Defined and Undefined in Parshat Metzora

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Mikveh Is Needed for Taharah

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah’s comment to the last verse of shishi in this week’s parsha, 15;28, tantalizes me mostly with why he felt the need to say what he did. The Torah speaks of a zavah, a woman who has what looks like menstrual flow at an unexpected time. [By Torah law, a woman who menstruates must wait seven days, after which she goes to mikveh as long as the bleeding stops any time before the end of the seventh day.

If she has seeming menstrual flow any time in the eleven days after that—according to most rishonim—she is a zavah. The Gemara tells us Jewish women chose, early on, to treat all menstruation as zivah gedolah.]

A zavah gedolah, a woman who has had unusual menstruation for three days, must wait until she experiences seven consecutive days with no blood, ve-achar tithar. Those last words seem to mean she exits her zavah status once she has waited these seven days. R. Mecklenburg expends much effort disproving the idea, to make sure we know she must immerse in a mikveh. Achar tithar means after that, she is eligible to remove her zivah status, by going to mikveh.

If the Torah meant she becomes tehorah, it should have used the word ve-taherah, as it does in 12;7. Mishlei 20;9 has a woman say taharti me-chatati, and the translation renders it I did an action to become tehorah, an idea we see regarding our verse itself in Niddah 67, where R. Shim’on stresses she becomes tehorah after an action, as Rashi explains, going to mikveh.

He’s not done. Ralbag also was sure she had to go to mikveh, thought the verse had no need to say so, because the preceding verses had required mikveh immersion for anyone who touched a place on which she had sat or lain; if touch leads to mikveh, certainly the woman herself must need it.

Proving the Obvious

Here, we finally gain some insight into why R. Mecklenburg worked so hard on what I would have thought obvious, since he can prove his point from the Targum, Rashi to the Gemara, in Ralbag. He says kalei ha-da’at, those who allow themselves to be easily swayed, pointed to the word the Torah uses for what a Jew must do if s/he touches a place where the zavah had sat or lain, rachatz, wash. They apparently argued these people could wash well rather than go to mikveh. [I don’t know the history of it, but it sounds like an argument Reform Jews of his time would have made.]

Radvaz Responsum 796 had already dealt with the claim centuries earlier, proving from II Melachim 5 that rechitzah in Tanach means immersion. In the famous story of Na’aman (the haftarah we read this past Shabbat), Elisha told the Aramean general to “wash” in the Jordan, yet he immerses, showing us rachatz means to wash the whole body at once.

Apparently, R. Mecklenburg was dealing with those who claimed a zavah exited her status as soon as she had not seen blood for seven days. Pushed about the comparison to the people who touched objects on which she had sat or lain, they said those people needed only rechitzah, washing or bathing. [Revolutionary if it were ture, because women would not need to go to mikveh every month…]

Achar tithar rather than ve-taherah helped him stand up for the traditional requirement for women to go to mikveh to end their period of marital separation, an irritation some Jews of his time claimed the Torah did not demand.

Who Defines the Birds

A man can incur his version of zivah with an unusual emission similar to keri, what he ejaculates during marital relations. When such a man finishes his seven days of zivah, the Torah tells him to offer two pigeons or doves, one for a chatat, a sin-offering, the other for an olah. R. Hirsch teaches us the two together are called a ken, each on its own called a pereidah.

He also points out a mistake we might make in reading the Torah. The verse has the man give the pair to the kohen, who “makes” them each for its purpose. Back in 12;8, when a new mother brought a similar pair of birds, the Torah has her “take” them, one for an olah, one for a chatat. We could have imagined the Torah treated the two people differently, the new mother defines her birds, the kohen determines which bird does what for the zav.

Nazir 26b corrects the misimpression. It says the verses show us valid possibilities for either situation. The owner can decide which bird does what at the moment of purchase, or can give them to the kohen setumin, undefined, for the kohen to declare.

R. Hirsch doesn’t go further, but has raised an interesting element of offering sacrifices. Prudence would seem to call for always giving the birdssetumin,to avoid errors later. On the other hand, people offering a sacrifice could understandably want to be the ones to clarify what they are offering.

Religious involvement or religious safety? Not always an easy choice.

Knowing It Well

Malbim questions the disparity between the list of types of tzara’at in VaYikra 14;56 and the presentation we have had in last parsha and this. He argues this current list comes to remind the kohen of all the distinctions to know to make: among the two types of tzara’at on hair; tzara’at of the clothing or house [it seems pretty easy to distinguish, based on location; I think Malbim meant the signs of each, not to think house-tzara’at is signaled by what defines clothing-tzra’at, and vice verse]; and then between those two and the tzara’at on the body.

He doesn’t explain why the Torah could not have done that in the same order. I think he hints at the answer when he closes with a reference to Akavia b. Mahalalel, mNegaim 1;4, who said a kohen must be able to identify seventy-two types of nega’im [other views say there are fewer; while Aruch HaShulchan HeAtid Nega’im 79;12 thinks all the views agree, Malbim is quoting only one of them, I think to make a point.]

The kohen has to know all these signs, remember which to apply where, and how each looks. The Torah wants to avoid him memorizing them in a particular order, I hear Malbim saying, because it will limit his ability to use them actively, in situations that arise.

It reminded me of what I heard R. Chaim Volozhin is reported to have said, to differentiate between his knowledge of Torah and that of his teacher, the Vilna Gaon. He knew the Torah by heart, he said, you gave him a source, he could continue from there. The Gaon knew it forwards and backwards, could tell you what came before some source you cited. [Try it with a text you know well: what’s the verse before ולמדתם אותם את בניכם in Shema? Or פותח את ידיך in Ashrei?].

The kohen needs to know nega’im backward and forward, so the Torah shakes it up.

Another Two Birds

Earlier we saw two birds used to complete a man’s time as a zav, with reference to a new mother’s also offering two birds. At the beginning of our parsha, 14;4, we see a role for birds also in the ceremony to complete a sufferer’s time as a metzora. R, David Tzvi Hoffmann reminds us of mNegaim 14;5, these birds should be as identical as possible in looks, size, and monetary value, and be chosen/taken together, although these are ideals, not requirements. He throws in the idea that they are in this way similar to the two goats of Yom Kippur, a comparison he does not pursue.

The type of bird interests him more. In Sifra, R. Yose HaGelili thought deror meant they had to be wild, live in the fields, where R. Yishmael thought it enough for the bird to resist full domestication, to live equally in the field as in a home. Chullin 62a defined it as a senunit levanah, a bird Rashi and others thought was a white Schwalbe (it’s a German word, I think for a swallow). Others thought the swallow was not a kosher bird and could not be what was used.

Leaving aside the dispute—R. Hoffmann sends us to Yoreh De’ah 82;5, for the views of Taz, Nekudot HaKessef, and Peri Megadim—Ramban thought all small birds are called tzippor, as in our verse, which would then mean the word tehorot in the verse told us to restrict ourselves to kosher tzipporim. For the view that all tzipporim were kosher, tehorot meant they also had to be permissible to eat, and not, for example, from an ir ha-nidachat, a city razed because the majority of its inhabitants worshipped a power other than God.

Insisting on mikveh, designating the birds of a zav or yoledet, knowing our nega’im, and the open question of what birds to use for tzara’at, in our four commentators for Metzora.

About Gidon Rothstein

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