A Look at Parshat Metzora

Jerusalem, Israel beautiful architectural view
Jerusalem, Israel beautiful architectural view by National Guard of the United States is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

פרשת מצרע

ויקראLeviticus 14:1 – 15:33

Note: In regular years, Parashat Metzora and the previous parashah, Tazria, are read on a single Shabbat. During a leap year in the Hebrew calendar (two months of Adar) the parashot are read separately, Tazria one Shabbat and Metzora on the subsequent Shabbat.

Chapter 14 – Purification of affected individual (Verses 1 through 11)

Priest has no apparent duty in the recovery of the afflicted individual (המצרע) but has a protocol to judge him טהר (usually translated as “clean”, but in the spiritual, not hygienic sense, so purified may be a better translation). The priest shall perform or direct a ritual (including two birds, one to be slaughtered and one to be set free), similar to the sacrificial ritual involving two goats for Day of Atonement )see next week’s parashah) and then allows  him to enter the camp, but not his home, for an additional week, at which point he  offer sacrifices, including two male lambs without blemish. Substitutions are permitted for poorer members of the community. Note that in this time period that precedes modern (or even medieval) medical science, certain skin ailments as described were not considered a disease per se, but due to a spiritual failing. Being banished outside the camp gives the afflicted individual a specified time out to reflect on his spiritual failings that brought down his condition.

Many commentators, including Rashi subscribed to the interpretation that Tazria is a physical ailment brought about due to a spiritual weakness, including but not limited to gossip and slander ( לשון הרע- malicious speech, literally “bad tongue”). For that reason, Rashi reasons that the constant chirping of birds is symbolic of incessant gossiping between two or more people. Hence the requirement to sacrifice two birds.

Guilt, Sin, and Burnt Offerings – (Verses 12 Through 32)

One of the male lambs to be sacrificed shall be a guilt offering (אשם).  Note consideration for those of limited means. Instead of offering two additional lambs, one as sin offering (חטאת)  and one as burnt offering (עלה), he can substitute two turtledoves or two pigeons.   

Ritualistic Procedures for Afflicted House (Verses 33 Through 57)

Practical procedures to determine if a house is afflicted with tzarat (may be physically manifested as mold or mildew, but as with the bodily affliction described above, it is due to a spiritual failing) and if so, how to localize and remedy, if possible, or demolish if not possible. For that reason, the homeowner cannot make the determination that the house is afflicted based on his own observations. He must approach the priest and state “something like an affliction has appeared in my house” (כנגע נראה לי בבית).

Biblical scholars presuppose that this section may have been written or modified during the Babylonian exile since mold was more common in the humid fertile crescent than in relatively dry Judea. Addition of sacrificial rites, etc. that may have spiritual value, but no practical value may be vestiges from ancient practices and rituals that the people were used to and accepted and are now “tacked on” to more practical measures to assure buy-in and compliance. As the possible need to condemn and demolish a house is always a possibility in the event of mold infestation, and as this would be a devastating financial tragedy for most of the people who were living at a subsistence level (homeowners’ insurance was still several millennia away  J), a Priest was required to make the determination as he held Gd given authority.

Ritualistic Procedures for Male Defilement (Verses 1 Through 18)

Male defilement, either caused by “discharge from the flesh” (זב מבשרו – such as puss from a wound or burn) or emission of semen (תצא ממנו שכבת זרע) and the ritualistic remedies. Is there any pragmatic basis for considering such contact as defilement or is this purely ritualistic?

Ritualistic Procedures for Female Defilement (Verses 19 Through 33)

Female defilement (זבה דם), caused by her period and the ritualistic remedies. Note that this practice survives among observant Jews through the practice of ritual purity. As the Temple no longer stands, sacrificial offerings at the conclusion of her period have been replaced by immersion in the mikvah.

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