Haftarat Tazria—2 Kings: Subordination

Would you rather read a procedure manual or a story? This week’s double Torah portion, Tzaria and Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:32), provides a detailed manual for priests regarding a skin disease called tzaraat. But the two accompanying haftarah readings are stories about people with that disease.1

The haftarah for Tazria stars Naaman, a rich Aramaean army commander who goes to the kingdom of Israel to cure his tzaraat. He is healed only after he humbles himself to the prophet Elisha. (See my blog post: Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.) But without the kindness of his subordinates, his mission would have failed.

A kind servant: the Israelite girl

Those with power can use it to be benevolent to their subordinates. But how can subordinates be benevolent to their superiors? The story of Naaman gives two examples of servants who help their masters without exercising power. The first is an Israelite captive who has become a slave.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man lifnei his master, and high in favor because through [Naaman] Y-H-V-H had granted victory to Aram. And the man was a powerful landowner metzora. And Aramaeans went out in raiding parties, and they brought back from the land of Israel a young adolescent girl, and she became lifnei Naaman’s wife. And she said to her mistress: “If only my master were lifnei the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would take away his metzora.” (2 Kings 5:1-3)

lifnei (לִפְנֵי) = before, in front of, subordinate to. (The prefix le,לְ־  (to, toward, at, in relation to) + penei, פְּנֵי (face of—a form of the noun panim,  פָּנִים= face, front). Therefore literally, lifnei = in relation to the face of.)

metzora (מְצֺרָע) = stricken with tzaraat (צָרַעַת), a skin disease (formerly and inaccurately translated as “leprosy”) characterized by one or more patches of scaly dead-white skin. These patches might also be streaked with red, and/or lower than the surrounding skin.2

Naaman is a very important person; he is subordinate to, lifnei, only the king of Aram. The captive young Israelite is a female slave, the most subservient rank in the Ancient Near East. She is subordinate to, lifnei, Naaman’s wife. A girl in her position might resent being seized by soldiers, taken to a foreign land, and forced to serve as a slave. She might well hate the husband of her mistress, who is a military commander and may even have led the raiding party that captured her.

On the other hand, most females in the Ancient Near East grew up expecting to be under the control of a male head of household, whether he was their father, husband, adult son (in the case of widows), or owner. Many girls in impoverished families were sold as slaves. The Israelite girl might be relieved that she is now living in comfort in a rich man’s house. And perhaps Naaman is true to his name, which means “Pleasant One” in Hebrew (from the root verb na-am, נָעַם = was pleasant, was agreeable.)

The Israelite girl is kind-hearted enough to wish that her master were cured of his skin disease, and she knows that tzaraat rarely heals. So she mentions a wonder-worker to her mistress: the prophet in Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel. When she says “If only my master were lifnei the prophet!” her  Aramaean mistress assumes she means “If only my master were in front of the prophet!”, and passes on the information to her husband.3

Kingdoms circa 900 BCE

Refusing subordination: Naaman

In the kingdom of Israel, anyone whom a priest certifies as having tzaraat is ritually impure and must live outside their town until they recover (if ever). Being metzora is easier in Aram. The disease is not considered contagious; we learn later in the story that the king of Aram leans on Naaman’s arm when he goes into the temple of Rimon in Damascus.4 And tzaraat does not prevent Naaman from living in Damascus, the capital of Aram, or from leading his troops. Yet his skin disease is unsightly, and may be unpleasant in other ways as well. Naaman wants to be cured. So he takes chariots, horses, men, gifts, and a letter from his king to Israel.

And Naaman came with his horses and with his chariots, and he stood at the entrance of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent to him a messenger saying: “Go, and you must bathe seven times in the Jordan. Then your flesh will be restored, and you will be ritually pure.” (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Just as the word lifnei sometimes indicates a subordinate position in Biblical Hebrew, someone who stands and waits in front of someone else is a subordinate (or is temporarily assuming a subordinate position as a polite gesture). Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house riding in a chariot, but when he stands waiting at the door he is in a subservient position. By refusing to see Naaman in person, Elisha underlines the idea that he outranks the Aramaean commander.

Then Naaman became enraged, and he went off and he said: “Hey, I thought he would certainly go and stand and call in the name of Y-H-V-H, his god, and wave his hand at the place, and he would take away the tzaraat. Aren’t Amanah and Farpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I bathe in them and become pure?” Vayefen and he went away in a rage. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

vayefen (וַיֶּפֶן) = and he faced away, and he turned away. (From the same root as panim and lifnei.)

Naaman knows he is a very important person. He expects the prophet to treat him as at least an equal.Elisha ought to invite the commander inside his house and stand waiting in front of him. After that, Naaman thinks, Elisha ought to personally wave his hand over the diseased patch of skin as he calls on his God.

In his resentment that Elisha is acting like his superior, Naaman also interprets Elisha’s order to bathe in the Jordan as an assertion that Israel’s river is superior to either of the two small rivers in Damascus.

Naaman is willing to be subordinate to the king of Aram, but not to the prophet in Israel. So he stops waiting lifnei Elisha’s door. He turns his face away in rejection.

More kind servants: Naaman’s retinue

The Cleansing of Naaman, Biblia Sacra Germanica, 1466

When Naaman walks away, his own attendants try to make him see reason. They are not in a position to order him to follow Elisha’s orders. But they can offer a reasonable argument.

Then his attendants came forward and spoke to him, and they said: “Sir!” They said: “[If] the prophet said to you [to do] a big thing, wouldn’t you do it? And yet he only said to you: Bathe and be pure.” (2 Kings 5:13)

Naaman listens, swallows his pride, and does the sensible thing.

Then he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh came back like the flesh of an adolescent boy, and he was ritually pure. (2 Kings 5:14)

Choosing subordination: Naaman

Then he came back to the man of God, he and his whole camp [of men]. And he came and he stood waiting lefanav, and he said: “Hey! Please!  I know that there is no god in the whole world unless it is in Israel. So now, please take a blessing from your servant!” (2 Kings 5:15)

lefanav (לְפָנָיו) = to his face, in front of him, subordinate to him.

When one important person in the bible speaks to another, he often calls himself “your servant” to be polite. Here Naaman also stands waiting in front of Elisha, in a  subordinate position. And he acknowledges that he (and everyone else) is subordinate to the God of Israel.

Naaman has brought silver, gold, and ten outfits of expensive clothing5 to Samaria so he could pay the prophet for a cure. But now the two men stand in a different relationship. They are not buyer and seller, but a man of God and a witness of God’s power.  So Naaman begs Elisha to accept a “blessing”. They both know he means a tangible gift, not just words of blessing.6

Choosing subordination: Elisha

But [Elisha] said: “By the life of Y-H-V-H, whom I stand waiting lefanav, if I take—” (2 Kings 5:16)

Elisha declares that he is subordinate only to God. His unfinished oath is a polite way of saying that he refuses to take anything from Naaman. Since Elisha works only for God, he does not sell his services. He caused Naaman’s healing in order to prove a point, not for any material benefit.

After the Elisha refuses Naaman’s second offer of a gift, Naaman asks him for a gift: as much dirt as two mules can carry. He explains that then he can go home to Aram and create a patch of Israelite ground where he can worship Elisha’s god. Naaman promises he will never sacrifice to any other god again, and hopes the God of Israel will forgive him for continuing to provide an arm for the king of Aram to lean on when the king enters the temple of Rimon.

And [Elisha] said to him: “Go in peace.” And he went away from him some distance.  (2 Kings 5:19)

“Go in peace” is a polite way for a superior or father figure to give permission.7 Thus the haftarah ends with the new pecking order, in which Naaman has become a willing subordinate to God, and perhaps to God’s prophet Elisha, as well as to the king of Aram.

The insubordinate subordinate

Although the haftarah reading ends there, the story of Naaman continues in 2 Kings. Elisha’s servant Geihazi thinks his master was wrong about not taking anything from the rich Aramaean. So he runs after Naaman and his retinue. Naaman steps down from his chariot to greet him. And Geihazi lies to him, saying:

“My master sent me to say: Hey, now this: two adolescent boys just came to me from the hills of Efrayim, from the disciples of the prophets. Please give them a kikar of silver and two changes of clothing.” (2 Kings 5:22)

Geihazi Asks Naaman for a Reward, by the Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, 1430

Geihazi does not dare claim that Elisha changed his mind and now wants the entire gift, but he is clever enough to invent a pretext for getting part of it. Naaman insists on giving him twice as much silver as he asked for, and dispatches two of his own servants to carry the clothes and the two bags of silver  back to Samaria. At the city gate Geihazi takes the goods. If he had wanted to leave Elisha and set himself up with his own farm or business, he should have exchanged them at the marketplace then and there. Instead he brings the silver and clothing into Elisha’s house.

And he entered and he stood waiting before his master, and Elisha said to him: “From where, Geihazi?” (2 Kings 6:25)

Geihazi claims he did not go anywhere, but his master knows he is lying. Elisha accuses him of taking money from Naaman to buy things for himself, and adds:

“The tzaraat of Naaman will cling to you and to your descendants forever!” And [Geihazi] went away from lefanav, metzora like snow. (2 Kings 5:27)

Insubordination is not always punished so severely. Yet after rereading the whole story of Naaman, I am in favor of being a helpful subordinate, like Naaman’s attendants and his wife’s slave. If your superiors do you no harm, why not be kind and improve their lives—without  stepping on their toes?

And if your superior is not benign, it is better to quit the job altogether than to lie and connive behind the boss’s back. Quitting is easier now, in a world where slavery has become rare, though finding a new job can still be hard. But if you do not respect your superior, you should still act so that you can respect yourself. Otherwise, even if your skin looks good, your soul will be disfigured.

  1. The haftarah for Metzora features four starving Israelites forced to live outside the city walls because of their disease. See my posts Haftarat Metzora—2 Kings: Insiders & Ousiders and Haftarat Metzora—2 Kings: A Response to Rejection
  2. Leviticus 13:2-3, 13:10-22, 13:18-28, 13:42-44. Cf. Numbers 12:10-12.
  3. Ancient Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew are closely related Semitic languages, but it would take a while for the Israelite girl to master Aramaic, and nobody would expect her to express subtle shades of meaning.
  4. 2 Kings 5:18.
  5. 2 Kings 5:5. Cf. the fancy tunic Jacob gives Joseph in Genesis 37:3-4, and Joseph’s gifts of clothing to his brothers in Genesis 45:22.
  6. Cf. Jacob’s “blessing” to Esau in Genesis 33:11.
  7. 2 Kings 5:19.
  8. Cf. Exodus 4:18, where Moses’ father-in-law says it before Moses leaves him and returns to Egypt..
  9. 2 Kings 5:20-27.

Tazria: Time to Learn, Part 1

How long does it take to learn something new?

For new information, it depends on the person’s intelligence, concentration, and memory. Smart children can read or hear something once and grasp it. Smart adults, when they are distracted by their own children or by fellow workers demanding attention, need to ask for a repetition or a clarification. And some very old intelligent people, like my mother, have such poor memories that they must read or be told new information dozens of times before it sinks in.

How long does it take to learn a new way of life?

I believe it depends partly on the person’s own flexibility—including willingness to adapt, practice at changing, and ability to observe both oneself and others. But it also depends on external inflexibility: rules and customs that you must comply with. In our world, it is easier to adapt to school, to the armed services, to many jobs, and to senior residence centers because there are set times for meals and other activities. At 8:00 you must be here, and at noon you must be somewhere else.

Less structured changes are harder. How do I handle a new baby? A new serious medical diagnosis?

Humans had to learn new skills and habits in biblical times as well as today. This week’s Torah portion in Leviticus, Tazria (“She conceives”), describes structured rules that helped people learn new ways of life in two situations that have no set rules today: caring for a new infant, and dealing with a new disability.

by Mary Cassat

New Baby

The life of all flesh is its blood … (Leviticus 17:14)

The blood, it is the life … (Deutereonomy 12:23)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the animating force of life (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal. Some of the religious rules in the book of Leviticus address the fears that go with blood loss—fears that today are addressed by medical information.

This week’s Torah portion begins by establishing periods of isolation following childbirth, which causes women to bleed.

When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, then tamei-ah for seven days; titema as in the days of the regulation about her menstruation. And on the eighth day the skin of his foreskin will be circumcised. Then for 33 days she will stay in bloodshed of purification; she may not touch anything holy, and she may not come into the holy place, until her days of purification have been filled. (Leviticus 12:2-4)

tamei-ah (טָמְאָה) = she has become ritually impure, excluded from religious rituals, desanctified. (A kal form of the verb tamei, טָמֵא = become ritually impure, which may be derived from the noun tamei, טָמֵא = someone or something that is ritually impure, desanctified, unsuitable for normal contact; “unclean” in old translations.)

titema (תִּטְמָא) = she has incurred ritual impurity. (A hitpael form of the verb tamei.)

The mother’s vaginal discharge is her “bloodshed of purification”: the natural release of elements used to nourish the fetus that are no longer needed. The process of purification is the mother’s transition from the state of pregnancy to the state in which she can once again engage in the sacred rituals of her religion. The number of days the woman must stay away from the sanctuary and all other sacred things is arbitrary, like the seven days of ritual impurity that Leviticus decrees for a menstrual period—regardless of whether the woman stops bleeding sooner.1

The first clue that the rule in the portion Tazria is not just about post-partum discharge is that the number of days before the mother is no longer tamei is different if her baby is a girl.

And if she gives birth to a female, then tamei-ah as in her menstrual period for a pair of weeks, and for 66 days she must stay in her bloodshed of purification. (Leviticus 12:5)

Post-partum bleeding normally lasts for four to fourteen days (followed by a scanty white discharge for several more weeks). This timeline might fit the 7+33 day period for the mother of a boy, but it does not fit the 14+66 day period for the mother of a girl.

And when the days of her purification for a son or for a daughter are filled, she shall bring a yearling lamb for a rising-offering and a dove or a turtle-dove for a reparation-offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest. And he shall offer it in front of God and make atonement over her, and she will be purified from the source of her bloodshed. (Leviticus 12:6-7)

“Rising-offering” is my literal translation of olah, עֺלָה, in which the sacrificial animal is completely burned up into smoke. The usual purpose of a rising offering is to please God with the smell of the smoke; 2 it is required twice a day, to keep the smoke rising perpetually. Additional rising-offerings are made to observe holy days, and to bring individuals who have been isolated back into a normal relationship with God and their community—which is dedicated to perpetual service to God.

A “reparation-offering” or chatat, חַטָּאת, sometimes translated as a “sin-offering”, is usually brought to the altar in order to atone for unintentionally violating one of God’s rules.3 But giving birth is the opposite of a violation. After all, God keeps ordering humans to be fruitful and multiply!

However, the mother may feel guilty that for several weeks all her care and attention was focused on her newborn, rather than on God. A reparation-offering would reassure her that God pardons her for her period of distraction.

Perhaps the infant boy’s circumcision reminded the mother of her separation from her child, so she was prepared to return to her religious community sooner than if her baby was a girl. Either way, the Torah prescribes a fixed period of isolation from regular life, followed by a ceremony of reintegration.

In modern society the mothers—or other primary caregivers—of newborn infants have no rules for managing the transition to a new way of life, a life in which they must both care for a new person and maintain their previous roles in the community. It might be helpful today to establish a fixed time period when they are excused from all social obligations, followed by a ceremony of reentry.

Next week I will consider the Torah’s structure for dealing with a new diagnosis in Tazria & Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.

  1. Leviticus15:19-24.
  2. Leviticus 1:17. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  3. See Leviticus 4:27-31 and my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.


Tazria: Interim Isolation

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.

Tazria & Psalms 38 & 88: Isolation of the Sick


Four men with tzara-at plunder an empty tent in 2 Kings 7:8

Instructions for diagnosing the biblical skin disease of tzara-at (צָרַעַת) fill most of this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  The end of the portion finally says what happens to people who have tzara-at.

And the person marked with tzara-at, his clothes shall be torn and his head [of hair] shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his lips, and he shall call out: “Tamei!”  All the days that the mark is on him he shall be continually tamei.  Alone he shall dwell; outside the camp is his dwelling-place.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tamei (טָמֵא) = contaminated, ritually impure, unfit for worshiping God.

Jewish mourners still tear clothing

Torn clothes, wild hair, and covered lips are all signs of mourning in the Hebrew Bible.1  People afflicted with tzara-at are not dead.  But like those who mourn a family member’s death, they mourn their separation from those they love. They can no longer live together, or even come within touching distance.  Calling out “Tamei” keeps people away, since the condition of being tamei (though not the skin disease itself) is contagious.  Being tamei also prevents people with tzara-at from approaching God in the sanctuary courtyard.

Once a priest diagnoses tzara-at, the person with the disease is isolated from the camp, the community, and the service of God.  The isolation may not be permanent; next week’s Torah portion, Metzora, includes the rituals for removing the tamei status of those who have recovered from tza-arat and reintegrating them back into the community.  Later in the bible are examples of two people healed by divine intervention,2 four men who do not expect they will ever recover,3 and a king who has tzara-at until he dies.4

The Psalms never mention tzara-at, but two psalms consider the anguish of someone with a serious disease—not because of pain, but because of isolation.

Psalm 38

The bible generally assumes that disease is a punishment God inflicts when one has done the wrong thing.  The speaker in Psalm 38 declares:

          There is no sound spot in my flesh thanks to your curse,

                        There is no peace in my bones thanks to my error.

            For my crimes pass through my head

                        Like a heavy burden, too heavy for me.         

            My wounds are making a stench

                        Through my own folly.  (Psalm 38:4-6)

After complaining about a twisted body, burning guts, numbness, a violent heartbeat, and weakness, the speaker brings up another problem:

           My loving ones and my friends stand apart from my affliction;

                       Those who are close to me stand meirachok.  (Psalm 38:12)

Job, his Wife and his Friends. by William Blake, ca. 1785

meirachok (מֵרָחֺק) = at a distance, from away, staying far away.  (A form of the verb rachak, רָחַק = was distant, drifted away from, kept far away.)

In the book of Job, the afflicted person’s “comforters” cluster around to tell him his sickness is his own fault, since God only sends disease to those who have sinned.  In Psalm 38, the speaker believes the sickness is a well-deserved punishment, but the speaker’s friends stay away.

Meanwhile, the speaker’s enemies plot to take advantage of his illness, and the speaker is unable to hear or rebuke them.  The only one left to listen to an appeal is God.

           Because for you, God, I have hoped.

                        You will answer me, my master, my God.

            Because I thought: “Lest they rejoice over me

                        When my foot staggers, magnify themselves over me!”

            For I am certainly stumbling,

                        And my anguish is in front of me always.  (Psalm 38:16-17)

The psalm ends:

           Do not give up on me, God!

                        My God, do not tirechak from me!

            Hasten to my aid,

                        My master, my rescuer.  (Psalm 38:22-23)

tirechak (תִּרְחַק) = you stay distant, you keep away.  (Another form of the verb rachak.)

The speaker is isolated from friends and family, who therefore cannot provide comfort; isolated from enemies, who scheme outside the speaker’s hearing range; and isolated from God, who does not seem to be present.

Psalm 88

Psalm 88 opens with a sick person’s plea to God.    

            May my prayer come before you,

                        Stretch out your ears to my cry!

            Because my living body is sated with bad things;

                        And my life has reached the brink of death.

            I am counted among those who go into the pit.

                        I have become a strongman without strength.  (Psalm 88:3-5)

This speaker blames God—who made him sick—for isolation from friends.

           Hirechakta from me those who know me;

                       You make me abhorrent to them;

                        Imprisoned, I cannot go out.  (Psalm 88:9)

hirechakta (הִרְחַקְתָּ) = you removed to a distance, you kept (something) far away.  (Another form of the verb rachak.)

Then the sick person offers God a motivation for healing, pointing out that only the living can praise God.

           Do you do wonders for the dead?

                        Do ghosts rise and praise you?  (Psalm 88:10)

Yet the speaker remains isolated from God as well.

           Why, God, do you reject me,

                        Do you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 88:15)

The psalm ends with the pain of isolation.

          Hirechakta my loving ones and my friends from me,

                        Those who know me—[into] darkness.  (Psalm 88:19)

The worst thing about death is that it cuts off any possibility of communication, with humans or with God.5


Some people today have visible diseases, irregularities, or deformities, like the people with tzara-at in the bible.  Although we no longer have a law isolating them, it is human nature to stare—or to carefully avoid looking at them.  Meeting their eyes, smiling, and starting a normal conversation is harder, especially when the defect is on the face.  Doing so anyway is the only ethical approach; yet because humans are weak and easily spooked, these people still suffer isolation.

Others today have invisible diseases; I am one.  Reading Psalms 38 and 88 brings tears to my eyes.  I can pass for healthy, and engage in society and communal worship like a healthy person (except that I cannot make a living because I’d need too many sick days, and I have to pace my activities to prevent exhaustion).  I am grateful that I am not isolated from human company, and I have dear family and friends.

But with my whole heart I can speak or chant those words begging God: “Do not give up on me!  Hasten to my aid!  Why do you hide your face from me?”

I do not believe God afflicts us with physical problems as a punishment for disobedience or wrongdoing.  Sometimes, in our misery, we expand our own set of physical problems with unwise behaviors.  On the other hand, we may benefit from new scientific knowledge that repairs some of the things that go wrong in our bodies.

Nevertheless, I know that often bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.  There is no divine justice for individuals.                        

Then why do we beg God to heal us?  Why do we fix our hope on God?                                

Who else is there?      

  1. Mourners customarily tear their clothes in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11, leave their hair loose and disheveled in in Leviticus 10:6-7 and 21:10-11 and Ezekiel 24:17, and cover their lips in Ezekiel 24:17.
  2. The bible only records healing from tzara-at when there is divine intervention. In Numbers 12:10-15 God afflicts Miriam with tzara-at and then heals her.  In 2 Kings 5:1-11, the prophet and miracle-worker Elisha heals General Na-aman of tzara-at.
  3. 2 Kings 7:3-16. The four men with tzara-at must stay outside the city walls even when the enemy is approaching to attack the city.
  4. 2 Kings 15:5. King Azaryah lives in an isolated house while his son Yotam does the king’s business in the palace and on the battlefield.
  5. Walter Brueggemann points out in The Message of the Psalms, Augburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 79: “This is the voice of a dying one crying out to the only source of life. ‘The Pit’ [see Psalm 88:5] is not final judgment or a fiery place of punishment. It is only beyond the range of communion. For this speaker, communion with God is clearly everything.” I would amend this statement to say communion, with both human beings and God, is everything.

(P.S. I am transferring my domain name today.  Future posts will be e-mailed to everyone following my blog, as before.  Thank you, subscribers!)

Metzora: A Diseased Family

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.


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 Tazria—2 Kings: A Religious Conversion

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 Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59) and the haftarah is 2 Kings 4:42-5:19.

What inspires someone to convert to a religion?

For Na-aman, an Aramaean general from Damascus who converts to the religion of Israel in this week’s haftarah, the quick answer is that he decides to convert after an Israelite prophet heals him. But the full story runs deeper.

soldier 2Na-aman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man [who stood] before his lord with a high rank, because God had given victory to Aram, and the man was a powerful warrior—[and] a man with skin disease. (2 Kings 5:1)

His skin disease is tzara-at , which is a serious ritual impurity in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria; someone who has it must live outside the camp, wear torn clothes, and cover his upper lip—even though the disease is not contagious. The rules in Aram may have been more lenient, but we can assume the disfiguring disease carried some social stigma.

And a raiding party of Aram had gone out and captured from the land of Israel a young na-arah, and she [stood] before the wife of Na-aman. And she said to her lady: If only my lord [stood] before the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would remove his skin disease. (2 Kings 5:2-3)

na-arah (נַעֲרָה) = slave-woman; any girl or young woman during the stage after puberty but before her first pregnancy.

The slave-girl is the one who knows what Na-aman needs to do to get rid of his disfiguring skin disease, a source of social stigma in the ancient Near East. She tells her mistress, who tells her husband, who then tells his master, the king of Aram.

And he came and told his lord, saying: This and this she said, the na-arah who is from the land of Israel. (2 Kings 5:4)

The king of Aram writes a letter for Na-aman to take to the king of Israel, perhaps to guarantee his safe passage through a foreign country. Eventually Na-aman and his servants arrive at the house of the prophet Elisha.

Jordan River
Jordan River

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the skin disease.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:9-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel. (See my post Tazria & 2 Kings; A Sign of Arrogance.)

On the other hand, he is willing to listen to advice from servants, including the Israelite girl who told him about Elisha in the first place. This time the grown men traveling with Na-aman as servants advise him.

The Cleansing of Naaman, woodcut from Biblia Sacra Germanaica
The Cleansing of Naaman,
woodcut from Biblia Sacra Germanaica

But his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a na-ar, and he was ritually-pure. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. (2 Kings 5:13-15)

na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave; any boy or unmarried young man. (The male equivalent of na-arah.)

The Talmud considers Na-aman’s statement a declaration of religious conversion. Before Na-aman makes this declaration, he is compared to a boy or a slave, put on the same footing as his Israelite na-arah. Only from that position can he actually meet the prophet and “stand before” him, as earlier in the story subordinates stood before their masters. And only now does Na-aman know that the god of Israel is the only god on earth.

What gives him this knowledge or belief? I think it is not just the miraculous healing he experiences, but the fact that he receives healing only by setting aside his identity as an important Aramaean general and becoming an obedient “boy”.

And Na-aman said: Will it not be given, please, to your servant, enough soil to burden a pair of mules?—because your servant will never again make a rising-offering or an animal sacrifice to other gods, only to God. (2 Kings 5:17)

The only way Na-aman knows how to worship a god is to make offerings in the land of that god. Since he must return to Damascus to serve his king, he asks permission to take some of the dirt of Israel back with him. Elisha says Go in peace.


My own conversion to Judaism 30 years ago was mostly—but not entirely—different from Na-aman’s conversion. I was brought up as an atheist, but during my twenties I felt restless and dissatisfied. As a philosophy major in college, I had reasoned my way to the conclusion that the standard definition of God was contradictory and therefore described an impossibility. Yet every once in a while I was surprised by a flash of intuition that the universe was one and alive.  It was a sudden gut feeling, not a rational idea.  I felt an increasing need for something like religion, for some other connection with the ineffable. Thus my longing for a religion came not from my head, but from my guts.

In western religions and culture, the body is often considered inferior to the mind. We assume that the mind makes a decision and the body carries it out, like a servant or a beast of labor.

But sometimes the body speaks first. The great general Na-aman’s own body develops a skin disease. Then the least of his servants, the captive Israelite girl, tells him who to go to for a cure. And he follows her advice.

When he arrives in the foreign land of Israel, he is instructed first by the prophet’s servant, then by his own servants. If he had not obeyed them and bathed in the Jordan, Na-aman would have gone home unhealed and unconverted.

If I had not listened to my gut feelings, even though I viewed them as inferior to my rational mind, I would have remained a dissatisfied atheist with a dry life. Instead I began reading about various religions and their attitudes toward life in this world. And I fell in love with Judaism, which seemed to share my irrational, gut conviction that nothing is more important than doing the right thing, regardless of any possible future reward.

It was a good match. I converted 30 years ago, and I am still a passionate Jew.

Part of my conversion was to immerse myself underwater in a mikveh—rather like Na-aman’s seven immersions in the Jordan River. Then I affirmed my inner knowledge that all divinity is one by reading the Shema out loud before three witnesses. This was not so different from Na-aman telling Elisha: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel.

I was not brought up to slaughter and burn animals for God, thank God. But perhaps whenever I pray with other Jews, I am symbolically worshiping God on the soil of our religion. And even as my mind occupies itself with translating the Hebrew prayers into meanings I can accept, my body-servant, my heart and gut, rise in exaltation.


Tazria and Lekh-Lekha: On the Eighth Day

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Circumcision in Egypt circa 2400 B.C.E.
Circumcision in Egypt
circa 2400 B.C.E.

The ancient Israelites did not invent circumcision.  It was practiced in Egypt even before 2400 B.C.E..  Biblical references indicate that although some tribes living in the ancient Near East did not practice circumcision, the Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites did.

However, all of these peoples circumcised boys either at puberty or in preparation for marriage.  The Israelites were unique in circumcising their males at the age of only eight days.

The first time the Torah mentions circumcision, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, from infants to old men.  (Abraham himself is 100 at the time.)  Then God declares:

U-nemaltem the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the brit between Me and you.  At the age of eight days every male among you yimmol, throughout your generations… (Genesis/Bereishit 17:11-12)

Circumcision of Isaac, Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.
Circumcision of Isaac,
Regensburg Pentateuch circa 1300 C.E.

u-nemaltem (וּנְמַלְתֶּם) = And you shall be circumcised.

brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, treaty, pact.

yimmol (יִמּוֹל) = he/it shall be circumcised.

Why does the Torah change the age of circumcision to eight days, and make it part of a covenant with God?

In Biblical Hebrew, the idiom for formalizing a covenant is “cutting” it, not sealing or signing it.  One method of concluding a covenant in the ancient Near East was to cut one or more animals in half and walk between the pieces.  (See my blog post Lekh-Lekha: Cutting a Covenant.)  If you wanted a more impressive and lifelong covenant, what could you cut?

The directions for Abraham to cut a covenant with God by circumcising all the males in his household conclude:

A foreskinned male, one who has not yimmol the flesh of his foreskin: that soul shall be cut off from its people; my brit he has broken.  (Genesis 17:14)

Ironically, this leaves male Israelites with a choice between two kinds of cuts:  cut off the foreskin, or be cut off from your people.

In fact, only a convert gets to make a personal choice.  Fathers in the Torah have their eight-day-old sons circumcised, and household heads have their newly-acquired male slaves circumcised, without their consent.

Circumcision on the eighth day is mentioned again in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”).  At first glance, it appears to be a gratuitous aside in a passage about how long after childbirth a woman is ritually impure and must stay away from public worship:

God spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of menstrual flow of her menstruation she is ritually impure. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:1-2)

On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin yimmol. (Leviticus 12:3)

And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of ritual purification; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her ritual purification are completed.  (Leviticus 12:4)

In 1517 C.E., Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote: “If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision … this is not the right place!  Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision is holy and pure—why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a kohen into a graveyard?”

Why does the Torah bring up circumcision in this context?

The obvious connection is that two things happen on the eighth day after a boy is born:  the son is circumcised, and the mother transitions from one state of ritual impurity to another.  For the first seven days after the birth of as son (while her blood flow is like that of menstruation) the mother’s bedding and anything she sits on is considered “impure”; anyone who touches these things must immerse himself and his garments in water, and refrain entering the sanctuary or temple the rest of the day.  The mother herself must abstain from sexual intercourse as well as from going to the sanctuary.Pigeons 2

On the eighth day after a boy is born, the places where the mother lies and sits are no longer ritually impure, and she may have intercourse again. But she still may not come to the sanctuary or touch objects used in the sanctuary until 40 days after her son is born.  Then she immerses herself in water and brings two sacrificial birds to the priest at the entrance of the sanctuary.  These acts return her to her former state of ritual purity and reintegrate her into public worship.

According to 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, even the blood that nourishes an infant in the womb counts as menstrual blood, and it takes seven days after the umbilical cord is cut for a son to become ritually pure from his mother’s blood.  He cannot be circumcised until he is ritually pure.

But I doubt that this is the reason the Torah calls for circumcision on the eighth day.  After all, the Torah does not require immersion or animal sacrifices on behalf of the infant.  Instead, a son’s circumcision is a religious promotion, turning him into an Israelite dedicated to God through the brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision”, as it came to be known in the Talmud.

milah (מִילָה) = circumcision (a noun in post-Biblical Hebrew, derived from the Biblical Hebrew noun mulah, מוּלָה).

Other commentary points out the connection between the circumcision of an Israelite boy and the sacrifice or a calf, lamb, or kid.  In two places, Exodus/Shemot 22:29 and Leviticus/Vayikra 22:27, the Torah says herd and flock animals must stay with their mothers for the first seven days after they are born.  On the eighth day, they can be brought to the altar as an offering to God.

According to the Zohar (written in the 13th century by the Kabbalist rabbi Moses de Leon) the drop of blood from a circumcision brings atonement to the father—just as an animal sacrifice brings atonement to the man who offers the animal.

The custom of circumcision faded among most Near Eastern peoples as the uncircumcised Greeks became dominant.  Many Semitic tribes began imitating the Greeks even before they were conquered by the Seleucid Empire in the fourth century B.C.E.  Circumcision continued only among some Egyptians and Arabs, and Jews.  The ruling classes—first Greeks, then Romans, and then Catholics—identified Jews in the Near East and Europe by their circumcisions.

The practice of circumcision did not spread to non-Jewish Westerners until the early 20th century.  Today the pendulum of public opinion is swinging against circumcision again.  Yet even Jewish atheists commonly circumcise their sons on the eighth day.  Even if they do not believe in a covenant with God, they still believe in a covenant between their own family and the rest of the Jewish people.

I was not a Jew when my son was born, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have immersed myself in a mikveh 40 days later.  To me, the categories of ritually pure and impure are merely historical.

But when I converted to Judaism, I had my two-year-old son circumcised. Was I dedicating him to the God of Israel?  Not really; I expected he would make his own decisions about religion when he came of age.  I did want him to fit in with other Jewish boys.  And I did want him to at least grow up as Jew, as a member of the people whose religion I had dedicated myself to.  Thus, in a roundabout way, my son’s circumcision was part of my own covenant with the God of Israel.

One way or another, the tradition continues.


Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance

There is no leprosy in the Torah. The disease that used to be translated as “leprosy”, tzara-at, is not Hansen’s Disease, but a skin condition characterized by irregular patches of dead-white skin that look lower than the healthy skin around them. This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, gives the priests detailed instructions on identifying tzara-at, because they must declare anyone who exhibits the disease tamei, ritually impure.

Most reasons for being tamei, such as sex, menstruation, contact with a dead body, or having recently given birth (see my post:Tazria: Babies Versus Religion), merely exclude the person from entering the sanctuary courtyard to worship God–until the period of being tamei is over. But people who are impure because of tzara-at are excluded not just from the place of worship, but from the whole community.

Vitiligo, one candidate for tzara-at

And the one who is tzarua, who has the nega: his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall hang loose, and he shall cover his lips and he shall call out ‘Tamei! Tamei!’ As long as touch [of the disease] is on him, he shall be tamei. He is tamei, so he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside of the camp. (Leviticus/Vayikra 13:45-46)

tzarua (צָרַוּע) = suffering from the skin disease tzara-at.

nega (נֶגַע) =  an affliction caused by the touch of God.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure; unclean, defiled, contaminated.

The passage above might sound like a quarantine to prevent contagion, but no other diseases are quarantined in the Torah. Unlike all other skin diseases, tzara-at is classified as a nega; God touched (naga) the person with the affliction. The one who is tzarua remains tamei until God removes the affliction and the skin becomes healthy.

Why does God touch people with tzara-at? The book of Leviticus does not say, but in the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 16a), the rabbis list seven causes: slander, bloodshed, swearing falsely, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy. Since all of these bad deeds or attitudes poison or violate relationships with other people, it makes sense that the Torah requires someone with tzara-at to live alone, outside the camp of the community.

Arrogance might seem like the least of the seven causes, yet it prevents you from empathizing with or even respecting others, and therefore alienates other people. I believe the haftarah reading that goes with this week’s Torah portion addresses the role of arrogance in the disease of tzara-at.

An arrogant Aramaean

The haftarah is a story from the second book of Kings about an Aramean general named Na-aman who has tzara-at. One of his household slaves mentions the miraculous cures of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and Na-aman arranges a letter of introduction. He travels to Elisha’s house with a supply of silver, gold, and clothing as payment for a cure.

So Na-aman came with his horses and his chariots, and he stood at the door of the house of Elisha. Then Elisha sent a messenger out to him, to say to him: You must bathe seven times in the Jordan, and it will make your flesh restored and ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Na-aman (נַעֲמָן) =pleasant one, nice person, mensch.

Na-aman has already proved himself humble in some ways: despite his high rank, he takes advice from a slave, and he goes to a foreign country to see Elisha instead of ordering the prophet to come to him. Elisha tests Na-aman’s pride by sending a servant to give him instructions instead of coming to meet him in person, and by prescribing a cure that is simple and possibly demeaning. At first, Na-aman does not pass the test.

But Na-aman became angry, and he walked away, and he said: Hey, I said to myself that he would surely go out and stand and invoke the name of God, his god, and wave his hand toward the place, and that would exterminate the tzara-at.  Aren’t the Amnah and the Parpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Wouldn’t I become pure if I bathed in them? Then he turned around and walked away hotly. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

Na-aman can respect a miracle-working prophet. But he expects the prophet to grant him the dignity of a personal cure, not a message by proxy. He also disdains the message because he believes his own country of Aram is superior to Israel.

Then his servants came near and spoke to him, and they said: My father, if the prophet spoke to you about doing a great deed, isn’t it true that you would do it? Then how much more so when he said to you: Bathe and be pure. So he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh was restored, like the flesh of a little boy, and he was ritually-pure. (2 Kings 5:13-14)

The Cleansing of Naaman, Biblia Sacra Germanica, 1466

Na-aman must swallow his pride in order to take advice from his subordinates, and bathe in an inferior river. When he becomes humble about both his status and the status of his country, he is cured.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his troop, and he came and stood before him. He said: Here, please, I know that there are no gods on all the earth except in Israel. So now please take a gift of blessing from your servant. (2 Kings 5:15)

This time, Na-aman gets to stand in front of Elisha, and the prophet speaks to him in person. But when Na-aman offers his gift of silver, gold, and clothing, Elisha refuses it. I think Na-aman is impressed by Elisha’s humble attitude about cures that come from God.

He also recognizes that the god of Elisha and Israel is greater than Rimmon, the god of Aram. So he decides to convert, and worship only the god of Israel, the land he formerly disdained. Na-aman asks for some dirt to take home and use to make an altar for the god of Israel. Yet he does not plan to proudly isolate himself from his own community; he begs forgiveness in advance for continuing to support his king’s arm when his king goes into the temple of Rimmon.

Today there is no tzara-at, but the human failing of arrogance still abounds. May we all become humble enough to realize when we are acting arrogantly, and to apologize and change our ways. May we all learn to becomes mensches and nice guys, as Na-aman did.

Tazria: Lost in Translation

Something always gets lost in translation, at least when you translate Biblical Hebrew into English.  For example, the Torah often refers to “the hand of God”.  But many English translations say “the power of God”.  This is a legitimate translation, but it loses the poetry of the original image.

Another loss happens when a Hebrew word has two very different meanings.  Almost all translators pick the meaning that makes sense if you read the passage either as a straightforward description of an event, or as a set of instructions for carrying out laws or rituals.  They are right to do so.  Yet all too often, the English word that expresses the most straightforward meaning in that particular context does not hint at the alternative meaning.  So an extra shade of meaning is lost in translation.

As I was reading this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She forms seed”, a reference to the first section), I noticed that one section in the middle had so many words with double meanings, it told two different stories.  Here is a straightforward translation:

If the cloth has an affliction of skin-disease in it — in a cloth of wool or in a cloth of linen; or in the warp or in the woof for the linen or for the wool; or in leather or in anything crafted of leather. (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:47-48)

And the touch is greenish or reddish in the cloth or in the leather or in the warp or in the woof or in anything crafted of leather — then it is an affliction of skin-disease, and it shall be shown to the priest.  (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:49)

This passage appears to refer to some sort of mildew or fungus that attacks cloth and leather, and resembles a skin disease.  The Torah then gives instructions for the examining priest to conduct tests and make a ruling about the status of the spot on the cloth or leather.  If he determines that it is indeed a skin-disease, he burns the material.  If he determines it is not, he declares it ritually pure and usable.

But the key words in this passage all have alternative meanings:

beged = cloth, garment; deception, treachery, faithlessness

tzara-at = skin disease; depression, discouragement

shti = warp, one kind of woven material; drinking

eirev = woof, weaving; mixed company, mingling

melekhet = craft, thing crafted; mission

or = leather, skin

yerakrak = greenish (from yerak = greens, herbage; spit + rak = thin, only)

adamdam = reddish (from adam = red; human + dam = blood)

Furthermore, wool in the Torah is the material associated with Canaan and the ancestors of the Israelites, while linen is an expensive Egyptian import.  And the first time “skin” appears in the Torah is when God clothes Adam and Eve in the skins of animals before sending them out of Eden.

If we translate the same passage using the alternative meanings of the Hebrew words and the associations embedded in the Torah about wool, linen, and skin (and add connecting phrases  in parentheses), this is what we get :

The faithlessness (of a person who is deceiving someone) results in  an affliction of discouragement.  (This happens) when one is being unfaithful to one’s own heritage or pretending to belong to another culture.  Or (it happens) when one is drinking (to excess), or  mingling (with the wrong people) in one’s own culture or in another culture.  One adopts the behavior of an animal, or goes on a mission that has to do with animal behavior.

And the affliction (feels as if one is) spitting (on oneself), or (as if one has) human blood (on one’s hands.  This feeling comes) while one is being unfaithful, or while one is behaving like an animal, or while one is drinking, or while one is mingling (with the wrong people),  or while one is engaged in any mission regarding animal behavior.   Then one is afflicted with discouragement and depression, and one must show it to the priest.  (Vayikra/Leviticus 13:47-49)

Now the passage refers to the psychological effects of being unfaithful, to a person or to God.  When we realize our own faithlessness is making us depressed, we must reveal ourselves to someone in the role of the priest, someone who can help us.  This person will examine the situation and decide how serious our treachery is.  Then we must either burn up our old lives and start over again, or reform our ways so we can continue our current lives in a pure and honest way.

Which interpretation of the instructions regarding a disease (or depression) in cloth (or faithlessness) is the correct one?  The person who wrote down the original Hebrew probably intended the straightforward, non-psychological meaning.  Yet traditional Jewish commentary on this chapter of Leviticus  insisted that the “disease” afflicting cloth and leather was not natural.  Two famous 12th century authorities who usually approached Torah from very different perspectives, Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides) and Ramban (Rabbi Moses Nachmanides) agreed that this “disease” was actually a supernatural warning from God that the owner was doing some evil.  The problem had to be addressed not only with physical burning or washing, but with personal reform.

I suspect these traditional commentators were influenced by the various alternative meanings of the words in this passage.  Without them, the psychology underneath the arcane ritual might get lost in translation.