Tumah: How is Birth Like Death?
While the Torah presents extensive rules of tumah (impurity), it gives no reasons for them. This should not stop us from speculating, though. One theory relates tumah to death, decay, and the loss of life. However, the Torah speaks about tumah for a woman who gives birth. Isn’t birth the exact opposite of death?
BIRTH IS LIKE DEATH
Several contemporary authors present solutions to this problem. I’d like to share four of them with you.
First, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin points to the historic danger of childbirth:
[T]he mother’s impurity comes from the fact that every woman who gives birth has a serious brush with death. During labor, the suffering may become so intense that the mother actually believes she is about to die. If something does go medically wrong, any doctor will testify that all of nature converges to save the child even at the expense of the mother. It wasn’t all that long ago that the greatest cause of death among women was childbirth. In fact, a woman who gives birth is required to recite birkat ha-gomel (the blessing of thanksgiving) … the same blessing said after [a] successful encounter with death.
Second, Rabbanit Sharon Rimon asserts that birth involves the “death” of the placenta:
[A]t the start of the embryo’s development, some of the embryonic cells become the placenta, which takes root in the womb and nourishes the fetus during the pregnancy. At birth, the infant – emerging into new life – parts from the placenta. The placenta … leaves the body, and in a certain sense one may say that it is dead … and this is the source of the birthing mother’s impurity.
Third, Rabbi Asher Brander argues that a successful birth is also a type of loss:
A mother who gives birth has “lost” her child in the sense that the singular intimate closeness that she experienced as her child was safely ensconced in-utero is now over. Her child has left her world for the world. This may serve as a cogent psychological explanation for the phenomenon of postpartum depression.
Fourth, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin suggests that tumah is related to the wheel of life:
To be sure, tum’ah is often connected with death and decay, and as such can be seen as antithetical to the idea of haShem, the living G-d. . . . [N]ot only death and decay are opposed to the idea of G-d, but birth as well. HaShem does not die, but neither is He born. The flux of human life, birth and death together, is antithetical to G-d’s immutable and eternal nature. Tumah represents the waxing as well as the waning of life and has no place in the Sanctuary, the abode of the Eternal.
This last solution fits with Angus Tuck’s impassioned argument against immortality in Tuck Everlasting:
Everything’s a wheel . . . [and] dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. . . . Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. . . . [Y]ou can’t call it living, what we [immortals] got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.
BIRTH IS NOT LIKE DEATH
Nevertheless, Rabbanit Rimon (citing Rabbi Elchanan Samet) adds that there is a key difference between the tumah associated with birth and the other types of tumah:
All of the others are caused by a pathological state, while the impurity of this woman is brought about in a positive and desirable way, through the creation of new life. . . . It is perhaps for this reason that the Torah chooses to address the woman after childbirth first, before the other categories of impurity.
In other words, although there are some similarities between birth and death, ultimately birth is different, a gift from God. We can illustrate this with a beautiful story:
Just after Rebbetzin Leah Schwadron had given birth to one of her children, her husband Rabbi Sholom, the Maggid of Jerusalem, asked her, “How do you feel?” She answered, “The Sages, of blessed memory, say that the key of childbirth is not given into the hand of flesh and blood; it is in the hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, alone (Taanit 2a). I feel as if I’m in the hand of God.”