Tazria – the woman’s seed and maternal responsibility when a son is born

In the first verse of the torah reading we have a strange word, one which is used to name the portion – the word ‘tazria’ means to seed, and so we have the statement that “A woman who seeds, and who gives birth to a male child, will be ritually unclean for seven days” Shortly afterwards we are told of a woman who gives birth to a female child, and will be ritually unclean for fourteen days – there is no extra clause here to do with seeding. It seems that torah has placed an extra phrase into the text of the birth of a male child – the phrase “Ki Tazria”, “who seeds” is not needed to give clarity to the meaning and is not repeated in the following, almost identical, paragraph.

 “A woman who seeds”. What can it mean? Bible is usually very masculine about zera – seed. It focuses on the role of men in conception and for purposes of descendants etc. And yet here we have this odd, causative form of the word deliberately attached to a woman who will give birth to a male child.   We are taken back to the only other time in bible that the text talks about the seed of woman- the third chapter of genesis which tells us that God tells the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; they shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise their heel.’ (Genesis 3:15) It is almost as if the passage discussing the birth of a male child, and the ritual impurity it brings, is harking back to the moment when humanity took responsibility for itself, having disobeyed God’s commands within the Garden of Eden. Yet one cannot read a doctrine of original sin or of a congenitally impure soul in the text, for the phrase is not repeated at the birth of a female child, so what CAN we understand from this strange piece? 

 Possibly the use of this verb here to describe the maternal responsibility for conception is to remind us that the child is not solely the child of the father, but also of the mother – something that had to be emphasised given the gender of the child.  A female body giving birth to a male body could be seen to be somehow confusing of boundary, or of making the woman somehow also male – all of which in terms of the system of the ritual world would cause problems of clarity. 

 A child must be seen as the product of both parents and the responsibility of both.  The Talmud goes further, saying (tractate kiddushin 30b) “Our Rabbis taught: there are three partners in every person, the Holy One Blessed is God, the father and the mother. When a person honours their father and their mother, the Holy One Blessed is God says, “I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honoured Me.” And Rabbi Judah the Prince used to say- “It is well known to the One who spoke and the world came into existence (i.e. God) that a son honours his mother more than his father because she sways him with words” and because of this the fifth commandment places the father before the mother in order to balance the relationship!

 ImageWe don’t know why this extra phrase ‘ki tazria’ was put into the text for, though we can see that it is clearly important – and given the way the torah readings were divided, the phrase gave the name to the sidra.  We don’t know, but we can think about this powerful reminder that both mothers and fathers are progenitors of the children, and both are to take the responsibility of parenting properly, and the child must acknowledge the different people and families from which they descend. This weekend is ‘mother’s day’ – a day which may have evolved from the worship of divine mother figures in ancient Greece and Rome, a day which has been taken into the church calendar as mothering Sunday, and which has been taken into the secular calendar as an opportunity for selling yet more unwanted consumables to a population who feel slightly guilty about how well they have actually been honouring their mothers in the previous year. 

Whatever you choose to do this weekend, take a moment to think about the many influences – from both father and mother – on every child, and the lost opportunities to influence as well. And think too of the opportunities to honour God by honouring parents that we all pass by or gloss over. Whatever the bible intended us to understand about this strange text, we can certainly draw many powerful contemporary lessons for ourselves.

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