By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
Upon the completion of her days of purity for a boy or a girl, she shall bring a lamb in its first year as a burnt offering, and a young dove or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the entrance of the Ohel Moed, to the kohen.
If she cannot afford a lamb, she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering. The kohen shall atone for her, and she will be pure.
–ibid., v. 8
After childbirth, a woman has a relatively expensive korban to bring: a lamb for a burnt offering. True, it’s not a whole bull, but on the other hand it’s not a little dove, either. If she can’t afford it, she may replace it with a modestly priced young dove or a turtledove.
Why is this mitzvah so flexible? If one can’t afford tefillin with all four requisite parashios, may he buy a set with three, or two? Even with korbanos, it is rare for one’s economic status to determine one’s level of obligation. There are very few places where a poor person brings a different offering than a rich person. Why is this korban amongst these exceptions?
Here is another exception. It involves someone who takes an oath and transgresses it: “Or if a person will take an oath, expressing with his lips to do harm or to do good, anything that a person will express in an oath… If he cannot afford a lamb, he shall bring, as his guilt offering for sinning, two turtledoves or two young doves to Hashem, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering” (Vayikra 5:4,7).
The woman who gave birth might not be so different from this person who transgressed his oath: “The disciples asked R. Shimon ben Yochai: ‘Why did the Torah say that a woman after childbirth must bring a korban?’ He answered them: ‘When she crouches to give birth she takes an impetuous oath that she will never have relations with her husband. Therefore, the Torah said she should bring a korban . . .’” (Nidah 31b)
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai explained that a woman’s post-birth offering is because of the oath she took. If so it would make sense for her to bring a little bird if she can’t afford a lamb, because the korban for transgressing an oath has such a halachah. However, the oath she allegedly took cannot be the only reason for this flexible type of post-birth offering. Why? Because the lamb brought after birth is an olah, a burnt offering, not a sin offering. In addition to this burnt offering, she also brings a small bird for her sin offering.
Accordingly, a poor woman who cannot afford a lamb and a little bird will instead bring two small birds. So the lamb that is replaced by the small bird is not for her “sin” at all. The lamb is rather for her purification, so that she may enter the Beis Hamikdash and partake of korbanos.
I would suggest the following as a possible reason why this korban is so flexible: If people would know they have a major expense coming up right after birth, this might deter them from having children in the first place. They might come to look for reasons not to have children. This would interfere with the great mitzvah of sheves, of populating the world: “He did not create it for emptiness; He formed it to be inhabited.” (Yeshayahu 45:18)
The Torah didn’t want the burden of an expensive offering to be an excuse for this mother not to want to have another child. So if someone can’t afford a lamb, she is welcome to bring a small bird instead. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now in print: Machat shel Yad Vayikra.