Ew, icky, gross, disgusting! These words express is our unfiltered, untrained reactions to such things as slimy substances, corpses, and some visible diseases.
Tamei! says the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
And the tzarua who has a mark, his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall be neglected and he shall wrap something over his lip, and he shall call out: Tamei!
tzarua (צָרוּעַ) = one stricken with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרָעַת). Also called a metzora (מְצֺרָע), from the same root.
tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure.
Anyone who is ritually impure, tamei, because of contact with genital discharges, dead bodies, or the skin disease tzara-at is forbidden to enter the courtyard around the sanctuary until the proper ritual purifies them. Perhaps the writers of these passages1 imagined God was so anthropomorphic “he” would feel disgusted by these things, too. Or perhaps the proper frame of mind for standing in front of God was to be free of any feelings of disgust—which would also explain why physically blemished priests could not serve at the altar.2
Tzara-at is not contagious,3 yet those afflicted with it are quarantined, forbidden even to live within their own community’s tent circle or town wall.4
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“someone with tzara-at”), prescribes how to make people who have healed from tzara-at ritually pure again, so they can rejoin the community for both worship and daily life.
First a priest must go outside the camp to inspect the metzora and confirm that their skin has really healed. The writers of the Hebrew Bible assumed that any serious disease is a divine punishment for doing something wrong, and healing means that God had ended the punishment. Many plagues are attributed to disobeying one of God’s commands. Tzara-at, however, appears to be a divine punishment for demeaning other people through slander, denigration, or deception.5
If the skin disease is gone, the priest conducts a ritual with two wild birds. (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.) Then, after washing and shaving their entire body, the metzora comes into the sanctuary courtyard with offerings to God. The first offering is for their own purification and atonement.
The priest shall take one of the young rams and bring it near for an asham … Then the priest shall take some of the blood of the asham, and the priest shall put it on the rim of the right ear of the one being purified, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb of his right foot. (Leviticus 14:12, 14:14)
asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional misdeed. (This is another indication that the Torah views bad behavior as the cause of tzara-at.)
In the whole Hebrew Bible, blood is daubed on the ear, thumb, and big toe for only two reasons: to purify an ex-metzora, or to ordain a priest. Earlier in Leviticus we read:
Then [Moses] brought near the second ram, the ram of the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. And Moses slaughtered it, and he took some of its blood and put it on the rim of Aaron’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and the thumb of his right foot. Then he brought near the sons of Aaron, and Moses put some of the blood on the rim of their right ears, on the thumb of their right hands, and on the thumb of their right feet. (Leviticus 8:22-24)
Both a new priest and a newly healed metzora are daubed with ram’s blood from head to toe, on the right side, the active side.
Oil is involved in both rituals as well, though the order of application is different. When Moses ordains the first priests, he sprinkles anointing oil (which contains aromatic spices) on the altar before the blood-daubing.6 A priest sprinkles some of the ex-metzora’s offering of plain olive oil on the altar after the blood daubing.7
In both cases, after sprinkling oil on the altar, the officiant pours oil on someone’s head. Moses pours anointing oil on Aaron’s head.8 The procedure for an ex-metzora is more elaborate:
And some of the rest of the oil that is on his palm the priest shall put on the rim of the right ear of the one being purified and on the thumb of his right hand and on the thumb of his right foot, over the blood of the asham. Then the remainder of the oil that is on the palm of the priest he shall put on the head of the one being purified. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him before God. (Leviticus 14:17-18)
Why are the procedures for purification after a skin disease and ordination of a priest so similar? One answer is that both the metzora and the priest take a step up in their ability to serve God. The metzora becomes able to enter the space in front of the sanctuary where the altar is. The priest becomes able to enter the inner sanctuary.
Community members who are temporarily barred from the sanctuary courtyard because of other ritual impurities do not go through the same blood-daubing and oil-pouring ritual—perhaps because they have done nothing wrong. They might become ritually impure because of sex, or childbirth, or the death of a family member. The passage of time and a less elaborate cleansing ritual are sufficient.
Perhaps someone who has recovered from tzara-at gets the full priestly treatment because the disease was thought to be the result of denigrating another person. If one is accustomed to malicious gossip, or deception, or arrogant speech, it takes care and attention not to fall back into one’s old habits. A powerful ritual can help motivate reformed persons to watch themselves continuously.
Priests in the Torah are also required to pay constant attention to their behavior. Any slip on their part leads to improper worship by the whole community. So they begin their tenure with a powerful ritual to remind them of their awesome responsibility.
Purity in any area requires careful attention. Today, those with medical conditions requiring the complete elimination of certain foods, as well as Jews who are strict about keeping kosher, must read labels and ask embarrassing questions about meals served away from home.
And in our world of divisiveness and suffering, we all need to aim at purity in our own ethical behavior. Like the metzora, we must guard ourselves against harmful speech. Like the priest, we must be careful and thoughtful about what we teach, what we do, and the examples we set.
May the spirit of the divine help us all to pay attention.
- Modern scholars agree that all the instructions on protocol regarding the altar and sanctuary in Leviticus were written by the “P” source, i.e. one or more priests experienced in the rituals.
- See my post Emor: Flawed Worship.
- The detailed description of tzara-at in the Torah portion Metzora does not match any known contagious disease. The bible does not consider it contagious, either; while Naaman had tzara-at, he led an army, and the king of Aram often leaned on his arm for support (2 Kings 5:18).
- Those with tzara-at are excluded from the tent camp in Leviticus 13:46 and Numbers 12:14-16. They must stay outside the town wall in 2 Kings 7:3-10.
- Tzara-at is a punishment for harmful speech according to Numbers 12:-15; Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a; Maimonides (Rambam) in “Mishnah” Nega’im 12:5; and Shlomoh ben Yitzchak (Rashi) in his commentary on Leviticus. The Torah implies that God strikes Naaman the Aramean with tzara-at because of his pride (2 Kings 5:9-14), which might have led to denigrating others. And King Azariah gets lifelong tzara-at because of his failure to remove other gods’ shrines, which leads to Israelite apostasy (2 Kings 15:5).
- Leviticus 8:11.
- Leviticus 14:16 and 14:27.
- Exodus 29:7 and Leviticus 8:12.