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Forty Days of Cleansing: Levitical Mysticism

Forty days of rain marked the rebirth of the world in the great flood. The number forty is also mentioned when a woman gives birth:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Children of Israel: ‘A woman who conceives and gives birth to a male will be spiritually unready for seven days, as during the days of her separation shall she be spiritually unready. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days she shall remain in blood-spiritual readiness. (Lev. 12)

The total number of days is forty – which matches the rebirth period for the earth (in the flood) as well. But the Torah’s language is most peculiar (which is why many translations mangle it): instead of saying, “She is spiritually unready,” the text says that she is spiritually unready for seven days, and then she is in a state of spiritual readiness for another thirty-three. Why is she in opposite spiritual states in this period?

To answer this, we have to address the key language of this part of Leviticus: the meaning of “spiritual readiness”, tahor, or “spiritual unreadiness,” tamei. These words are so widely misunderstood that they have been translated, over the years, as corresponding to cleanliness, contamination, or impurity. But that is not how the Torah uses them. Being spiritually ready simply means that one is in a state that allows for one to reconnect, to strive for holiness. And being spiritually unready is the result of incomplete or failed creativity, such as sexual union, a menstrual cycle, or contact with death. Spiritual unreadiness is not dirty, or wrong: it is an inevitable part of life itself.

So when a woman gives birth, it makes sense that she becomes spiritually unready. She has engaged in an act of creation – imperfect creation. She has made a human child, one that lives, and then will surely, sooner or later, lead to death, as surely as night follows day. But the text does not say that she is, as a result of the birth, only “spiritually unready!” She follows seven days of spiritual unreadiness with thirty-three days of blood-spiritual readiness. What does it mean?

Rabbi Riskin makes a connection that allows the argument to fill in. It is true that bringing a child into this world brings the inevitability of failure, and eventual death. Every creative act is limited, but in the case of a new life, biological creativity is a zero-sum game: a person who is born is certain to die. And so giving birth to a new person means becoming spiritually unready, because a new mother, in her creative act, has brought a new body into the world, one that is sure, over time, to wither and die.

But a new mother does much, much more than this! It is true that each body will perish. But people are comprised of more than just a body: we have a soul, too! A soul that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils by G-d Himself. It is the soul, and not the body, that has all the power and potential of its source.

The text tells us as much. Gen. 9:4 “Only flesh with the spirit thereof, which is the blood, shall ye not eat.” The woman’s thirty-three days of “blood-spiritual readiness” are for bringing a new spirit into the world. Unlike the body, the spirit will not wither and die; our souls are capable of transcending our physical existences, just as our non-biological creativity is capable of leaving an everlasting impression on the world we leave behind. Our souls are inherently ready for spiritual growth, for holiness.

So there are seven days of spiritual unreadiness for the body that was brought into the world. The baby is then circumcised, and the rest of the forty day period is connected to the baby’s soul, a result of bringing a potentially-eternal soul into the world. For that, the woman is not “spiritually unready” at all – she is in a special state of spiritual readiness, for having brought G-d, through the soul of the child, more into our world. The division between the two periods is marked by the circumcision, the core Jewish connection between a physical and spiritual existence signified by blood.

The verses afterward tell us that when a woman has a girl, the time period is not forty days, but eighty. This connects back to the flood: “Forty days and forty nights,” the repetition of forty being the complete connection to the earth, the host for all life, just as Chava (Eve) was called “the mother of all life.”

This reflects the different contributions to new life between men and women. It may take contributions from both a man and a woman to bring a child into this world, but it is the woman who incubates that new life, who is capable of taking the fertilized egg all the way from conception to birth. The connection here is to the earth itself: life on earth was put here by G-d, but it is the earth, just like a fertile woman, who nurtures and sustains that life, making it possible for all life – physical and spiritual alike – to be born. The Torah makes the linkage for us, by connecting the forty/eighty days after of childbirth with the Flood.

Note: It makes sense that an act of creation, such as intercourse or birth, leads to becoming spiritually unready. Our creations are never complete or perfect; they are marked with trial and error, with lost opportunities, with endless variations of “what might have been.” Categorically, spiritual unreadiness in the Torah is connected with an inability to reach holiness: we cannot do achieve a holy result by harming others through our evil speech, for example. Even when intimacy leads to conception, millions of spermatozoa failed in their missions. When a life ends, so does its opportunity to improve the world, to achieve any other creative act. From top to bottom, when the Torah talks of being spiritually unready, it is connected to whether or not we are, in that state, able to achieve holiness – and then how we can become ready once again.

The Torah tells us that when we become spiritually unready in place, we need to reconnect to the primal (ritual) waters, to become reborn. (When we touch death, the reset mechanism is through the Red Heifer, which I have explained elsewhere). Either way, once we are reborn, like the earth washed in the flood, we are again in a spiritually ready state. And we can start reconnecting anew.

Comments are welcome!