Tazria: The Torah of the New Mother

“Upon the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a purification offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be pure from her flow of blood. This is the Torah of the woman who gives birth to a male or a female. But if she cannot afford a sheep, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a purification offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf and she shall be pure.” (Vayikra 12:6-8)

The woman comes with tattered tunic
stretched across still-swollen belly.

The baby slumbers peacefully
swaddled at his mother’s breast.

Her basket clutched in work-worn hands:
twin turtledoves peep out.

Eyes a-brim in sun-bronzed face,
abashed, she murmurs to the priest.

“We cannot spare a yearling lamb –
with many mouths to feed.”

While the priest speaks soothingly,
compunction fills his heart.


On the phrase, “if she cannot afford a sheep…” the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS points out that the right to bring a less expensive sacrifice is standard for a number of religious obligations. Otherwise, poor Israelites would be deprived of expiation when they incurred impurity through no fault of their own.

However, in a blogpost on Tazria in 2012, http://www.rebjeff.com/1/category/tazria/1.html, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser takes this issue further. He says that Rashi points to something strange in the order of the text: first we hear about the sacrifice a woman should bring after the birth – a sheep and a bird. This, we learn, is “the Torah of a woman who gave birth.” And what then of the diminished offering of the poor woman who gave birth? The classical answer, says Reb Jeff, is that the offering of the wealthy woman is the ideal — that is the Torah. The Torah acknowledges that there are poor women who give birth who cannot afford the prescribed offering, but that is not how it should be.

Reb Jeff quotes the first Rebbe of Belz, Rabbi Shalom Rokeach,* speaking once on Shabbat Parashat Tazria, before Kiddush. The Rebbe invokes mercy on Israel that they should be blessed with a good livelihood and he cites the verses above. He asks whether the phrase concerning the offering of the poor woman does not belong to the Torah of the new mother. And he answers, “The point is that in truth, the Torah of the woman who gives birth is that she will be able to afford the sacrifice of the wealthy woman – according to the Torah, any woman who gives birth must have her needs met comfortably, but if it should happen sometimes that she has insufficient means, then that is already not Torah!”

Reb Jeff questions whose responsibility it is to ensure that her material and spiritual needs are met. He says, “The Torah seems to say that we should not expect God to provide for her. God has made provisions for her in the case the responsible party fails to do the right thing. Who is the responsible party? It is all of us, of course. As the famous statement from the Talmud declares, “All Israel is responsible for one another” (B. Shevuot 39a).
We can have delightful discussions and arguments about how this should happen. Should the government be responsible for caring for her needs? Should it be the responsibility of private charities to support women’s reproductive health care? Our texts do not say. Yet, there is no ambiguity in our tradition about communal responsibility. It is up to us to make sure that the disgrace of a poor pregnant woman never happens.
We are responsible for each other, particularly for those in need, particularly for those who give life. No woman, regardless of who she is or how she came to be pregnant, should be left without all her needs (and more) met as she brings new life into the world.”

*Belz is a Hasidic dynasty named for the town in Western Ukraine, near the Polish border. The Jewish community there was established there during the 14th century. The town became home to the Hasidic community in the early 19th century. At the beginning of World War II, Belz had 6,100 inhabitants, of which 3,600 were Jewish.
The founder of the dynasty was Rabbi Shalom Rokeach (1779–1855) also known as the Sar Shalom. He was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin. The Seer was a disciple of Rabbi Elimelech Lipman of Lizhensk, author of Noam Elimelech. Rabbi Elimelech was a disciple of the Rebbe Dov Ber, the Maggid (Preacher) of Mezeritch, the primary disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rabbi Shalom Rokeach was inducted as Rabbi of Belz in 1817. He personally helped build the city’s large and imposing synagogue, which was dedicated in 1843. It resembled an ancient fortress with 3-foot-thick walls and could seat 5,000 worshippers. It stood until the Nazis invaded Belz in late 1939. Though the Germans attempted to destroy the synagogue first by fire and then by dynamite, they were unsuccessful. Finally they conscripted Jewish men to take the building apart, brick by brick.
Like almost all of the other groups originating in Poland, the Belzer community was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust. Some Hasidic followers from other communities joined Belz after the war following the deaths of their rebbes. Belz, like Ger and Satmar, was comparatively fortunate in that its leadership remained intact and survived the war, as opposed to many other Hasidic groups whose leaders perished. The Belzer community today is headed by the fifth Belzer rebbe (since 1966).

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