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Torah Sparks

April 9, 2005 - 29 Adar II 5765

Annual: Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial: Leviticus 12:1 - 13:39 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Maftir: Exodus 12:1 - 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 380; Hertz p. 253)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16 - 46:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 1291; Hertz p. 1001)

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

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


From last week's regulations on food consumption, we turn to more personal aspects of ritual purity. Parashat Tazria opens with the rules of ritual impurity governing the birth of a baby. Following the birth of a male child, the mother is in a state of niddah, or separation, for seven days, continuing in a state of ritual impurity for a total of thirty-three days. Following the birth of a female child, the mother is in niddah for fourteen days and ritual impurity for a total of sixty-six days. In either case, she marks the conclusion of her ritual impurity with a purification offering.

The next category of ritual purity addresses the phenomenon of leprosy. The appearance of a skin ailment must be reported to one of the priests, who must then examine the skin. Should the blemish in question be deep and the hair in it determined to be white, it is automatically ruled leprosy. If the area does not qualify as leprosy, the priest may isolate the person for seven to fourteen days to see if it becomes leprous. The priest also evaluates the color of the skin involved. Flesh that is not discolored is raw and ailing; white flesh is that which has healed. The presence of not-discolored flesh is the presence of leprosy and the priest must declare the person impure. Should a healed area develop streaks of red, the priest must determine if this represents scar or further infection.

Skin which has been burned by fire requires similar examination, to establish whether the lesions have been compromised with leprosy. A different challenge is created by skin affliction intermingled with the hair of the head or beard. In this case the lesion is evaluated by both its depth and by the presence of thin, yellow hair rather than white.

Loss of hair does not imply leprosy; the skin in the area which has become bald is to be examined for discolorations and those discolorations evaluated for color. White, consistently, is a sign that skin is not leprous. Note that non-leprous conditions are identified by name: where leprosy is referred to as tzara'at, sh'hin is a form of dermatitis, the affliction in the hair is known as netek (a condition of the hair follicle) and the streaking of the skin is known as bohak (which may be vitiligo).

Persons with symptoms of questionable status are quarantined and those with a clear diagnosis are declared pure. What of the leper? The leper must rend his clothes, bare his head and cover his upper lip and call out, "Impure, impure." The leper must dwell outside the camp.

Leprosy can appear not only in skin, but in fabrics as well, including leather, wool and linen. Its appearance here is marked by streaks of red or green. The priest will review the fabric, placing it in isolation for seven days before re-evaluating. Should the streaky patch expand in that time, the fabric must be burned because of its leprous impurity. If it has not spread, it is washed and quarantined for a further seven days. If the afflicted patch has not disappeared, the fabric is burned. If, on the other hand, it has faded, that section is removed and burned, with the remainder washed again and declared pure.

Discussion Theme 1: "A Double Standard?"

"When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days. If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks." (Leviticus 12:2-5)

Derash: Study

  • "According to the rules of impurity regarding menstruation, so is she made impure by the impurity of childbirth, even if the womb opens without any blood." (Rashi on Leviticus 12:2)
  • "R. Simeon ben Yohai was asked by his disciples: Why does the Torah ordain that after childbirth a woman must bring an offering? He replied: Because when she kneels to give birth, she impetuously swears that she will never again submit to her husband. And since she later violates this oath, the Torah says that she must bring an offering." (Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 31b)
  • "Herein lies one explanation for the double period of impurity following the birth of a female child. The baby girl embodies the potential to one day bear another new life. Each life that is brought into the world will also bring another death. Therefore, the Torah marks the birth of a girl, a future holy vessel for the creation of life, as fraught with twice the amount 'death symbolism.'" (Lauren Berkun Eichler, JTSA D'var Torah Tazria 5763)
  • "Our masters taught that women are said to have four traits; they are gluttonous, eavesdropping, slothful, and envious. R. Judah son of R. Nehemiah said: They are also querulous and talkative. R. Levi said: They are also pilferers and gadabouts." (Bereshit Rabbah 45:5)
  • "She is robed in strength and dignity and cheerfully faces whatever may come. She opens her mouth with wisdom her tongue is guided by kindness. She tends to the affairs of her household and eats not the bread of idleness" (Proverbs 31:25-27)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. From the outset, this discussion is both puzzling and challenging. The birth of a baby is accompanied by great joy and celebration. Indeed, those who wish to have a child and are unable suffer greatly over their inability to do so. What type of response would seem more fitting than the purification offering required?
  2. The rabbis clearly struggled with this question. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai's answer is one approach. Still others reference the loss of blood associated with childbirth and consider the purification offering to be a response to the impurity of blood loss. How does this response fit in with our understanding of what is sacred, in both traditional and contemporary contexts?
  3. The difference between the waiting time for a daughter and for a son raises still further questions. Rabbi Simeon b. Yohai goes on to say that there is greater joy over the birth of a son and that explains the shorter time period. Others follow the route described by Lauren Berkun Eichler and see in the daughter's arrival a continuation of the cycle. What other explanations are possible?Do you sense any hierarchy in this?
  4. The final two passages show the tradition's split-brained attitude towards women. While it is easy to presume that our ancient system is antiquated and misogynistic, trying to understand the comprehensive context can make a difference. Can you reconcile the two views? Do you come away from this passage with any feelings about the tradition's attitude toward women? Do our 21st century sensibilities change our understanding?

Discussion Theme 2: "Defining Purity"

"As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, 'Impure, impure.'" (Leviticus 13:45)

Derash: Study

  • "And 'Impure, impure' he shall call out: to announce that he is impure, so that others will stay away from him." (Rashi, Leviticus 13:45)
  • "And the following shall make you unclean - whoever touches their carcasses shall be unclean until evening." (Leviticus 11:24)
  • Note that impure and pure are ritual categories. In most cases they yield restrictions on participation in Temple or sacrificial service, but have little impact on social behavior.
  • "Whether they are rigorously observed or violated, there is nothing in our rules of cleanness to suggest any connection between dirt and sacredness. Therefore it is only mystifying to learn that primitives make little difference between sacredness and uncleanness." (Mary Tew Douglas, Purity and Danger)
  • "Tumah is the result of our confrontation with the fact of our own mortality. It is the going down into darkness. Taharah is the result of our reaffirmation of our own immortality. It is the reentry into light." (The First Jewish Catalogue)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is your initial reaction to the rules of the leper? Try to sense the experience from within: do the rules feel exclusionary? Protective? Is the leper's statement of "Impure" condemnatory?
  2. Over time we have blended the line between unclean and impure. Though many of our translations suggest that tameh is unclean, as the Leviticus text on kashrut cited here, unclean does not refer to something which is dirty. How would you distinguish between unclean and impure?
  3. Though we've indicated above that purity is a ritual category, the leper and the menstruant (or, in this parashah, the new mother) do experience some restrictions on social behavior. What do these texts tell us about the experience of the outsider? In an environment where the ritual aspects of purity are no longer relevant (no Beit HaMikdash or sacrificial system), what is to be learned from these passages, in both practical and historical terms?
  4. The laws of the leper provide a detailed view into the biblical understanding of disease. The role of the priest was not to cure, or magically change the leper's state. Define how the priest fits in to this scenario. What does the priest's role tell us about how leprosy was viewed socially? Questions of holiness abound in the book of Leviticus. Now that we are four parshiyot into the book, what is your understanding of how the Bible defines holiness? How is that similar or different from contemporary views? What can we derive, particularly from the case of the leper which no longer applies, that can augment the sanctity of our daily lives?

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