Mostly Tzara’at, with a Splash of Childbirth

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Tazria

What Color is Yarok?

In modern Hebrew, yarok means green, so when Vayikra 13;49 says a nega on clothing might look yerakrak, I had no doubt we meant green. R. Mecklenburg disagreed. First, he says yerakrak means strongly yarok, then defines “strongly” with a twist: were we to combine all the yarok shades, this is even more yarok. [I’m not sure what more means in that context.]

The real surprise comes when he turns our attention to sources on the nature of yarok. In Tosefta Nega’im 1;5, R. Eliezer says it is like wax (in my world, a whitish, but hold on), and chelmon, the yolk of an egg. Sumchos says like the wings of a peacock or palm leaves (the latter certainly seem to be green, but R. Mecklenburg doesn’t think so; he thinks the Tosefta references a different bird, a peafowl, with a more yellow coloring).

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah therefore says yerakrak means the color of saffron (yellow, because that’s the color of the spice and the rice; in actuality, the saffron flower is purple, the much smaller stem from which the spice comes is yellow), or as Yirmiyahu 30;6 means when he speaks of all faces turning yerakon (translations that I saw render it pale; in modern English, people who feel unwell turn green more than yellow, but he thinks what he thinks). He says it’s jaundiced, a yellower color.

Last, he specifically disagrees with those who would claim it is green, with a digression to identifying the birds and other animals in the verses where the color arises. Bottom line: challah (from a couple of weeks ago) is round, yarok is yellow. What else might he change? Stay tuned.

Aharon’s Role in Tzara’at and Education

The section on tzara’at opens with God speaking to both Moshe and Aharon, instead of the usual Moshe alone. R. Hirsch warns us against the easy answer, Aharon was included because of the kohen’s special role in declaration of tzara’at—a lesion does not become tzara’at until a kohen says so, regardless of how many experts are sure it qualifies. The answer is too facile, ignores other places where Hashem also addresses the two of them, where kohanim are not central, for example, the rules for kosher food or a menstruating woman.

R. Hirsch suggests Aharon is brought in whenever the Torah means to signal a topic all Jews need to know well, for their practical performance. These three involve bodily sanctity (eating improperly sullies us spiritually,tum’ahhas some element of being distanced, temporarily, from contact with the Temple, as does tzara’at).

Aharon’s role was to take information Moshe has and distill it so the people will absorb and practice it, a further educational goal than “merely” knowing. Although R. Hirsch doesn’t push the point, he seems to me to also be saying Moshe wasn’t that person. It’s not that Moshe was insufficiently aware of how to speak to ordinary people, that Hashem brought in Aharon to fill in for Moshe’s failing, it’s that these are different skills, to know the Torah at the highest level and to communicate it to laypeople. Different roles, different people to fulfill them.

Should the Fresh Flesh Return

Vayikra 13;13-17 lays out the unusual (but, to me, fascinating) case of someone whose entire body becomes covered with tzara’at. The Torah is metaher this person, says s/he will not be a metzora as long as this new normal stands, will be allowed to enter the Beit HaMikdash, etc. If any ordinary skin returns, though, all the other will again be tzar’at.

During the discussion, 13;16 contemplates the possibility of someone with all tzara’at having some ordinary flesh return, and then go away, the person again all white. To consider the possibility, the Torah uses the word ki , should, rather than im, if. Malbim points us to earlier comments of his where he had read im to indicate splits within a topic, while ki would come at the beginning of a discussion. Its appearance here befuddles him; it could mean or, except the verse started with o, the Hebrew word for or.

He suggests ki sets up two opposites, alerts us to differences, where Chazal saw im as an absolute condition. For our case, im would have said that if the white skin returns, the person is tahor forever, regardless of what happens thereafter. Ki in our context sets up the possibility that white skin will return, then ordinary skin, then white, for who knows how many times, each appearance of ordinary skin on an overall canvass of white a sign of tum’ah, the return to all-white a restoration of this new kind of taharah.

The Extra Tum’ah of Having a Girl

R. Dovid Zvi Hoffman raises a common question, 12;5, why the mother of a newborn girl has double the recovery period for a boy—instead of a week of being aniddahand thirty-three days unable to partake of sanctified foods (but not, by Torah law, ever being a niddah), the mother of a girl is a niddah for two weeks, and then spends sixty-six days in the other status.

He is open it might reflect a physical truth, the recovery for giving birth to a girl takes longer. (I assume we dismiss this as untrue, although I don’t know of any studies documenting it). Alternatively, the Torah shortened the time for a boy so the mother be a non-niddah at the circumcision (he doesn’t say why we would care; nothing about the baby having a berit requires the mother not to be a niddah. Perhaps he means something along lines I’ve seen elsewhere, so that the parents be able to express physical affection—and hand items to each other, such as the baby—on this happy occasion).

Taking it a step further, and moving more determinedly away from rationalism, he suggests the berit itself has a taharah impact, reducing the days of her waiting to return to eating terumah, too! That understands the circumcision of the baby being able to positively affect the mother. And that’s where he leaves it.

Colors, kohanim, ki, and cleansing, in our four commentators to Tazri’a.

About Gidon Rothstein

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