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Parashat Metzorah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Metzora- Shabbat Haggadol 5760/2000

Purification of the Leper -- Its Spiritual Significance

Prof. Ed Greenstein

Tel-Aviv University

The laws of the Torah include a vast number of ritualistic details that often give the impression of being random or mysterious. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman noted in his commentary on Leviticus that, "Actually, we should not delve into the underlying foundation of the laws of purity and impurity. The Sages said that these laws are rules and edicts of the King, and it is not for us to ponder them."[1] According to the Sages, there is no point in trying to understand the reason for commandments of this type, since they are arbitrary orders given by the Creator. Blind obedience to these orders is supposed to lead to happiness and eternal life. Those who observe the commandments whose reason is obscure and unclear will attain special merit and be rewarded.

"However," Rabbi Hoffman continues, "many great rabbis, such as Maimonides, Nahmanides and others, have tried to find a rationale for these laws." Essentially, since the Middle Ages searching for the reasons behind the commandments became a "theoretical enterprise," with no lack of such undertakings in our day, as well. Rabbi Hoffman himself analyzes the dietary laws on forbidden and permitted foods and the laws of purity and impurity set forth in this week's reading, and other exegetes and Bible scholars as well have followed this approach. Scholars are motivated by the reasonable assumption that underlying the commandments on purity and impurity in particular, and the rites of the Torah in general, are principles and notions that characterize the sacred faith revealed in the Torah.

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra tends towards a rational explanation of these passages. For example, he comments on the order in which subjects are addressed in the reading and notes on the opening words of last week's portion, "When a woman at childbirth...," that the Torah presents the subjects according to an orderly train of thought: "After completing the teachings regarding pure and impure foods, it mentions impure [conditions] in human beings,[2] beginning with a woman at childbirth, because birth is the beginning." Ibn Ezra explains the order of the subjects according to a thematic idea stemming from a universal phenomenon -- birth. Rashi as well suggests an explanation of the order of the topics, except that his explanation is not based on a general phenomenon, rather on a very basic passage in the Torah, a passage which provides explanations for quite a number of ritualistic commands in the Torah, namely, the beginning of Genesis.[3] Rashi bases his interpretation on the Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah, which suggests an explanation for the order of subjects addressed: "Just as the creation of Man came after all the beasts, animals and birds in the story of Genesis, so too the laws concerning him (e.g., the laws on impurity pertaining to the human body)[4] are set forth after the laws on the beasts, animals and birds."

Rashi also finds a certain logic in the details of the laws and the language in which they are put. In the beginning of Parashat Metzora the priest who assists in the purification of the leper is commanded to take two birds (Lev. 14:4). Why birds? Rashi explains: "Since the afflictions (associated with leprosy) come because of gossip,[5] which is idle chatter; hence, in its purification one uses birds that also prattle in a chirping voice." In addition to birds, the priest must take "cedar wood." This, too, Rashi finds to be symbolic: "Since the afflictions come because of being unrefined." The cedar is a tall tree, and loftiness is well-known as a symbol of arrogance.[6] In addition the priest must take "crimson stuff, and hyssop"; these Rashi sees as a fitting remedy for the sin of arrogance; "What can make amends (for the leper) so that he be healed? If he humbles himself like a worm [from which crimson dye is derived] and like hyssop [a lowly plant, in contrast to the cedar]."

Modern scholars, who are familiar with anthropology and the place of blood in social rituals, and who aware of the methods of structuralism and of the study of the notions that underlie phenomena, can discover definite logic in the ritual for healing and rehabilitating the leper. The series of actions that lead to rehabilitation of the leper comprise a sort of ritual "dance" that suits the abstract spiritual process.[7]

Before we describe and interpret this process, several general remarks are in order concerning rituals in the Torah and the trends they reflect.

The principal trend of ritual as described in the Torah is to create a setting worthy of the Divine Presence, a sanctified and pure place where the Lord will grace us by dwelling there. It is highly desirable for the Divine Presence to dwell amidst the children of Israel, since His presence brings blessing to all who dwell in the camp and protects them. Therefore, Moses entreats the Lord to go with the Israelites in the wilderness and to dwell in their midst: "For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us...?" (Ex. 33:16).

Hence the Tabernacle which is invested with the glory of the Lord must be pure; the individuals officiating in the Tabernacle must be pure; the animals which are given as offerings must be pure. No unclean person, just as no unclean animal, may enter the Tabernacle. Also the camp surrounding the Tabernacle must maintain a certain degree of purity, and the Israelites dwelling the in the camp must maintain a degree of purity. Therefore any person severely affected by an unclean condition must be removed from the camp:

Instruct the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption or a discharge and anyone defiled by a corpse. Remove male and female alike; put them outside the camp so that they do not defile the camp of those in whose midst I dwell. (Num. 5:2-3)

What characterizes the pure as opposed to the impure? This can be deduced from the characteristics of the impure. Impurity stems, firstly, from contact with a corpse. Likewise, it stems, secondly, from a leper, a live person who has lost some of his flesh and who appears to be at death's door. Impurity also stems, thirdly, from any discharge of liquids that represent life -- semen and menstrual blood -- which are the source of life. In other words, when a liquid of life is lost from a living organ -- a sort of partial death -- this leads to impurity.[8] Thus impurity is associated with death, while purity is associated with life. Therefore, the most potent substance needed for purification is blood, and next after that, flowing water, known as "living water." This is water that is closest to its condition at the time of Creation. Embodied in the notions of pure and impure are qualities characteristic of G-d: life and creation. That which promotes creation and life is associated with purification, and that which is detrimental to creation and life is associated with impurity. In other words, life and creation represent the will of G-d, whereas death and degeneration are contrary to His will. One could say, as it were, that G-d likes to be in a setting of purity, and that He will not tolerate too much accumulation of impurity. When the level of impurity rises, the Lord abandons the Tabernacle until it is purified once more.

It should further be noted that impurity is not necessarily bad. Impurity prevents a person from coming into a sacred place, from entering the Tabernacle, but sometimes such a thing is desirable and good, even a positive precept. For example, when a family member of a priest dies, the priest must take care of the dead and become impure. A woman at childbirth -- precisely the case with which Parashat Tazria begins -- loses blood -- the liquid of life, from her womb -- the source of life, and therefore she becomes impure. She may not come in contact with sacred things for seven days, but on the eighth day from the birth of her son she may do so, since she and her son[9] have passed the period of uncleanness.[10] A third example is the person who prepares the ashes of the red heifer -- the substance needed to cleanse a person from impurity resulting from contact with a corpse -- who himself becomes unclean in the process.

In all of these cases -- the priest whose relative has died, the woman who has given birth, and the person who prepares the potion from the red heifer -- impurity results under good circumstances, that is, without there being the slightest hint of sin or evil. This however, is not true of the leper. The ritual procedures that he must undergo point to a process which includes atonement in addition to purification. Close analysis of the text describing the purification of the leper reveals the spiritual stages incorporated in the ritual.

It is assumed in the Torah that an affliction such as leprosy would only come to a person as a punishment.[11] Therefore the leper is required to bring an offering to atone for the sin that caused him to come down with leprosy. Before the leper can bring a guilt offering for his atonement, however, he must be cured and purified. An authorized priest slaughters a pure bird and pours its blood into a dish containing living water -- a purifying agent of the second degree. The priest augments the blood -- a purifying agent of the first degree -- by adding other substances: cedar wood, crimson, and hyssop. The second bird which he set aside he then dips into the augmented blood solution. He sprinkles this augmented blood on the leper and lets go the live bird, which flies off, carrying off the impurity, as it were. After the rite, the leper prepares to return to the world of the living. He bathes, shaves,[12] washes his garments, and spends a week out of his house.

At this point the leper is in a condition of purification that enables him to bring an offering, by means of the priest, of course. First, the healed leper must bring an offering which, according to its description in Leviticus 5:17-19, is a guilt offering atoning for the misdeed on account of which he came down with leprosy. It does not suffice, however, for the unclean individual to become purified, for his impurity also attaches to the Tabernacle, and the entire public benefits from the Tabernacle being pure, as we explained above. Therefore, one must see to it that no impurity remain in the sacred precinct, lest an accumulation of impurity lead to general defilement of the sacred area. To this end, on the eighth day the former leper must bring an offering which, according to the description in Leviticus 5:1-6, is a sin offering. As has been shown especially by Prof. Jacob Milgrom, a sin offering (korban hatat) is an offering of purification, from the word le-hateh, to disinfect or cleanse, i.e., to remove the sin, thus purify. The sin offering does not cleanse the leper, who has already been purified, rather, it purifies the sanctuary.[13] Bringing this offering is the responsibility of the leper on whose account the sanctuary became unclean. The series of actions performed is reminiscent of the purification rite on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest atones "for himself and for his household" (Lev. 16:6), before he purges "the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites" (v. 16). In this way the ritual serves to educate the individual with respect to his obligations towards the generality.

In the next and final stage, the individual sees to good relations between himself and the Lord, which presumably were marred when he had leprosy. The person who feels guilty understands that he has committed a crime that has angered the Lord and caused Him to afflict him with this terrible disease. The former leper would surely wish to make amends in these relations, restoring them to their former glory. Therefore he brings two offerings, a sort of gift to appease G-d and bring about a reconciliation -- a burnt offering (cf. Lev. 1:10-13) and a meal offering (cf. Lev. 2:1-3).

In this manner the Torah assures us that it is possible to atone for terrible sins. In addition, there is a spiritual process that the sinner must undergo, a process which assumes a ritualistic form according to the commandments of religious rites. The rituals described in the Torah serve, on the one hand, to assure that there will be no separation between G-d and His people,[14] and on the other hand, to create in our midst, in this world, an environment worthy of receiving the Glory of the Lord.

[1] David Tzvi Hoffman, Leviticus, translated from the German [into Hebrew] by Tzvi Har-Shefer and Aaron Lieberman, Mosad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem, 1966, Vol. 1, p. 213.

[2] According to the Paris manuscript; see note in Torah Hayyim edition of the Pentateuch.

[3] For example, Leviticus, ch. 11, lists the categories of clean and unclean animals according to the geographical divisions of heaven, earth and water, which are found in Genesis, ch. 1; cf. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, Praeger, New York 1966, pp. 41-58. Another example is the preference given to animal offerings over plant offerings, which finds expression in the story of Cain and Abel, Genesis, ch. 4; cf. Saul Levin, "The More Savory Offering: A Key to the Problem of Gen. 4:3-5," Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979) p. 85.

[4] Cf. note in Torat Hayyim edition of the Pentateuch.

[5] This is deduced from the case of Miriam, who spoke ill of Moses (Numbers 12). This is not the place to deal with the provocative fact that Aaron was also party to this gossip but apparently was not punished for it. In brief, we note that Aaron was spared by virtue of the priesthood; clearly a priest with leprosy would be forbidden to officiate.

[6] Cf., for example, Is. 2:13-17.

[7] Cf. my remarks in the chapter, "Biblical Law," in Barry W. Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources, Summit Books, New York 1984, pp. 83-103, especially pp. 94-95.

[8] Cf. Rachel Adler, "Tumah and Taharah: Ends and Beginnings," in Elizabeth Koltun (ed.), The Jewish Woman, Schocken Books, New York 1976, pp. 63071; Greenstein, "Biblical Law," p. 89-95; idem, "The Torah as She Is Read," Essays on Biblical Method and Translation, Scholars Press, Atlanta 1989, esp. p. 49; Jacob Milgrom, "Rationale of Cultic Law: The Case of Impurity," Semeia 45 (1989), pp. 103-109.

[9] Clearly the son who is born along with the blood that comes out of the womb is also impure; cf. the "third reason" given by Shadal (Luzzatto) in his commentary on Leviticus 12:3, Schlesinger ed., p. 114.

[10] This is not the place to discuss the doubling of the period of uncleanness in the case of a woman who bears a daughter; on this, cf. Greenstein, "Biblical Law," p. 95; Tirzah Meacham, "A Suggested Commentary for the Doubling of Days of Impurity and Purity for the Woman who Births a Daughter," Shnaton --An Annual for Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies (Heb.) 11, 1997, pp. 153-166.

[11] Job, of course, can be cited as a book challenging this notion.

[12] On the multiple significations of shaving as a rite of passage, cf. Saul M. Olyan, "What Do Shaving Rites Accomplish and What Do They Signal in Biblical Ritual Contexts?" Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998), pp. 611-622.

[13] Cf. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-66, Anchor Bible, Doubleday, Garden City, New York 1991, pp. 254-258.

[14] Hoffman, Leviticus, p. 210.

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