A Surprising Take On Priestly Blood and Women

Women: Source of Blood, Source of Life

Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

In his work Sacred Enigmas, Dr. Stephen Geller demonstrates that the nefesh of the priestly cult is found in blood. In Leviticus 12, we encounter the priestly cult’s hesitant interaction with women, source of life and source of blood. In this paper, I will address the following questions:

  1. Why does Leviticus 12 precede Leviticus 15, when chapter 12 clearly rests on the system articulated in chapter 15?
  2. Why does chapter 12 omit immersion in water upon the termination of the woman’s period of impurity?
  3. Why is the period of impurity of the mother twice as long for the birth of a baby girl as for that of the birth of a baby boy?

The opening of Leviticus 12 calls the attention of the reader back to the creation narrative told in Genesis 1. “Isha ki tazria v’yolda (Lev 12:2) — when a woman produces seed and bears a child” reminds us of the creation of the first life on earth “Maz’ria zera etz pri ose pri le’mino (Gen 1:11).” The parallel alerts the reader that in this chapter, we will deal with the human ability to create life and specifically, with the woman’s unique ability to carry life within her, endure childbirth and bring the new life into the world. In the ancient world, this ability was regarded as the defining characteristic of women.

This question is difficult to answer because in this chapter, we find two comments about females, one expressed through the laws applied to the mother and a second relating to the birth of a baby girl. Read together, the general impression conveyed by this chapter is that, for reasons that are unclear from the text, women have a greater relationship to impurity than do men. However, in order to arrive at a clear answer to this question, we must treat these two issues separately, evaluating first the status of the mother and then subsequently, the doubling of the mother’s period of exile from cultic worship upon the birth of a daughter.

When discussing the status of the postpartum mother, Leviticus 12 calls upon the laws of Niddah presented in Leviticus 15 as its point of reference. It states, “When a woman produces seed and bears a male, she shall be impure seven days, as at the time of her menstrual infirmity (nidat dota).” The question arises, why does chapter 15 come after chapter 12 if chapter 12 relies on the information provided in chapter 15? This question caused Wellhausen to assert that originally chapter 12 followed chapter 15. Dillman, however, argues that the Laws of Niddah presented in chapter 15 were common knowledge among the Torah’s audience, and therefore, could be assumed in chapter 12’s discussion. Dillman’s response to Wellhausen allows the critical reader to accept the text of the Torah as it has been preserved, but fails to answer our original question. I would like to suggest that chapter 12 precedes chapter 15 because it is the chapter which relates to women in their most significant capacity, that of giver of life. Evidence suggests that the people of the ancient Near-East understood the connection between a woman’s menstrual blood and her ability to bear children. Therefore, it follows to reason that when presenting the ritual significance of these two phenomena, the text would first address conception, the causative and ideal reality, and later follow with the ritual upkeep that was required in cases where this ideal was not met. (This theory raises the question of the relationship between skin disease, discussed in chapters 13–14 and bodily issues (menstruation and seminal emission) discussed in chapter 15; however, this question extends beyond the scope of this paper).

While Leviticus 12:2 forms a connection between chapter 12 and chapter 15, it is unclear how much of chapter 15 we should bring to bear on chapter 12. Jewish law dictates that when a woman completes her menstrual cycle she must immerse in a body of living waters; however, this law is not explicitly stated in the text. Rather, Leviticus 15 explains that a man who experiences a natural seminal emission or emissions resulting from illness must immerse himself in order to become clean. Based on the parallel presentation of a man and a woman’s emissions, the rabbis conclude that a woman too must immerse before she brings the sacrifices that will allow her re-entrance into the Temple. I would like to challenge this assumption. Moreover, even if women’s immersion after menstruation is the intended instruction in Leviticus 15, it is never stated in chapter 12. A close reading of chapter 12 relays a different method of initial purification for the woman after childbirth.

After the birth of a boy, Leviticus 12 dictates that a mother is impure to the same degree as she is when she is menstruating for seven days and then she is barred from entrance into the tabernacle for an additional 33 days. These times are doubled for the birth of a girl. What is startling about these rulings is that the postpartum woman is discharging for the entire period of time. According to the guidelines for vaginal discharge set forth in chapter 15, it would not have been unusual for chapter 12 to declare the new mother impure for the entire duration of her discharge. Instead, the text labels this discharge “damei tohora,” and declares that the woman may interact fully with the community, including having sexual relations with her husband, and is barred only from cultic worship.

It is clear from the context of the phrase that the quality of this discharge is different from the discharge the woman experiences in the first seven days, because the text explicitly states that the woman becomes permissible to her husband. The LXX translates the phrase “her unclean blood” ignoring the literal meaning of the words. Milgrom points out that a mappiq in the word tohora has been omitted, seemingly emphasizing that sexual contact with this blood does not impurify. He offers the translation “blood purity,” explaining that the discharge is called this because her level of impurity has been lessened. The Hersch translation suggests the translation “purifying blood,” but offers no explanation of the meaning of this phrase. I believe that our expectation of Leviticus’s negative bias towards women has caused both translators and the tradition to ignore a possible simple reading of the text. In the absence of a direct instruction that a woman must immerse after childbirth, an accurate reading of the phrase “damei tohora” is that of the Hersch translation, “purifying bloods,” and through this discharge, the postpartum woman is transformed from a state of impurity to purity. Although it is surprising, it is clear from the context that the discharge a woman experiences after childbirth is a source of defilement for the first seven/fourteen days, but that after that period of time, the discharge takes on the status of “damei tohora.”

As demonstrated by Stephen Geller in his work Sacred Enigma, the primary function of the priestly cult is to accept sacrifices on behalf of the community and administer purifying blood within the sanctuary. Understanding the phrase “damei tohora” as a purifying agent generated by women as part of the process of her birth drastically changes the image of the woman portrayed in the book of Leviticus. She can now be seen as a source of life and a source of purifying blood. Her ability to produce both life and especially blood must have been regarded as mysterious and threatening by the priestly establishment. Consequently, her ability is legislated and not celebrated.

We are now ready to turn to the question, why is the period of impurity of the mother twice as long for the birth of a baby girl as the birth of a baby boy? A derogatory reading is misplaced, for we have shown that this chapter honors the woman’s ability to birth new life. Focusing on the odd insertion of the instruction for circumcision within the narrative of chapter 12, R’Shimon b. Yochai offers the explanation that the periods of impurity after the birth of a boy and a girl should have been equal (14 days), but circumcision terminated the boy’s period. The book of Jubilees suggests that the extended period for the birth of a girl harkens back to Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Ishmael suggests a biological reason that seemed to be known to Aristotle as well, asserting that a male embryo is fully formed in forty-one days and a female in eighty one.

A survey of ancient cultures reveals that it was a common for a mother after childbirth to be deemed impure and that this period was often extended for the birth of a girl. Most similar to ancient Israelite tradition was that of the Hittites. According to Hittite law, “if a male child is born…when the third month arrives…they cleanse…and if a female child is born…when the fourth month arrives they cleanse.” While these parallel traditions show that the Jewish stance was common, they do not address our original question. In his article, “But if it’s a Girl she is Unclean,” Magonet suggests that the doubling is the result of a possible double niddah period. He states that 1/10 baby girls bleed vaginally as a result of the removal of the mother’s hormones and suggests that the mother must observe niddah for both herself and her newly born daughter. Magonet’s reading is compelling; however, according to his logic, there would be no reason to double the 33-day period as well.

While Leviticus 12 divides the mother’s period of impurity into seven days and 33 days for a boy and 14 and 66 days for a girl, I believe that these numbers are best evaluated according to their total, 40 days of separation from ritual worship after the birth of a boy and 80 days after the birth of a girl. The significance of the number 40 is so overwhelming in the Torah that it cannot be overlooked here. In the text, the number 40, or it’s parallel 400, can have one of two meanings. Some scholars suggest that these numbers are not intended as exact periods of time, but rather are meant to indicate the passage of a long time. A more contextualized reading of the periods of 40 that pass in the text, namely the 40 days of rain in the story of Noah and the 40 years the people spend in the desert in the book of Ba’midbar, is that 40 is the duration of time required for death and renewal. In both the deluge and the desert, the expressed intention of the 40 day/year period is for all who are alive to die off so that a new generation can arise. Within the content of Leviticus 12, this understanding of the number 40 is most appropriate, for here we stand at the threshold of both death and life. Having passed through that threshold, the new mother is required to observe a 40-day period of separation and renewal.

In light of this insight, a rationale suggested and dismissed by Magonet deserves further consideration. Magonet suggests that perhaps a new mother must observe a double period of impurity upon the birth of a girl because that girl holds the potential to one day bear children. I would like to suggest that the Priestly cult related to the woman’s ability to bear children as a mystery worthy of suspicion. In articulating the understanding of the universe that is the foundational assumption for a system of ritual impurity, Mary Douglas explains, “The fixed parts of the universal model are two worlds, a secular one for humans, and a sacred one, a source of unlimited power for good or ill; in between the two lies a dangerous liminal area, the interface with both worlds…” During childbirth, the mother journeys into the liminal space between life and death. During this journey, she often died. I would like to suggest that the women’s separation from the sacred community for a double — 40 day period upon the birth of a girl reflects the Priestly cult’s suspicion of and honor for the woman’s ability to create life and purifying blood. When self-purifying after surviving childbirth, the woman must wait a full period of renewal, 40 days, before she can rejoin cultic worship. When she brings another female into the world, who also carries the potential to create life, she must wait an addition 40 days on behalf of the future mother she has birthed.

Leviticus 12 is the chapter of the Torah that deals with the ability of human beings to create life, focusing on the woman’s individual ability to grow and birth that life. Perhaps we can explain the cult’s lack of celebration of this ability by recalling the ancient near-eastern environment replete with fertility cults in which the priestly cult functioned. Maybe the fear of the journey into the liminal could evoke only suspicion. Moreover, a women’s ability to produce both life and more importantly, purifying blood, threatened the cult’s authority. As a result, when confronting this most fundamental ability which only women possess, the cult responds from a place of suspicion with the ritual system that guides all of its functioning — remove, separate, and re-enter through sacrifice.

  1. Geller, Stephen A. Sacred Enigmas Routledge, 1996. P. 79
  2. Milgrom, Stanley. The Anchor Bible: Leviticus vol. 3a New York: Doubleday Press. 1964 p. 745.
  3. Milgrom, 749.
  4. Geller, 83.
  5. Babylonia Talmud, Tractate Niddah 31b
  6. Schearing, Linda S. “Double Time, Double Trouble? Gender, Sin and Leviticus 12” The Book of Leviticus: Composition and Reception. Boston: Brill Publishing 2003. P. 429.
  7. Mishna Niddah 3:7
  8. Milgrom, 750. (KBo 17.65.32–36; Beckman 1978: 18).
  9. Magonet, John. “But if it’s a Girl she is Unclean.” Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Mary Douglas. Sheffield Acadmeic Press. 1996 p. 152.
  10. Douglas, Mary “Sacred Contagion” Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Mary Douglas. Sheffield Acadmeic Press. 1996 p. 104.



Author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, Rabbi Sara Brandes is a hands-on healer and founder of Awakened Body. More at www.awakenedbody.org

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Sara Brandes

Author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, Rabbi Sara Brandes is a hands-on healer and founder of Awakened Body. More at www.awakenedbody.org