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09.05.2017 11:34    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  tazriah  metzorah  meir  roth  

Economic Considerations Affecting the Offering of a Woman after Childbirth

A woman after childbirth (parturient) must bring a burnt offering and a sin offering for her expiation and purification after birthing, as we read in Leviticus (12:6-7):

On the completion of her period of purification, for either a son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering.  He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood.  Such are the rituals concerning her who bears a child, male or female.

Hannah Safrai describes a realistic picture of the offerings brought by parturients in the Temple period:

We may reasonably assume that not every woman throughout the Jewish world indeed brought an offering immediately after every birth…Most likely the difficulties of the journey and the high frequency of births during a woman's fertile years made this impossible for her.  Indeed, Jewish sources indicate that women brought their sacrifice some time later, often after the child had grown somewhat, or when they came to the Temple on pilgrimage for the festivals, or several years later, after having given birth to a number of children.[1]

Indeed, this is the situation reflected by the beginning of Mishnah Kritot (1.7):  "If a woman underwent…five definite parturitions…she brings one [sin-] offering and she may then eat of the sacrifices, and there is the liability upon her [to bring] the other [offerings]."

The Mishnah describes a situation in which a woman had accrued the obligation to bring five offerings after parturition before coming on pilgrimage to the Temple with her family.  From the outset the Torah obliges her to bring "a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering".  However, "if her means do not suffice for a sheep"—an expensive offering—she may bring "two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering" (Lev. 12:8).

After five parturitions, the woman owes ten offerings in order to partake of such sacrifices as the festive well-being sacrifices and other well-being offerings along with her family.  However, in order to participate in this feast she must first have purified herself by bringing a parturition offering.  The Mishnah allows her to spread out her obligation, requiring her to bring at this time only a single offering—a burnt offering and sin offering, and the remaining offerings at a later time.  Moreover, the Mishnah goes on to tell of dire economic straits, such that women could not even afford a pair of pigeons:

It once happened in Jerusalem that a nest[2] cost a golden dinar.  Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said:  By this Temple!  I will not rest this night before they are sold at a [silver] dinar.  He went into the Court and taught:  If a woman underwent five parturitions…she brings one offering and she may then eat of the sacrifices, and no obligation devolves on her to bring the other.  That very day the price of a pair of pigeons dropped to two quarters [of a silver dinar].

In Jerusalem the price of a pair of pigeons rose as high as a golden dinar due to the great demand for pigeons as a sacrifice.  Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel's behavior in the light of the pigeon-merchants' price gouging is presented dramatically, swearing by the Temple, that he would not sleep until the situation was remedied and the price brought down substantially.[3] Note that the change was brought about by overriding a commandment of the Torah and erasing the obligation of parturients.  Rashi explains the reason for such a drastic step:

Even though he lessened the requirement stated in the Torah, there comes a time when one must take action for the sake of the Lord, for had they not been able to bring [i.e., if due to the high prices they would not be able to afford the offering] they would have ceased bringing even a single offering and then they would have been eating the sacred feast in a state of bodily impurity.[4]

Rashi's explanation requires close study, for the Torah is not to be abrogated simply because men or women find it hard to restrain themselves in matters of food and drink.  Moreover, it is unclear why a commandment of the Torah needs to be dropped when the Court itself is obliged to exercise control over prices to prevent price-gouging,[5] all the more so when price-gouging results in exploitation of poor people seeking to fulfill a commandment of the Torah.  In this regard we present the explanation given for Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel's action, as understood by Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz:

The concept of it being "time to take action for the sake of the Lord," and especially according to Rashi's explanation of this concept, aptly describes Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel's intention to violate a specific rule of the Torah for the sake of sanctifying the Lord's name—preventing people who have no social conscience from using the implications of a specific rule of Torah in order to exploit the public.[6]

Although price-gouging could ostensibly be fought by setting price-controls, the shortcomings of this method have been recognized since antiquity, for the pressure of demand usually proves stronger than controls of authority.  The preferred method, then as now, was to control demand by instituting a regulation that reduced dependence on profit-mongering merchants.  A short midrash sheds light on Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel's action:

Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says:  Passover and Tabernacles, which do not fall in the work season, were made seven and eight days long, respectively; the Feast of Weeks, which is in the work season, is but one day long.  This teaches us that Scripture was sparing towards Israel.[7]

Passover, the spring festival, comes at a time of year before the heavy work season of the summer has begun in the fields and gardens, and Tabernacles, the festival of ingathering, comes after the summer, when most agricultural work has been finished.  Therefore Passover and Tabernacles (along with Shemini Atzeret) are seven and eight days long, respectively.  The Feast of Weeks falls during the agricultural high season and therefore is only one day long.  The homily explains this holiday being short in terms of the Torah's concern for Israel, not requiring them to celebrate at length during a season when they cannot get away from the extensive work that needs to be done in the fields.  The expression, "Scripture was sparing towards Israel" can be understood two ways.  One, being sparing of Israel financially, the other, being merciful towards Israel because in that season they were preoccupied with pressing work and would not be able to celebrate wholeheartedly and would hence have difficulty rejoicing as required by the commandment of the festival.  In like manner to this homily, Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel reduced the number of offerings owed by a parturient to a pair of pigeons instead of the requisite five.

Menahem Alon notes:  "In their battle against price-gougers, the Sages did not hesitate to make emendations to the main body of commandments."[8] Alon provides an historic example that relies on the precedent of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel's ruling and cites a question asked of Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Krokhmal:[9]

Once the gentile fishmongers raised their prices, for they observed that the Jews would buy fish for the Sabbath without regard to the expense.  So the community agreed that no one should buy fish for two months, and pupils asked me if they were entitled to do so, since it was a matter of honoring the Sabbath.

In his response, the Rabbi upheld the community's decision:

It is perfectly reasonable to make a regulation that fish not be purchased for several weeks so that the price be brought down, and afterwards even the poor would be able to honor the Sabbath with fish.  This is a case of "a time to take action for the Lord, etc.," as with the nests of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel in Kritot.  This is a case of the saying:  Better to violate one Sabbath so that one will be able to observe many Sabbaths.[10]

Translated by Rachel Rowen


* Dr. Meir Roth is head of the Scientific Applications Support Unit in the Customer Support Department at Bar Ilan University.

[1] Hannah Safrai on Tazria-Metzora, from the website:

[2] A collective word denoting a pair of pigeons or turtledoves.  (Perush ha-Mishnayot la-Rambam, Kapah ed., Jerusalem 1967, p. 232)

[3] A single nest, which was two turtledoves, cost a golden dinar, which was equal to twenty-five silver dinars.  After the prices fell, a single nest cost a quarter of a silver dinar.  Thus the price dropped to a hundredth of the inflated price (Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura).

[4] Rashi on Kritot 8, s.v. "nikhnas le-vet din lilmod."

[5] As Maimonides wrote (Hilkhot Mekhirah 14.1), "Nevertheless, the court is obligated to regulate prices and appoint officers of the law, so that people at large will not be able to reap whatever profit they desire."

[6] Eliezer Berkowitz, Ha-Halakhah Kokha ve-Tafkideha, Jerusalem 2007, p. 109.

[7] Sifre Deuteronomy, Finkelstein edition, New York 1969, par. 140.

[8] Menahem Alon, Hafka`at She`arim ve-Hasagat Gevul Mis'harit ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri, Mahanayim 2 (1992), pp. 8-19.

[9] Born 1600, Cracow, Poland.  Left Cracow after the pogroms of 1648-1649 and settled in Moravia, a region now in the eastern Czech Republic, where he served as Rabbi in several places.

[10] Responsa Tzemah Tzedek, Amsterdam 1675, Jerusalem 1982, par. 28.

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