[It is interesting to note that Abarbanel, following the Rambam sees purely physical and health reasons for the laws of tumah and taharah, in contrast to their approach to kashrut which was purely spiritual and religious. In both these respects the Ramban adopted a contradictory view]. After describing the tumah that arises from the eating of the non-kosher animals, birds and fishes, the Torah described the tumah from their dead arising out of carrying or contact. Now the Torah will deal with those tumot that flow from Mankind since they are the most intense and their taharah the most complicated. Tumah from humans follows their life cycle from birth to death. It starts from the flows that originate from the body of the woman because most of the forms of tzarat come from the sins of relations and contact with her during her impurity.
There are descending levels of tumah and taharah; tumat met being the most serious and its effects most stringent, the met being avi av hatumah, then tzarat and then those that flow from the human body, those that appear in the clothes and houses, culminating in the tumah that comes from contact with dead animals. The Ralbag teaches that tumat met is the most stringent of the levels because Man is the highest spiritual level of Creation and of the greatest kedushah. This greatness derives not from the form and body but from the divinity that is the essence of Man, so that when death removes that divinity, only empty husk remains of the former greatness and its severe tumah is the reminder of that greatness. [Chassidic thought in this area is largely a continuation of the Ralbag. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch sees all the forms of tumah as dependent on the degree of the limitation place on the human free will; a corpse being the most limited in free will, tumat met is the most stringent].
However, the reason that tumat met is the most stringent is because the unhealthy stench, the sickening vapors and the nauseous gasses emanating from the decay of the corpse are almost instant with death and of greater virulence, as compared with the decay of the animals. This is because the components of the human body, its fats and solids, its fluids and its chemicals, are in a perfect equilibrium as long as the person is alive. With death, however, this balance is immediately upset and the decaying process is almost immediate with unhealthy and dangerous effect on the immediate surroundings. Therefore, the Divine Wisdom saw fit to remove the corpse immediately and to restrict all contact with it. So Tumat met is avi avot hatumah-‘Adam ki yamut beohel, everything in the tent-house becomes tamei even without physical contact, merely through the atmosphere. On the other hand, the mineral and chemical composition of animals being less balanced means that their decay is slower and not as dangerous to human health or as nauseating to their senses, therefore the degree of tumah resulting from contact with them, is less. We may compare this to a balanced set of scales. When the scales are in perfect equilibrium the addition of the slightest weight to one of the pans results in a relatively large upset to the balance, this causes the one pan to sink rapidly.
We see that a woman has to wait to purify herself twice as long after the birth of a girl as for that of a boy. The boy child being of greater warmth and potential strength than the girl, the period required for the woman to feel the movement of the fetus form is shorter. In both cases, during this period of the menstrual cycle the woman does not have the opportunity of purifying herself, and therefore when she gives birth she has to compensate purification; 33 days for the boy and 66 for the girl. This will allow her to cleanse herself of the blood that had accumulated. After completing this period, the woman has to bring a olah offering and a chatat offering; the order here is reversed from the usual. The reason for the thanks offering is clear whereas there does not seem to be any reason for the sin offering. Chazal teach that she needs to bring such an offering because, while in child birth the pain and suffering cause her to vow never to permit herself to her husband again. Now this is a rebellion on her part since she undertook in the marriage to be subservient to him and to atone for that she has to bring the chatat. To ease the atonement, the olah here precedes the chatat. However, there is a different reason for this chatat. After she is purified, upon coming to the Mikdash the woman brings an olah to cleave to Hashem, who has rescued her from great pain, suffering and danger. [Rabbi S.R. Hirsch translates olah not as burnt offering bur as elevated offering]. However, “troubles and pain only come to a person in this world because of a person’s sin and distortion of his ways due to his wrongdoing” (Shabbat 55). In recognition of this principle, the woman after all that transpired in giving birth, brings a chatat. We must assume therefore that the woman was guilty in the past of some unrelated sin and the Torah now gives her the opportunity of atoning for it.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
D r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.