The Talmud in Niddah 31b discusses the laws of childbirth and the spiritual impurity that is associated with it, as mentioned in the beginning of this week’s double Torah portion, Parshas Tazria-Metzora (see Leviticus 12:1-8). The Torah law is that due to the woman’s impure state, a husband may not resume marital relations with his wife for seven days following the birth of a boy, and for fourteen days following the birth of a girl.
The Talmud asks why there is a discrepancy between the birth of a boy and a girl in regards to the period of time that the husband and wife are forbidden to each other after childbirth, and offers the following explanation:
Rabbi Shimon explains: “When a woman gives birth to a boy, with whom everyone is happy, she regrets her oath after only seven days. [In the pain of childbirth, women would often swear to never again become pregnant.] But in the case of a girl, with whom everyone is sad, she regrets her oath only after fourteen days.
Maharsh”a, one of the great 16th-century commentators on the Talmud, writes that the reason why people are often sad when a girl is born is because they know that in the not too distant future this girl will suffer the agony of childbirth as her mother just had. [This was especially true in Talmudic times when girls often married in their early teens - and there were also no epidurals!]
There is an interesting parallel between childbirth and the time leading up to the coming of the Messiah.
The Sages of the Talmud (in Sanhedrin 97a) record an ancient tradition regarding the Pre-Messianic Era:
Rabbi Yochanan said, “In the generation when the son of David [the Messiah] will come, the number of Torah scholars will dwindle, and as for the rest of the people, their eyes will be wearied through anguish and grief. Every day will bring new adversities and harsh decrees. No sooner is one trouble over than another one appears.”
The great Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, in Book 1 25a and 119a states:
And the sons of Yishmael [the Arabs] in that time [the pre-Messianic era] will fire the entire world to rise up against Jerusalem. And all the nations will band together against the Jews to ‘remove’ them from [the Land and] the world. About this era it is written: “It will be a time of trouble for Jacob [the Jews], but he shall be saved from it” (Jeremiah 30:7).
These harsh decrees and difficult times that were foretold by the great Kabbalists, as well as by the Sages of the Talmud - and that seem to be coming to fruition in our own times when the Arabs have managed to incite much of the world against Israel and when each day brings with it a new suicide bombing or rocket attack - are collectively referred in the Jewish tradition as Chevlei Mashiach, the “Birth Pangs” of the Messiah.
In their usage of the term Chevlei Mashiach, the Sages are teaching us that the period leading up to the coming of the Messiah bears an exact parallel to the pregnancy and birth pangs of a woman expecting her baby to be born. Just as the labor pains of a woman in childbirth increase in intensity as the child is about to be born, so, too, will the “birth pangs” and agony of the Jewish people increase in intensity right before the Messiah comes and the Jewish people will be “reborn” and redeemed.
We can add an additional layer to the parallel between childbirth and the pre-Messianic Era based on the aforementioned commentary of Maharsh”a that people are saddened at the birth of a girl because of the pain of childbirth that she herself will have to endure in the future.
The Midrash Tanchuma (Beshalach 10) lists ten great songs of faith which highlight Jewish history. Of these songs, Psalm 98 of King David’s Psalms, which begins “Sing to G-d a shir chadash (a new song)…”, is destined to be the tenth and final song the Jewish people will sing – the song of the Ultimate Redemption.
The Midrash Tanchuma enumerates the first nine songs:
The song the Jews sang in their homes on the first night of Passover when they were about to leave Egypt;
The Song of the Sea, when the waters split to allow Israel to cross, and then drowned the Egyptians (see Exodus 15:1-21);
The song the Jews sang in praise of Miriam’s well (see Numbers: 21:17-20);
The song of Ha’azinu - Moses’ final song before his death (see Deuteronomy Chapter 32);
Joshua’s song of victory (see Joshua 10:12);
Deborah’s song of victory (see Judges Chapter 5);
King David’s song of salvation from his enemies and other troubles (see Samuel II Chapter 22 and Psalms 18);
King David’s song for the inauguration of the Holy Temple (see Psalms 30);
King Solomon’s Song of Songs (one of the twenty-four books of Scripture).
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 23:11) points out that throughout Scripture, the Hebrew word for song is shirah (which is the feminine form), whereas the new song of the future is referred to as shir (which is the masculine form).
Rash”I, in his commentary to Arachin 13b, explains that in this world of struggle and hardship, every brief period of triumph and song is followed by a new tragedy, and, as such, is tinged with a measure of sadness. As this pattern resembles the female cycle of pregnancy and childbirth followed by subsequent pregnancy and childbirth, song takes the feminine form.
However, the song the Jewish people will sing in the future is in the masculine form because it describes the Messianic song of ultimate triumph after which no further calamities will be born.
May it be G-d’s will that we all merit to be there when the Messiah finally arrives and the Jewish people get to sing their final song.
[Sources: Tehillim (Psalms) with translation and commentary by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, Artscroll Mesorah Publications]