by R. Gidon Rothstein
Although it is a double portion, Tazri’a/Metzora does us the favor of focusing much of its attention on one topic, tzara’at. We learn bodily tzara’at, commonly but incorrectly translated as leprosy, clothing tzara’at, and house tzara’at.
The Spiritual Roots of Tzar’at
The Torah signals tzara’at’s spiritual/metaphysical nature—as opposed to being a primarily physical matter– in many ways. Ramban notes chapter thirteen of Vayikra opens with Gd speaking to Moshe and Aharon. In his view, the Torah mentions Aharon because he and his descendants will be in charge of all issues connected with tzara’at.
The kohanim rule on all lesions, and the Torah never tells Moshe to convey these rules to the people at large. All the people need to know is to bring their concerns to a kohen. They will want to, he thinks, because they will want to be rid of the tzara’at.
Rashi gives legal elements of tzara’at I think support a nonphysical interpretation. On 13;3, he points out the Torah defined a hair within a lesion as proof of tzara’at only if the hair turned white after the lesion formed. In addition, verse fourteen speaks of the day on which live flesh is found within the lesion (another sign of ritual impurity), telling Rashi there are days on which a kohen will not check a lesion to see whether it counts as tzara’at, such as during the week of wedding celebrations for a groom. The idea we can choose to ignore a tzara’at suggests it is not primarily physical.
Onkelos puts the focus on the spiritual in another way. When the Torah says u-vasar ki yihyeh vo ve-oro shehin, 13;8, it uses the word for flesh having an inflammation. Onkelos writes ve-enash, a person, where in the rest of the section, he translates the word basar, flesh, as bisra, flesh. Some versions of Onkelos had it here as well, but ArtScroll prefers enash. Onkelos reminds us tzara’at happens to a person, the skin being the place it happens to show.
Tzara’at Grows and Proliferates
The physical manifestation of tzara’at has symbolic indications of sin as well. One of the ways to identify a tzara’at lesion is by its being poseh, spreading. Onkelos used the word osef, a word I think focuses on the addition to the lesion. In 13;12, the Torah refers to the lesion being poreah, erupting, and Onkelos has misgei tisgei, proliferate, another slight change that turns our attention to its adding on to what had already been there.
The literal reading could have taken the problem with tzara’at as its growing, where Onkelos speaks more quantitatively, it adds or proliferates. Especially if tzara’at stems from sin, as we will see, Onkelos’ idea rings true, that the problem isn’t the sin, it’s the proliferation of sin, the commission of the sin more and more.
The Purification of the Metzora Shows Sin Brought It
Parshat Metzora opens with a metzora who has healed, 14;2 telling us ve-huva el ha-kohen, the person suffering tzara’at is brought to the priest. Ramban notes again the focus on the priest’s centrality to the process (we will see Rashi did the same for house tzara’at). He then quotes Torat Kohanim 1;3, the person must be brought to the kohen without delay, an idea Ramban takes to mean even against his/her will. In his view, the ritual impurity of a metzora (and a zav or zavah) must be removed as soon as possible (where other forms of ritual impurity are not seen as an urgent matter).
Rashi links the materials used in the purification ceremony to the presumed sin of the metzora. In 14;4, the Torah says to use cedar wood, a very tall tree, as well as tola’at and ezov, two very short plants. It tells Rashi the Torah is reminding the metzora to avoid self-aggrandizement, to remember to be humble, because tzara’at comes from arrogance.
The ceremony includes birds, for Rashi because lashon ha-ra, slanderous speech, brings tzara’at, and birds symbolize speaking wrongly with their incessant chirping. Ramban agrees, although only after he argues tzippor refers to a subset of birds (the word for all birds is of, he says), small birds, which chirp in the morning.
For both commentators, tzara’at comes because of sin, although which might not be clear. Arachin 16a lists seven sins that bring tzara’at. Part of the challenge of tzara’at, Rashi seems to me to remind us, is being open to seeing why it might have come, without necessarily being positive about which among several options it is, repenting, and committing to being better.
The Uncertainties of Tzara’at
Onkelos and Ramban point out other areas of lack of clarity in the tzara’at experience. The skin of the metzora has an inflammation, usually, yet 13;10 and 13;24 give situations where mihyah, healthy skin, ends up being a sign of ritual purity. On the other hand, in 13;23, tzarevet ha-shehin, the shriveling of an inflammation, is ritually pure.
Onkelos uses the word roshem for all three, because we care about the implications of a skin phenomenon, not the looks or roshem of it. It could look good and healthy, or shriveled and unhealthy; either way, it is a roshem, not determinative of purity or impurity.
Ramban reminds us of the subjectiveness of the judgment of whether a lesion had spread. The Torah says if it spread be-einav (13;5), according to Torat Kohanim a matter of how it looked to the kohen. Ramban explains the kohen could judge the spread visually, did not need to measure the lesion, to be exact about whether it had grown. Because, I think he implies, it’s not the physical process that matters, it’s the human experience of it.
To me, it’s for that reason as well tzara’at continues to loom after it is finished. On 13;35, Rashi notes the Torah refers to the lesion spreading after it has been declared ritually impure. It can happen at any point, while still figuring out whether it was tzara’at, or after it had once been tzara’at and then receded. The former metzora can have a bodily reminder s/he is at risk of returning to the tzara’at state.
The Metzora’s Experience
The Torah’s prescriptions for how a metzora should act continue the theme. 13;45 tells us s/he should cover his/her face up to the mustache, and Onkelos adds the word ka-avela, like a mourner. It’s notable because tzara’at is Biblical and the practice of a mourner covering his face (now no longer observed) is likely rabbinic. As ArtScroll notes, Rambam references this comment of Onkelos (something he does infrequently in Mishneh Torah) when he speaks of the mourner’s covering his face.
I think both wanted us to be clear that tzara’at has an element of mourning, an idea that depends on the assumption tzara’at comes for a reason.
The Torah requires the metzora to announce his/her status, 13;45, according to Rashi to warn others to steer clear and avoid the ritual impurity of contact with a metzora. Shabbat 67a saw this more gently, a way for the metzora to appeal to the community to pray on his/her behalf.
They may do so, but the metzora is also more excluded from areas of sanctity even than other people of ritually impure states. Rashi to 14;3 notes the metzora is required to stay out of all three “camps” in the desert, the area of the Mishkan/Temple, the area of the Levi’im/the Temple Mount, and the area of the Jewish people as a whole/Jerusalem. Other ritually impure people need leave only one or two of those areas.
House and Clothing Tzara’at
I don’t pretend I’ve exhausted the discussion of bodily tzara’at, but let’s move on. The other two kinds of tzara’at are where the problems show up in a house or a piece of clothing.
The house tzara’at has many of the elements we noticed in bodily tzara’at. Here, too, we are reminded of the centrality of the kohen. Rashi to 14;35 notes even a Torah scholar who knows all the laws of tzara’at, is sure the marks on the house are tzara’at, cannot rule definitively, since it is not tzara’at until the kohen declares it. That has an upside, as in the next verse, because the house does not transmit ritual impurity to items in the house until the kohen has rendered his verdict.
Like with a person whose tzara’at lesion healed but did not go away completely, the owner of a house where tzara’at came once is on lifetime notice, because, as Ramban understands 14;43, should tzara’at ever return to the house, regardless of location, it will be treated as a pernicious tzara’at, and the house will have to be destroyed. For Ramban, once Hashem brings tzara’at to a house, the cause stays there forever, in case Hashem sees fit to punish this homeowner again.
House tzara’at also has some of the uncertainty we saw with bodily tzara’at. In the case of the body, the question was what sin brought it, for the house, the question is whether it is a punishment at all. Picking up on the verse that says Gd will sometimes “give” tzara’at to a house, 14;34, Rashi says some house tzara’at was a way to show the Jews treasure the Emorites had buried in their houses. By forcing the homeowner to dig out the stones of a house, s/he will find the treasure.
In house tzara’at, too, a supernatural experience is not completely clear, leaving room for people to misinterpret what was happening. They may grant the tzara’at came from Gd yet choose to insist it was meant to give them a good when it was actually punishment for sin.
It was supposed to be clear it was from Gd. Ramban to 13;47 says there is nothing natural about either clothing or house tzara’at (it is not mold, for example), it is solely a function of Gd’s Spirit residing among the Jewish people. In an environment where the Jews generally act properly, Gd’s Spirit resides among them to help them succeed, in their bodily health, their clothing, their homes. In that atmosphere, ugliness affecting the soul of a Jew who has begun to descend into sin will show up physically, a sign Hashem is removing Himself (as it were).
For Ramban, the idea explains 14;14’s choice of verb, Gd saying “I will put tzara’at in a house.” All tzara’at is a matter of Gd’s direct putting, the reason it only happens in the Land of Israel, where Gd’s Presence is at a level to elicit the tzara’at reaction.
We don’t have tzara’at currently, but I think Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban show us the loss is not an unalloyed. To be sure, we do not undergo the troubles of tzara’at, but we also do not experience the supernatural closeness of Gd embedded in the call to change of tzara’at.
We could say more about tzara’at, but let us not neglect the opening topic of Tazri’a, the woman who gives birth. After doing so, she is ritually impure for seven or fourteen days, and the Torah says (12;2) it kimei niddat devotah, the days of her niddah (menstrual) impurity. Onkelos uses the same root, sa’av, in verse seven, where the Torah writes the woman will become tehorah, ritually pure, mi-mekor dameha, literally from the flow of her blood.
He substitutes mi-so’avat dameha, the ritual impurity associated with her blood. Rashi says the Torah was drawing our attention to her remaining ritually impure until she brought the sacrifice; I think Onkelos adds the idea mekor dameha wasn’t the issue, the impurity was. It’s not the blood itself that’s the problem.
An idea the Torah itself makes clear by showing us the woman’s blood can also not cause ritual impurity. 12;4 introduces the idea of demei taharah, bleeding with no ritual impurity attached. After her first week or two of birth, the woman is not allowed to go to the Temple for another month or two, but is otherwise unaffected by ritual impurity (such as in her physically intimate relationship with her husband).
Ramban thinks the extra time is so her body can cleanse itself of all the physical aftereffects of childbirth. He thinks the thirty-three or sixty-six days are for all the after-birth to come out, that the Torah found it inappropriate to show up at the Temple while she was still exuding these materials. It is in line with the famous Ramban at the beginning of Kedoshim, where he thinks general cleanliness, regardless of legal classification, is also a matter of kedushah. Here, general uncleanliness, regardless of fault or blame, is a barrier to showing up at the Temple.
Where She Might Be Blamed
On the other hand, Ramban thinks it likely a woman giving birth did sin in some ways. When 12;6-7 has her bring sacrifices to be mekhaper, Ramban first suggests the word does not mean atone as it usually does, it means to be a kofer nafshah, a redemption for her soul, thanks/prayer for being fully healed from a serious (and, for much of history, dangerous) physical process.
Then he mentions a rabbinic tradition that women in childbirth swear off relations with their husbands, to avoid the pain of any future childbirth. Were the oath to have taken effect, a sacrifice would not absolve her of it, Ramban notes. The tradition must mean the oath never counted because she said it while in agony; still, her thought to separate from her husband needs to be righted, and by bringing the sacrifice she reminds herself marriage includes mutual physical availability.
As Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban have it, the Torah assigns ritual impurity to some parts of the recovery from childbirth but not others, because blood itself does not create the impurity, her life process does. As she recovers from a significant event, the Torah gives her time away from the Temple to get back to herself, physically and psychologically.
A metzora sins to get to his/her state, a birthing mother does not. The two share the need to see where they are, account for where they are, and then get back to themselves, including by offering sacrifices to mark the occasion.