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Parashiyot Tazria-Metzora

April 25, 2015 – 6 Iyyar 5775 

Annual (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33): Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460
Triennial (Leviticus 13:40 – 14:32): Etz Hayim p. 657; Hertz p. 464
Haftarah (II Kings 7:3-20): Etz Hayim p. 676; Hertz p. 477

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

We learn that, after giving birth, a mother is in a state of impurity, and following that time, she is not allowed to touch or be a part of sacred places. The duration of these ritual statuses is twice as long if she gives birth to a girl. And if she has a boy, the boy must be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The mother becomes pure again after making a proper offering.

The text explores proper procedures for managing an outbreak of a skin affliction known as tzara-at. An Israelite priest examines such outbreaks and determines if they are chronic, and if they are causing such ailments as an infected burn or diseased hair or scalp. He even examines when such an affliction penetrates fabric or leather. The priest determines whether the person or object needs to be isolated and/or washed after a certain amount of time.

The second portion details how a person is purified from tzara’at. The purification includes ceremonies and offerings carried out by a priest in addition to the afflicted person washing, shaving, and cleaning his/her clothes. Offerings differ depending on the afflicted person’s wealth.

We learn that, when the Israelites enter Canaan, tzara’at can potentially afflict their houses. Depending on the degree of affliction, the houses must be scraped, or perhaps torn down, while those who enter the house must be purified.

Men and women with atypical discharges from their sexual organs are impure; this impurity can spread to someone who touches an afflicted person or items that an afflicted person has touched. A menstruating woman also is impure, as is anything or anyone she touches. Disregarding these laws puts the Tabernacle at risk of defilement, and, as a result, puts an afflicted person at risk of death.

Theme #1: The Bald and the Beautiful

If a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is pure. (Leviticus 13:40)

A sensitive topic for many men, baldness does not necessarily have a bad name in the Torah.

Leviticus interrupts its warning to reassure men that, yes, it’s OK to be bald. “If a man loses the hair of his head and becomes bald, he is pure.” And it gets better! God also approves of male-pattern baldness. “If he loses the hair on the front part of his head and becomes bald at the forehead, he is pure.” So throw out that Rogaine. God loves a cue ball. --  David Plotz, Good Book

The cutting of the hair only after this seven-day isolation is a specific feature of this procedure, and is not explained further. Several Old Testament stories, such as that of the Nazirite Samson, give us an idea of just how sacred or power-laden a person’s hair was thought to be and how carefully one had to deal with it. Perhaps the special significance attaching to hair is also the reason the woman is expressly mentioned here.  -- Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus

He is pure of the impurity of nesakin, for he is not judged by the signs of the head and beard which are places of hair, but rather, by the signs of an affliction of the skin of the flesh; [that is,] by white hair and healthy flesh and spreading. -- Rashi on 13:40

Questions for Discussion:

Plotz wryly comments on the topic of baldness, which is sensitive for many males. He claims that the Torah "approves" of baldness. While many men are comfortable losing their hair naturally, there also is a lucrative industry in trying to prevent it. Is this verse an indication of the Torah's preferences in terms of appearance? Or does our text tell us that physical appearance really doesn't matter as much as we might think?

Gerstenberger reminds us that, in ancient times, a man's head of hair was an important symbolic, if not real, measure of manhood. While we might bristle at the notion that the hair has some sort of power today, there were times when such thoughts were taken seriously. Do we tend to misunderstand what makes a person powerful or worthwhile? When do we lose our way by paying attention to personal traits that really don't matter?

Rashi claims that it is not baldness itself that purifies the man with tzara'at, but it is the absence of smaller, particular signs on the scalp that would indicate a continuation of the malady. Often, we look at other people and only bother to look at the surface of their identities, rather than digging deeper to discover who they really are. What are the dangers of doing so? And how do we combat this tendency?


Theme #2: From Hair to Eternity

On the seventh day [after being diagnosed with tzara'at] he shall shave off all his hair -- of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, and bathes in water; then he shall be pure. (Leviticus 14:9)

When someone with a skin affliction is purified, it is expected that nothing come between his skin and the water that can make him pure again.

The three principal transgressions punished with tzara’at are haughtiness, evil gossip and an envious eye. Hence, in order to become clean again, the leper must symbolically cleanse himself of these three sins. He must shave all the hair off his head because he was haughty and wanted to be “at the head” of everything. Next, he must shave off his beard because it failed to guard the mouth, which it surrounds, from uttering evil gossip. Finally, he must shave his eyebrows which failed to keep his eye from envy. -- K’lei Yakar

The “sin of the house” had to be expiated, and the ritual was the same as for the purification of the leper. -- Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel

The rabbis explain that this redundancy is for the purpose of qualifying the generalization, that is, all of his hair but not that of his private parts. They are right, but the reason is just the opposite: the repetition is indeed a euphemism for the private parts, but its purpose is to make certain that they are included. -- Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16

Questions for Discussion:

K'lei Yakar claims that it is no accident that the hair is shaved from the head, beard and eyebrows of the man with tzara'at, as these body parts each symbolize ways that these parts of the body contribute to wrongdoing. Thus, the affected person is given bodily reminders of how sin is committed and how it can be prevented in the future. In what cases do bodily reminders help keep us focused? When might they distract us?

De Vaux reminds us that, when a house is inflicted with tzara'at, the purification rituals are identical to that of an individual with the same malady. Are the comparisons between a home and person's body apt? Is it fair to say that the way we treat our houses is similar (or should be similar) to the way we treat our bodies?

Milgrom notes that while hair on the head is shaved off of the man with tzara'at, so is his pubic hair, even though this is not mentioned specifically. Is this meant to make a particular point about sexual indiscretion? Do the sins that the K'lei Yakar associates with parts of the head pale in comparison to sins that can be committed with one's private parts?

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