ABSTRACT: A Woman gives a seed: Biology and Physiology among the Jews in Antiquity

Mo‘ed, 19 (2009), pp. 12-34  Meir Bar-Ilan


The aim of this paper is to study the understanding of a woman’s body in the ancient Jewish world while evaluating the physiological and medical background of a certain Biblical law (Lev 12:1-8). So far this law has been basically understood as a ritual law concerning the difference between the number of days of impurity of a woman who gives birth: 7 + 33 when a male is born and 14 + 66 days when a female is born. The unique use of the phrase “gives a seed”, and the whole physiological and medical background is discussed in this paper, with the aid of Pre-Socratic ideas combined with Numerology.

At the beginning, commentaries so far given to the text, traditional and modern, are discussed, and the issue of “giving a seed” (=masculine), as contra to “giving birth” (=feminine) is discussed. The commentators saw only part of the picture but already in the 2nd century some rabbis believed the laws of the Torah reflect medical concepts (as opposed to Hierophilian dissection or vivisection). A Hittite ritual is discussed showing it originated in the same intellectual understanding: male embryo comes into being faster than female embryo. Further Hippocratic literature is put forward as giving some parallels to Biblical notions, though not exact parallels but rather as being part of the Mediterranean world where ideas shifted from one culture to another.

After discussing the main issue, the numbers of days mentioned in the law are discussed. Some Biblical parallels of numerology are given, and later Hellenistic medical understandings combined with numerology are mentioned.

The paper focuses on the following issues:
1) Biblical interpretation (especially medical / physiological commentary);
2) History of Medicine: Physiology and Embryology;
3) Gender studies: the differences between the genders in Antiquity;
4) Numerology: the symbolic meaning of numbers, as part of ancient science, especially in medical understanding.