a male is also terribly troubling. While the ancient world did not treat men and women equally, I would hope that the God of Israel would not act in kind. Why should giving birth to a daughter impart a double dose of impurity to her mother?

While circumcision is not only discussed in Leviticus, its mention here evokes a third question. Why is it that only males have a commandment representing their covenant with God but not women? While circumcision of women would be out of the question, is there not some other way for them to symbolize their covenantal relationship with God?

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The answers to these three questions are interwoven. Before looking outside the text in front of us, we notice that male circumcision is the only other difference, besides the disparity of impure days imparted to the mother, between the presentation of the birth of male and female children in this chapter. Could it not be that circumcision of her male son accomplishes the same goal as doubling the days of her impurity at the birth of a woman’s daughter? If this hypothesis is indeed correct it would explain the placement of circumcision in this chapter as well as the need to double the impurity of a mother in absence of the circumcision of a son.

At first blush the connection between circumcision and the purity laws of women is not at all obvious. While both involve blood, circumcision is a covenantal act whereas purity laws are not generally seen as such. Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, a 12th century Tosafist and bible commentator, makes a wonderfully wild and innovative claim about the parallel between the two. In commenting on Genesis 17:11 which describes God’s commanding Abraham regarding circumcision, Bekhor Shor writes:

‘And that shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you’: A mark and a sign that I am the master and you are my slaves. The seal of the sign of the covenant is in a hidden place that is not seen, so that the nations of the world should not say concerning Israel: they are maimed. Since God commanded the males, and not the females, we may deduce that God commanded to seal the covenant on the place of maleness. And the blood of menstruation that women observe by telling their husbands of the onset of their periods—this for them is covenantal blood.

In the above passage, Bekhor Shor, explicitly equates the blood of circumcision of males and the blood of menstrual impurity of females, specifically the laws pertaining to this blood. Both represent the covenant between God and Israel. In answer to our third question we see that there is indeed a female analogue for circumcision: the laws concerning menstrual impurity.

Before returning to this week’s parsha, we add a final piece to the puzzle. In describing the covenant He is entering into with Abraham through the act of circumcision, God declares:

I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee… As for thee, thou shalt keep My covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. Ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; it shall be a token of a covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations.

The covenant of circumcision relates to Abraham’s descendants twofold: they are the reward for his maintenance of the covenant, and the covenant is to be performed through Abraham’s reproductive organ which is the physical source of Abraham’s seed. For dedicating his reproductive organ and offspring that issue from it to God through circumcision both of Abraham and his descendants’ reproductive organs, God promises Abraham that multitudes will issue forth from those organs.  We hypothesize that just as the circumcision functions as a covenant between God and Abraham by symbolically dedicating his reproductive organ and that which issues from it to God, so too a woman’s observance of the laws of menstrual purity which concerns to her respective reproductive organs.

We can now satisfactorily answer all of the above questions. Circumcision is mentioned in this chapter for it is integrally related to a mother’s own purification process. In general a woman’s observance of the laws of purity and impurity is an expression of her covenant with God. However, upon the birth of a child a mother must also bring that child into God’s covenant with the Jewish people in order for the mother to maintain her own covenantal relationship. Upon the birth of a son her covenantal relationship is dependent upon circumcising her son’s reproductive organ. However, at the birth of a daughter circumcision is not possible and the infant girl is, as of yet, unable to observe the laws of menstrual purity. In order to bring her daughter into the covenant, and achieve purity herself, God doubles the mother’s period of impurity, having her act as proxy for her daughter.

Thus, the laws of purification of a postpartum mother discussed in Tazria reflect the covenantal nature of the laws of menstrual impurity and circumcision and the unique role of mothers in bringing their children into God’s covenant.

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