Parshat Tazria: The rituals around pregnancy

Rabbi Rory Katz
(Cobalt Photography)

By Rabbi Rory Katz

Rituals are meant to provide orientation and grounding through the uncertain, ambiguous and/or emotionally tumultuous times of life. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, starts by describing the rituals surrounding one of life’s most disorienting experiences: pregnancy and childbirth. After giving birth, the Torah teaches, a person should wait a period of time (33 days for a male child, 66 days for a female child) and then bring an offering to the Temple.

The medieval commentator Rashi explains that the Torah is not just discussing pregnancies that end in birth; the Torah describes the case as one where “a woman ‘sends seed’ (tazria) and gives birth (v’yaldah)”. If the Torah were just talking about people who give birth, he explains, we wouldn’t need the initial verb tazria; the verse could be simply “when a woman gives birth…” Rashi concludes that the offering is not brought solely after childbirth, but even if a person gave birth to “a pulpy mass which had dissolved, having become liquefied like seed.”

Rashi’s description is graphic and perhaps a little grotesque, but so are births, miscarriages and abortions. The details of these events are frequently left out of public discourse, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t emotionally intense experiences in need of ritual demarcation. Rashi’s explanation helps us to remember that, no matter the situation, the end of a pregnancy can be extremely disorienting and is deserving of a sacred rite to mark the experience.

Rashi’s commentary also reminds us of the tendency of public narratives to conflate the experience of pregnancy with childbirth and to oversimplify the stories of pregnant people more generally. When this happens, the diversity of the emotional and spiritual needs of pregnant people are ignored.

There is much work to be done on many levels to be able to fully appreciate both the vastness of the experiences of pregnant people and their needs. One important step is protecting the right of pregnant people to safe access to abortions. As I write this d’var Torah, SB 890/HB 937 Abortion Care Access Act is on the floor of the Maryland Senate floor, and HB 1171 Declaration of Rights – Right to Reproductive Liberty is set to be discussed in the very near future. I pray that we all may take action to support these pieces of legislation that are meant to provide protection for the diverse needs of pregnant people.

Rabbi Rory Katz is the spiritual leader of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation.

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