Sunday, April 22, 2007

That'll be 1 lamb, 2 birds, please: The literal price of "sin"

Yesterday, because of the vagaries of the Jewish calendar, we read a "double parsha, " that is, two parshiot (a parsha is a weekly Torah reading), namely, Parshat Tazria and Parshat Metzora, Leviticus chapter 12, verse 1-chapter 15, verse 33. Here's last year's post on what's probably one of my least favorite sections of the Torah.

I'm working with the Hertz Chumash here, so please pardon the translations, which are a bit old-fashioned.

Re childbirth (Parshat Tazria, Vayikra/Leviticus chapter 12)
"6. And when the days of her purification are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt-offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove, for a sin-offering (chatat) . . ."

Giving birth is a sin (chet)?

"8. And if her means suffice not for a lamb, then she shall take two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt-offering, and the other for a sin-offering . . . "

"Tsk, tsk, what a pity that poor Miriam can't afford a lamb--Sarah always brings a lamb." Can you imagine what a whole lamb would cost? Zeesh, why don't we just humiliate literally-poor Miriam in public by making her parade her poverty through the streets of Yerushalayim, all the way to the gates of the Bet HaMikdash/Holy Temple? Now you now why I'm adamantly opposed to "card-calling," the practice of calling out potential donors' names at a fund-raiser and making them announce publicly the amount that they're pledging.

Okay, I'm going to get lazy and just link you to Mechon-Mamre for the texts.

Parshat Metzora, Leviticus chapter 14, verses 1-6: So let me get this straight--in order to be declared cleansed from leprosy (or whatever "tzoraat" really is, there being some debate about the translation), the "leper" has to let a cohen (priest) take two birds, kill one, and dip the living bird in the dead one's blood?!

Parshat Metzora, Leviticus chapter 15, verses 25-30:
If a woman "spots" between periods, she has to have a cohen sacrifice a bird as a sin-offering (chatat).

1. It's a "sin" (chet) for a woman to "spot?"

2. The cohen earns a living from her "sin?" (As my husband said in response to yesterday's k'riah [reading], Judaism has a caste system. In the old days, we supported the Leviim [Levites] by paying tithes and the Cohanim [Priests] by bringing sacrifices.)

With apologies to my more traditional readers for possibly causing offense, I honestly don't understand why Orthodox Jews pray sincerely (I just pray as a quote, out of respect) for the literal restoration of the sacrificial system. For openers, why should an animal pay for my sin? I think that "teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tzedakah/repentance, prayer, and charity" (see the Machzor l'Yamim Noraim/High Holiday Prayer Book, U-n'taneh Tokef section) are vastly better ways to atone. For closers, why are some perfectly natural, normal, necessary, and/or unavoidable human bodily functions deemed sins for which we must literally pay?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Birth is a sin?

From what I learned, it's not that birth is a sin, but her actions/behavior or words during labor may have caused her to sin - cursing, taking Hashem's name in vain, making promises she has no intention of keeping (If you EVER touch me again, I'm going to kill you), etc...

Sun Apr 22, 08:03:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

חטאת sacrifices also have to do with purification. also, the Jewish taboo (טומאה) system is primarily based around maintenance of the life/death boundary. Anything that fudges the edges — dead people and animals, reproductive fluids, etc., gives you טומאה and therefore you need to be purified.

Also, remember — sacrifices are *big holy barbecues*!

Although i agree with you about the dipping the bird in the other bird's blood being icky.

Sun Apr 22, 09:03:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Kmelion, a woman in labor will curse equally whether it's a boy or a girl--until recently, one had no real way of knowing in advance--so why should she be held doubly "guilty" for bearing a girl (see link to last year's post)?

Steg, your "life/death boundary" theory makes a certain amount of sense. But why does one have to be purified over a dead animal (for whom the "holy barbecue" is no fun)? I'm not really entirely comfortable with such natural functions being taboo in the first place, and even less comfortable with vicarious atonement (some thing, some animal, and/or some other person "paying" for *my* sins).

Sun Apr 22, 11:35:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Elie said...

I agree with Steg on the Chatas item. Note that the ashes of the Parah Adumah ("red cow"), which are mixed with spring water and used for purification of those who come in contact with the dead, are also called "may chatas", "waters of chatas". Thus, chatas in many contexts means not sin, but purification, and perhaps the chatas brought by the woman who gave birth ("yoledes") should really be called a "purification offering".

Note also that in any case, a korban chatas, sin offering, is only brought for inadvertent sins (shogeg), never for intentional ones (mayzeed). Thus even if we do call the chatas of the yoldes a "sin offering", it doesn't mean childbirth is a sin. Rather, childbirth is a life-changing event after which a woman is given a special opportunity to bring a chatas and atone for any unknown sins she may have committed in the past, thus wiping the slate clean as she begins the new stage in her life.

"Tsk, tsk, what a pity that poor Miriam can't afford a lamb--Sarah always brings a lamb." Can you imagine what a whole lamb would cost? Zeesh, why don't we just humiliate literally-poor Miriam in public by making her parade her poverty through the streets of Yerushalayim, all the way to the gates of the Bet HaMikdash/Holy Temple?

Actually it wasn't necessarily done like that! People generally brought money for their offerings, not the animals themselves. The money was deposited into a closed tzedaka box in the Temple, and the required animals supplied by the Temple officers. So there was ample opportunity for the procedure to be done discreetly and for nobody to know who was poorer or richer.

By the same token, chazal tell us that the reason the Torah emphasizes several times that the chatas is slaughtered in the same place as the olah (burnt offering) is so that nobody but the officiating cohen is the wiser as to which type offering a person brought, in case the person is self-conscious about having to bring a chatas (even for an accidental sin!)

BTW I 100% agree with you on calling out amounts of pledges. Out of principle I will not participate in any appeal where that's done, even (especially!) on Yom Kippur.

Mon Apr 23, 09:29:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie, thanks so much for the information about measures taken to preserve the dignity of a person making a sacrifice. That's really important information and good to know.

A sacrifice made after childbirth to atone for prior sins would make sense. (I remember us fasting on our wedding day until after our marriage ceremony for the same reason.) The obvious problem with that explanation is that both the period of being ritually unfit (tameh) and the sacrifice apply only to the mother.

Re card calling, years ago, we were in an Orthodox synagogue on the last day of a Chag (holiday). Just before Yizkor, they started taking public pledges--people were literally shouting out amounts. But, as bad as that was (from my perspective), that wasn't even the worst part. The worst part was when two men came into the women's section to take pledges. I was absolutely incensed: Are we women deemed so unreliable that we need two halachically-valid (i.e., male) witnesses to take our pledges, less we consider ourselves not obligated and renege? (It's since occurred to me that that may have been one of those synagogues in which women are forbidden to hold positions of authority, an idea which is at least as bad,in my opinion.) I refused to make a pledge, though, normally, I would simply have said that I'd send my donation later (which I did), and didn't set foot in that synagogue for over two decades.

Mon Apr 23, 12:58:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

The most interesting explanation I have heard of the longer seclusion period following the birth of a girl is that we are observing a transition from high potential (high kedusha), the bringing forth of life, to our normal state. When a woman bears a girl, who will herself bring forth future generations, her level of holiness is different from when she carries a boy, and she requires a greater 'adjustment period' to return to her normal neshama.

Mon Apr 23, 05:02:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, I gotta go with Steg on this: "the Jewish taboo (טומאה) system is primarily based around maintenance of the life/death boundary. Anything that fudges the edges — dead people and animals, reproductive fluids, etc., gives you טומאה and therefore you need to be purified." Any other explanation, however lovely-sounding, doesn't account for the fact that women are not allowed to touch anything sacred or enter the sacred precincts while in what your teacher describes as this extra-holy state. And no, I don't like Steg's explanation any better than you probably do, but it is a more logical explanation of the reason for the regulations than anything that a feminist like me might find less objectionable.

Mon Apr 23, 08:03:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are two ways I look at the tumaah/taharah issue. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Saks in his weekly thoughts on this parsha(if you go to his web site you can sign up and have it sent to you each week, nicely written, clear elegent English, frequently fascinating, with source sheet in the back quoted in full with English translation) looks at the time after birth not as a penalty, but as a release from obligation. Note that the word tamei(impure) is not used in relation to the birth mother except for the first week. After that she is 'in the process of purification'. According to Rabbi Saks, since she has been engaged in creation, which is as close to imitatio Dei as you can get, she is not obligated to perform holy acts or eat holy foods(the purpose of which is to achieve closeness to God). Also, she is given time to bond with her child, free of many ritual obligations. From this persepective, not being tahor, far from being a punishment, is a recognition of the Godliness of reproduction.

The model of tuma'a(ritual impurity) is a dead person. Tuma'a therefore represents death, or, unrealized potential. Blood, semen, dead bodies, menstrual flow etc. represent potential that went unfulfilled. The process of becoming tahor(ritually pure) is more to recognize the failure to realize potential, than a punishment for that particular emission.

I think these two ways of looking at this issue are not only more in keeping with contemporary outlook, but also more consonant with a close reading of the text. Unfortunately(as with many things) layers of obscurantic interpretation and single-minded obsession with the details sometime hide the underlying beauty and meaning of the concept.


Tue Apr 24, 09:44:00 AM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: sacrifices. We pray for the reinstitution of our previous glory as represented by the sacrificial order of the first Temple. As best as we know, that includes sacrifices, so we include the request that God return us to that situation. Of course it is possible that God will not want animal sacrifices as part of the third Temple, and will make that apparent to us. It is of course also possible that God does want animal sacrifices as part of the third Temple services, and my assumption is that in that circumstance it will be clearly apparent to all why those sacrifices are mandated by God. In the meantime, we pray for the restitution of our former glory and the immanent presence of God as represented by the only model we know, the sacrificial service of the first Temple.

(as an example, think of a kid who leaves home, goes to camp, and at the end of camp wants to go home(obviously). He plans to return to his old city and the address and home that he left. He know of no other place where his parents might be. However, if his parents moved over the summer, he would obviously want to go to where his parents were, not to an empty old house. Therefore, the desire to return to the old house is a reflection of his desire to return to his parents, its just that the old house is the only place that the kid knows his parents will be. Similarly, we desire to return to the times where God made His Presence Apparent in the Temple. The 1st and 2nd Temple are the only models we have. We desire to return. It is for God to decide if He wants different circumstances or not.)

Whether or not there will be sacrifices in the Third Temple is debated by the rabbis


Tue Apr 24, 10:35:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

no, you've misunderstood. The state of kedusha was while she is pregnant - tamei happens because of the sudden adjustment from this state to our normal one. This is when we are forbidden to touch sacred items, not when we are pregnant.

Tue Apr 24, 02:03:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Noam, Tzipporah, perhaps what we're dealing with here is a radical case of separation anxiety. :)

Tue Apr 24, 09:36:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Naom, you'll be pleased to know that I would have no problem with the rebuilding of the Bet HaMikdash, provided it could be done without bloodshed. I wish to see neither animal sacrifice nor warfare on Har HaBayit/The Temple Mount.

Tue Apr 24, 09:41:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Rahel said...


Here's the way I understand animal sacrifices.
While they serve a ritual purpose, the Temple also served as a kosher slaughter house, where people brought their animals to share in what was effectively one giant communal barbecue.
Most of the time, people didn't consume meat as part of their daily diet, because it was too expensive or unable to be preserved for any reasonable period of time.
I can pray daily for the restoration of the sacrificial service and mean it literally because, as I see it, at that point kashrut will become a lot simpler again. I think that, if you eat meat now, there shouldn't be any problem with having sacrifices on Har Habayit if you look at it from this perspective.

Fri May 04, 09:20:00 AM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oy, you and Steg are both all about the "holy barbecues." :) That was my brother's pet theory, as well. I guess it's the principle of the thing that bothers me. I have no problem eating meat just to eat meat, but I have a problem with the idea that the meat I'm eating is from an animal that died to help me atone for my sins. Does that make any sense? I'm eating meat, one way or the other, as my brother said. Might as well eat it as part of a "holy barbecue." Still . . . as ways of worshipping G-d go, I prefer prayer.

Fri May 04, 05:34:00 PM 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I pray that animal sacrifice will be unnecessary in the Redemption because we will all return to the natural vegetarian state we had before the Flood.
I see no reason that people who eat meat should be distressed by making the slaughter of that animal a holy act. While the `ola sacrifice was fully burnt on the altar and not used as food, the offerer's surrender of this food is a powerful sacrifice.
The sacrificial system was a positive approach to the ritual needs of the time, respectful of people and animals. Our needs are now different, and the needs when we worship in the third Temple will be yet more different.

Tue Apr 28, 12:12:00 PM 2009  

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