Parashat Tazria begins with the laws of a “Yoledet,” a woman after childbirth, who was required in the times of the Bet Ha’mikash to offer special sacrifices several weeks after delivering a child. Specifically, she would bring one animal as a Hatat (sin offering), and another as an Ola (sacrifice which is completely burned on the altar).
Already in the Gemara (Keritut 26) we find the question raised as to why a woman must bring a sin offering after delivering a child. Certainly, not only is there nothing wrong in bearing children, but this is precisely what we are supposed to be doing. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai therefore explained that a woman brings a sin offering to atone for the comments she makes while experiencing the extreme pain of labor. At the height of her suffering, a woman on the birthing table might likely make a vow never to cohabit with her husband again so that she will never have to experience this suffering. As the weeks and months pass, however, she changes her mind and wishes to have another child. The Torah instructs her to offer a sin offering to atone for her improper vow during labor.
The Gemara does not, however, address the question of why she brings an Ola sacrifice. The Ola offering is generally brought voluntarily, yet here the Torah requires that the woman bring this sacrifice. Why?
Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) explains that the woman brings an Ola to express her gratitude to the Almighty for emerging safely from the dangerous situation of childbirth. The process of labor and delivery, while on the one hand perfectly natural, is also fraught with danger, and a woman after delivery must give thanks to Hashem for bringing her safely through this dangerous condition.
The question remains, however, as to why the Torah requires the woman to bring a special sacrifice to express her gratitude. Earlier in Vayikra, the Torah discusses the Toda, or thanksgiving offering, which one would offer to express gratitude to G-d. The Rabbis explained that this offering would be brought by somebody who emerged safely from one of four dangerous situations – imprisonment/captivity, an overseas journey, desert travel, and serious illness. Seemingly, a woman after childbirth should be no different than any patient who survived a serious illness, and must therefore bring a Toda sacrifice. But for some reason, the Torah chose to require the woman to offer an Ola sacrifice, instead of a Toda, and the question naturally arises as to why this is the case.
Two answers have been given for this question. One answer is that a Toda should be brought soon after the experience, when the person still feels the excitement and joy of salvation. As we know, human nature is such that even after the most exhilarating and inspiring experience, the feelings of inspiration gradually wane with time. Therefore, in order for a Toda to express genuine feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving, it must be brought soon after the individual is rescued from the dangerous situation he confronted. A woman after childbirth, however, is considered Teme’a (ritually impure) for several weeks, and she is thus unable to bring a sacrifice until well after the birth. Hence, a Toda offering would not be appropriate, and the Torah requires her to bring a different sacrifice – an Ola – instead.
But there is also a second answer, one which many people will find difficult to relate to in contemporary society. The Toda sacrifice was very large, consisting of an animal as well as forty loaves of bread, and it all had to be eaten the day the offering was brought or that night; nothing could be left until the following day. The reason for this is because the Torah wanted the individual bringing a Toda to invite a large crowd to participate in his celebration and thus publicize his experience of G-d’s assistance and salvation. In the case of a woman, however, such a public affair would not be appropriate. The Torah value of Seniut (modesty) extends beyond mode of dress; it refers more generally to an overall sense of humility and discretion, and when it comes to women, it involves a greater emphasis on privacy. Women are encouraged to conduct themselves in a quieter, more private fashion, and thus being at the center of a large celebration would not be appropriate.
Even though we do not offer sacrifices today, as we are still without the Bet Ha’mikdash, we have much to learn about Torah life by studying the concepts underlying the Korbanot. The sacrifices of the Yoledet teach several valuable lessons, as we have seen, reminding us of the importance of maintaining our sense of appreciation and gratitude for all that Hashem does for us, and how we must remain committed to the Torah value of Seniut even as we live in a society to which these ideals are so foreign.