A Spiritual Vacuum
דבר אל בני ישראל לאמר אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר וטמאה שבעת ימים… ואם נקבה תלד וטמאה שבעים
“Speak to the children of Israel, saying: When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be tameh for seven days… If she gives birth to a female, she shall be tameh for two weeks.” (Vayikra 12: 2, 5)
Tumah (ritual impurity) is a spiritual status that impacts a person’s involvement in various areas of Jewish life. Widely misunderstood (and often mistranslated as ‘unclean’), tumah is a deficit of sorts – generally associated with death or contact with other spiritually impure objects or people.
On the face of it, it seems odd that the Torah would ascribe a spiritual deficit to childbirth – a natural and especially beautiful event. The law is that the mother is impure for only seven days when a male is born and fourteen days when a female is born, which seems even more perplexing.
Citing a teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk 1787-1859), Rabbi Yissochar Frand explains that this impression stems from a misunderstanding of tumah. Contrary to common belief, tumah is not the flip side of kedusha (sanctity or holiness). Instead, kedusha is a spiritual force that is present when man is most similar to G-d – when he is a potential creator. Tumah represents the vacuum that is created when that potential is removed.
While alive, the human being is holy; he is a power-house of creative potential. When he dies, that potential ceases and tumah sets in. A human corpse, in fact, acquires the highest degree of tumah precisely because the void is so great. A woman during pregnancy is most similar to G-d and, in a sense, is at the peak of sanctity. She is not only a potential creator; she is a creator in the literal sense of the word. Once the child is born however, the woman returns to being a regular human being. The sudden absence of her creative potential creates a void only to be filled with tumah.
With this insight, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (1696-1743), author of the Ohr haChaim, explains the longer period of impurity after the birth of a girl. When a woman is pregnant with a girl, an emerging creator, her degree of sanctity is at an all-time high. The void, or tumah, created when she is no longer pregnant is thus proportionally larger than the vacuum created following the birth of a boy.
The laws of tumah teach us an important lesson about our own sanctity. There is a well-known metaphor that the life of a Jew is like going up a ‘down’ escalator. To retain our sanctity, we must always strive to fulfill more mitzvot and seize every opportunity for spiritual growth. Neglecting such occasions may involve more than just “missing an opportunity.” It may be an invitation for spiritual decline.
Rabbi Yosef Gutfarb of Jerusalem was always scrupulous about praying with a minyan (quorum). One night, he returned home at 3 am and realized that he hadn’t prayed the evening services. He quickly headed to Zichron Moshe, a well-known Jerusalem synagogue with a reputation for round-the-clock minyanim. When he arrived, he was dismayed to find only one other congregant – eight short for a minyan! Undeterred, Rabbi Gutfarb called a local taxi company and ordered eight taxis to the synagogue, stressing to the dispatcher that they all be Israeli drivers. As each taxi arrived, Rabbi Gutfarb instructed each driver to turn on his meter and join him inside for the evening services. At the conclusion of the prayers, the Rabbi offered payment and profusely thanked each of the taxi drivers for enabling him to maintain his commitment to praying with a minyan.
Rabbi Gutfarb was clearly not obligated to go to such lengths and could have easily justified praying at home. He understood however how significant it was to maintain his spiritual standard. Rather than availing himself of a legitimate “pass” and potential spiritual void, he went the extra mile.
While the Rabbi’s approach may seem beyond our reach, we would do well to follow his lead and make sure to seize every opportunity for spiritual involvement.
The Purpose of the Kohen’s Declaration
וראה הכהן את הנגע בעור הבשר ושער בנגע הפך לבן ומראה הנגע עמק מעור בשרו נגע צרעת הוא וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו
“The Kohen shall look at the affliction on the skin of his flesh. If hair in the affliction has changed to white, and the affliction’s appearance is deeper than the skin of the flesh, it is a tzara’at affliction; the Kohen shall look at it and declare him contaminated.” (Vayikra 13:3)
It is interesting to note that all “impurities” in the Torah take effect immediately upon contact with the impure item (e.g. a dead body, an impure person). On the other hand, the determination of the status of tzara’at (a spiritual blemish with physical symptoms appearing on the skin, often mistranslated as “leprosy”) isn’t dependent on the onset of the skin affliction or even upon the evaluation of the Kohen (Priest), but upon the Kohen who verbally proclaims, “Tamei,” – impure – which causes the commencement of the impurity. Why is this type of impurity determined in this unique manner?
The following story can shed light on this question. One day in Jerusalem, two old friends encountered one another on the bus. Excited at the opportunity to catch up with one another, they sat down together and began talking. In the middle of their conversation, one of them casually mentioned the name of an old friend. The other replied, “You didn’t hear? She just got engaged last week to so-and-so!”
Hearing this news left her friend both elated and shocked. “That’s so wonderful that she finally got engaged, but to him!? Who would have ever thought that she would settle for a person with so many problems?” Taking the bait, the one who had shared the news agreed and proceeded to list problems not only with the boy, but also with his family’s reputation. The conversation went back-and-forth, with each of them heaping more and more question-marks on the match.
After five minutes, a woman who was sitting behind them noticed her stop approaching and started to get up. Turning to the two young gossipers, she remarked, “I know you didn’t realize this, but I’m the aunt of the girl you’ve been discussing. We obviously didn’t know about these serious allegations against the boy and his family. As soon as I get home, I’m going to call my niece to convince her to break the engagement.”
Aghast at the unexpected turn of events, the friends begged her not to do so. They explained, “We were just innocently chatting about recent events. We didn’t mean many of the things we said, and most of them were exaggerated. Please don’t break-up this match because of our poor judgment.”
As the bus reached her stop, the wise woman paused before exiting and taught them an invaluable lesson. “You have nothing to worry about. I’m not really her aunt … but I could have been!”
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, answers our original question by explaining that one of the primary causes of tzara’at is the speaking of lashon hara – disparaging speech. Measure-for-measure, the status of its impurity is dependent upon the speech of the Kohen who rules upon it. Many times a gossiper justifies his actions by claiming that mere words can’t harm another person. Therefore, just as the two friends learned on the bus, we hint to him how much damage a person’s words can cause by showing him that his status hinges upon the verbal proclamation of the Kohen.
All Means Nothing
וראה הכהן והנה כסתה הצרעת את כל בשרו… כלו הפך לבן טהור הוא
The Kohen shall look, and behold! – the affliction has covered his entire flesh, then he shall declare the affliction to be pure… (Vayikra 13:13)
The portion of Tazria includes a detailed discussion of an affliction known as Tzara’at, one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Torah. Because Tzara’at afflicts the skin, it is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. Nachmonides explains, however, that Tzara’at was not a physical malady, but a spiritual ailment that manifested itself physically on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgressions, the most common of which was lashon hara,or gossip, and slander.
The Torah goes into great detail when discussing the various forms of Tzara’at that may exhibit themselves on a person’s body. Should a person discover a suspicious-looking patch of skin, a Kohen must be brought in to examine the affected area. There are several stipulations that must be fulfilled in order for the Kohen to declare the person spiritually impure and afflicted with Tzara’at, and there are times when the individual must be quarantined and then reexamined. However, one situation is absolutely clear-cut: If the Kohen looks and sees that the person’s entire body is covered with what appears to be Tzara’at, the law is that the Kohen must declare the person pure.
At first glance, this seems completely counter-intuitive. If a small patch of Tzara’at renders a person impure, certainly this should apply when the person’s entire body is covered. On closer consideration, it becomes clear that the Torah is teaching a fundamental lesson about the Kohen’s relationship to those in need of spiritual guidance. If the Kohen sees someone as totally blemished, without even a single redeeming speck, he must not be seeing the person properly, and therefore is not in a position to declare him “afflicted,” or, even more significantly, to help him. Only when the Kohen sees some healthy skin, i.e., some good in the person, may he then declare him “impure.” In such a case, the declaration is the beginning of the individual’s journey back to spiritual health, rather than a permanent judgment about his status.
A great Chassidic Rabbi used to lead his congregation each Yom Kippur for the Kol Nidre prayers. One year, everyone stood quietly waiting, but the Rabbi wasn’t moving from his place. He seemed entirely lost in thought, and no one dared to disturb him. Finally after a protracted wait, he finally began in his usual manner. His followers were intrigued. After Yom Kippur, a few of them approached the Rabbi to ask him what caused the long delay. The Rabbi explained:
“I try to never lead the Kol Nidre prayer until I can find one area in which each person is better than I am. Only with the recognition that we are all flawed, and that some of us are greater in some areas, and some in others, can I approach G-d with my prayers. This year, just before I was about to begin, someone walked in who behaved so rudely that I simply could not find any redeeming qualities in him. After thinking about it for a while, however, I realized that he was in fact greater than I in one respect: If I was as rude as he is, I would never come for Yom Kippur services! Once I came to this realization, I was able to begin the prayers!”
In one way or another, each of us serves as a mentor or guide to someone else at some point in our lives. It may be to our children, a younger co-worker, a study partner, or friend. Sometimes we come up against a situation in which the other person appears beyond hope. However, this week’s portion demonstrates that the status of being beyond hope is more of a problem with the mentor than the person in need of guidance. If our view of someone else is so tainted that we cannot find any redeeming qualities, it is a sign that we are not viewing his situation – or our relationship with that person – properly. Finding the good in a person is the seed from which all of our efforts on their behalf can bear fruit.
Outside the Camp
בדד ישב מחוץ למחנה מושבו
“He shall dwell alone, outside the camp should be his dwelling place” (Vayikra 13:46).
Our sages teach that an individual contracted tzara’at (a skin disease in some ways similar to leprosy) as a punishment for the sin of lashon hara — speaking negatively about others. As a result, the afflicted individual had to be removed from the rest of the people, to sit in solitude until he was healed.
Rashi tells us that the person could not even stay together with others who were ritually impure, but rather had to be kept in total, absolute isolation. The goal was to root out the inherent, core “affliction” of this person. Instead of being focused on other people and all their faults, he should have been paying attention to himself, concentrating on how he could grow and improve.
Though there was great celebration among Jews at the time of the creation of the State of Israel, there was also great fear. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, Israel and her people were under immediate and constant attack. During this period, one of the students of Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (known as the Brisker Rav) went to his venerable teacher and said, “I know why all this bloodshed has befallen us; it is because of the desecration of the holy Sabbath in the Land. If only more people would observe the Sabbath, our troubles would disappear.”
The great rabbi turned to his student and reminded him of the story of Jonah. Tasked with warning the wicked people of Nineveh to change their ways, Jonah instead fled to the sea from before G-d. When Jonah stood on the ship as it was being tossed and turned in the stormy sea, he looked around and realized that he was standing among a band of idol worshipers; not good people, not even neutral ones, but idol worshipers! It would have been so easy for Jonah to ignore his own faults and responsibilities and point at the company in which he found himself as the reason for the devastating tempest. Instead, he ultimately admitted that, “It is because of me that this storm has befallen you.” Though his companions were steeped in idolatry — arguably the worst of all sins — Jonah was able to look at himself and claim responsibility.
This is the invaluable lesson that Rabbi Soloveitchik taught his student. It’s always easy to look at others and judge them; indeed, we oftentimes feel better about ourselves when we do. But our “healing” and redemption will not be brought any closer by whispering into our friends’ ears all the things that they or others need to do to fix themselves. Instead, we need to look inward, to take stock of our own deeds and, ultimately, our misdeeds. Just as the person suffering from tzara’at is freed from his own personal exile, so, too, we can hope to look toward our national redemption when we can reflect on our own service of G-d, while encouraging others to join along.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Why would giving birth to a child, usually thought of as a beautiful and incomparable act of bringing new life into the world, render a mother ritually impure (Vayikra 12:1-5)? (Mishmeres Ariel by Rabbi Shmaryahu Arieli)
Q: The Torah discusses the laws regarding an “Adam” (person) who has tzara’at on his skin (Vayikra 13:2). The Holy Zohar teaches that of the many Hebrew words used to describe a person, the word אדם (Adam) is used to connote a respected individual. Why is a person who has sinned and brought tzara’at on himself referred to with an expression signifying importance?
A: Rabbi Nissan Alpert explains that a person isn’t measured by his mistakes. All people are human and are prone to err from time to time. Rather, a person’s worth is measured by whether he learns from his mistakes. A Torah scholar who is content with the level he has reached and has no ambitions to continue improving himself can hardly be said to be a great person. On the other hand, a person who works to grow so as not to repeat his sins is certainly to be respected. In our case, although the person was stricken with tzara’at, if he comes to a Kohen (Priest) to understand what he did wrong and to learn how to correct his ways, the Torah teaches us that such a person is extremely important and deserving of our respect! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
If a person is afflicted with tzara’at (a spiritual blemish with physical symptoms appearing on the skin, often mistranslated as “leprosy”) on his entire body, from his head to his feet, this would seem to indicate that he has sinned terribly. Why would the Torah rule (Vayikra 13:12-13) that such an individual is pure and need not go through any process of healing or repentance? (Rabbi Reuven Zelig Bengis quoted in Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha)
Tazria discusses the laws of ritual purification for both a woman who had recently given birth and for a man who became afflicted with tzara’at. Rashi asks why the laws regarding humans (in this week’s Torah portion) follow the laws regarding animals and birds (last week’s Torah portion, Tzav, which discusses the laws regarding the animals one may or may not eat). Quoting Rabbi Simlai, Rashi explains that the order follows the pattern of creation; just as human beings were created after animals and birds, so, too, does the Torah relate the laws about a human’s purification after relating the laws of kosher and non-kosher animals and birds.
- Why does the fact that animals and birds were created before humans have any bearing on the order in which they are mentioned in Torah with regard to the seemingly unrelated laws described here?
- Why, in fact, were animals and birds created before man?
Though tzara’at, a skin affliction, was somewhat similar to leprosy, it was entirely spiritual in origin. Tzara’at appeared on the skin in white patches and had different marks based on the skin tone and hair present at the site of the affliction. Our sages teach us that tzara’at was a Divine punishment for certain improprieties, among them: slander, haughtiness, tale bearing, and stinginess (Eruchin 16a). Because of its spiritual nature, tzara’at could only be diagnosed in a spiritual manner by a Kohen (priest).
- White is the color that represents purity and holiness, as in the Yom Kippur service, when a scarlet cloth would turn white when Israel’s atonement was achieved. Additionally, G-d’s presence is described as being white at the revelation at Sinai (Shemot 24:10). Why, then, might white also be a color that represents impurity?
- The Talmud (Brachot 5b) teaches us that the location of the blemish was a factor in determining the necessary atonement for the sin. A publicly visible blemish represented a sin in need of greater atonement, since the subsequent shame was that much greater. Curiously, one whose skin was affected in its entirety was considered pure! How might we understand the paradox of an affliction over the entire body being declared pure, while a small blemish was considered impure? (Vayikra 13:12-13)
The Talmud (Eruchin 16a) lists seven sins which can cause tzara’at: evil gossip, murder, false oaths, illicit relationships, arrogance, theft, and stinginess.
The most well-known causes of tzara’at is lashon hara (evil gossip). Our sages teach that the punishment for a person who listens to lashon hara is even greater than that of the speaker. How can this be understood?
There are seven sins that can cause tzara’at. What common thread is there between these sins, and in what way might tzara’at be an appropriate punishment for them?
And the person with tzara’at in whom there is the affliction – his garments shall be rent, the hair of his head shall be unshorn, and he shall cloak himself up to his lips. He is to call out: “Contaminated, contaminated!” All the days that the affliction is upon him, he shall remain contaminated. (Vayikra 13:45-46)
Our sages tell us that tzara’at was a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady, brought about in its most extreme form because of the sin of lashon hara, speaking disparagingly of others. Since the metzora (one diagnosed with tzara’at) abused his power of speech, sowing strife and distancing people from one another, it is fitting that he too should suffer the effects of isolation.
- The various punishments recorded in the Torah are not intended to serve as revenge for the sin; they are measures that will hopefully restore the person to the correct path. What then is the goal of his dwelling in isolation, tearing his garments and humiliating himself by calling out “contaminated, contaminated”? Isn’t there a risk that this will make him even more bitter and altogether alienate him?
- There is a law that we may not destroy anything of value and be wasteful (see Devarim 20:19-20). Why would the Torah say that his garments be torn? Why wouldn’t this be considered wasteful?
- Now that we no longer have tzara’at (which ended following the destruction of the Temple) to encourage the gossiper to change his ways, would you support the idea of somehow creating a device that gets triggered when a person speaks loshon hora (ex: an amber light would flash on his dashboard)? Why might such a device not be a good idea?
When dealing with tzara’at on a person’s body, often the first diagnosis can be a pronunciation of complete tzara’at, which requires the person to immediately go through the purification process. But when tzara’at appears on clothing, the Torah always mandates a week of waiting before pronouncing it as tzara’at (Vayikra 13:50). Why would the Torah seem to give more leniency with regard to tzara’at on the clothing than to tzara’at on the body? (Orach Chayim 13:50)
According to the Talmud, tzara’at is the result of lashon hara (gossiping and speaking disparagingly about others). The Medrash (Medrash Rabba, Vayikra 16:2) relates the following story: A traveling peddler hawked his wares announcing, “Who wants the elixir of life?” Rabbi Yanai approached him and asked what he was selling. The peddler told Rabbi Yanai that he did not need what he was selling. Instead, he gave him the Book of Psalms, and showed him the verse (Psalms 34) “Who is one who desires life? Guard your tongue from speaking evil, turn away from sin, and do good.” Rabbi Yanai said, “I have studied this verse all my life and did not grasp its meaning until this peddler explained it to me!”
- If the “life” mentioned in the verse “Who wants life” refers to a peaceful life, why would a man as great as Rabbi Yanai not have grasped its meaning before hearing the peddler’s call to attract customers? Why was it not obvious to Rabbi Yanai that life will be will be more tranquil if we refrain from speaking badly about others?
- If the verse refers to physical life, why would refraining from lashon hara extend a person’s life? If it is a reward for observing the commandment, why should performing this commandment result in a longer life, as opposed to any other commandment?
Q: Parshat Shemini concludes with a verse which discusses differentiating between pure (kosher) and impure (non-kosher) animals. Parshat Tazria begins by discussing the laws of a woman who gives birth to a male child. What is the connection between these two topics?
A: When he was six years old, the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman) was asked this question. He immediately walked to the bookshelf, brought the Talmud Tractate Yoma to the table, and proceeded to open to folio 82a.
The Talmud there discusses an episode in which two women were pregnant on Yom Kippur. Both smelled a pungent aroma which caused them to be seized with an overwhelming need to eat immediately. The Sages suggested that somebody whisper in the ear of each woman a reminder that it was Yom Kippur. One woman was able to regain her senses and successfully completed the fast, while the other continued to demand food. Because it was a question of saving her life, she was permitted to eat. The Talmud concludes that the first woman gave birth to the righteous Rabbi Yochanan, while the second woman gave birth to the wicked Shabsai Otzar Peiri, who used to hoard fruits to drive up the prices, thereby causing untold suffering to the poor.
The Vilna Gaon suggested that the juxtaposition may be read as hinting to this episode. Our parsha ends by teaching that a separation between the pure and the impure will be caused by the difference between the pregnant woman (often referred to in the Talmud as חיה -whose root meaning is life) who eats (on Yom Kippur) and the one who doesn’t, and Parshat Tazriabegins by clarifying that the difference in purity will be manifested in the sons they will bear! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
A MATTER OF SURVIVAL
“On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” Vayikra 12:3
The Eighth Day – “Why must we wait until the eighth day to circumcise the child? ‘[This demonstrates] how great Shabbat is that an infant may not be circumcised until he has lived through a Shabbat.’” – Mechiltah, Shmot
Lived Through Shabbat – Before infusing the child with the sanctity of the Brit Milah, the child must first undergo a Shabbat encounter, only after which point is he spiritually equipped to be circumcised.
Lived Through Shabbat – Before undergoing circumcision, a child must be healthy and vigorous. This vigor is acquired only on Shabbat, similar to the universe which did not achieve stability and permanence until Shabbat was created. – Or HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim Ibn Atar)
Circumcision is similar to a Korbon [temple-offering] in that both of them beget atonement for the Jewish people. Just as a korbon does not atone unless the animal is at least eight days old [Vayikra 22:27], so too, circumcision cannot atone unless the infant is at least eight days old. Just as those who merit atonement through the korbon partake of a meal, so too, the Brit Milah is accompanied by a festive meal. – Rabbeinu Bachya
The Eighth Day – This verse essentially repeats that which is already stated, “At the age of eight days every male among you must be circumcised, throughout your generations…” [Bereishit 17:12]. This teaches us that the circumcision must be performed on the eighth day even if it occurs on Shabbat. – Chizkuni – See Talmud, Shabbat [132a] that derives this from the extra word, “U’Bayom” [On the day].
This verse contains a total of five words, similar to the verse [Bereishit 2:1] that introduces the very concept of Shabbat. This is an allusion to the fact that circumcision overrides the Shabbat. – Baal HaTurim (RabbiYa’akov ben Asher, 1270-ca 1340)
Just as the universe depends upon Shabbat for its survival, the Jewish people depend upon Brit Milah for theirs. This explains, in part, why Brit Milah overrides the sanctity of Shabbat, similar to all instances in which we must violate the Shabbat when it concerns a matter of life and death. So vital is Brit Milah for the spiritual survival of the Jewish people, that it must be performed on Shabbat although it entails a violation of Shabbat.
“When her purification period for a son or a daughter is complete, she shall bring to the Kohen, to the Tent of Meeting entrance, a yearling sheep for a burnt-offering, and a young common dove, or a turtle dove for a sin-offering. The Kohen shall offer [them] before G-d and atone for [the woman], thus cleansing her of the blood coming from her womb…” Vayikra 12:6-7
Atone for the woman – What sin could this woman possibly have committed that should require her to offer a sin-offering and a burnt-offering after giving birth to a child? When a woman is in the throes of childbirth, she experiences terrible pain, fear, and sometimes life-threatening conditions. This can cause her to wish that she had never become pregnant and swear to herself that she will never do so again. Of course, once the delivery is past and her health is restored, she forgets all about her negative feelings and the oath she made under duress. She continues to lead her life as before. Her offerings atone for the oath she uttered under duress and has no intention of adhering to them, once calm has been restored. – Talmud, Tractate Niddah 31b
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the sin she requires atonement for is not one that she herself committed, but rather, a sin committed by her ancestor, Eve. Prior to partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, children were conceived and born without temptation or difficulty, just as trees give off fruit without a struggle or any form of passionate engagement. It was only once Eve sinned that the need for temptation arose and that women were smitten with the difficulties and dangers of childbirth. The sin of the Tree of Knowledge entailed both thought and deed, and therefore, a new mother must bring two offerings, the burnt-offering to atone for the sinful thoughts, and the sin-offering to atone for Eve’s sinful actions.
CANNIBALISM IN THE TORAH
“When a person will have in the skin of his flesh a spot of intense whiteness …he shall be brought before Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim.” Vayikra 13:2
In The Skin…A Spot – “Rabbi Yosi ben Zimrah said, ‘Negaim [skin afflictions] afflict one who speaks Lashon Harrah [slander].’” – Talmud, Eiruchin 15b
It is interesting to note that this parsha almost immediately follows the parsha that discusses kosher and non-kosher animals. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter zt”l explained this arrangement as a rebuke against those who are exceedingly particular about which animals they consume, but give nary a thought to the people they “consume” with their slanderous chatter. An animal, prior to its consumption must be slaughtered in meticulous fashion, whereas people can be “eaten alive” through libelous and defamatory speech. By juxtaposing the two Torah portions, the Torah is telling us that just as we must be careful not to eat an animal unless it meets specific criteria, we must exercise similar caution before consuming someone with our speech.
“And the person with Tzara’at (leprosy caused by speaking lashon hara) in whom there is the affliction…All the days that the affliction is upon him he shall remain contaminated…he shall dwell in isolation – his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Vayikra 13:45,46
His Dwelling Shall Be In Isolation – Why is a metzorah (person afflicted with tzara’at) singled out to live in isolation for the duration of his affliction? This is the Torah’s way of underscoring the enormity of his crime of Lashon Hara (evil speech) which caused his victims to be shunned by others. In this manner, he is made aware of the dreadful consequences of his actions which he casually dismissed as “just a few words” and refused to consider their devastation effects. – Rashi
“There are four types of people who are considered as dead…a metzorah…” – Talmud, Nedarim 64b
It is commonly believed that the comparison of a metzorah to a dead person is in recognition of the difficulty entailed in removing the contamination and the terrible shame it causes the afflicted. The reality, however, is that the difficulty notwithstanding, it still does not compare to death: a far worse fate. Indeed, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l, explained that the comparison hinges upon the metzorah’s obligation to dwell in isolation: a fate as miserable as death itself. One who lives alone, without friends, and without the ability to reach out to others to offer and receive solace, is as one who is dead, so lacking is he in the essentials of life itself!
“And if there shall be a tzara’at affliction in a garment, in a woolen or linen garment.” Vayikra 13:47
Woolen or linen garment – All garments or useful implements of these materials including curtains and tablecloths, can become contaminated. – Maimonides, Tumas Tzaraas, 13:8
Woolen or linen garment – Our sages taught that only the wool of a kosher animal can become contaminated by tzara’at (a spiritual condition with physical manifestations often mistranslated as leprosy). A mixed garment follows the majority of the wool. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Tzara’at affliction in a garment – Only a natural colored garment can be contaminated with tzara’at discoloration. A dyed garment cannot become contaminated. – Toras Kohanim
Sforno explains that afflictions of the garments are an unnatural phenomena and not a result of any physical defect in the garment. Their occurrence was limited to a time in our history when we, the Jewish nation, were in perfect accord with the Almighty and were fitting hosts to His Divine Presence. When an individual sinned and displayed contempt for the Divine Presence, the Almighty would signal this by afflicting his garments with unsightly discolorations. Nachmanides adds that this is the reason that only an un-dyed garment could be afflicted. A discoloration on a dyed garment would quickly be dismissed as a defect in the dying process and the signal would be missed. Unfortunately, concludes Sforno, once the generations deteriorated and this was no longer an effective means of communicating with the people, the Almighty discontinued this practice and today there are even people who deny that it ever existed.
Hey, I Never Knew That
The Torah portion this week discusses in detail the disease known as tzara’at. This is usually identified as leprosy, and it is often, mistakenly, assumed that the laws surrounding the disease are designed to prevent infection. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the disease in the Torah is not leprosy, and that the laws are designed to be moral and spiritual therapies for one who transgressed morally and spiritually against his fellow Jew by gossiping or slandering. His separation from society is not a medical quarantine but a reaction to his contribution to the breakdown of society by his sinful speech. He quotes the following from a British government report on leprosy in 1868 by the Royal College of Physicians: “The all-important question for the government is whether this disease is contagious or not. There can be no doubt that the Jews considered it to be so, and that the strictest quarantine was imposed upon those who contracted it. Nevertheless, it seems probable from several indications that the Jews of old classed all skin diseases as leprous… It is a remarkable fact, moreover, that present-day Jews seem to be less liable to the attacks of contagious illnesses than their European neighbors, which may be due to a trace which still remains from these ceremonious practices which exercised great influence on the physical forces and energies of the ancient Jews.”
The mitzvah of circumcision is mentioned at the beginning of the Torah portion this week (Vayikra 12:3) despite the fact that it already appears as a commandment to Abraham and his descendants (Bereishit 17:9-14). A possible explanation for this repetition is found in Maimonides’s commentary on the Mishnah (Chullin ch.7). He writes that we do not perform commandments or avoid prohibitions because our ancestors practiced these laws; rather our obligation to fulfill the Torah stems from the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The fact that Abraham performed the mitzvah of circumcision does not obligate us at all; the fact that the children of Jacob refrained from eating the sciatic nerve (gid hanasheh) does not prohibit us at all. Judaism is not ancestor worship or merely a tradition; it is based on the mass revelation at Mt. Sinai, witnessed by the entire Jewish people in which G-d obligated them and their descendants to keep the Torah.
Word of the Week
“…a blemish on his head or בזקן —bazakan…” (Vayikra 13:29). זקן—zakan, means beard and, since it is a sign of age, it is related to and written with the same letters (but with slightly different pronunciation) as זקן—zaken—old or zoken—old age. The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) understands that zaken refers to one who has acquired wisdom and reads the word as an acronym for “zeh kanah chochmah” (Rashi)—“this one has acquired wisdom.” The Zohar (3:141a-b) also sees the beard as a symbol of Torah wisdom, and it has been associated with the classic appearance of a rabbi or scholar for much of history (see Sefer Hadras Panim).
The verse in the Torah portion this week states, “And on the eighth day you shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin” (Vayikra 12:3). The Talmud (Shabbat 132b) derives from this verse that although circumcision itself is a desecration of the Sabbath, nevertheless if the eighth day falls on Shabbat, the child must be circumcised. Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wozner was asked about delaying a brit that fell on Shabbat because most of the guests, and probably the parents of the child as well, would drive to the brit, and hence having the brit on Shabbat would cause mass desecration of Shabbat (Responsa Shevet Halevi 1:205). His response was that it is indeed appropriate to delay the brit until after Shabbat. Even though the Torah permits the brit itself on Shabbat, desecration of the Shabbat day for anything other than the actual circumcision itself is prohibited. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:156) was asked if the mohel (the one who performs the circumcision) should not do a brit where he would have to be in an environment where desecration of Shabbat was taking place. His response was that while one should try not to be in a place where Shabbat is being desecrated, however, one should certainly not delay the mitzvah of circumcision in order to avoid this situation.
Parsha at a Glance
The parsha of Tazria continues the discussion of the laws of tumah and taharah (ritual cleanliness), emphasizing that a Jew must stay away from all sources of defilement. While last week we concluded the reading with the laws of purity relating to food, i.e. kashrut, this week is devoted to laws of purity relating to the body itself.
The Torah delineates the laws relating to a woman after childbirth. Male infants must be circumcised at eight days old.
If a person notices white or pink patches on his skin or dark red or green on his garments or home, a Kohen is summoned to determine whether the man has been inflicted with tzara’at (a spiritual malady, often incorrectly translated as leprosy). After a seven-day quarantine, depending on an increase or decrease in size and change in color, the Kohen will verify if the disease is tzara’at or not.
One who has tzara’at must:
- Remain in isolation outside of the camp (separated even from those who had been expelled for ritual impurity)
- Rend his garments
- Refrain from cutting his hair
- Cover his mouth
Inflicted areas on garments and homes must be removed. If the tzara’at reoccurs, the garments and homes must be destroyed.