When circumstances force us to learn a new way of life, rules and a schedule help us to navigate the transition.
One major life transition is the birth of a child. Last week we looked at the rules and timelines in the Torah portion Tazria that provide procedures for ritual purification after post-partum vaginal discharge—and allow time for mothers to reintegrate with their communities after their lives are changed by the birth of a new infant. (See my post Tazria: Time to Learn, Part 1.)
The portion Tazria also provides instructions for diagnosing and isolating anyone with a skin disease called tzara-at (צָרַעַת), which is characterized by patches of scaly dead-white skin. Someone with tzara-at must live outside the camp or town, and avoid contact with any healthy person.
This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, includes a ritual for returning to normal life in your community if you are cured of tzara-at.
If the disease disappears, a series of four rituals reintegrate someone into the community step by step.
1) When a priest goes outside the camp and sees that the skin disease has healed, he conducts the first ritual using two items associated with the color of blood, and two birds—one which is slaughtered and one which is set free. (For more information, see my 2011 post, Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles, and next week’s post, Pesach, Metzora, & Chukkat: Blood and Oregano.) At the end of this ritual the priest sprinkles the blood of the slaughtered bird on the recovered person seven times.
2) Those who have healed from tzara-at perform the second ritual by cleaning their clothes, shaving off their hair, and washing in water. This raises their status so they can enter the camp or town without making anyone who happens to touch them ritually impure.
3) However, they must wait seven days and perform an additional ritual of shaving and washing before they can return to live in their own tent or house inside the community.
And it will be on the seventh day he shall shave all of his hair and his beard and his eyebrows; all his hair he will shave. And he shall clean his clothes and wash his flesh in water, vetaheir. (Leviticus 14:9)
vetaheir (וְטָהֵר) = and he will be “pure”. (From the same root as tahor, טָהוֹר = clean; pure; ritually pure and therefore fit to touch sacred items and bring offerings to God.)
4) After this third ritual is completed, the healed person must bring three lambs, flour mixed with olive oil, and a log (about 2/3 pint or 290 ml) of oil to the priest at the sanctuary. The priest uses these items to make three offerings to God: an asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt offering; a chattat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering for unintentionally violating a religious rule; and an olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering to maintain the column of smoke constantly rising from the altar to the heavens.
The asham is the fourth ritual needed to reintegrate the healed person into the community. But why do people who were afflicted with tzara-at need to make guilt-offerings? What are they guilty of?
The book of Leviticus does not say. But centuries later the Talmud claimed that God struck people with tzara-at to punish them for malicious gossip.1 That was a secondary reason to isolate them from the camp or town. It could also be the reason they needed to acknowledge their guilt before they could engage in community worship again.
The portion Metzora instructs the priest slaughter one of the three lambs brought by the person who has been healed of tzara-at for the asham. Then the priest daubs its blood on the same three parts of the healed person’s anatomy as in a consecration offering to anoint a new priest.
And the priest shall take some of the blood of the asham, and the priest shall put it on the rim of the ear of the mitaheir, the right one; and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb [big toe] of his right foot. (Leviticus 14:14)
mitaheir (מִטַּהֵר) = one being purified, going through the steps to become acceptable again for religious life. (Also from the same root as tahor.)
When Moses ordains the first five priests (Aaron and his four sons) earlier in Leviticus, he daubs blood from a slaughtered ram on in same three places—the rim of the right ear, the right thumb, and the right big toe.2 After burning the ram, Moses sprinkles anointing oil, along with blood from the altar, over the five new priests and their vestments.3
The procedure for reintegrating a person healed of tzara-at does not call for a general sprinkling. Instead,
The priest shall take some of the … oil and pour it onto his own left palm. Then the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is on his left palm and sprinkle some oil with his finger seven times in front of God. And some of the remaining oil that is on his palm, the priest shall put on the ridge of the right ear of the mitaheir, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb of his right foot, over the blood of the guilt-offering. And the rest of the oil that is on his palm, the priest shall put on the head of the mitaheir, and make atonement for him in front of God. (Leviticus 14:15-18)
The oil that the healed person brings the priest for this purpose is not anointing oil to ordain a priest, but only regular olive oil to achieve atonement between God and the person whom God had afflicted with tzara-at. The fact that God removed the skin disease is not enough; the authors of Leviticus, and presumably all ancient Israelites, were not satisfied until the final ritual brought atonement, confirming that the healed person and God were reconciled. Only then could they be sure that the person who was once afflicted with tzara-at had fully returned to the pure state necessary to serve God.
The seven-day period with four rituals was no longer possible after the final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—and by that time there were no reports of anyone contracting a skin disease that matched the symptoms of tzara-at.
Still, sometimes people recover from other serious diseases, and need to return to normal life. A ritual of transition would help.
Their family, co-workers, and friends need to change their attitudes and assumptions about the formerly sick person. A ritual of transition would help them, too.
Although the four rituals for someone healed of tzara-at no longer apply, Jews still have a prayer that serves the same purpose. After the Torah reading at a Saturday morning service, anyone who has recovered from a major illness is called to recite or read out loud the following blessing of thanksgiving:
Blessed are you, God, our God, ruler of the universe, who bestows goodness upon the unworthy, who has bestowed upon me every goodness.4
The congregation responds:
Amen! The one who has bestowed on you every goodness, may he continue to bestow on you every goodness. Selah!
Thus the person’s healing is publicly recognized and celebrated. Instead of wondering if the afflicted person is dying, everyone understands that it is time to treat them as a healthy member of the community once more.
- Talmud Bavli, Arachin 15b-16b.
- Exodus 20:19, Leviticus 8:22-24.
- Exodus 20:21, Leviticus 8:30.
- This blessing is called the gomeil (גוֹמֵל) = bestowing, rendering, ripening. It is also recited by someone who has survived a dangerous journey, or any other life-threatening situation.