Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
After describing and listing which mammals, birds, aquatic creatures and lower forms of terrestrial animals are permissible to be eaten, last week’s parsha concludes with the statement that these laws provide the information “to distinguish between the tameh and the tahor (the unclean and the clean), between edible animals and animals which may not be eaten.” This week’s Torah reading introduces and discusses situations when tumah/defilement can occur in humans— how it is treated and the prescribed ritual for bringing the person so afflicted back into society once the symptoms disappear. It starts with childbirth; moves on to dermatological lesions of tzara’as; and concludes with genital emissions.
Ritual impurity of, and purification after, childbirth
Lesions of tzara’as of the body:
o White spot on the skin
o Suspected lesion
o Covering the entire skin
o On an infection that has healed
o On a burn
o On skin covered by hair (head, beard)
o Dull white spots on skin
o Bald patch
Isolation of one afflicted with tzara’as
Tzara’as of garments
On Tumah (state of “impurity”)
We think tumah can best be understood in psychological terms. Yehuda Valladares thinks of tumah as a state of mind that causes one to question/doubt one’s long held beliefs. Witnessing or meeting death prompts one to wonder about life, about death, about God and about the Hereafter.
Tumah may also be thought of as a state of cognitive loss; a radiating negative energy; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter any relationship--not with God and not with other human beings. Contact with death precipitates a state of tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all tumah” because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, a fear (of one's own mortality?) and a negativism that can sap all emotional energy. (Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others. The Torah's insight into the profound (oft-times unconscious) forces that dominate a human being's emotions and behavior is further evident in the reality that the negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (called a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e., tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each tameh person touches another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of tumah) weakens.
A woman who menstruates; a woman who has given birth; and people who experience abnormal sexual emissions (zav, zava) are deemed to be in a state of tumah because blood and fluids associated with the procreative process represent the death of a (potential) human life. In ancient times childbirth could be dangerous for the women, thus creating an additional level of anxiety for and about the new mother. Bad and sad feelings result (e.g., postpartum depression) and fill the person with negativity...i.e., tumah.
Primitive man feared that blood flow from any part of the human anatomy meant illness and/or death. Women especially were considered dangerous and impure, unable to participate in religious ritual. The blood flows of child-bearing contained seed and demanded that the woman be separated. Giving birth to a female--who also would eventually experience the “impurity” from the feared blood flows--necessitated a separation period twice that required for a male.
Over the years, it has been noted (and, in our generation, said in the name of Rav Solovetchik) that to understand the deeper meaning of a word, one need looks where that word first appears in the Torah. The first time we encounter the root-word tumah is in Breishis 34:5 after Shechem's seduction and rape of Yaakov's daughter, Deena. Here the Torah focuses on Yaakov's reaction: “Yaakov learned that his daughter Deena had been teemay (defiled)” and “Yaakov remained silent until they (his sons) came home”. This teemay/tumah is the condition that is characterized by a seething rage, deep mental anguish, and speechlessness, all parts of a galaxy of negative emotions. Yaakov's internal turmoil presumably mirrored that of his daughter.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an alternate pathway in understanding tumah as “a condition which impedes or exempts from a direct encounter with holiness”. Judaism sanctifies the physical--be it in eating or drinking or engaging in sex or resting--as a way of experiencing the presence, the goodness and the holiness that is God. Our religion vehemently rejects the cults (both ancient and modern) that glorify death. Judaism is a living protest against the death-centered cultures like the ancient Egyptians who built great and grandiose pyramid tombs.
Holiness is about a sharpened consciousness of living that is intertwined with the awareness of the presence of God, the source of all life. Tumah occurs when one comes into contact with death—either a corpse or bodily emissions or diseases that remind us of our own mortality. A dead body is the manifestation of loss of life; “a leprous limb is as if it were dead; it is the same with loss of seed because it has been endowed with living power, capable of engendering a human being.” Rabbi Sacks quotes Yehudah Halevi (c.1075-1131), author of the Kuzari, who explains that the laws of tumah only apply to members of the nation of Israel because “Judaism is the supreme religion of life, and its adherents are therefore hyper-sensitive to even the subtlest distinctions between life and death.”
After a woman gives birth she is considered tameh for seven days for a boy [on the eighth day the bris/circumcision takes place]; or fourteen days for a girl. There is then a waiting period of thirty-three days for a boy and sixty-six days for a girl.
Scholars have noted that the idea of postpartum defilement was widespread in the ancient world; the loss of blood was associated with death (of seed believed to have been discharged by the childbearing woman). But eighth-day circumcision was not; it is a distinctively Israelite practice. Bible scholar Dr. Tzvi Novick points out the Torah’s unique linkage of the mother’s tameh status with the baby boy’s entry into the Jewish nation: “The mother’s “return” from her menstruant-like defilement coordinates with her son’s entry into the Abrahamic pact, so that the postpartum impurity regimen is no longer simply a matter of biology, but becomes tinged with covenantal history.”
The purification is completed when she brings a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. Atonement is required because during the pain of childbirth she may have sworn to never be intimate with her husband and to never conceive again. Also, because she might have entered the Sanctuary during this period when it was prohibited, she is obligated to bring this offering which is specifically designated for one who inadvertently or accidentally sins.
Childbirth is a miracle, a divine blessing and gift. “To be a parent is the closest any of us come to God himself” asserts Rabbi Sacks, and “women are closer to God than men because they know what it is like to bring new life out of themselves.” The halachic principle “one who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from other mitzvos” is relevant in understanding the Torah’s rules about childbirth. It is as if, continues Rabbi Sacks, God is saying that the mother is exempt from coming to His place of holiness, the Temple, because she is already fully engaged in the holiest acts of all, that of nurturing and caring for her child, being filled with the wonder and miracle of it all. After the proscribed period the new mother visits the Temple with offerings of thanks and of gratitude for having come through the birthing experience with all its potential dangers to her and her fetus’ health.
Tzara’as is a dermatological disorder that puts the individual into a state of tumah (“ritual impurity”) and necessitates his/her relocation and isolation outside the boundaries of the camp. This disease state is usually associated with “a ghastly white loss of pigmentation” (Robert Alter). Symptoms may be discoloration or swelling or inflammation or a scaly eruption on the scalp or on areas covered by a beard. The wasting of the flesh may have been associated with death; its isolation was an attempt to separate all deathlike conditions from the living (according to Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom). The condition is incorrectly identified as leprosy (Hanson’s Disease), a misunderstanding traceable by some to the Septuagint, Greek translation of the Torah by seventy Jewish scholars around 250 BCE. According to some scholars, the disease that is known today as Hanson’s Disease did not exist in the Ancient Near East until it was brought there from India by Alexander the Great’s armies.
There are four types of symptoms of tzara’as:
Discoloration, when an area of the skin changes its appearance and seems to be deeper than the surrounding skin
Swelling, when abnormally white skin appears
Inflammation, whether the result of injury or spontaneous
Disease of the scalp or of areas covered by the beard. Thin yellow hair is a diagnostic factor. White hair, which in other cases is an indication of tzara’as, is not evidence of the disease state here
Bible scholar Mary Douglas observes that the Torah “uses the simple idea of covering to build up a series of analogies for atonement from the skin covering the body, to the garment covering the skin, to the house covering the garment, and finally to the tabernacle: in each case, when something has happened to spoil the covering, atonement has to be done.” The laws are presented in a series of concentric repetitions. The Torah first discusses tzara’as that afflicts the skin, then repeats this diagnostic focus with respect to the bodily extremities, the hair and the head; then moves outward from there to clothing; and then moves still further outward, to the walls of one’s house. The details for how to purify each one of these concentric circles of tzara’as are presented in the same order.
Skin functions as a container or a border, one that helps keep insides in and outsides out. But, notes Professor Wendy Zierler, skin also is the interface through which we “touch” one another and sense much of our environment. The word negah means “plague”, but also means “touch” or “smiting”. One is “smitten” with the negah of tzara’as for unfaithful and failed interaction with others, for failure to reach out and “touch” them or be touched by them in a positive way.
The condition is not a medical/hygienic one but a religious one, thought to be brought upon a person for having maligned other people (Metzorah =Motze Shem Rah). The diagnostician is the kohan, not a physician. It involves a ritualistic course of action, with only the kohan having the authority to declare a person tameh. No medical treatment is involved. The Talmud states the tzara’as is inflicted because of seven offenses:
Rav B.S. Jacobson offers support for the view that tzara’as is not a medical condition, but a punitive visitation:
• Even Rambam the rationalist considers tzara’as to be a punishment for slander and something beyond the natural realm. “It represents a sign of miracle and wonder in Israel to warn them against slander.”
• Ramban views it as a Divine visitation that can only occur in the Land of Israel, “marking the distinction of the Chosen Land, as the abode of glorious immanence that we call by the Divine name.”
• Seforno views the chosen Nation of Israel as having a “peculiar moral responsibility which incurs their punishment for each transgression”.
• Yehudah Halevy stresses the idea of the nation of Israel being a “live body” among nations. Unlike other nations that can live happily in vice and corruption, Israel’s sins may trigger a Divine destructive fire or plague, proving that it “merited particular Divine attention and Providence”.
• Rav S. R. Hirsch argues that tzara’as cannot possibly have sanitary precaution as its objective. Before allowing the kohan to come and inspect a house to determine if it is afflicted with tzara’as the house is evacuated and its contents removed so that, in the Torah’s words, “not everything which is in the house be decreed impure” even if the Kohen determines that the house itself has tzara’as in its walls.
• The laws do not apply to non-Jews
• A bridegroom upon whom spots have appeared is able to complete his seven days of wedding celebration before seeking out the Kohan’s examination
• Miriam was stricken with tzara’as because of the arrogant and presumptuous way she talked about Moshe to their brother Aaron. Earlier, When Moshe accepted the charge to lead the Israelites, he complained to God that they would not believe him. God instructed him to put his hand in his bosom. When he took it out “his hand was leprous, as white as snow”. Rashi and Ramban see in this a punitive message to Moshe himself for having slandered the people by doubting their faith and confidence. God instructed him to put his hand back in his bosom and when he took it out it returned to its original state.
Some argue that tzara’as is a venereal disease that represents another Divine tool for creating distinctiveness about the Jewish people; a way of separating God’s people from the wantonness, corruption, sexual promiscuity and pagan worship with which the nation was surrounded in the land of Canaan.
Others say that the concept of “impurity” is about infection or the danger of infection; separation is about preventing its spread; and purification by water or by fire are for disinfection.
Ralbag’s view is that in the cases of garments and houses, the disease is a natural phenomenon caused by excessive foreign matter, fluid and heat.
Rabbi Sacks notes that lashon hara has always been, and remains, a troubling problem, seen in our times in cyber-bullying, among other aggressive behaviors. It is rooted in envy which makes a person malicious, vindictive and dishonest. One of our unique characteristics as humans is the ability to speak. Judaism focuses more on holy words than it does on holy people or holy places. Words can be either creative or destructive. “If good words are holy then evil words are a desecration”. Those engaged in lashon hara often think they can get away with it by denial: “it wasn’t me…I never said it…and even if I did I was misunderstood”. Rabbi Sacks points out that tzara’as was immediately and conspicuously visible and concludes that the Torah’s lesson is that “malicious speech uttered in private is to be stigmatized in public and those who engage in it are to be openly shamed”.
A person whose skin is generally healthy but a small portion is afflicted with tzara’as is unclean. However, a person completely covered by the affliction is considered clean because tzara’as is an affliction that requires contrasting healthy and diseased skin. We want the metzorah to ponder and to contrast his behavior with the proper conduct.
Deep in the recesses of our soul we are aware that in speaking/behaving badly towards another our behavior is inappropriate and harmful. Our conscience struggles with this behavior and experiences guilt on some level. Struggling with "one's own demons" causes a person to be tameh because preoccupation with one's own emotions interferes with the ability to relate to others. Perhaps tsara’as was the psychosomatic manifestation of guilt. In modern times guilt manifests itself in neurosis and other undesirable behavior.
The handling of tsara’as is also revealing. Only the kohan is authorized to determine whether tsara’as is present. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that is the kohanim who bless the people with their loving kindness. It was Aharon who “pursued peace and loved peace”. The one who is obligated to possibly render a harsh judgement should be one who does it out of love.
One is isolated (moves outside the city) and prohibited from socializing with others, presumably to allow for a period of introspection regarding the ramification of one's behavior (a "time out" in current parlance). Other details of this isolation are remarkably like the Shiva regulations, when a person struggles with the emotional aftermath of death. The psychological reverberations of death, loshon harah, tsara’as and guilt seem inextricably linked.
Ritual Purification of a person with tzara’as
Offerings brought by a poor person with tzara’as
Tzara’as of houses
Ritual impurity of man’s unhealthy, venereal discharge
Ritual impurity of seminal emission
Ritual impurity of menstruation
Ritual impurity of abnormal menstruation
Name of the Parsha
The previous Parshat Tazria deals with the identification of the spiritual disease state known as tzara’as. This parsha deals with the process by which the sufferer rids himself of the affliction. If so, why is this week’s parsha named Metzorah—which means one who is afflicted with tzara’as—when it deals with the spiritual remedy and not the details of this condition.
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, tzara’as is to be viewed as an educational lesson designed to help a person correct his ways and experience a spiritual rebirth. The disease is only “skin deep”, conveying that it is not a deep-rooted problem. The metzorah will learn not to speak loshon hara anymore (since he will be isolated outside the city with no one to talk to) as he silently reflects on his behavior. He had abused his God-given gift of speech by using it to malign others. Now he is given the opportunity to change, to experience a spiritual re-birth, to correct past behavior and to start anew. Thus, concludes the Rebbe, the remedy described in the parsha is “not in fact an eradication of the tzara’as but rather a revelation of the good inner nature of the affliction”. The purification process is replete with symbolism alluding to the metzorah’s past behavior that he is now committed to abandon.
Ritual Purification of the Person with Tzara’as
Kohan goes outside of the camp, where the person with tzara’as is isolated, to examine him
If the tzara’as lesions have healed, the kohan instructs that the following be brought: two live birds, a piece of cedar, some crimson wool and a hyssop branch.
The kohan orders that one bird be slaughtered over fresh spring water in a clay bowel
The kohan takes the live bird with the piece of cedar, the crimson wool and the hyssop and dips them into the clay bowl filled with fresh water and blood of the slaughtered bird
The kohan sprinkles this mixture seven times on the person undergoing purification. (Note: this is a crucial part of the ritual purification process.)
The live bird is sent away towards the fields.
The person undergoing purification immerses his clothing in a mikvah (pool of water).
The kohan shaves off all the person’s hair.
The person immerses himself in a mikvah.
With this first part of the purification process now completed, the person returns to his home for seven days during which he may not be intimate with his wife and during which he renders unclean anything with which he comes into contact
On the seventh day, the kohan again shaves off the person’s hair (on his head; his eyebrows; his beard and any other body hair)
The person immerses his clothing and body in a mikvah, after which he is considered tahor (clean; pure).
On the eighth day, the person brings the following offerings:
• Two unblemished male sheep
• One unblemished yearling female sheep
• Six quarts of the best grade wheat flour mixed with oil (as a meal offering)
• Ten ounces of olive oil
The kohan presents one male sheep as a guilt offering(asham) along with the 10 ounces of olive oil
The man is brought to the door of the Sanctuary (During the time of the Second Temple at Nicanor’s Gate, which divided the Women’s Court from the Court of the Israelites.)
The kohan slaughters the sheep and takes some of the blood and places it on the right ear lobe, right thumb and right big toe of the person undergoing purification
The kohan takes some of the oil and pours it in the palm of his left hand
This kohan dips his right forefinger into the oil and sprinkles some toward the Holy of Holies seven times.
The kohan puts some of the oil on the tip of the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the person undergoing purification
The kohan puts the rest of the oil on the person’s head.
The kohan then sacrifices the sin and the burnt offerings and places the burnt and the meal offerings on the altar
With this, the kohan has made atonement for the person who is now completely tahor (ritually clean)
The Purification Ceremony Explained
Nechama Leibowitz cites several approaches that focus on the symbolic meanings:
• Rashi maintains that since the tzara’as state was brought on by evil talk and idle chatter, the ceremony needs to involve birds which continually chatter and chirp. The mighty cedar tree is a symbol of haughtiness and pride that the metzorah exhibited. He needs to be brought down to the lowly level of the scarlet worm (source of the red
dye) and the hyssop, the lowliest of plants.
• Sefer Hachinuch focuses on the immersion in water which symbolizes a moment of re-creation, just as the universe consisted of water before its creation. The act of immersion is meant to prompt a reappraisal of one’s past conduct as he is being “reborn”.
• Rav S.R. Hirsch’s explanation is that the ritual is about changing the metzorah’s anti-social behavior. Birds are wild, uncontrolled and anti-social. Killing one of the birds is a symbolic act of complete abandonment of stormy, unrestrained behavior and speech that brought on the metzorah’s condition. The cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool symbolize the vastness of nature to which the metzorah was exiled (“outside the camp”) because of his anti-social behavior. Sending the second bird away serves as a reminder that one’s animalistic tendencies belong elsewhere-- out in the open field-- and not in society.
The rituals are meant to be transformative. Placing of the blood on the right ear, thumb and big toe is a ceremony used elsewhere only for the induction of the priests. These people had a healthy sense of self-worth and peace of mind, unlike the metzorah who, because of his feelings of worthlessness resorts to bolstering his own ego at the expense of others. Imitating the ceremony of the priest is a non-verbal communication of our belief/prayer that the experience of being a metzorah with its isolation and introspection, will bring with it a sense of worth comparable to that felt by the priests.
Shaving of the hair is reminiscent of the Nazirite who, as part of the ceremony of returning to society not only brings proscribed offerings, but is also required to shave his head.
The ceremony involves use of some liquids to which cleansing powers were attributed. Robert Alter notes that the water in the bowel is literally “living water”, suggesting flowing and carrying away impurities. The release of the second bird into the open country means carrying off any residual impurities to a place far from human habitation.
Professor Jacob Milgrom (cited by Robert Alter) opines that the redness of cedar wood and crimson wool is linked to blood, which functions as a purifying agent (as does oil). Hyssop was also considered to be a purifying agent.
Rabbi J. H. Hertz observes that hyssop is a convenient tool for sprinkling because “its leaves readily absorb the liquid and freely give it out when shaken.”
My friend Zach Dicker, noting the medicinal powers of certain tree barks and shrubs, speculates that the sprinkling provides some re-enforcing additional health benefits to the person undergoing purification.
Rav Michael Hattin of Yeshivat Har Etzion draws our attention to similarities between this ceremony and God’s commandments when the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt. Then, as they prepared to leave slavery for freedom, the Israelites were told to slaughter the Pascal lamb, to gather the animal’s blood in a receptacle and to take "a bundle of hyssop and to dip it into the blood that is in the receptacle…" and to smear it on the lintel and doorposts of their homes. In both situations “…a liquid that is either exclusively blood or else at least includes it as a main ingredient, is first gathered into some sort of receptacle, typically earthenware. A bundle of organic material that includes hyssop is next dipped into the liquid and some sort of sprinkling or smearing is then done with it. Afterwards, the status of the afflicted individual is transformed.” The Israelites in Egypt suffered from moral decay, physical pain and isolation. The exodus from Egypt transformed disparate groups in exile into a new nation, an organic whole filled with optimism and promise of a new life. Similarly, the metzorah in “exile” who prepares for a return to family and society utilizes the objects of the Exodus (hyssop, blood) as part of his transformation and his return to a unified society.
Rabbi David Fohrman’s approach builds on the extensive Talmudic discussion of the commonality of behavior required of a:
• menudah (one who has been excommunicated) …
• A metzorah is like a menudah in that each is required to dwell outside the camp.
• One who has tzara’as and a corpse are both similar and unique in that only they make objects within a room tameh even without physical contact.
• A corpse’s skin is deathly white; a metzorah experiences white skin discoloration, a wasting of flesh.
• A corpse is dead physically; a metzorah has “killed” someone (’s reputation) with his lashon hara (gossip and tale-bearing). Though biologically alive, he exhibits these characteristics of a corpse.
The metzorah-- like each of us-- is both a communal being and an individual. Rabbi Fohrman’s intriguing insight is that a metzorah really is mourning for himself:
• He mourns his loss of connection with society and family as he is “radically separated” outside the camp.
• His anti-social behavior (lashon hara) caused this disease which forced him to separate from the community.
• His communal side needs to be rebuilt and to be reconnected with those around him.
• The purification processes he is forced to undergo mimics the behavior during the Exodus described by Rabbi Hattin because it was through the performance of those rituals that we morphed from being individual, separate family units into a cohesive, organic societal whole. The metzorah needs to shake off his isolation in a similar ritualistic manner to re-join the community of Israel. After a seven-day waiting period he is permitted to return to the privacy of his home.
Tzara’as No Longer Exists
The Rabbis of the Talmud explain that only one who is on a very high spiritual level is “worthy” of being punished so harshly for gossiping. Nevertheless, the fundamental ethical principle embedded in the parsha remains timeless. Namely, that we need be on guard to avoid hurtful and malicious speech.