Tazria – Shabbat HaHodesh: Birth and Beginning

Tazria – Shabbat HaHodesh: Birth and Beginning

The confluence of the Jewish calendar has brought together two disparate readings on one Shabbat. According to the annual cycle of Torah readings, this Shabbat we read Parshat Tazria, and because this week begins the Hebrew month of Nisan, we mark Shabbat HaHodesh. Nisan, the month in which we celebrate Passover, is the month of our redemption. Throughout the month liturgical changes highlight its elevated status, and from the first of Nisan, preparation for Passover begins in earnest and urgency. The Shabbat preceding the beginning of Nisan, or the first day of Nisan if it should fall on a Saturday, is designated Shabbat HaHodesh, the Sabbath of the Month, and serves as a public pronouncement of the month of our redemption from Egyptian bondage.

Parshat HaHodesh is tied to the Jewish calendar and not any particular Torah portion. The association with Parshat Tazria is coincidental, but the coincidence illuminates certain aspects of Shabbat HaHodesh and the process of redemption. The bulk of Parshat Tazria deals with the purification ritual of skin diseases. The opening section, however, focuses on the birthing mother.

According to the biblical text, a woman who gives birth to a child becomes ritually impure and “she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity.”(Leviticus 12:2) On the surface level this would seem to be consistent with biblical ritual. We may interpret or rationalize the biblical injunction in a myriad of ways, but according to our tradition, any discharge of vaginal blood renders a woman ritually impure. Hence it would seem that childbirth is an extension of the biblical principles. This assumption is called into question by a teaching of Rashi, the medieval Jewish commentator. Rashi points out that the birthing mother becomes impure “even if the womb opens without blood.” (Rashi on Leviticus 12:2) Based on this comment it would seem that the ritual impurity of the birthing mother is not a consequence of any discharge, but is connected to the birthing process. What our tradition seems to be teaching us is that the birthing process, even in an imaginary antiseptic ideal, leaves the mother changed.

The reason for the change in ritual status is unstated, but speculation can lead us to conclude that birth or beginnings are in their very nature traumatic changes that require us to step back and reflect on the unique nature of the event. In our case, the birthing mother is afforded this opportunity by a tradition that prohibits her for a brief period from public rituals. During this time, there is nothing public required of the new mother. In her period of physical healing there is opportunity for reflection and contemplation.

Communally, we also have a need to reflect on great beginnings, specifically the birth of our people as a nation. In a little over two weeks Jews will gather around Seder tables to celebrate the redemption, the beginning of the Jewish people as a nation. The Passover Seder is a raucous family celebration filled with song, discussion, ritual and food. At times, amid the celebration, there hardly seems to be a moment to reflect on the essence of the holiday, the birth of our people. To ensure we fully appreciate the essence of the celebration, our tradition provides us with a period to reflect on the miracle of our birth, the beginning of our people and the annual renewal associated with the holiday of Passover. Unlike the birthing mother, who is given time post partum, our communal reflection comes before the communal celebration. This Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh we read in the special maftir reading, “this Month shall mark for you the beginning of the months . . .” (Exodus 12:2). As it is read, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the origin of our people, the great change it engendered, and how our lives and our world were forever altered by this event.

The laws of Tazria teach us that all births change the status of the mother and from this we can learn that while all beginnings are treasured and celebrated, we also need to give ourselves moments to reflect on existential changes. This Shabbat, Shabbat HaHodesh is such a time.