Prescriptions for How to React

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

The Recovery From Childbirth

Parshat Tazria opens up with rules for a woman who has given birth; two of Ramban’s explanations of those rules challenge us as to whether we would agree with his perspective. Vayikra 12;4 speaks of two stages of a woman’s return to ordinary life, in terms of ritual purity and impurity. She is, first, a niddah for some time—seven days for a boy, fourteen for a girl; we’ll come back to that—and then has demei taharah for thirty-three or sixty-six days.

Rashi read taharah in its more common sense of ritual purity, according to the Rabbinic tradition that any bleeding during this time will not cause her the usual ritual impurity (such as in terms of engaging in marital relations with her husband). Ramban instead thinks it indicates purity in a cleanliness sense, that she has this time for all the after-birth material to come out, to leave her body cleansed of all that accrued inside it while pregnant.

Once all of that material (which he thinks can come out for that long) is gone, it’s reasonable for her to return to the Beit HaMikdash. Other than her need to stay away from the Temple, though, this material does not affect her status—it’s not tamei, ritually impure.

To me, Ramban’s comment seems to focus on the literal dirt coming out of her; while her body is expelling the material that supported the gestation of a baby, blood and other matter, Ramban seems to have thought the Torah found it inappropriate to show up at the Temple (we’ll see another example of his concern with literal cleanliness in Parshat Kedoshim).

As I write that, I stress that Ramban in no way indicates that the Torah sees this as her fault, or a flaw in her; she’s produced a baby and doing so requires her to get dirty in certain ways. She just cannot return to the Beit HaMikdash until that’s no longer a factor.

Where She Might Be Blamed

Verse seven lets us know that the sheep and bird she was told to bring as sacrifices in verse six would be mekhaper and provide taharahKapparah does not always mean atone in the sense of reaction to sin, and Ramban here suggests that it’s more of a kofer nafshah, a redemption for her soul, a thanks/prayer that she be fully healed from the serious (and, for much of human history, dangerous) physical process she has undergone.

He then mentions the Rabbinic tradition that women in childbirth swear they will never have relations with their husbands again, and these sacrifices atone for that. Ramban thinks that means her oath does not count, since she does it in the throes of agony [these sacrifices would be irrelevant to the question of keeping a valid oath or releasing her from any such oath].  Besides, part of marriage is that partners be available [within reason, which Ramban does not discuss here, but is detailed elsewhere in traditioin] to satisfy each other’s physical needs and wants.

Since the oath itself does not need addressing, Ramban understands that it’s the thoughts that led her to take that oath. Hashem, whom Ramban describes as deep of thought and great of mercy, wants to help her right herself, became the best version of herself she could.

[He does not go further, but I think he means that pain justifies some actions, even if they are not how we would act ordinarily, but not all. When a woman’s struggling to give birth, she’s not held fully accountable for what she says, but she can go too far as well. The Torah helps her remember the conduct to which she should strive, even in extremis, and lets her put the past case where she did not meet that standard behind her.]

Kohanim and Tzara’at

Chapter thirteen of Vayikra opens with Hashem speaking to Moshe and Aharon. Ramban says that Aharon is mentioned because he and his descendants will be in charge of dealing with tzara’at. As the Torah says in the context of the eglah arufah, the kohanim are to rule on all nega’im, all lesions of tzara’at. They will be so in charge that the verse did not tell them to convey this information to the rest of the people; these skin lesions are generally visible, and the kohanim will then require them (force them, Ramban says) to undergo the various rituals and processes associated with tzara’at.

Nor will it take much force, in his view; the Torah introduces it as torat ha-metzora, the rules for one afflicted with tzara’at, without any specific commands attached, because people will want to adhere to the prescribed procedures (to best get rid of their tzara’at).

One more element of the kohen’s centrality to all this comes in verse five, where the Torah describes a lesion as amad be-einav; Rashi gives the simple meaning, that the lesion did not spread (so it might not have to be considered the kind of tzara’at that necessitates a reaction by the person afflicted).

Ramban cites Torat Kohanim Negaim 9;14, which reads the phrase in the sense that the Gemara has it in other contexts, that it stayed the same be-einav, in the eyes of the kohen who saw it the first time. Ramban thinks that means the kohen could judge spread visually, that he did not need to measure the lesion, to be exact about whether it had grown.

Tzara’at in Clothing

There are more examples of how necessary kohanim are to tzara’at, which to me supports an idea Ramban has later in the chapter, verse 47, where the Torah introduces the concept of tzara’at in clothing. He says there’s nothing natural in this or house-tzara’at [they’re not molds or some such, as people sometimes claim]. When the Jewish people act generally properly, Hashem’s Spirit will reside among them to help them succeed physically, in their clothing, and housing. In that atmosphere, the ugliness affecting the soul of a Jew who had begun to descend into sin will show up physically, a sign Hashem is removing Himself (as it were).

That explains the phrasing of 14;14, “I will put a tzara’at lesion in a house;” it’s a direct putting from Hashem. That’s why it only occurs in the Land of Israel (we will see in Parshat Acharei Mot how literally, physically, and metaphysically Ramban thought of Israel as more connected to Hashem than other lands)because only there is Hashem’s Presence at a level for this reaction to occur. Ramban believes—he does not cite a source—that clothing tzara’at also happens only in Israel, for this same reason.

It’s all a reminder that tzara’at, traditionally, was not natural, was certainly not the physical disease we call leprosy; it was a supernatural intrusion on human experience, to remind people when they were falling away from what they could be, and was therefore completely overseen by kohanim, Hashem’s most direct representatives.

There’s more to be said on all of this, but it’s a double parsha, so let’s move on to Metzora.

About Gidon Rothstein

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