A Look at Parashat Tazria

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פרשת תזריע

ויקרא Leviticus 12:1 to 13:59

During Hebrew Leap Years (7 years out of a 19 year cycle), an extra month of Adar (אדר) is added. During Hebrew Leap Years, congregations read Parashat Tazria this week, and Parashat Metzora the following week. During non leap years, both parashote are read this week.                   

Chapter 12 – Period that a woman remains unclean after giving birth  

In accordance with the biblical Levitical laws, women are considered “unclean” (טמאה) for seven days after the birth of a boy, and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. No explanation is given for why a woman remains unclean after giving birth. It may have something to do with the high mortality rates in childbirth, both for the mother and for the infant. Further, why the different periods of uncleanliness, depending upon the sex of the newborn? No reason was given as to why for a baby boy circumcision is on the eighth day.

Also, why does a woman giving birth to an infant boy remain in a state of “blood purification” (דמי טהרה) for an additional 33 days, while the period is 66 days for an infant girl. Perhaps the reason is actually quite pragmatic: birth of a baby boy may be looked at more favorably by male members of the family or clan. A boy will grow up as an asset, able to help in the fields, etc. A girl might be looked at as a liability, needing protection requiring a dowry, etc. For that reason, in families in difficult circumstances, a baby girl may need more motherly protection during the first few weeks of life until sufficient time has passed for the male members to develop a stronger emotional bond to her.

Sin offering upon giving birth

Practice of burnt offering and sin offering was discontinued following the destruction of the Second Temple. Why does giving birth necessitate a sin offering? One possibility, promoted in the Gemara, is that in the extreme duress and pain of childbirth, a woman, in her moment of weakness, may say things against her husband or even against God that she would later regret.

Chapter 13 – Affliction of Tzar’at

What is “Tzara’at” (צרעת)? Not clearly defined, it probably runs a spectrum from true leprosy (an all too common ailment in biblical times) to psoriasis. The symptoms as described do not exactly line up with any of these. It could be a composite, or perhaps some other undefined disease of the period. Many rabbinical sources will say that tzara’at does not describe a physical ailment per se but a spiritual one. For Rabbis of the Talmudic period, Tzara’at was representative of spiritual shortcomings of some sort, such as selfishness, uncaring, dishonesty, slander, gossip, or some other moral failing. That is, God is, in effect, sending a message that a person is in emotional distress or alienated in some way from the community. We see reinforcement of this viewpoint in Numbers Chapter 12 where Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite (presumably black) woman, and as punishment, Miriam is struck with a flaky white skin ailment.

Commentators have noted that מצרע (a person afflicted with tzara’at) may be a contraction of מוציא רע (one who seeks out evil).

The function of the Priest is to identify the condition, declare the person “unclean”, and quarantine him. The Torah also provides a pathway for the priest to allow the ritually impure person to return to society once they are again ritually pure. The functions of the priest are for ritualistic, not hygienic purposes. Why doesn’t the Torah deal with treatment and healing? Evidence from surrounding cultures shows that rudimentary healing practices were known at the time, and the Talmud does look approvingly on physicians. The Hebrew Bible and the Talmud at times also chastises the people for turning to spiritual healers in place of God.

Other types of tzara’at (verses 9 through 23)

Why does a person declared unclean when an eruption appears on the skin become clean when it spreads over the whole body? When the eruption starts to heal, that is, undiscolored flesh begins to appear, he shall again be judged unclean. What is going on here? I have not seen a convincing explanation. Plaut opined that no convincing explanation has ever been offered. Some Rabbinic commentators have apparently thrown up their hands and decided that this is a decree of the Torah beyond human understanding!

Ritual for symptoms of a burn caused by fire (verses 24 through 39)

The priest must judge when the unfortunate victim of a burn caused by fire is clean or unclean. Note again that this is solely a ritual procedure, not by any means an ancient medical intervention.

Dull white discolorations are judged to be “bohak” (בהק – meaning is not certain), not judged as signifying an unclean condition.

Rituals for loss of hair (verses 40 through 46)

Bald is okay (phew!), as long as a white affection streaked with red doesn’t appear on the bald spot. An afflicted person is not banished per se but required to dwell outside the camp. In this period before the development of medical knowledge, the only rational explanation that people of this period could surmise for such an affliction is that the person incurred the wrath of God. The nature of his alleged sin is not stated nor is it implied.

Rituals for mildew (verses 47 through 59)

The procedure for treatment of what is apparently mildew (נגע צרעת) on wool or linen fabric is detailed here. Why is there a need to wait and see if the mildew has spread before burning the clothing? Perhaps, as most people were impoverished or living at subsistence levels, economic necessity may have driven the need to salvage and restore clothing if at all possible.

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