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Why must a יולדת bring a sin offering? What does she need כפרה for?

As it says in Vayikra 12:6-7:

וּבִמְלֹאת יְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ לְבֵן אוֹ לְבַת תָּבִיא כֶּבֶשׂ בֶּן שְׁנָתוֹ לְעֹלָה וּבֶן יוֹנָה אוֹ תֹר לְחַטָּאת אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֶל הַכֹּהֵן

6 And when the days of her purification have been completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep in its first year as a burnt offering, and a young dove or a turtle dove as a sin offering, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the kohen.

וְהִקְרִיבוֹ לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה וְכִפֶּר עָלֶיהָ וְטָהֲרָה מִמְּקֹר דָּמֶיהָ זֹאת תּוֹרַת הַיֹּלֶדֶת לַזָּכָר אוֹ לַנְּקֵבָה

7 And he shall offer it up before the Lord and effect atonement for her, and thus, she will be purified from the source of her blood. This is the law of a woman who gives birth to a male or to a female.

If you quote a commentary please explain what it means if you can. Thanks!

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In his commentary on Leviticus 4:2, where the Torah introduces the קרבן חטאת ("sin offering"), R' Samson Raphael Hirsch explains its purpose with:

The offering, with which a soul that has fallen out of focus of the Will of God which should form the centre which directs all its actions, seeks to regain the nearness of God, is called a קרבן חטאת.

The essential aspect is the return from falling out of focus, not "sin," per se. You can see this from the fact that the Red Heifer is also called a "חטאת" (e.g. in Numbers 19:9), despite the fact that it is used to recover from טומאה (moral depression, according to R' Hirsch) from contact with death, not from sin.

According to R' Hirsch, טומאה is a mental condition that would prevent a person from participating in holy practices with the correct mindset. In particular, many types of טומאה cause this problem by afflicting a person with the illusion that people are trapped by the physical world and have no genuine free will. One can't participate in the holy service, in which one dedicates some aspect of oneself to God, without a complete sense that one is approaching God out of free choice.

Similarly, according to R' Hirsch in his commentary on Leviticus 12:6, the חטאת brought by the new mother helps her refocus following טומאה, not sin. As he explains in his commentary on the previous verse, in the process of giving birth, a woman necessarily surrenders to the overwhelming physical process and thus is intimately subject to the illusion that she is an unfree object of natural forces rather than the holy, volitional being that she is. So, on 12:6, he explains:

That is why she first vows in her חטאת העוף, that she will not allow her power to determine her own actions in all moral matters to be broken by the painful days which are inseparable from her high calling in life; but rather, by undertaking and enduring such days of suffering in the spirit of duty, for the sake of fulfilling her high mission in life, she exercises her power of free will even in this, and so transforms the passiveness of pain itself into active moral energy.

Isaac Levy translation

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The talmud, on Niddah 31b, explains that the sin-offering (chatat) after birth is to atone for inappropriate vows she might have made during the birth. (Remember, no drugs to dull the pain.) From the Soncino translation:

R. Simeon b. Yohai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that a woman after childbirth should bring a sacrifice? He replied: When she kneels in bearing she swears impetuously that she will have no intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sacrifice.

It sounds like the g'mara is saying that this is true of all women in childbirth. It goes on to bring a contrary opinion about the absolution of vows; this is not resolved.

The following is my own reasoning: As a practical matter, the g'mara I quoted could also be a "just in case" measure -- we should not assume that the woman will remember having said this in the midst of her pain and there may not be two valid witnesses present, so if the torah did not specify this offering she might end up with a transgression for which she has not brought an offering. Rather than inviting that possibility, the torah might be calling for the chatat as a precaution.

All that said, I find this explanation somewhat unsatisfying, and you should go read this answer bringing R' Hirsch.

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    I guess I have a series of questions on this Gemara. Is this really true of all woman? Even if the "just in case" approach, I don't believe she would be held accountable for an accidental Shevua? Furthermore, her husband could nullify her vow? Additionally, Chatas would not be the typical offering for accidentally violating a vow, why here is it a Chatas? I was hoping for a an idea that would explain away these questions. Thank you Monica for bringing this. – RCW Apr 21 '15 at 5:37
  • @RCW, if you know the g'mara and have a question on it, I suggest you ask your question. – msh210 Apr 21 '15 at 5:43
  • @RCW I agree with msh210's suggestion to ask follow-on questions. (There's a little more discussion of vows right after the part I quoted, but it wasn't germane to your question so I didn't include it here.) I don't know if the husband could nullify a vow she made about him; that's an interesting question too. And yeah, the "just in case" approach seems a little surprising to me; the oral law does that all the time, building fences, but here the written law is doing it, if we believe this g'mara. (On "what a chatat?", please see Isaac's excellent answer.) – Monica Cellio Apr 21 '15 at 13:09
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    IIRC, vows concerning himself are the primary intended purpose of husband-vow-nullification. // I suppose we could interpret this gemara through R' Hirsch's understanding and say that the oaths the gemara is talking about are just an example of behavior that comes from someone who's completely overtaken by a physical process, and that it's that overtakenness that she needs to recover from, more than the vows themselves, which are just symptom thereof. – Isaac Moses Apr 21 '15 at 13:13
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    ... It's probably not the case that all women vow while in labor, but it probably is fair to generalize that labor and delivery is a consuming experience. – Isaac Moses Apr 21 '15 at 13:19

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