Tazria (Leviticus 12, 1 – 13, 59) – why a sin offering after the birth of a child?

The Torah reading of Tazria begins with laws relating to childbirth. Strikingly, a woman who gives birth to a son or daughter is to bring a sin offering – “she shall bring…a young pigeon, or a turtle-dove, for a sin-offering” (Leviticus 12, 6). This is very strange, and demands explanation, because it simply cannot be maintained that a woman in giving birth to a child has committed a sin. The opposite – she has fulfilled a fundamental commandment of the Bible and Jewish tradition “to be fruitful and multiply”. The reason for a sin offering of a woman who has given birth then cannot be because she has committed sin or wrongdoing – and, the sin offering thus must symbolize something else.


I want to suggest that the reason that the woman is to bring a sin offering after giving birth is to symbolize that she has brought a human life into the world and the very essence of human life is the capability to commit sin and wrongdoing. This capability distinguishes human beings from God and angels on the one hand, and from all other animals on the other hand. God and angels are conceived as beings who are completely spiritual who can commit no sin or wrongdoing. Animals have no moral conscience or awareness and cannot commit sin or wrongdoing – and, animals cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. The human being is the only animal who has moral conscience and awareness so that a human being is then capable of committing sin and wrongdoing – and, the human being can be held morally accountable for sin and wrongdoing.


The term sin (חטא) in the Hebrew Bible comes from a root (להחטיא) that means to miss the mark. I want to emphasize that the Christian notion of “original sin” is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition (based upon the Hebrew Bible). The idea in classical Christianity that human nature is inherently sinful as the result of an original sin of Adam has no basis in the Hebrew Bible, and flows from a Gnostic dualism (also having no basis in the Bible) in which the universe is dichotomized – heaven and earth, spiritual and physical, soul and body. The Gnostic aspect of this dualism (an influence of Gnostic mystery cults upon early Christianity) is that the heavenly and spiritual are viewed as good and sacred while the earthly, physical and material are seen as evil and sinful. The ideal in classical Christianity (flowing from the Gnostic dualism characteristic of Christianity) is one of asceticism (denial of physical, material and earthly pleasures) – the ascetic life of a monk of “celibacy, chastity and poverty”.


In the Hebrew Bible and in the mainstream of the Jewish tradition, there is no such Christian idea of original sin – in the sense of human nature being inherently sinful as the result of a primordial sin of Adam. Traditional Judaism, based upon the Hebrew Bible, is characterized by unity rather than dualism (God is one, and the universe is one with no dichotomy between spiritual and physical). In the Biblical conception, God is conceived as good, and thus the entire universe is considered good having been created by a good God, as reflected in the opening account of creation – “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31). If everything is a creation of a good God, then nothing in existence (including the physical or material) can be inherently sinful. We may use things for good or bad purposes, but nothing is sinful in and of itself, having been created by a good God.


According to the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, the human being, as distinct from other animals, has a twofold (good and evil) “yetzer” (יצר), a tendency or inclination; whereas animals have only one (evil) tendency or inclination. The evil inclination (יצר הרע) is the animal side of human nature (the drives and passions) that is shared in common with all other animals. The good inclination (יצר הטוב) is the Divine side of human nature (reason and moral conscience) that separates the human being from other animals – the Divine image of the human being. In the story of Adam and Eve, it is written regarding the creation of animals, “the Lord God formed every beast” (Genesis 2, 19). The word formed in Hebrew is from the same root as the word inclination. The word formed is written with one “yood” (ויצר), the first letter of the root, because animals have only one inclination. Regarding the creation of the human being, though, it is written, “And the Lord God formed man” (Genesis 2, 7), and the very same word formed is written with two yoods (וייצר) because the human being has two inclinations.


However, the “evil” inclination is not evil in and of itself having been created by a good God. The Talmudic rabbis taught that when God at the end of the opening account of creation declares “behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1, 31) – this refers to the evil inclination, which is actually very good having come from a good God. The sex drive and lust are not seen as evil in the Biblical conception or in traditional Judaism – without a sex drive, and without lust, we would not be able to reproduce and continue the human species in fulfillment of the command “be fruitful and multiply”.


The evil inclination then is not inherently evil or sinful in and of itself, but only in relation to the good inclination (and actually it is very good having come from a good God). But, the evil inclination must be controlled by the good inclination. The ideal in the Jewish tradition is thus not one of asceticism and denial of physical and material pleasures (as in classical Christianity), but one of self-control and self-discipline, in which one controls one’s drives and passions (the evil inclination), as written in the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 4, 1) – “Who is a truly strong person? The one who controls one’s inclination”. It is clear that the evil inclination is intended here in the use of the term inclination – the term evil, though, is omitted indicating that the evil inclination is not evil in and of itself.


In the Hebrew Bible and in traditional Judaism, human nature is regarded as inherently pure, and not sinful, but with a natural tendency or inclination to do evil, as written in the verse – “the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8, 21). Each morning a traditional Jew declares – “My God, the soul you have given me is pure” (and, the soul includes both the good and evil inclination). Yet, even though we are born with a pure soul, and not born inherently sinful in terms of our nature; nevertheless, the human being does not come out of the womb practicing acts of goodness. There is clearly a difference between the soul and one’s behavior. Children have a natural tendency to act in an egoistic way and to misbehave. They themselves are inherently pure, but they are born with an (evil) inclination or tendency as a part of our animal nature to act often times in egoistic and improper ways. They simply must be taught to behave properly and to be respectful and considerate of others, and so develop through education a good inclination to behave properly – the Divine side of human nature. The evil inclination (drives and passions) thus represents a tendency to act in an evil way (if not disciplined), but the evil inclination (as part of human nature and part of the soul) is not in and of itself sinful or evil – it is in the Biblical conception actually very good having been created by a good God.


The term sin then in the Biblical conception means merely to miss the mark in committing wrongdoing. We as human beings are not born into sin in the Biblical conception – but, we have a tendency (evil inclination) to commit sin and wrongdoing. A central concept of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition is the concept of tshuva (תשובה), which is often translated inadequately as repentance, but comes from a Hebrew root that means return (שוב) – and, the concept of tshuva then is a return to the path of right living after having fallen off the path of right living by committing sin and wrongdoing.


It is simply shocking (and astounding that people do not notice) that the term sin does not at all appear in the story of Adam and Eve. The term sin appears for the first time in the Hebrew Bible in the story of Cain and Abel – when God warns Cain prior to his murdering of Abel that if Cain does not control his passions (his jealousy and anger) then “sin crouches at the door” (Genesis 4, 7). The appearance of the term sin here, for the first time in the Bible, is shocking in that the term is thus conspicuously absent from the story of Adam and Eve.


Although Adam and Eve transgress the will of God, violating an express command by God not to eat of the tree of knowledge, such a transgression of a ritual or personal nature (between a person and God) is in the story significantly not called by the Bible a sin. Conversely, even though Cain is not given a direct, express command not to harm his brother, or fellow human being, which is a moral issue (between a person and one’s fellow human being); he is, nonetheless, held morally accountable for his action, and should have known that murder (or harming one’s fellow human being) is wrong simply on the basis of his own reason and conscience. Cain is given a general warning by God to control his feelings, but not an express command concerning behavior as in the case of Adam and Eve. The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that moral transgression (the murder of Abel) is considered a far graver matter than transgression of a ritual nature (the eating of the forbidden fruit). Although the term sin is used in relation to matters of a ritual nature in the Bible, it is significant that the first time the term appears is in connection to a moral transgression in the story of Cain and Abel. In my view, the Bible is emphasizing from the very beginning of the Bible that morality has precedence over matters of a ritual nature – a theme that is consistent throughout the Hebrew Bible.


The story of Adam and Eve, in its plain meaning, is an allegory in which God demands that Adam and Eve not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – “And the Lord God commanded…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it” (Genesis 2, 16-17). The story is an allegory of the acquiring by human beings of the Divine trait of distinguishing between good and evil, as the serpent tells them – “God knows that on the day that you eat of it, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as God knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3, 5). Thus, in the plain meaning of the Bible not only is there no fall of mankind as a result of the transgression of Adam and Eve; but, the result of the transgression is paradoxically the acquiring of the Divine trait of moral conscience and the ability to distinguish good from bad as well as right from wrong thereby elevating the human being above all other animals.


Thus, in my view, the sin offering of a woman who has just given birth is not due to any sin or wrongdoing that she has done in giving birth – as she has done no sin or wrongdoing in giving birth but has fulfilled the commandment “to be fruitful and multiply”. Rather, her bringing of a sin offering is symbolizing that the essence of the human life that she has brought into existence is the capability of committing sin and wrongdoing – and, it is this capability that paradoxically elevates us as human beings above all other animals. Paradoxically, our capability of committing sin and wrongdoing not only reflects a weakness of human character, but also at the same time reflects something very beautiful – the essence of our humanity in distinction to all other animals. Most important, recognition of our humanity and capability of committing sin is what enables us to be forgiving of our own sin and wrongdoing and forgiving of the sin and wrongdoing of others.


Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

Leave a Reply