Tag Archives: Tazria

Commentary for Tazria-Metzora

3 May

In both parts of this week’s double parshah we learn about the skin disease Tzara’at. Tzara’at is seen in Rabbinic literature as being a spiritual punishment more so than a naturally occurring disease. The sin with which Tzara’at is almost always identified is Lashon Hara (literally translated as the “evil tongue” but often taken to mean gossip and/or slander) due to the events of Numbers 12, where Miriam contracts the disease after engaging in Lashon Hara regarding Moses. Reish Lakish makes a further connection, noting that the term for someone who has contracted Tzara’at, a “metzora,” can be seen as an abbreviation for “motzi shem ra” (“one who brings a bad name [to someone/something]) (Arachin 15b).

 

The process by which one is declared cured of Tzara’at is rather complicated, involving temporary exile from the camp, the shaving of body hair, the washing or burning of affected objects, and finally, once a priest has declared the physical symptoms gone, a strange ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest gets a mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson dye. The priest then takes two healthy kosher birds and sacrifices one of them. Then the priest mixes the blood of the sacrificed bird together with the crimson dye, the hyssop, and the cedar, and dips the second bird in the mixture. The priest then sprinkles the mixture over the head of the metzora and then sets the second bird, covered in the mixture, free. Then the metzora must again shave off all of his or her hair, both head and body, wash his or her clothes, bathe, and then he or she is considered to be cured.

 

The reason for the shaving was a practical one: it was required before ritual bathing so that one could reenter God’s service. The rest of the ceremony, though, seems to be rather random. What do birds have to do with anything, and what is the purpose of the dipping, or setting one of the birds free?

 

The Gemara in Arachin 15b tells us of a saying: “gossip kills three people: the one who says it, the one who receives it, and the one about whom it is said.” Once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. There is no way to know who has heard it and who has repeated it. It spreads, insidious and untraceable, throughout the world, and just like the bird that has been set free cannot be caught again, there is no way to undo the harm that the gossip has caused. The words we speak have an almost unlimited amount of power, and it is our responsibility to use God’s gift of language responsibly.

Commentary for Tazria-Metzora

24 Apr

In both parts of this week’s double parshah we learn about the skin disease Tzara’at. Tzara’at is seen in Rabbinic literature as being a spiritual punishment more so than a naturally occurring disease. The sin which Tzara’at is almost always identified with is Lashon Hara (literally translated as the “evil tongue” but often taken to mean gossip and/or slander) due to the events of Numbers 12, where Miriam contracts the disease after engaging in Lashon Hara regarding Moses. Reish Lakish makes a further connection, noting that the term for someone who has contracted Tzara’at, a “metzora,” can be seen as an abbreviation for “motzi shem ra” (“one who brings a bad name [to someone/something]) (Arachin 15b).

 

The process by which one is declared cured of Tzara’at is rather complicated, involving temporary exile from the camp, the shaving of body hair, the washing or burning of affected objects, and finally, once a priest has declared the physical symptoms gone, a strange ceremony. In this ceremony, the priest gets a mixture of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson dye. The priest then takes two healthy kosher birds and sacrifices one of them. Then the priest mixes the blood of the sacrificed bird together with the crimson dye, the hyssop, and the cedar, and dips the second bird in the mixture. The priest then sprinkles the mixture over the head of the metzora and then sets the second bird, covered in the mixture, free. Then the metzora must again shave off all of his/her hair, both head and body, wash his/her clothes, bathe, and then he/she is considered to be cured.

 

The reason for the shaving was a practical one: it was required before ritual bathing so that one could reenter God’s service. The rest of the ceremony, though, seems to be rather random. What do birds have to do with anything, and what is the purpose of the dipping, or setting one of the birds free?

 

The Gemara in Arachin 15b tells us of a saying: “gossip kills three people: the one who says it, the one who receives it, and the one about whom it is said.” Once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. There is no way to know who has heard it and who has repeated it. It spreads, insidious an untraceable, throughout the world, and just like the bird that has been set free cannot be caught again, there is no way to undo the harm that the gossip has caused. The words we speak have an almost unlimited amount of power, and it is our responsibility to use God’s gift of language responsibly.

Commentary for Tazria

31 Mar

Judaism is a very inclusive religion that encourages as much participation as possible. With the exception of certain very specific mitzvot (mostly the performing of sacrificial rites reserved for priests), everyone above the age of bar or bat mitzvah is able to participate in and fulfill every mitzvah, regardless of gender, class, tribe, or marital status. This week’s parshah, however, seems to be all about determining circumstances in which people are considered to be ritually impure and are excluded from participating in communal mitzvot.

 

Though there are many other ways a person can become ritually impure, the two discussed in this week’s parshah are a woman who has just given birth and a person afflicted with the skin disease Tzara’at. The (admittedly short) parshah deals almost exclusively with these two topics. The only other subject discussed is the mitzvah to circumcise a boy on the eight day after, which, in the context it is presented in, seems like it was just a quick reminder that God decided to throw in because the birth of a male child was being discussed.

 

Standing in stark contrast to this theme of exclusion is this week’s special maftir. This maftir contains the first giving of the laws of Passover and the paschal sacrifice, right before the exodus. This is viewed as a major communal moment for the Jewish People. It starts with God instructing Moses and Aaron to begin the Jewish calendar on this date, contains the first giving of ritual laws to the nation en masse, the commandments for observing the first holiday. Every Israelite is commanded to participate and it is made clear that this observance will be a religious and cultural institution of the Jewish People for all time. It is a moment that takes the Israelites from a tribe with just one God and few quirky customs and transforms them into a nation and a religion.

 

So God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and they go to Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, with all of its laws, including those of ritual impurity, and when Passover was coming around the next year, some Israelites realized that they would not be able to become ritually pure in time to offer the paschal sacrifice. God ordained a second opportunity to bring the paschal sacrifice for the benefit of those who are either impure or too far away from Jerusalem to do so on the day before Passover (Num. 9:6 – 12) as a way to allow these people to still participate in the mitzvah.

 

Interestingly, the inclusion of the mitzvah of circumcision in this week’s parshah also creates opportunities for inclusion in the mitzvah for the classes of impure people in this week’s parshah. The one category of Jew forbidden from eaten the paschal sacrifice during the time of the exodus was an uncircumcised Jewish male. In order to participate in the mitzvah, any uncircumcised male would naturally want to have a bris. If someone believes that they have Tzara’at, attempting to cut off the lesions will render that person impure. The only exception to this rule is if the lesion happens to be cut off as part of a circumcision, thus allowing the person to become both pure and circumcised and thus able to partake of the paschal sacrifice.

 

Some commentators have noted that the most stringent period of impurity for the mother of a newborn male child ends on the seventh day, just in time for the bris, and that the celebration of the fact that the son was born into the covenant also allows the mother to once again take on more of her obligations in that same covenant.