Finding Purification

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

(Rabbi Rothstein will be co-chairing a Yom Iyun on the Teachings of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Sunday April 29, 9:30am-12:30pm. Keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Speakers include Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein and Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein.)

An Obligation to Purify

The parsha opens by saying that on the day that an afflicted metzora is ready to become tahor, ve-huva el hakohen, he shall be brought to the kohen. Ramban first points out that his taharah, his leaving this status, must be overseen by a kohen, one more example of what we saw in Tazria, that tzara’at is a kohen-controlled experience.

He then quotes Torat Kohanim 1;3, which reads ve-huva, he shall be brought, as she-lo yishheh, he cannot/should not delay. To Ramban, that implies that we would force him to go to the kohen, which he then extends to a zav or zavah, whose rules are laid out in the next chapter.

He closes with the words ve-hu hanachon, that’s the correct reading. For Ramban, someone who becomes a metzora, zav, or zavah is not allowed to just live with it [whereas, for example, I know of no rule that requires a Jew to remove tum’at met, the ritual impurity associated with contact with the deceased, unless one wishes to visit the Beit HaMikdash and/or partake of foods that must be maintained be-tahaharah]. These are statuses we must see as negative, must strive to remove as soon as we can.

The Birds of Tzara’at

Part of the cleansing ceremony for the metzora involves birds; Rashi linked that to the tradition that tzara’at punishes lashon hara, slanderous speech. Birds are known for their chatter, so that their use reminds the person s/he needs to avoid such chatter for the future. Ramban objects that the verse refers to these birds as tehorot, which means that the Torah needed to exclude non-kosher birds; tzippor thus seems to include all birds, many of which do not sing.

He suggests that tzippor is more limited than of, bird, that tzippor means small birds that chirp in the morning (he connects tzippor to the Aramaic tzafra, morning, and toShofetim 7;4, which uses yitzfor as a verb right next to the idea of waking early in the morning). He also writes at length to argue that birds that qualify as deror (which the verse requires) all chirp and chatter as well. So that Rashi is ultimately right, once we know that the types of birds that can be used for this ceremony are those that do use their voices very frequently.

[I think I noticed this Rashi and Ramban because they both assume what many of us do, that tzara’at is a reaction to lashon hara. Yet Arachin 16a records R. Shmuel bar Nachmani’s quote of R. Yochanan, that tzara’at can result from seven sins. I have what to say about that, but Ramban does not address it; I will restrict myself to mentioning that Gemara].

Lifetime Vigilance

The required firsts response to house-tzara’at is to dig out and dispose of all the affected parts of the house. 14;43 raises the possibility of the lesion’s return, described as “yashuv…u-farach, will return… and flower.”

We could imagine that the return of the tzara’at implies that we had not gotten it all out the first time, that we thought we had removed it all, but there was spread we had not noticed. Ramban does not accept that. In bodily tzara’at, which is never removed, a return could mean that what looked like healing was actually the tzara’at going dormant for awhile, but then returning.

With house tzar’at, he thinks the Torah means “return” only in the sense that tzara’at appears again where it once was. As Torat Kohanim 7;1 says it, it’s like a man retuning to a place he had once been—while he was away, he was fully gone, but now he’s come back.

Tzara’at that appeared anywhere in that house, ever, would be treated as “return,” and the house would have to be destroyed. For Ramban, once Hashem brings tzara’at to a house, the cause of that tzar’at stays there forever, in case Hashem sees fit to punish this homeowner again.

It’s lifelong vigilance, a wakeup call that whatever led to this warning will always be out there, that the person should always remember the risk s/he runs that Hashem will bring the higher form of punishment for whichever sin led to this tzara’at.

Natural and Unnatural Illnesses

In chapter fifteen, the Torah lays out rules for a zav, a man who has emissions similar to sexual ejaculations. Ramban to 15;11 says he becomes tamei because this is contagious, and he needs to bring a sacrifice when it’s over to thank Hashem for his healing. He also needs a chatat to atone for the sin that led to this, that that sin not cause further illness.

Four interesting assumptions: that zav for a man is an illness, that the Torah sometimes prescribes tum’ah to restrict contagion (a sort of quarantining), that illness is sometimes the result of sin (and yet such an illness could also be contagious), and that unatoned sin can lead to further bouts of illness.

For her part, a woman can become a zavah. For all that that’s the feminine form of zav, the symptoms are completely different. The zavah experiences bleeding at a time when it cannot be seen as ordinary menstrual flow. Natural such bleeding also leads to ritual impurity, being a niddah [Ramban does not explain why, but it might have to do with his focus on cleanliness], but only for the seven days of natural flow. Once it ended, she would go to mikveh, and that was it.

Should the bleeding happen when it should not, or continue beyond seven days, it could no longer be seen as natural, and she enters a similar protocol to the zav (it is, again, the presence of an unnatural bodily experience that indicates illness, sin, and the need for sacrificial atonement).

The Torah does not mention immersion in mikveh when a woman’s being a zavah ends, because it has already compared her to a zav, so the rules that apply to him apply to her. That’s not the whole story, though, because the zav must immerse in mayim chayyim, naturally flowing water, whereas the zavah goes to mikveh, a collected body of water. Ramban thinks Chazal inferred that from 15;28’s saying ve-achar tithar, that after she counts seven days without any bleeding, she will become ritually pure. They saw that as an unnecessary phrasing, and took it to give her more options for attaining ritual purity.

Zav and zavah, for Ramban, are illnesses that straddle the line between natural and not. The zav is closer to supernatural, but a zavah’s illness expresses itself in a phenomenon that at other times (or in other amounts) would be fully natural. For all that they are parallels of each other, their rules are slightly different to account for this fundamental difference between them.

But along with the metzora and the house that once experienced tzara’at, these are experiences Ramban understood the Torah to require us to avoid, to make sure we live lives of at least these kinds of taharah, of ritual purity.

About Gidon Rothstein

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