Religion & Beliefs

A Midrash on the Month of Av

In the month of Av falls Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av, when Jews commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples. A woman who conceives and bears a male shall be taboo seven days, just as during her … Read More

By / July 29, 2009

In the month of Av falls Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av, when Jews commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples. A woman who conceives and bears a male shall be taboo seven days, just as during her menstrual period she shall be taboo.  On the eighth day his flesh shall be circumcised.  Thirty-three days shall she dwell in the blood of her purification; she shall not touch any sacred thing or enter the holy place until the days of her purification are complete.  If she gives birth to a female, she shall be taboo for two weeks, and sixty-six days she shall dwell in the blood of her purification.  When the days of her purity are full, for a son or a daughter, she shall bring a first-year lamb as a burnt offering, and a pigeon or turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tent of meeting, to the priest.  (Leviticus 12:2-6) Jeremiah said: When I went up to Jerusalem, I saw a woman sitting on the mountain top, dressed in black with disheveled hair, and she was weeping and wailing: ‘Who will comfort me?’  I approached her and said to her: "If you are a woman, speak to me, and if you are a spirit, flee before me."  She said to me: ‘I am your mother Zion.’  I said to her: ‘In time to come I will build you up.’ (Pesikta deRav Kahana 166) The vaginal opening is the gate of the temple.  It is the door to the Holy of Holies, the womb, where no one enters except the ones who cannot tell what they see.  The womb is the temple, but this temple is in exile. No one reveres it now, no one bows down to it, yet it stocks and restocks the world, it is adept at planting and harvest, it is an estuary of existence.  From it come the spirits of all mammalian life.  Yet when the womb gave birth the temple required of it a sin offering.  One might say that for this the temple was destroyed.  Or one might say that the temple is destroyed and rebuilt monthly, that this is the way of the world.   Or, one might say that the temple is destroyed each time there is a death.  We mourn the loss of the four walls of a soul. The tearing down of a building, this is no more than a historical fact, and a metaphor. The temple is in exile, and this may be why midwives are scarce, birth takes place in the realm of the sick, and healers know better how to cut open the womb than to deliver a baby from it.   Many labor without delivering: the gate opens too slowly.  The heart rate plunges, the emergency unfolds, the exit from the womb comes with a breach in the wall.  One-third of all births are Caesarean births.  We have lost the keys to the temple.   We have lost the sounds of the temple, the murmuring of the rituals and the voices of prayer.  Women become pregnant and they tell no one, for fear they will have to tell that there was a miscarriage.  They feel joy and do not speak.  They are sick, they vomit, they do not explain.  They go to work, they care for others. There are no stories of birth on television, only stories of doctors who bravely catch babies as they emerge from somewhere.  The temple is silent.  Who will open up this silence?  If you are a woman, speak to me.  The hospital wards are quiet because medication makes the birth less painful.  Yet speak, with your weepings and wailings, your disheveled hair, your unleashed tears of joy.  Do not flee like a ghost. Say to me, ‘I am your mother."  Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.   Show me the small laughing life you created, the lamp at the center of the shrine, the five-branched candelabrum of sentience.  Show me the one who will build you up in a future time. We have forgotten the temple; the angel has touched all of us and made us forget, but we can remember.  We can remember the placental tree of arteries and veins, we can remember the hills and crevices of the bellybutton like the paths of the ibex through the mountains of the holy land. Jerusalem, it is written, is the navel at the center of the world.  This is a reversed prophecy: the navel is Jerusalem.  Each navel is a new Jerusalem, a new place of pilgrimage.  Remember the pain of a giant climbing from your body.  Remember the moment of emergence from the gate, the tiny swollen vagina or the snakelike phallus, the first vibration of the vocal cords.  Remember the first offering of the milk, the opening of the ducts and the welling up of golden colostrum like a libation.  Tell me your story.  I look down at my newborn daughter, arisen from the temple I will never see except in sonograms.  Inside her are ova.  When she was inside me, they were inside me, inside my temple.  Now they are seeds of a future not yet born.  In time to come, they will travel down the fallopian tube and into the world.  Exile is part of the life of the Temple.  Exile is danger and jubilation, exile is the hope of all things. Speak, if your womb is present-absence, like the holy of holies, if it is as full as pilgrimage, if your voice is a womb of poems.  Tell the story of birth, which is not only the story of birth but the story of every journey everywhere.  You have known birth, no matter who or where you are, no matter how your life has unfolded.  Your organs are priestly chambers, storing incense, rams and cows, fistfuls of white-gold flour.  Remember.  Lamentations cries: "Lonely is the city full of people."  (Lamentations 1:1) But the city is not lonely, it sings with the mitochondria of the ages, the well of generations is at its heart.  The exiled city holds us all.   The city is the earth, its basement is bones and anaerobic bacteria, its walls are xylem and phloem, its roof is tiled with cloud and breath.  The earth speaks: black soil and disheveled hair of grain, buried bones and seeds.  The days of her purity are full and very many, never complete.


# Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy of Jewish Religion, the founder and director of Tel Shemesh, a website and community celebrating earth-based Jewish traditions, and the co-director (rav-kohenet) of the Kohenet Institute, which trains women in feminist and earth-based spiritual leadership.  She is the author of many essays, poems, and stories, as well as two books: Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons. Image courtesy of