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Torah Sparks

April 16, 2005 - 7 Nisan 5765

Annual: Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33 (Etz Hayim, p. 660; Hertz p. 470)
Triennial: Leviticus 14:1 - 32 (Etz Hayim, p. 660; Hertz p. 470)
Haftarah: II Kings 7:3 - 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 676; Hertz p. 477)

Prepared by Rabbi Elyse Winick
Assistant Director, USCJ KOACH/College Outreach

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


The leper is anointed with the blood of a purification offering, on the tip of the right ear, the right thumb and the right big toe. The priest then sprinkles him seven times with the oil he has brought for the offering, with the remainder poured on the leper's head. The then remainder of what the leper had brought is offered up as an asham or guilt offering. When the ritual is complete, the leper is declared pure. An alternate plan, using a lamb and doves or pigeons, is an option for the leper who cannot afford the animals described above.

We have seen how leprosy can appear in human beings and in fabric. Parashat Metzora goes on to describe how leprosy can afflict houses. The house is emptied and the priest comes to evaluate it, considering it leprous if there are green and red streaks in the lower part of the walls. The house is quarantined for seven days; if the plague has not cleared, the affected stones are cast away and the house is thoroughly cleaned and scraped - with even the dust removed and disposed of. The wall is rebuilt and replastered. Should the leprosy recur, the house must be destroyed. Anyone who enters the house during this time contracts impurity.

If the plague does not recur when the house has been partially rebuilt, the priest declares the house clean of infection, purifying it with running water and the blood of a bird slaughtered for this purpose. One bird is killed for this ritual; another is set free. The parashah takes notions of personal purity a step further now, addressing the emission of bodily fluids. The first case is that of the zav, a man with an abnormal seminal emission. Clothing and furnishings with which he has been in contact must be washed; anyone who comes in contact with those furnishings must bathe and remains in an impure state until evening. The zav waits seven days, bathes and brings an offering of atonement.

A menstruating woman is in an impure state from the onset of bleeding and is in a state of niddah (separation) for seven days. Her clothing and furnishings contract impurity, as does anyone who comes in physical contact with her. The furnishings must be washed and anyone who has come in contact with them must bathe. If the bleeding should continue beyond the seven days of separation, the restrictions continue for the duration of the bleeding. In the case of this abnormal bleeding, she must count seven blood-free days. On the eighth day she brings an offering to restore her state of purity.

Discussion Theme 1: "The Power of Speech"

"This shall be the ritual for the leper at the time that he is to be purified." (Leviticus 14:2)

Derash: Study

  • Lost in the translation is Hebrew term for leper, or metzora. The rabbis saw an abbreviation, or, rashei teivot in the word metzora and divided its letters to represent motzi shem ra or "slander" (lit. bringing forth an evil name).
  • "As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow white scales." (Numbers 12:10) "Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being..." (Barukh She'amar, the opening to Psukei D'Zimrah; see Siddur Sim Shalom p. 54/p. 83)
  • "Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of R. Yose ben Zimra: 'The retelling of evil talk is as if he has denied God.' R. Yose further said: 'Whoever retells evil talk is visited by plagues…' Said Resh Lakish: 'What is the implication of the phrase, "This shall be the law of the leper" this shall be the law of he who spreads evil talk." (Babylonian Talmud Arakhin 15b)
  • "It is forbidden to speak disparagingly of one's haver (friend). Even if the information is entirely truthful, it is called Lashon Hara. If the information also contains any fabrication, it is also called motzi shem ra (lit. putting out a bad name). The speaker of Lashon Hara violates the prohibition of "Lo telekh rakhil b'amekha (Do not spread gossip among your people) (Lev. 19:16)" (Israel Meir Kagan, the Hafetz Hayyim)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Both parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora indicate that the leper (or one whose house or fabric are leprous) must bring some form of sin offering as part of the purification after healing. Why should this be necessary? Does it not seem that we are punishing the victim? Does it seem like this is an apologetic for why the ill suffer?
  2. The rabbinic understanding of leprosy is that it comes as a punishment for Lashon Hara or evil speech. The story of Miriam's affliction in the Book of Numbers immediately follows her casting aspersions on her brother Moses' choice of a wife (interestingly, Aaron participates in the criticism, but he does not appear to be punished). That, combined with understanding metzora as an acronym, leads to the connection of these two phenomena. Of the myriad laws defined by the Bible, no other earns this much attention for our failure to fulfill. What is it about evil speech that generates this much discussion? And why does the Bible fail to reveal the connection in explicit terms?
  3. Our tradition places a significant emphasis on the care to be given to what goes into our mouths. We often fail to notice, however, the similar emphasis on what comes out of our mouths. In looking at the words of Barukh She'amar (again, Siddur Sim Shalom p. 54/p.83), what do we derive about one aspect of the sanctity of what crosses our lips?
  4. In the absence of leprosy as a punishment for our sins of speech, what will motivate us to consider our words? Are there ways in which we are punished for failing to take care with what we say, even without leprosy? What steps ought we to take interpersonally to augment the holiness of what we say? In what ways do our leaders live up to or violate these principles? How do we model gentle speech for our children?

Discussion Theme 2: "Family Purity"

"When a woman has a discharge, her discharge being blood from her body, she shall remain in her impurity seven days..." (Leviticus 15:19)

Derash: Study

  • "Rabbi Zeira said: 'The daughters of Israel imposed the stringency upon themselves that if they see a drop of blood the size of a mustard seed, they wait seven blood-free days.'" (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 31b)
  • "Undoubtedly the taboo is so common since many cultures share the same basic psychological components: fear of bleeding, discomfort with genital discharge, and bewilderment especially on the part of men, at the mysterious cycle of bleeding and its connection to conception and birth." (Rachel Biale, Women and Jewish Law)
  • "People sometimes mistakenly think its purpose is to rid a woman of uncleanness or to wash away a convert's previous life… But immersion in the mikvah represents for all Jews, men and women, a symbolic rebirth into another level of spirituality, a new beginning." (Simcha Kling, Embracing Judaism)
  • "… these laws, in the eyes of some, degrade women, for they imply that women are periodically sullied by their menstrual functions and therefore need monthly cleansing, while men are not subject to such diminishment and do not require such repair." (Elliot Dorff, This is My Beloved, This is My Friend)
  • Dov Zlotnick refers to the obligations of Family Purity as a met mitzvah a "dead commandment," because they have fallen into disuse. He suggests that the revitalization of the obligations because they are obligations is meritorious in and of itself. (See "Today's met mitzvah," in Total Immersion)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. We learn from the tradition that during the time of niddah, a woman may not engage in sexual relations with her husband. At the conclusion of her niddah, she immerses in the mikvah and is restored to her prior state of purity. She may also return to intimacy with her husband. The biblical text suggests that niddah lasts only seven days. The talmudic text - which we note is descriptive, rather than prescriptive - is the basis for the normative practice of observing the rules of niddah for ten days to two weeks. If halakhic analysis deduces that a return to the biblical mandate is permissible, what would the pros and cons of changing this practice be?
  2. Dorff notes that there is much opposition to the practice of the laws of family purity because they appear to place women in a second class role. It is first important to note that these laws are not about being physically clean or unclean - the woman must be scrupulously clean, without even a stray hair, prior to immersing in the mikvah. With that understanding, what do these regulations tell us about the Biblical sense of holiness and purity? The anthropological phenomena which may have contributed to the evolution of the rules? And, perhaps most significantly, what do they tell us about our own potential to reclaim sanctity in a traditional context?
  3. For some it is enough to say that these rules remain in force because they are commandments. They have not been legally abrogated, even if they may have fallen into disuse. What might be the reasons we would give someone who was not yet ready to commit to this practice? What is the impact on the relationship yielded by these rules? How do we move beyond a condemnatory approach to discover their redeeming merits? There are those who suggest that these laws are suitable for any woman who is sexually active, no matter the context. In what ways are they transferable? In what ways ought these laws remain the exclusive purview of the marital relationship? What are the benefits and shortcomings of extending these regulations to other situations? It is worth noting that the Bible condemns sexual relations with a woman in a state of niddah no matter her marital status. How might this affect our view?
  4. Consider Dov Zlotnick's suggestion that the revitalization of a mitzvah is a goal in and of itself. In what ways have you watched Jewish law evolve in your lifetime? How should the Conservative Movement reconcile the voice of the people (as demonstrated by the absence of participation in a particular mitzvah) with its self-characterization as a halakhic movement? What are the criteria for change and who is responsible for those decisions? What does it mean to be commanded?

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