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A Women's Sacrifice: A Women’s Tractate

  • A Women's Sacrifice: A Women’s Tractate

    Tazria, Leviticus 12:1−13:59
D'var Torah By: 

The notion of "marginality" usually brings to mind thoughts of exclusion and disavowal. Marginality may, however, embody exciting possibilities and unexpected opportunities. Sometimes, as Yankele Rotblit's song, "You Took My Hand in Your Hand," tells us, "you can see things from there that you can't see from here." I shall now offer such a reading of one case of marginality.

This week we read the double portion, Tazria/M'tzora. Parashat Tazria opens with a description of the purification process to be undertaken by a woman following childbirth. The process has two stages: first come the days of her flow (Leviticus 12:2), seven days when a boy is born and two weeks for a girl. Then, the mother must remain in the blood of purity (12:4) for thirty-three days when a boy is born or for sixty-six days when a girl is born. After purification, she must go to the priest and offer a lamb as a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove as a sin (or purgation) offering (12:6). Scripture mentions an alternative offering for women who cannot afford a lamb: "And if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering. And the priest shall effect atonement for her, and she shall become clean" (12:8).

Many women could not afford to sacrifice a lamb and the Torah gives them a "plan B"-the offering of two birds. Birds were the smallest and least expensive animals that could be sacrificed. They also constituted the offering made by marginal people: the leper, who perhaps could not afford a lamb (Leviticus 14:1-11), men and women who suffered discharges (Leviticus 15:14-15; 29-30), the Nazirite who was made impure through contact with a corpse (Numbers 6:10-11), and the woman who has given birth.

It is said that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin (who lived in the generation of the Temple's destruction), witnessed a time when the price of offering birds increased unreasonably. He made a decree to correct this situation, swearing in the name of the Temple to remedy the injustice: "By this Temple, I shall not go to sleep tonight until [a pair of birds is sold] for a dinar!" (K'ritot 1:7). This decree is founded upon the sensitive assumption that it is unreasonable to require a woman to leave her home and responsibilities to visit Jerusalem each time she gives birth or has a miscarriage. His bold decree, which contradicts the overt instruction of the Torah, allowed women to make a single offering for multiple births-and prices plunged together with demand. Professor Hannah Safrai, z"l, said the decree demonstrates that what was good for women was thought of as being good for the Temple.1

But apart from the fact that many of the bird offerings were brought by women, can we find a symbolic connection between the fowl offering and women-in particular, women who have recently given birth? I think so. When a woman gives birth, the fetus that was hidden inside her becomes a self-sustaining being in the world. In the fowl sacrifice-in particular, when fledglings are being offered-the fledglings that were hidden in their nest remind us of a fetus in its mother's womb.2 The mother is asked to sacrifice other "babies"3 in exchange for her own; similar practices are found in other cultures.

Tractate Kinim in the Mishnah, which deals with bird offerings, grants extensive authority to a woman who brings a fowl offering consisting of two fledglings: she can determine which one will be the burnt offering and which one will be the sin offering. These two sacrifices involved different procedures (Mishnah Z'vachim, Chapter 7). Such a pair of birds is called a ken mefureshet (literally, a designated nest). When particular birds were not designated for particular sacrifices, it was called a ken stuma (an undesignated nest) and the priest would determine which of the fledglings would be sacrificed as a sin offering and which would be sacrificed as a burnt offering. Naturally, in the hectic reality of the Temple, it was easier to deal with a ken stuma: when undesignated fowl were brought, there was less possibility of mix-up and confusion. The Sages of the Mishnah seem to subtly suggest that women should leave the designation of the sacrifices to the priest. Nevertheless, they never question the woman's right to predetermine which bird will be used for which sacrifice.

All of this is somewhat surprising, considering that men made no similar sacrifice upon founding a family. Men were obligated to fulfill the commandment to visit the Temple and bring sacrifices on the Pilgrimage Festivals that marked the annual cycle of seasonal events (Deuteronomy 16:16). Women's visits to the Temple marked personal events related to the human (and especially the feminine) life cycle. A father is required to circumcise his son, but not to celebrate his birth in the Temple. The agents involved in the mother's offering are the woman and the priest-it is she who must bring the offerings to the priest and instruct him in how to sacrifice them. The woman brings the pairs of birds and takes care of them.

This short look at the fowl offering shows that even if women had a marginal role in the activities of the Temple, and even if their participation in the Temple rites invited mixed reactions both by their contemporaries and by later commentators, they did have a valid connection with it. They visited the Temple and actively participated in its rites. Even if there were some qualms regarding women choosing birds for sacrifice, it was the woman's choice (if she wanted to choose) that was decisive. If the priest failed to follow her instructions, the sacrifice was invalid.

While marginal, the sacrifices of women described in this parashah-and elaborated upon in Kinim-open a door for the empowerment of women, bring them into the public space, and make their voices heard.

  1. Kinnim (Tractate), Jewish Women's Archive. Professor Zohar Amar believes that most of the fowl offerings involved dove fledglings. See his Masoret Ha'Of, Tel-Aviv 5764, pp. 191-213
  2. Hannah Safrai, Parashat Tazriya on the Kolech website. I thank Rabbi Shlomo Fox and Professor Moshe Koppel for their important comments on this article.
  3. Moshe Koppel, Biur hadash LeMassekhet Kinnim al pi Torat HaHeshbon, Jerusalem 1998. It is interesting to note that although Kinim has no parallel tractates in the Tosefta or Talmud, many exegetes throughout the generations chose it as the subject for special commentaries, including those of the RaAVaD, ROSh, and R. Zarhiya HaLevi.

Portions of this article were previously published at http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il.

Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor of liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.

The Biblical Women of the Wall
Davar Acher By: 
Marla R. Hornsten

I am inspired by this notion that "what was good for women was thought of as being good for the Temple." What an incredible assertion, for we might expect it to be the other way around! Like many, as I read through Parashat Tazria, it is hard not to get bogged down by frustrations about the inequality of "leave-time" for having sons versus having daughters, the particularities of the sacrifice, or the grotesque detail of skin diseases. But Rabbi Marx presents the fascinating idea that the priesthood is intensely concerned about the needs of women, so much so that they prioritized her financial and spiritual circumstances above the Torah directive.

This interest in a woman's life further suggests that the sacrifice, a ritual that marks the end of her maternity leave (even the ancient Rabbis had the right idea about women needing time to bond with their newborn children and taking time off from the regularity of everyday life), is not meant to be an additional burden, but rather, as Rabbi Marx suggests, an act of empowerment and expression. The very fact that a woman offers the sacrifice on her own behalf, and it is not her husband doing it for her, implies a legitimate and authentic role for women in the life of the Temple.

In a day and age where women are not only prohibited from wearing a tallit at the Wall but also are actually being arrested for doing so, it is hard to imagine that the ancient Rabbis were so far ahead of us in recognizing the woman's role in ritual life and in prioritizing her physical and spiritual well-being. If only the rabbis-of-the-wall today had the insight of the ancient Rabbis, surely they would understand that what's good for women is good for the Temple.

Rabbi Marla R. Hornsten is a rabbi at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She also serves as the co-chair of the Clergy Task Force for Jewish Women International.

Reference Materials: 

Tazria, Leviticus 12:1-13:59 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 826-838; Revised Edition, pp. 734-745; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 637-656