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.
The miracle of childbirth; every new life is a gift from God
Judaism is a religion of life, not death
Holiness exists in how we talk to one another
The evil of gossip and slander; those who engage in it run the risk of being stricken by God with a disease called tzara’as
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 An infection that has healed
o A burn
o Skin covered by hair on head or 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”)
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 meets 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 Jonathan 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.”
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.
Rabbi Sacks defines tumah as “anything that reminds us or others of our mortality; the fact that we are born and will one day die”.
There is no commandment to remain tahor. Issues relating to tumah are about entry into God’s “home”. A person who is tamei is prohibited from entering the Tabernacle or the Temple because thoughts about mortality have no place in the place that has been designated to experience consciousness of eternity and spirituality (Rabbi Sacks).
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. There is also the detachment of the life of the infant from the life of the mother after birth. 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. A woman who gives birth is considered tamei because birth, like death, is a sign of mortality (Rabbi Sacks).
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 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 of the death-centered cultures like the ancient Egyptians who built great and grandiose pyramid tombs.
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.
We have no real explanation for why the length of “impurity” for a baby girl is twice that for a baby boy. Rabbi Gunther Plaut suggests that the birth of a female, who would one day herself menstruate and bear children, “was considered doubly defiling”.
Bible scholar Dr K. H. Garroway offers an alternate approach that focuses on the child more than on the mother. In ancient societies men and women carried out separate tasks. It was critical that boys and girls grow up to be men and women. This process began at birth with a ritual announcement of the child’s gender. Some ancient societies did this by a ritual announcement accompanied by gifts appropriate to the infant’s gender (“gendering gifts”).
Women would stay at home and breastfeed their infants. The Torah’s approach to properly introducing the child to the world is to differ the times the new mother needs to remain in this state of semi-seclusion. The number of months she stayed at home would be a non-verbal acknowledgement of the child’s gender.
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). Ancient societies viewed blood as a powerful frightening force that needs to be controlled.
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 unknowingly 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 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.
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. [The root lepra means “scaling condition” in Greek.] 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 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 with some patches of normal color within
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” [by God] 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). Shadal reasons that the condition’s treatment cannot be to protect public health, because there is no provision made for isolating other even more virulent contagious diseases like the bubonic plague. 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, and no cure is offered.
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 tameh. But a person completely covered by the disease is considered tahor 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.