Of Days and Locusts
Post-Parsha Points: Shmini and Tazria
A couple of brief, late-breaking thoughts on the parshios [Torah readings] of the last couple of weeks, Shmini and Tazria.
Parshas Tazria begins with rules associated with childbirth. It defines fixed durations after birth when the mother is considered ritually impure (tameh) and then ritually pure (tahor). These durations differ depending on whether the baby was a boy or girl. There is a 40-day period, with 7 tameh days and 33 subsequent tahor days, for a boy, with this doubled to 80 days, 14 tameh and 66 tahor, for a girl. Many commentators ask why these ritual durations, which relate to the secretions that accompany childbirth, should vary based on the child's gender.
Two of the better answers I have heard, with some amplification of my own, are:
1) The "real" length is 40 days. However, for a baby girl this is doubled since the girl also has the potential to give birth someday and would be subject to the same ritual status as her mother. This view is strengthened by the documented medical fact that newborn girls often have a vaginal discharge and other temporary signs of puberty, due to the influence of maternal hormones. Thus, in a sense, when a mother gives birth to a baby girl, there are two sets of secretions and thus two tameh/tahor periods, one for each of them!
2) The "real" length should be 80 days for both boys and girls. However, for a boy the Torah allows this to be halved so that the tameh duration can end on the 7th day, and the mother can thus attend her son's bris on the next day in a state of ritual purity. This could relate to avoiding the prohibitions against touching/closeness that would accompany her otherwise tameh status, which would then diminish the couple's joy at the festive occasion of the bris.
Parshas Shmini lists the types of living creatures that are "kosher" and permitted for consumption. These fall into four categories: mammals, birds, fish, and insects. For the first three groups, the permitted varieties make a kind of logical sense, in that the "gentler" and/or more passive breeds are the ones permitted. I.e., kosher mammals must be not only herbivores but ruminants, kosher birds essentially exclude the major birds of prey, and the classes of kosher fish are those the most "fish-like" and exclude predators and other monstrous-looking creatures of the deep. Thus, it seems strange that the final permitted edible category is locusts, which are creatures of mass destruction associated with plagues and punishments!
It occurred to me that perhaps the devastation caused by swarms of locusts is the very reason the Torah allows their consumption. That is, when a locust swarm is present, it's very likely that they have consumed and depleted the local vegetation to the point that edible food may be hard to come by. Therefore, to prevent mass deprivation and starvation, the Torah makes an exception to its usual pattern/rule for kosher creatures, and permits the consumption of the locusts themselves. Essentially, the message is, if the locusts left us nothing else to eat, at least we can eat them! In a sense, this is a Biblical example of the Rabbinic principle, "do not pass a law that the congregation cannot live with".