Beha-alotkha & Metzora: Fresh Start

June 15, 2022 at 9:15 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Metzora | Leave a comment

A new station in life calls for a ceremony—a wedding, a commencement, an inauguration, an ordination. At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive a new formal religion, and consecrate two groups of men to administer it: priests (kohanim) and Levites (levi-im).

Altar and priest, Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

The first priests to serve at the new tent-sanctuary for God undergo an eight-day ordination in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. Before then, any head of a household could build a stone altar and burn an animal offering for God. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all did it. But after Moses has ordained Aaron and his sons, only they can make the daily offerings at the altar, light the menorah, place bread and frankincense on the table, and burn incense on the incense altar.1

Aaron’s two older sons bring unauthorized incense into an unauthorized place on their first day of service, and God kills them.2 In the new religion, priesthood is a dangerous vocation. Aaron and his two younger sons are meticulous about following God’s rules.

The Levites replace the firstborn sons as acolytes when God reorganizes the religion at Mount Sinai. In this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha, God reminds Moses:

“For every firstborn from the Israelites is mine, from human and from beast; on the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated them as mine. Now I take the Levites instead all the firstborn of the Israelites.” (Numbers 8:17-18)

Serving as a Levite could also be a hazardous job, as I wrote in last week’s post: Bemidbar & Naso: Dangerous Duty. Any close contact with the God of Israel carries grave risks.

The ordination of the Levites includes animal offerings similar to those in the ordination of the priests, but other elements of the ritual are dissimilar. One difference is that while priests are forbidden to shave any part of their bodies, the Levites must shave their entire bodies for their ordination.

“Take the Levites from among the Israelites and ritually purify them. And thus you shall do to them to make them ritually pure: sprinkle over them water of expiation3 and make a razor pass over all their flesh. And they shall clean their clothes, and they shall ritually purify themselves.”  (Numbers 8:6-7)

Shaving as disfigurement

Shaving is not an everyday activity in the Hebrew Bible. Shaving the scalp or beard is considered disfiguring, like gashing the skin; both are mourning practices indicating one’s abandonment to grief, along with tearing good clothing, wearing sackcloth, and throwing dust or ashes on one’s head.4

Priests and nazarites are expected to put their dedication to God first, so they are forbidden to engage in shaving or gashing when someone close to them dies.5 Male and female nazarites must not cut their hair at all during the term of their vow, but on the day their term ends, they shave their heads and burn their hair as an offering to God.6

Furthermore, the Torah forbids all Israelites to shave specific spots on their heads (possibly places that worshipers of other gods shaved).7

However, two groups of people must shave not just the whole head, but the whole body: those who have recovered from the skin disease tzara-at, and the Levites being ordained in this week’s Torah portion.

Shaving the metzora

A person who has tzara-at must live outside the camp, excluded from the community’s social and religious life. If the skin returns to normal, the person must undergo an elaborate ritual purification in order to return to society. The Torah portion Metzora in the book of Leviticus opens:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “This will be the instruction for the metzora at the time of his ritual purification, when [the news] is brought to the priest.”

metzora (מְצֺרָה) = one afflicted with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרַעַת), characterized by one or more patches of scaly white skin that is depressed (tzirah, צִרְעָה) compared to the surrounding skin.

Metzora ritual, detail, by Simon Fokke, 18th cent.

If the priest pronounces the metzora healed from the disease, the ensuing ritual includes cleaning their clothes and shaving—elements that are also included in the consecration of the Levites.8

And it will be on the seventh day he shall shave all of his hair and his beard and his eyebrows; all his [body] hair he will shave. And he shall clean his clothes and wash his flesh in water, and he will be ritually pure. (Leviticus 14:9)

Only a healed metzora and the Levites inducted into sanctuary service are commanded to do full-body shaving.9 Does this imply a deeper similarity between them?

Shaving for separation

In the 20th century, Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut suggested that both kinds of people are separated from the rest of the community; the metzora is separated physically until the skin condition disappears, while the Levite is separated spiritually after consecration.10 After ordering the ordination ritual for the Levites, God adds:

“And you shall separate the Levites from among the Israelites, and the Levites will be mine.” (Numbers 8:14)

Shaving for abnegation

According to the Talmud, God afflicts individuals with tzara-at to punish malicious speech and arrogance.11 One example appears in the portion Beha-alotkha after Miriam criticizes her younger brother Moses’ marriage, and adds that God speaks not only through Moses, but through her and her older brother Aaron as well.

And God’s nose burned against them, and [God] left. And the [divine] cloud withdrew from over the Tent, and hey! Miriam was a metzora [with scales] like the snow!” (Numbers 12:9-10)

In the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that both the metzora and the Levites must renounce their selfish concerns: “This is true of the Levi’im: Until now, they led merely private lives, as was their right; but from now onward they must assume the service the community… And this is also true here of the metzora: Until now, he lived only for himself—selfishly and antagonistic toward society; and this was his main sin. From now onward he must undertake the self-sacrifice of his duties toward the community. In both cases … man must cease living only for himself. Hair is intended to protect the body … Stripping a body of all hair exposes it to the effects of the outside world.”12

Shaving for transition

In the 11th-century, Rashi summarized this argument by another French rabbi, Moshe ha-Darshan: The Levites were substitutes for the firstborn, the firstborn had worshiped the golden calf, and Psalm 106:28 calls idol-worship “offerings to the dead”. Therefore the Levites had to shave their bodies like a metzora, who is also called dead—when God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at in this week’s Torah portion.

And Aaron said to Moses: “Oh, my lord, please don’t put guilt on us for our foolishness that we were guilty of! Please don’t let her be like a corpse that emerges from the womb of its mother and half its flesh [looks] eaten away!” (Numbers 12:11-12)

It does not make sense to equate the appearance of Miriam’s skin disease with the offerings of the people the Levites are replacing. Yet death and rebirth are implicit in both ceremonial shavings.

If shaving one’s head is a mourning practice, then shaving one’s whole body might be a reminder of the death of one’s old identity.

I agree with Hirsch that both the Levites and a metzora are purified and sanctified in order to rise above their self-centered concerns and step into a new role in the community. The Levite must become a servant of God, the priests, and the new religion; the ex-metzora must become an ethical and thoughtful member of society.

Shaving the entire body makes someone even more hairless than a newborn infant. The Levite and the ex-metzora must abandon their previous adult identities along with their hair, and be born into their new lives.

  1. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  2. See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
  3. chata-at (חַטָּאת) = guilt, wrongdoing, ritual error; expiation of wrongdoing, ritual error, or ritual impurity. Anyone who has been in contact with a human corpse is impure until sprinkled with water of chata-at (Numbers 19:1-22).
  4. Jeremiah 41:5, Micah 1:16. These mourning practices were widespread in the Ancient Near East; cf. Deuteronomy 21:12, Isaiah 15:2, Jeremiah 48:37, Ezekiel 27:31.
  5. Leviticus 21:1-6, Ezekiel 44:20, Numbers 6:5.
  6. Numbers 6:5, 6:13-18. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
  7. Leviticus 19:27 bans rounding off the hair at the temples, the sideburns, or the edges of the beard. Deuteronomy 14:1 bans shaving “between the eyes”. (See my post Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead.)
  8. See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.
  9. The only other reference to full-body shaving in the Hebrew Bible is in Isaiah 7:20, part of a prophecy about a sign from God rather than a command for people to obey.
  10. Gunther Plaut suggests this answer in his commentary on Numbers 8:7 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. by Plaut, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1075.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 15b-16a. Several of the Talmudic rabbis cite Psalm 101:5 as their proof text.
  12. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Pub., Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 438-439.

Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano

April 14, 2022 at 4:00 pm | Posted in Bo, Chukat, Metzora, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

Jews will gather around tables all over the world this Friday evening for the Passover seder, a ritual and story about God liberating the Israelites from Egypt. One highlight is when we chant the names of the ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt. After the name of each plague, we use one finger to remove a drop from the second of our four ceremonial cups of wine.1

Death of the Firstborn, Spanish Haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague is makat bechorot, death of the firstborn; God takes the life of every firstborn in every family in Egypt—except for the Israelites who mark their doors so that God skips, or passes over, them.

Before the final plague, God tells Moses that each Israelite family must slaughter a lamb or goat kid on the fourteenth day of the month.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted in fire, and unleavened flatbread; on bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-8)

After describing how the Israelites should eat standing up with their loins girded, ready to leave, God says:“… It is a Pesach for God.” (Exodus 12:11)

Pesach (פֶּסַח) = the sacrifice mandated in Exodus 12; the annual spring pilgrimage festival in the Torah; the annual observance of Passover. (From the root verb pasach, פָּסַח = limp, skip.)

“And the blood will be a sign on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood ufasachti over you, and you will not be afflicted with destruction when I strike in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

ufasachti (וּפָסַחְתִּי) = and I will skip over you. (A form of the verb pasach.)

The animal blood both signals an escape from death and brings the recipient close to God—in these instructions and in two other rituals in the Torah in which the blood of  slaughtered animal is applied with branches of oregano.

1) Bo in Exodus (Pesach)

Moses adds oregano when he transmits God’s instructions to the Israelites.

Preparing for the Plague of the Firstborn, History Bible, Paris, c. 1390

“Then you shall take a bundle of eizov and you shall dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. And you must not let anyone go out from the door of his house until morning. Upasach, God, to strike dead the Egyptians, and [God] will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, upasach, God, the door and not let the destruction enter your houses to strike dead [your firstborn].  (Exodus 12:21-23)

eizov (אֵזֺב) = Syrian oregano, an aromatic perennial herb. (Traditionally translated as “hyssop”, although true hyssop does not grow in the Middle East.) Eizov grows in stony ground to a height of 3-4 feet; its stems are the longest in the oregano branch of the mint family.

upasach (וּפָסַח) = and he will pass over, skip over. (Another form of the verb pasach.)

In the above passage, the first upasach means that God will pass over Egypt, and the second upasach means that God will skip over the houses whose doorframes are painted with blood.

An omniscient god would already know which houses to skip. Either the God-character in this story is not omniscient, or God includes the blood painting for its emotional impact.

Up to this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves find it hard to believe that God is on their side. But when they discover that God has killed every firstborn in every house except theirs, they are (temporarily) reassured that God is indeed rescuing them, and they march out of Egypt into freedom “with a high hand”.2

Why does Moses specify that the Israelites should use a bunch of eizov to paint the blood? The only herbs God mentioned to him were generic bitter herbs, to be eaten with the roast lamb or goat. Oregano is savory, but not bitter. Perhaps Moses is afraid that the Israelites will find it eerie to paint with blood, and he hopes to comfort them with the good smell of oregano.

2) Metzora in Leviticus

Last week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes four steps of purification for someone who has recovered from the skin disease tzara-at. Although this disease does not seem to be contagious, the white and scaly patches of skin are a reminder of death. If the tzara-at clears up, ritual purification is necessary so that the healed person can return to the community and to God’s sanctuary. (See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.)

Two Birds, by Simon Fokke, 18th century

The first step is a ritual requiring two wild birds.

And the priest shall slaughter one bird in an earthenware vessel [held] over living water. The live bird he shall take, along with the cedar wood and the crimson dye and the eizov, and he shall dip them and the live bird into the blood of the bird [that was] slaughtered over living water. Then he shall sprinkle it on the one being purified from tzara-at seven times and purify him. And he shall send the live bird out over the open field. (Leviticus 14:5-6)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the life-force (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal.3 Here the priest kills one bird and catches its lifeblood in a bowl held over fresh water, which is called “living water” in the bible. The priest dips the other bird into the blood of life and sets it free. The healed person who is watching knows deep down that God has rescued them and given them new life.

The cedar and crimson dye (made from shield-louse eggs) have no apparent purpose except to emphasize the red color of the blood.

The eizov is used to sprinkle blood on the person being purified. A bunch of branches covered with soft leaves can be used to paint blood on something, and also be shaken to sprinkle blood on someone. And shaking a bunch of eizov branches would release the good smell of oregano, a reminder that life will be savory again.

3) Chukat in Numbers

A purification ritual in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar uses blood and eizov to make a transition for someone who has been exposed to a human death, so that the person can return to the right state for worshiping God with the community.

First a perfect, unblemished red cow that has never carried a yoke is slaughtered outside the camp as a chatat (חַטָּאת), an offering to compensate for an inadvertent sin or lapse. Usually someone offers a chatat after realizing they have made an error in observance that separates them from God. The chatat in this Torah portion is unique because the offering is slaughtered and burned ahead of time, so that future people who find they have become separated from the divine through exposure to human death can make a virtual chatat.

Then Elazar the high priest shall take some of her [the cow’s] blood with his finger, and he shall flick some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:4)

This connects the cow’s life with God’s holy place. Next, Elazar watches while someone burns the entire cow, even its blood and dung.

And the priest shall take cedar wood and eizov and crimson dye, and throw them into the middle of the burning cow. (Numbers 19:6)

The ashes of the red cow in Chukat are gathered and stored in a ritually pure place, to be used to purify the following:

1) Anyone who is inside a tent where a human dies, and anyone who enters the tent for the next seven days (Numbers 19:14).

2) Anyone who touches a human corpse (even on a battlefield), or who touches a human bone, or who touches a grave (Numbers 19:16).

Eizov (Syrian oregano)

Then some of the ashes of the burning of the chatat will be taken and mixed with living water in a vessel. Then a ritually pure man shall take eizov and dip it in the water, and he shall sprinkle it over the tent and on all the vessels and on the souls who were there; or on the one who touched the bones, or the killed person, or the person who died [of natural causes], or the grave. And the ritually pure one shall sprinkle it on the third day and on the seventh day. Vechito on the seventh day. And he shall clean his clothes and he shall wash in water, and he will be ritually pure in the evening. (Numbers 19:17-19)

vechito (וְחִטּאוֹ) = and he will become free of his lapse. (From the same root as chatat.)

Anyone exposed to death who does not go through this process is excluded or “cut off” from the community. If they were not excluded, “the holy place of God would become impure”. (Numbers 19: 20)

*

Today we have no ritual to free us from the feeling of alienation that accompanies contact with death; there has been no ash from a pure red cow for two thousand years. Neither do we have a ritual to reintegrate with the community when we recover from a disfiguring condition that isolates us as tzara-at once did.

And today very few Jews in the world observe Passover by slaughtering a lamb and painting its blood on their doorframes with bunches of giant oregano—even during the current plague of Covid. The long ritual seder developed over the past millennium and a half focuses on freedom from slavery, not on fear that God will kill us.

Nevertheless, this Passover I am going to put a sprig of oregano on my seder plate, next to the bitter herbs. Even during times when we are crushed by the bitterness of physical or psychological slavery, life has savory moments.

  1. The custom of removing drops of wine is first mentioned in a Pesach sermon written by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176–1238). The idea that we do it in sympathy for the Egyptians is based on Proverbs 24:17 and first appeared in commentary by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812-1874).
  2. Numbers 33:3.
  3. Leviticus 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23.

Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2

April 6, 2022 at 4:34 pm | Posted in Metzora | Leave a comment

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.)

Vitiligo. Tzara-at involved more than the loss of skin pigmentation in this modern condition.

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.

  1. Talmud Bavli, Arachin 15b-16b.
  2. Exodus 20:19, Leviticus 8:22-24.
  3. Exodus 20:21, Leviticus 8:30.
  4. 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.

Tazria: Interim Isolation

April 22, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Posted in Metzora, Tazria | Leave a comment

Childbirth, menstruation, and death called for apotropaic magic in most Ancient Near East cultures.  The Torah addresses these disturbing events with social distancing and ritual purification.

Four men with tzara-at in 2 Kings 7:8

This week Jews read a double Torah portion: Tazria (“she makes seed”) and Metzora (someone with the skin disease tzara-at).  Both portions are about physical conditions that make people ritually impure and the procedures for purifying them.  The most space is devoted to a skin disease that makes people so ritually impure that they are excluded from their camp or town, and must pitch their tents outside its boundaries until a priest pronounces them cured.  (See my post last year, Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick.)  But this week’s two portions also consider the ritual impurity of childbirth and menstruation, during which a woman can remain in her home, in a room set aside for her.

Tazria begins:

If a woman makes seed [conceives] and gives birth to a male, then she is temeiah for seven days: in the same way as in the days of her menstrual indisposition titema. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:2)

temeiah (טְמֵאָה) (feminine); tamei (טָמֵא) (masculine) = ritually impure.

titema (תִּטְמָא) = she becomes temeiah.

Near the end of Metzora, we read:

And if a woman is discharging blood … seven days she shall be in her menstrual separation, and whoever touches her yitema until evening.  And whatever she lies on during her menstrual separation yitema, and whatever she sits on yitema.  (Leviticus 15:19-20)

yitema (יִטְמָה) = he/it becomes tamei.

Ruins of mikveh for immersion in priest’s home, Wohl Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

Any person or object that touches a menstruating woman must be immersed in water that day, and then becomes ritually pure again in the evening.1  The same rule applies to a man with an unhealthy genital discharge, and a woman with a discharge other than her monthly period.2

A human being who is tamei/temeiah is also forbidden to “touch the holy” by entering the precincts of the sanctuary or by eating any of the meat and bread from a wholeness-offering.3  A tamei/temeiah person in a priest’s household may not eat any of the food given to the priest.4

Seven days tamei and 33 days after = 40

The Torah portion Tazria assumes that if a woman gives birth to a son, her post-partum bleeding lasts for seven days.  During that week she is temeiah, and anyone or anything that touches her becomes tamei until immersion and sunset.

And on the eighth day, the flesh of his [her son’s] foreskin shall be circumcised.  Then for 33 days she shall stay in the bloodshed of taharah; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her taharah are completed. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:3-4)

taharah (טָהֳרָה) = ritual purification process; ready for ritual purification.

titehar (תִּטְהָר) = she becomes tehorah.

tehorah (טְהוֹרָה) (feminine); tahor (טָהוֹר) (masculine) = ritually pure.

During the 33-day interim period of “purification bloodshed”, the mother of the son may still have some vaginal discharge, but she is considered tehorah only to the extent that a person or object that touches her does not become tamei.  This would make it easier for her to receive visitors, and she could move around the house freely.  The only things she cannot do during those 33 days are to approach the holy sanctuary or eat holy food.

What is the purpose of the 33-day interim period?  A simple answer is that although the Torah is strict about abnormal vaginal discharges, it mercifully lessens the requirements for a woman who is experiencing the last traces of post-partum seepage.

by Mary Cassat

Modern commentators give a psychological reason for the 33-day interim period.  Expanding on a hint by 16th-century Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, 20th-century Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz wrote: “Although she is physically ready and ritually clean, mentally she is not yet geared to concentrate on the holy.  Since the sacred demands kavanah, intent, she must wait until her thoughts are sufficiently predisposed to focus on the non-physical, namely, the spiritual and the holy.”5

I can remember my own single-minded absorption in my son when he was a newborn.

I believe that Israelite women would also have needed time to recover from fear of death.  Without modern medicine, the mother or the infant often died shortly after childbirth.  If both mother and son were healthy 40 days after the birth, it would be easier for the relieved mother to focus on other things.

Fourteen days tamei and 66 days after = 80

The post-partum time periods in Leviticus are longer when the woman has a daughter.

And if she gives birth to a female, then she shall be temeiah for a pair of weeks, in the same way as in her menstruation.  And she shall stay 66 days over the bloodshed of taharah.  (Leviticus 12:5)

The Talmud’s explanation of why the woman is temeiah twice as long for the birth of a daughter as for a son assumes that most women in labor swear they will never have sex again.6  It takes seven days for a woman who bore a son to repent of her oath, but fourteen days for a woman who bore a daughter to repent.  Why?  One theory in the Talmud is that her labor pains are twice as bad for a daughter, because:

Just as a male engages in intercourse facing downward, so too, it is born while facing down. And that one, a female fetus, emerges in the manner in which it engages in intercourse, i.e., facing upward. (Niddah 31a)7

This assumes that a couple uses the “missionary position”, and that only and all female infants are born face up.  Obviously the rabbis did not ask any mothers or midwives about it.  I can, however, attest that the final stage of delivery is especially long and painful when the baby emerges face up—like my son.

The Talmud gives a second theory, based on the assumption that everyone wants a boy more than a girl:

Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai answered them: When a woman gives birth to a male, over which everyone is happy, she regrets her oath that she will never again engage in intercourse with her husband, already seven days after giving birth. By contrast, after giving birth to a female, over which everyone is unhappy, she regrets her oath only fourteen days after giving birth.  (Niddah 31b)

Neither the Torah nor the Talmud says why the interim period of taharah is 33 days for a son but 66 days for a daughter.

by Mary Cassat

In the 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explained it in terms of which parent would be the infant’s role model.  The circumcision of a boy, he wrote, marks the beginning of the father’s duty to prepare his son to be an observant Jewish man.  The mother no longer has full responsibility for her son, so her interim period is just 33 days, enough time to recover.  For a daughter, the mother’s interim period is twice as long to “impress upon the mother the full solemnity and magnitude of her task—to be an example and role model for the Jewish woman of the future.  …  With sons, the crucial part of their education comes from the father, as the sons see in him a model for their own future male role.  With daughters, however, the mother is both a role model and a molder of character.”8

Gender roles in the 19th century were strictly defined, just as they were when the Torah and Talmud were written.

Rigid gender roles still exist in some cultures today, but much of the world has adopted a more fluid approach.  Modern liberal Jews recognize this when we hold a naming ceremony for a female baby on her eighth day, corresponding to a male infant’s circumcision; or a bat mitzvah for a pubescent girl because she is able, today, to take on the same adult religious responsibilities as a boy.

Now some congregations are also recognizing people whose gender is not simply male or female.  The Talmud rules that a woman who gives birth to an infant of indeterminate gender follows the same count as a woman who gives birth to twins who are a girl and a boy: her initial period of being temeiah lasts 14 days, as in the birth of a daughter, but her interim period of taharah lasts 33 days, as in the birth of a son.9

*

Many countries now require employers to offer parental leave when a child is born or adopted.  I think we should also offer parental leave from social expectations.  After all, during a baby’s first few months the parents are usually exhausted from getting up during the night for feedings and diaper changes.  They should not be expected to give their full attention to anything else.

Whether the primary care-giver of a fragile new human being should get a total of 40 or 80 days away from normal religious and social responsibilities depends on factors other than the gender of the infant!

  1. Intercourse with a menstruating woman is forbidden in Leviticus 18:19, and the penalty assigned in Leviticus 20:18 is that both partners are “cut off”, exiled from their community. Since the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem, strictly observant women have been sleeping separately from their husbands and abstaining from sexual intercourse during their periods and for seven to ten days afterward, then ending the period of abstinence with immersion in a ritual bath, a mikveh.
  2. Leviticus 15:2-11, 15:25-27.
  3. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2 on how a shelamim or wholeness-offering was divided.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), following the Talmud, Yevamot 75a.
  5. Obadiah Sforno: Commentary on the Torah, trans. and footnotes by Raphael Pelcovitz, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications, 1993, footnote by Pelcovitz p. 539 on 12:8.
  6. The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org, Niddah 31b.
  7. All quotes from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org.
  8. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Vol. 3, Leviticus, translated by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, Ltd., 1976, p. 380.
  9. The William Davidson Talmud, www.sefaria.org, Niddah 28a.

Metzora & Habakkuk: Torn Houses

April 10, 2019 at 9:26 pm | Posted in Habakkuk, Metzora | Leave a comment

Metzora

When a priest diagnoses the skin disease tzara-at in a human being, that person is isolated from family, community, and God’s sanctuary, and must live outside the camp or town.  (See last week’s post, Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick.)  Tzara-at is also the name of a green or red mark that appears and grows in fabric or leather, requiring the article to be burned.

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“someone with tzara-at”) applies the name tzara-at to an infection (probably mold) in the walls of a house.   But how do you remove a house from society?

When the owner of the house sees something that looks like a mark of tzara-at, he must inform a priest.

Green mold

And he will see the mark, and hey! [if] the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, thin-greens or blood-reds, and appears deep in the wall, the priest shall go out from the bayit to the entrance of the bayit, and he shall close up the bayit for seven days.  (Leviticus/Vayikra  14:37-38)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building; household (consisting of family and servants living together).

Seven days is also how long a priest must quarantine a human tentatively diagnosed with tzara-at before a re-examination.

The priest shall return on the seventh day, and he shall look, and hey! [if] the mark in the walls of the bayit has spread, then the priest shall give an order, and they shall take out the stones that are in the marked part, and throw them away outside the town in a ritually impure place.   (Leviticus 14:39-40)

Members of the household must also scrape off and throw away the clay or whitewash1 coating the stones inside the house.  Then they can rebuild that section of the wall with new stones and a new coating.

But if the mark returns and spreads in the bayit after taking out the stones and after hiketzot the house and after re-coating, then the priest shall come and look, and hey!  [if] the mark has spread in the bayit, it is tzara-at from a hurt in the bayit; it is ritually impure.  And he shall demolish the bayit …  (Leviticus 14:43-45)

hiketzot (הִקְצוֹת) = scraping?  tearing apart?  (Probably a defective hifil form of the verb katz, קוץ = tore apart.)

In an earlier post, Metzora: A Diseased Family, I suggested that since the word bayit means a household as well as a house, tzara-at of a house might represent a serious malfunction in the household that lives there.  Then if replacing an obviously diseased part of the family’s life does not solve the problem, the household should be disbanded.

Habakkuk

Bayit can also mean the household of a king.  The prophetic poetry of Habakkuk may include a reference to the tzara-at of an imperial household.

The book of Habakkuk is set in the late 7th century BCE., after the Neo-Babylonian Empire had conquered much of the Ancient Near East, including the northern kingdom of Israel, and made Judah a vassal state.  It was written shortly before the Babylonian army marched on Jerusalem in 598 BCE.Part of Habakkuk’s prophecy addresses the king of Babylon:

           Since you gutted many nations

            All the remaining peoples shall gut you

            for the bloodshed of humans and the violence to the land,

            The city and all who dwell in it.  (Habakkuk 2:8)

Rashi2 wrote that “the violence of the land” means the violence done to the land of Israel, and that the city in the next line is Jerusalem.  Habakkuk did live in Judah, so this interpretation fits the prophet’s frame of reference.

          Hoy!3  Who is cutting off a cut-off slice,4

           [Bringing] evil to his own bayit

           To set his nest on high?  (Habakkuk 2:9)

The king in Babylon (probably Nabopolassar, regnant 658-605 BCE) is not bringing evil to the stones of the palace building.  He is corrupting his household, including his son, general, and successor, Nebuchadnezzar II (regnant 605-562 BCE).

           Your plan has shamed your own bayit,

           Ketzot many peoples,

           And your soul was guilty.  (Habakkuk 2:10)

ketzot (קְצוֹת) = feeling disgust; tearing apart.  (A form of the verb katz, probably related to hiketzot in Leviticus 14:43 above.)

Rashi wrote that the shameful thing the ruler of Babylon plotted was to “strip and peel” many peoples, as in the treatment of walls in Leviticus 14:43.

           For a stone from a wall will cry an alarm,

           And a wooden rafter will answer:

           Hoy!  Who builds a town through bloodshed

           And founds a city through injustice?  (Habakkuk 2:11-12)

Images in poetry often refer to several things at once.  Here the parts of a house cry out when the house is being torn apart, like the house in this week’s Torah portion in which the disease of tzara-at reappeared.

But the countries that the Babylonians have been tearing apart are also crying out.  And if the injustice perpetrated by the king of Babylon’s household is the evil brought home to roost in Habakkuk 2:9, as well as the shame and guilt in verse 2:10, then the stone and the rafter respond as if they are the soul and conscience of the royal family crying out in alarm.

In Habakkuk, God promises that eventually the rulers from Babylon will be overturned.

           You shall be sated with dishonor rather than glory …

           The cup in the right hand of God will come around to you,

            And disgrace instead of your glory.  (Habakkuk 2:16)

The royal line of kings from Nabolpolasser to Nebuchadnezzar and four kings after him ended in 539 BCE, when Cyrus I expanded his Persian Empire by conquering Babylon.  Elsewhere the Hebrew Bible claims that God sent Cyrus to rescue the Jews from Babylonian rule.5  Cyrus ruled his empire with a lighter hand, giving a measure of autonomy to local regions and letting deportees such as the Jews in Babylon return home and rebuild their temples.

*

Ancient Israelites and classic Torah commentators believed that some diseases are a divine punishment for bad behavior.  Today some people still see physical disease as an expression of a psychological issue, though as medical science advances fewer and fewer diseases are classified as psychosomatic.  Neither white patches of skin nor mold in the walls is caused by negative thoughts.

But poetry can use the imagery of unnatural patches of skin, and creeping mold in walls, to convey truths about the psyche.  Habakkuk transmits God’s message that rulers bent on conquest regardless of the price in terms of the destruction of human lives or the devastation of the land may build their “nest in the heights”, but the evil they do will infect their own household—their own ruling family and its confederates—with a disease of the soul.

Habakkuk adds that eventually God will bring down the Babylonian empire.  I would add that those who rule without regard for justice, the suffering of human beings, or the plight of the earth cannot experience real happiness or meaning in life.  As we rant against such a ruler and his collaborators our own time, may we also feel pity for those with diseased souls.

  1. The bible uses the word eifer (אֵפֶר) for the material coating the stones. Usually eifer means dust, ashes, or fine dirt. As a wall coating, it might be clay refined from dirt, or whitewash made with lime from ashes of animal bones.
  2. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi ShlomohYitzchaki.
  3. The biblical Hebrew interjection Hoy (הוֹי) means the same as the Yiddish interjection Oy: a combination of “Oh!”, “Woe!”, “Oh no!”, and a deep sigh.
  4. “Cutting off a slice” is a biblical idiom for enriching oneself by cheating.
  5. Jeremiah 29:10, Ezra 1:1, Isaiah 45:1-3.

 

Metzora: Ear, Thumb, Toe

April 18, 2018 at 11:05 am | Posted in Metzora, Tzav | Leave a comment

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

Metzora outside the city wall, by James Tissot

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 ashamThen 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.

  1. 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.
  2. See my post Emor: Flawed Worship.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. Leviticus 8:11.
  7. Leviticus 14:16 and 14:27.
  8. Exodus 29:7 and Leviticus 8:12.

Metzora: A Diseased Family

April 26, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Metzora, Tazria | 1 Comment
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Priests spend most of their working hours, according to the Torah, on three kinds of tasks: maintaining God’s dwelling-place, whether tent or temple; processing the offerings made there; and ritually purifying people who have become ritually impure.

There are many ways a person might become ritually impure, and therefore excluded from communal worship—or even from the whole community—until the situation is rectified. This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora, goes into great detail about one: the disease called tzara-at.

If a human has on the skin of their flesh a swelling, or scales, or a white patch, and it becomes a mark of tzara-at on the skin of their flesh, then they shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:2)

tzara-at (צָרָעַת) = a disfiguring disease of human skin, characterized by patchy white discoloration; something causing patchy red or green discoloration in fabric, leather, or wall-plaster.

Leukoderma

Priests are not healers, but they do diagnose the presence or absence of that one disease. Tzara-at was previously mistranslated as “leprosy”, but the descriptions in Leviticus/Vayikra show that human tzara-at is a relatively harmless skin disease, perhaps a form of leukoderma. Sometimes it heals by itself. When the disease is present, the human being must be quarantined from the rest of the community.  When the tzara-at is cured, the priests conduct a ritual for re-entry.

The quarantine also applies when a priest finds tzara-at in fabric, leather, or the plastered walls of a house.

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of tzara-at in a bayit on the land you possess, then the one who has the house shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in the bayit. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)

bayit (בַּיִת) = house, building, home; household (consisting of family and servants living together).

Then the priest shall give an order, and they shall clear out the bayit before the priest comes to look at the mark, so nothing in the bayit will become ritually impure.  After that the priest will come to look at the bayit. And he will see the mark, and hey! the mark is sunken into the walls of the bayit, yerakrakot or adamdamot, and appears deep in the wall! (Leviticus 14:36-37)

Red mold

Green mold

yerakrakot (יְרַקְרַקּוֹת) = thin greens.1

adamdamot (אֲדַמְדַּמוֹת) = blood reds.2

In that case, the priest must quarantine the house for seven days.  If the green or red patches have spread when he returns, the discolored portion of the wall has to be dismantled and its stones must be carried off to the dump.  The plaster over the rest of the walls in the house must be scraped off and taken to the dump.  Then the house owner has to rebuild the missing section of wall and re-plaster the whole interior.  (Leviticus 14:37-42)

If discoloration reappears in the house, and a priest confirms that it is tzara-at again, the entire house has to be torn down and the rubble taken to a dump outside the city. (Leviticus 14:43-45)

Black mold is common the damp climate of western Oregon; I’ve been fighting it for the past twenty years.  In some buildings the only permanent solution includes stripping the walls down to the studs, not to mention removing all the grout from bathroom tile. I have not encountered red or green mold, but I know these molds still plague some buildings. Ritual impurity is not an issue for us, but when I scrub my walls or my tile and still see black stains, I feel as if our living quarters are contaminated.

At least the tzara-at contaminates only our walls, not our marriage.  But in the Torah portion Metzora, tzara-at of a bayit can also be interpreted as a contamination of the family unit. The Torah often uses the word bayit to mean a household or family rather than a physical house. And the word tzara-at appears to come from the same root (צרע) as the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) = dread or despair sent by God, causing people to flee.3

So we could translate the Torah’s introduction to tzara-at in the bayit this way:

God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: When you come to the land of Canaan, which I am giving to you for property, and I put a mark of despair in a household in your land, then the head of the household shall come and inform the priest, saying: Something like a mark has become visible to me in my household. (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:33-35)

Despair, by Edvard Munch, 1894

In other words, the head of the household notices that someone in his family is stricken with despair.  He (in ancient Israel, the head was always a man) could pretend everything is fine, and keep the problem behind closed doors. But then the despair might spread. Servants or members of his family might even run away.  And those who stayed would be ritually impure, unable to mingle with the rest of the community.

So instead of pretending everything is fine at home, the patriarch should inform a priest.  He and his family must clear out all the baggage they can.  Then the priest comes in to observe whether the household looks normal.

If he sees signs of yerakrakot, “thin greens”, perhaps the family is too repressed, so its members cannnot grow and flourish like healthy green plants. If he sees signs of adamdamot, “blood reds”, perhaps someone is not respecting the Biblical rule that “the blood is the life”: there may be an invasion of personal space and inner life, or even psychological bloodshed.

Both colors of tzara-at sink deep into the household, causing tzirah—depression, dread, or despair. So the priest must separate the members of the household from one another for seven days. If this vacation does not help, the only solution is to start tearing down and replacing some of the family dynamics.  And if even that does not work, the household must be disbanded.

Male heads of households in the Torah do not invite interference, but in the case of tzara-at they are required to ask for interference by experts. Adults in our own time also tend to think of the families they have made as their own business, and try to ignore signs of distress.

But if the problem is bad enough, a household cannot continue in its old ways without every member becoming contaminated by despair. The family needs help from an expert. And if that does not work, separation is necessary.  People must suffer through divorce or the estrangement of children. Individuals who choose to stay together must build new households or new relationships.

May everyone become able to diagnose tzara-at of the family with the skill of a Biblical priest, and may everyone become able to make major changes.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in April 2010.)

1  Yarak (יָרָק) = green plant, vegetable. Rak (רַק) = thin, slight.

2   Adom (אָדֺם) = red. Dam (דָּם) = blood.

3  12th-century rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the word tzirah must be related to the word tzara-at, since it has the same root letters, and concluded that tzirah was a disease. His opinion is reflected in the most recent (1985) translation of the Bible by the Jewish Publication Society,  in which “the tzirah” is translated as “a plague”. Another tradition, followed by the King James Bible, translates the word tzirah (צִרְעָה) as “hornet”, but some modern scholars dispute this. Robert Alter uses the traditional translation “hornet”, but proposes that tzirah actually means a supernatural agent called “smasher”. (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, footnotes on pp. 453 and 919; Robert Alter, Ancient Israel, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013, footnote p. 100.)  Everett Fox translates tzirah as “Despair” with a capital D the first time it appears in his The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 389), but inexplicably reverts to “hornet” the second time (ibid., p. 887).

Tzirah appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, always with the prefix meaning “the” (הַצִּרְעָה):

…and I will panic all the people who you come among … And I will send the tzirah before you, and it will drive out the Hivvite and the Canaanite and the Hittite away from you. (Exodus 23:27-28)

And also God, your God, will send the tzirah against them, until those who remain and those who hide from you perish. (Deuteronomy 7:20)

And I sent the tzirah before you, and it drove them away from you, the two Amorite kings—not your sword nor your bow. (Joshua 24:12)

In context, tzirah appears to be an overwhelming dread, sent by God, that induces people to abandon their land and flee.

Haftarat Metzora—2 Kings: A Response to Rejection

April 12, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Posted in Kings 2, Metzora | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 7:3-20.

Even when people belong to the same religious, ethnic, or national group, they can become marginalized or ostracized in their society. The book of Leviticus/Vayikra insists that anyone who develops a skin disease called tzara-at must be excluded from public worship and live apart from other people. Last week’s Torah portion (Tazria) declares:

All the days that the affliction is in him, he shall be ritually impure. Ritually impure, he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:46)

This skin disease is not always a permanent disfigurement; in fact, in last week’s haftarah, the Aramaean general Na-aman is cured of tzara-at. (See my post 2 Kings: A Religious Conversion.) This week’s Torah portion (Metzora) opens with the ritual for readmitting someone whose tzara-at has healed. But in this week’s haftarah, four men with tzara-at seem to be permanently shut out of their own city, with no way to make a living other than to beg at the city gate.

Ruins of the City of Samaria

Ruins of the City of Samaria

An army from Aram is besieging Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew), the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. (Na-aman, the Aramaean general in last week’s haftarah, is not mentioned; perhaps he is deployed elsewhere.) Inside the walls of the city, people are dying of starvation. Outside the city gate are four Israelites with tzara-at. Their skin disease is obvious, and the soldiers of Aram also ignore them, since they are only wretched beggars—with no one left to beg from.

And there were four men, metzora-im, at the entrance of the gate. And they said, each man to his rei-a: Why are we sitting here until we die? (2 Kings 7:3)

metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = people with tzara-at (צָרַעַת), a non-communicable disease characterized by patches of white skin.

rei-a (רֵעַּ) = comrade, companion, friend.

Although shunned by the Israelites inside the walls of the town, the four outcasts are companions and friends with each other. They consider their situation:

If we say “Let us enter the city” and starvation is in the city, we shall die there; but if we stay here, we shall die. So now let us go to the camp of Aram and defect. If they let us live, we shall live, and if they put us to death, then we shall die. (2 Kings 7:4)

An extreme patriot might criticize the four men for deciding to defect (literally, “throw themselves down”) to their country’s enemy. Yet Israel has not taken care of them, and their best hope of staying alive is to take a chance on begging for food from the Aramaean army.

An Empty Camp

So they got up at twilight to come to the camp of Aram, and they came up to the edge of the camp of Aram, and hey!—nobody was there! God had made the camp of Aram hear the sound of chariots, the sound of horses, the sound of a great army; and each man had said to his brother: Hey! The king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us! And they had got up and fled at twilight, and they had abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys, [leaving them] in the camp just as it was. And they had fled for their lives. (2 Kings 7:5-7)

At twilight, while the four metzora-im were getting up to sneak away from the city, the soldiers of Aram were getting up to run away from their camp, terrified by divine auditory hallucinations.

Metzora-im at an enemy tent

Metzora-im enter an enemy tent

And those metzora-im came up to the edge of the camp, and they entered one tent and they ate and they drank, and they carried off from there silver and gold and clothing and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent, and they carried off [things] from there and hid them. And then they came back. (2 Kings 7:8)

At first the metzora-im think their problems are over. So what if their own country ostracizes them? In the deserted camp of the Aramaeans they have plenty of food and drink, as well as valuables they can sell later to make a living.

Then they said, each man to his rei-a: We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent, delaying until the light of morning. And we will be found guilty for our offense. So let us go now, and come and tell the household of the king. (2 Kings 7:9)

Their offense is withholding the news from the Israelites shut up in the capital. Even delaying overnight would result in punishment. If they delayed for days, more of their fellow Israelites would starve to death, oblivious of God’s miracle.

Why tell the king?

Commentators differ on whether the four outcasts are motivated by ethics, by utility, or by fear. According to Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), we will be found guilty means “We will be held guilty by the throne”. They assume the king of Israel will eventually catch them, and they are afraid of the ensuing punishment.

Other commentary claims the decision of the four metzora-im is practical. Only if the city of Samaria functions again can they resume begging from travelers going in and out of the city gate. If they tell the good news at once to the king’s officials, they can count on the continued support of Israelite travelers. If they withhold the information and Samaria finds out later that the Aramaean army is gone, the Israelites will have a grudge against them. And if they load up Aramaean donkeys with Aramaean goods and try to make a new life elsewhere, they will still be discriminated against because of their skin disease (and perhaps also because of their country of origin). Telling the king of Samaria at once and returning to their old lives as beggars at the gate is their most practical option. (And who knows, maybe later they will have a chance to trade the silver and gold they hid.)

Another viewpoint is that the metzora-im make an ethical decision. It would be wrong to let their fellow Israelites starve, when they now have the means to feed them. So what if their own people ostracized them, and will continue to do so? They can still do the right thing.

These four men are such good friends, so good at talking things through with each other, that I think they considered fear, utility, and ethics when they made their decision. I admire their realism in accepting that as long as their skin disease lasts, they will be ostracized, so the best life they can hope for is as beggars at the gate. (I also wish they would take a chance like Na-aman in last week’s haftarah, and dare to ask the prophet Elisha for a cure.)

I also admire them for catching themselves in the midst of looting the abandoned Aramaean camp, and considering the plight of the people inside the city. What I admire most is that they do not enjoy the fact that now they are full and the people who kicked them out are starving. Instead they decide to share the wealth with the very people who refused to share with them—the clear-skinned city dwellers who followed the Levitical law of exclusion with no remediating measures.

None of us lead charmed lives; we are all ostracized or discriminated against at some point. But every person who resists a chance to discriminate against a former or potential enemy makes the world better.

May we all be blessed with the practicality and the ethical determination of the four metzora-im!

 

 

 

 

Haftarah for Metzora –2 Kings: Insiders and Outsiders

April 1, 2014 at 12:11 am | Posted in Kings 2, Metzora | Leave a comment
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Last week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion) tells the story of Na-aman, an Aramean general whose skin disease, tzara-at, disappears when he gives up his arrogance to follow the advice of the prophet Elisha. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)

Although Aram and Israel are at peace when Na-aman comes to Elisha for a cure, hostilities resume later in the second book of Kings. Eventually an Aramean army besieges Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Trapped inside the city walls, the Israelites begin to run out of food. The price of food skyrockets, and two women eat a child.

Meanwhile, four men with tzara-at are living in exile outside the city walls. The Torah says that tzara-at, unlike all other skin diseases, is an affliction caused by the touch of God. The afflicted must live alone, outside the camp or town, until God removes the disease and a priest declares them ritually pure.

God may also afflict houses with tzara-at, according to this week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“Someone with tzara-at”). No one may live in a house with tzara-at in the walls.

Why does God touch people and houses with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus/Vayikra does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis say tzara-at is caused by slander, and then list six other causes: bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. All of these bad deeds or bad attitudes not only sin against God, but also poison one’s relationships with other people. No wonder the Torah requires a metzora to stay away from the community.

In this week’s haftarah, the four men with tzara-at who live just outside the besieged city of Samaria are also starving. They come to the city gate, but they receive neither food nor a check-up from a priest to see whether they have healed and can come back inside. The haftarah picks up the story as they consider their options.

Four men were metzora-im at the entrance of the gate, and each one said to his neighbor: Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say “Let’s come into the city”, and the famine is in the city, then we will die there. But if we sit here, then we will die. So now, let’s go and surrender ourselves to the camp of Aram. If they let us live, we live; and if they put us to death, then we die. (2 Kings 7:3-4)

metzora-im (מְצֹרָעִים) = the plural of metzora  (מְצֹרָע) = someone afflicted with tzara-at.

In other words, the four men decide to defect to the Arameans on the chance that they will survive. Although most commentary criticizes the metzora-im for their disloyalty to Israel, I think they are far more ethical and less disloyal than the two Samarian women inside the city who resort to cannibalism. After all, the men do not even consider killing any Israelites in order to eat them.

So they got up in the twilight to come to the Aramaean camp. They came up to the edge of the Aramaean camp, and hey! Nobody was there! (2 Kings 7:5)

God had made the Aramean soldiers hear the sounds of an approaching army, complete with chariots and horses. Assuming that the king of Israel had hired mercenary forces, the Arameans had fled for their lives, leaving behind their horses, donkeys, and tents.

The four would-be defectors enter a tent, eat and drink their fill, then take the silver, gold, and clothing and hide it. After they have looted a second tent, it occurs to all four of them that they could rescue the starving Israelites in the city.

Then they said, each one to his neighbor: We are not doing right. Today is a day of good news, and we are delaying it. If we delay until the light of morning, we will be found guilty. So now, let’s go, and we will come to the house of the king and tell it. (2 Kings 7:9)

The men have two motivations for reporting that the enemy has fled: because it is the right thing to do, and because they do not want to be found guilty if they delay until someone on the city wall can see that the Aramean camp is deserted.

The gatekeepers of the city do not let in the metzora-im. Nevertheless, they shout out the good news, and the gatekeepers pass it on to the king’s house inside. Then the city of Samaria empties as everyone rushes through the gate to loot the deserted Aramean camp.

There is no indication of what the four men did that led God to punish them with tzara-at in the first place. By the time they appear in the haftarah, they seem fairly decent; they do not consider either using violence against anyone to get food, or taking revenge against the city that excluded them. Nor do they exhibit any of the seven causes of tzara-at listed in the Talmud, unless their looting of abandoned Aramean tents counts as robbery, a word used to mean taking forcible possession.

But what about the cannibalism that occurs inside the city just before the haftarah begins? One Samarian woman complains to the king of Israel:

That woman said to me: Give your son and we will eat him today; and my son we will eat tomorrow. And we cooked my son and we ate him. Then I said to her the next day: Give your son and we will eat him. But she hid her son! (2 Kings 6:28-29)

These two women commit five of the seven anti-social deeds on the list:

Slander: The actual idiom in the Talmud is lashon hara = the evil tongue. The woman who complains to the king is guilty of lashon hara because she points out the other woman and defames her.

Bloodshed: Obviously both women are guilty of murder.

Swearing falsely: The first woman complains that the second woman made a false vow when she promised they would eat her son the next day.

Incest: The actual idiom in the Talmud is “exposing the nakedness”. Although incest does not technically occur in the story, the first woman does expose her son’s vulnerability and violate his body.

Arrogance: Both women assume their lives are more valuable than the child’s life.

I would argue that the women inside the city deserve tzara-at more than the men outside the walls. When everyone rushes out of the city to loot the Aramean camp, it is echoes the requirement in the Torah portion Metzora that a house with tzara-at must be emptied and abandoned until its walls become pure again.

I know that I, like most human beings, feel as if some people are too awful to tolerate, and I want to exclude them from my community or my in-group—at least until they show signs of overcoming their anti-social traits. No doubt sometimes my diagnosis is correct. But I must remember that sometimes my in-group might be more at fault than the person I want to exclude. The affliction might be inside my own walls.

May we all keep the gates of our souls open to new developments, and close our gates only when we really are besieged.

Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles

April 13, 2011 at 6:50 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Metzora | 4 Comments

(This blog was first posted on April 13, 2010.)

Gird your loins: this is a double blog, covering two weeks, two double Torah portions, two birds, and two goats.

Goats, by Dugald Stewart Walker

The double Torah reading for the week culminating on Shabbat April 17 (Leviticus 12:1-15:33, Tazria and Metzora) deals mostly with tzara-at, a discoloring skin disease.  The double Torah reading for the week ending on Shabbat April 24 (Leviticus 16:1-20-27, Acharey Mot and Kedoshim) covers the rituals for atonement on Yom Kippur, forbidden sexual unions, and a series of ethical and religious laws.

This year I noticed a connection between the two double Torah portions: the first week’s reading includes a mysterious ritual using two birds, and the second week’s reading includes a remarkably similar ritual using two goats.  What does this parallelism mean?

The reading for the week ending April 17 includes this passage about the ritual for making someone with the skin disease tzara-at ritually pure:

 

Let Go the Living Bird, by Paul Hardy ca. 1900

And the priest will give an order, and he will take for the one who is being ritually purified two living, ritually pure birds, and a stick of cedar, and crimson wool, and hyssop.  And the priest will give an order, and he will slaughter the first bird in a pottery vessel, over living water (water flowing from a natural source).  He will take the living bird, the stick of cedar, the crimson wool, and the hyssop, and he will dip them into the blood of the slaughtered bird, over the living water.  And he will sprinkle upon the one who is being ritually purified from tzara-at seven times; thus he will purify him, and then he will send out the living bird over the face of the open field.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 14:4-7, Metzora)

And the reading for the week ending April 24 includes this passage, part of the annual Yom Kippur ritual for purifying the whole community:

And from the assembly of the children of Israel, he (the high priest) will take two hairy male goats for a guilt offering and one ram for an elevation offering.  He will take the two goats and stand them up before God at the opening of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aharon will place lots on the two goats, one lot for God, and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aharon will bring the goat that received the lot for God, and he will make it a guilt offering.  But the goat that received the lot for Azazel, it will be stood alive before God, for making atonement over, by sending it out to Azazel to the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:5-10, Acharei Mot)

Both rituals use two animals, which must be the same species and equal in value.  In both rituals, one animal is chosen randomly to be sacrificed to God, and the other is set free at the end of the ritual, sent out away from human habitations.  In both rituals, the blood of the sacrificed animal is sprinkled seven times on the person or place to be purified.  Other rituals described in the Torah employ sacrifices of birds and goats, and sprinkling of animal blood, but only in these two places does the Torah require that one of a pair of animals is slaughtered and the other set free.

Why are these two unique purification rituals so similar, when they seem to be performed for such different purposes?

Let’s look at who or what is being purified.  In the first reading, the metzora (the person who had the disease of tzara-at) is ritually purified after a priest has declared that the affliction is over.  Since someone with tzara-at must live in isolation, in a tent away from the community, the purification ritual is necessary for the ex-metzora to move back and rejoin society.

In Torah and Talmud, a metzora is not someone who just happened to develop a disease.  The appearance of an unnaturally white patch of skin is considered a physical manifestation of a flaw in the metzora’s moral condition.   Commentators have written that since the “treatment” for tzara-at is segregation from the community, and the ritual restores the metzora to society, the moral flaw of the metzora must be some anti-social behavior, such as slander.  A skin disease is an appropriate sign of immoral behavior toward society because the skin is the boundary between one person and another.

Isolation protects the rest of the community from being infected by the metzora’s bad behavior.  It also gives the metzora time to reflect and repent.  If the skin discoloration shrinks or disappears, the priest knows that the metzora has repented and can rejoin the community safely.  But first he must perform a public ritual establishing that the ex-metzora is now acceptable and accepted back into society.

In the second reading, from Acharei Mot, the blood of the sacrificed goat is sprinkled on the curtains around the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, and on the lid of the ark in the center.  The high priest performs this ritual once a year, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to purify the Israelites’ focus of worship from their own cumulative ritual impurity.  This purification also atones for their misdeeds, particularly their pesha-im, their rebellions against the social order.

The implication, I think, is that while only some people are so egotistical that they pay no attention at all to the good of the community (and therefore get the mark of tzara-at on their skin), nobody is perfect.  We all rebel occasionally against the need for good social behavior.  These small misdeeds accumulate, tarnishing the purity of our focus on the holy.  So once a year, according to the Torah, two goats are brought to the high priest.  He slaughters one, and sprinkles its blood on the atonement-lid of the ark in the Holy of Holies.  He confesses the sins and misdeeds of the Israelites over the head of the other goat, and a designated man sets it free in the wilderness.   This public ritual establishes clearly that the whole community is acceptable to God once again.

The details of the two rituals are parallel, and both are performed to address immoral behavior against the community.  But why, in each case, is only one animal sacrificed, while its double is set free?

Maybe the two birds, and the two goats, represent two courses of action for human beings.  We can sacrifice our egos (while retaining the “blood”, the juiciest part, in the pottery bowl over living water) in order to be kind and cooperative; then we will be full members of society.  Or we can refuse to make any sacrifice; then we will be free—but we will also be sent away from the community, like the bird and the goat.  Even today, individuals who are not willing to sacrifice their own egotism, at least enough to avoid doing harm to other people, will be driven out of society.  If they are not kicked out of a group explicitly, they will still find themselves isolated and friendless … out in the wilderness.

And what if the freed bird or goat comes back?  Well, that’s one of the questions “the designated man” asks in my Torah monologue!

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