This week’s portion begins by discussing a mother’s status after childbirth. The Torah tells us she becomes temeiah (commonly translated as spiritually impure) “as at the time of her menstruation (niddah).” In the very next sentence, the Torah says that if the child born is a male, circumcision is to take place on the eighth day.
This is not the only time the laws of niddah intersect with circumcision. Consider the first time circumcision is mentioned in the Torah. There, God commands Abraham to circumcise all males of his household (Genesis 17:9-14). Precisely at that time, God also reveals that a child will be born to Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 17:19). When Sarah hears the news, she laughs. The Torah explains her laughter by pointing out that Sarah had aged and was no longer menstruating. In the words of the Torah, “Sarah was old, well on in years, the manner of women had ceased to be with Sarah” (Genesis 18:11). Here again, there is a confluence between circumcision and niddah.
Circumcision is also prominent in the Moses narrative. While on his way to Pharaoh to demand that the Jews be freed, Moshe finds himself in a terrible predicament: one of his sons is close to death. Tzipporah, Moses’s wife, steps in and saves the child by circumcising him. She then declares, “a bridegroom’s bloodshed was because of circumcision” (Exodus 4:26). Note how circumcision is here linked to the blood of bridegroom. By definition, blood, for a groom, hints to the menstrual blood of the bride as well.
Additionally, the sentence from which it is deduced that the blood of circumcision was placed on the door posts of Jewish homes for the Exodus from Egypt deals with blood of birth (dam leidah) which as noted is treated as dam niddah – the blood of menstruation. (See Rashi on Exodus 12:6 and Ezekiel 16:6)
Many wonder what is the counterpoint for circumcision relative to women. These texts seem to teach that the laws of niddah, the laws of family purity, comprise that counterpoint. Interestingly, milah and niddah are not only mentioned together but they have similar meanings. The Hebrew for circumcision is milah, which according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comes from the word mul, meaning “opposite.” Niddah has a comparable meaning – “separate.”
The repetitive linkage of the male circumcision and the female status of niddah gives us a clear message. While it is too often the case that sexuality is exploited and perverted worldwide, the Torah stands apart, insisting on an opposite approach – one of holiness. The words mul and niddah charge male and female alike to sanctify life even in the most powerful and intimate realms.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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