Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tazria 5763/ April 5, 2003

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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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Tazria 5763/ April 5, 2003

In the Presence of the Lord

Dr. Rivkah Raviv
Helena and Paul Schulmann Center of Basic Jewish Studies

Most of the laws in the Torah on purity and impurity, save for impurity deriving from contact with the dead and the exclusion of unclean persons from the Israelite camp,[1] are found in Parashot Shemini, Tazria and Metzora. These laws are sandwiched between the account of the death of Aaron's two sons on the day the Tabernacle was erected (Lev. 9-10) and the commandments given "after the death of Aaron's two sons" (Lev. 16:1), which come to teach us that "he [Aaron] is not to come at will into the Shrine" (Lev. 16:2). Why is the place of rules about purity and impurity precisely at this juncture?

Maimonides, in Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 47, explains the reason behind these laws:

The entire intent was to inspire awe in those who turned to the Temple, that they see it and be fearful, as it is said, "You shall ... venerate My sanctuary" (Lev. 19:30; 26:2). When a person frequents a place, its impact on his soul diminishes, and he gradually is less awed by it... Since the objective was to maintain this sense of awe, the Almighty cautioned those who are unclean against entering the Sanctuary, by stipulating many sorts of uncleanness, to the extent that hardly a person turns out to be clean, save for a very few.

Accordingly, the purpose of erecting the Tabernacle was to afford human beings the religious experience of drawing close to the Deity dwelling therein. In order to prevent the experience from losing its impact, the Torah restricted the possibilities of approaching the Temple at all times by establishing numerous sorts of impurity.


The order of the laws is as follows: first come the restrictions of uncleanness in animals, those we call non-kosher animals, (ch. 11); then uncleanness among humans - namely, the uncleanness of a woman after childbirth (ch. 12), passages on leprosy (ch. 13-14), uncleanness of males from discharge and emission of semen (15:1-18), and finally uncleanness of women during menstruation and discharge (15:19-33). This ordering raises the following questions: 1) Why does the passage on animals precede the passage on human beings? 2) Why is the woman after childbirth, whose blood renders her unclean, discussed separately from the impurity of a woman who is menstruating?[2]

The homilists saw the order 'Animal-Man' as echoing the order of creation in Genesis. Leviticus Rabbah (Margolies edition, ch. 14, p. 299) says:

Rabbi Simlai said: Just as his [mankind's] creation came after the animals, beasts and birds, so too the instructions concerning him come after the animals, beasts and birds, as it says, "These are the instructions concerning animals ..." (Lev. 11:46), followed by "When a woman at childbirth ..." (Lev. 12:2).

Rabbenu Bahya continued the midrashic line, noting another reflection of Creation in the fact that the passages concerning tum'a of humans in Tazria begin with a woman at childbirth. The analogy to Genesis can also clarify another difficulty in the order of the text: why is the passage about a woman giving birth followed by the commandment to circumcise the child (Lv.12:2-3)?[3]

Just as we observe in Creation that the animals and beasts, the trees and plants were brought into being before the creation of Man, and as soon as he was created he was commanded positive and negative commands; so, too, [here in Leviticus] we observe that the Torah sequenced three passages: the first deals with the animals, associated with the element earth, namely, "These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals"; the second deals with fish, associated with the element water, namely, "These you may eat of all that live in water"; the third, birds, is associated with the element wind, namely, "The following you shall abominate among the birds."[Thus the animals correspond to three out of four of the primordial elements of earth, air, fire, and water.] Last mentioned is the creation of Man, and immediately he was given a commandment, namely circumcision, to inform us that the main purpose of bringing Man into the world was none other than performing commandments.

Several explanations have been offered in response to the second question. The authors of the midrash made a causal connection based on adjacent chapters between a woman at childbirth and a leper (chapters 12, 13): "Who caused the newborn to come out with leprosy? His mother, who was not mindful of the laws of menstruation."[4] Or, put differently, "What has one thing to do with the other? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I told you to bring an offering when giving birth, and you did not do so; on your life, I shall force you to come before the priest [to bring the offering of the leper], 'and he shall be brought to Aaron the priest' (Lev. 13:2)."[5] However, these are midrashic comments made on the strength of the order in the text.

Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel and Rabbi David Zvi Hofmann viewed the order of the text as reflecting the chronology of human life - first a person is born, and therefore the passages on human uncleanness begin with the case of the woman at childbirth. Other schemes of arrangement were suggested. One of them pertains to the severity of uncleanness, for the Torah stipulates a protracted period of uncleanness (40 or 80 days) for a woman after childbirth, preventing her from coming to the Temple, whereas this is not the case for other unclean persons, whose period of purification is at most seven days. Another explanation pertains to the circumstances: birth is a joyful occasion, in contrast to most of the other types of impurity described further on, which are associated with conditions of infirmity or disease.[6]

We would like to offer another explanation for the proximity of the passage on animals to the passage about a woman at childbirth, and of the latter passage being placed first in the list of impurity affecting human beings. The commandments in chapter 11 and in the passage on a woman at childbirth pertain to two themes: human nutrition (the passage on animals) and reproduction (the woman at childbirth and the newborn). These are two areas fundamental to survival, and they appear in Bereshit in conjunction with the conclusion of Creation: "G-d blessed them and G-d said to them, 'Be fertile and increase, fill the earth [reproduction]... See, I give you every seed-bearing plant... they shall be yours for food [nutrition]" (Gen. 1:28-29).[7] In the new circumstances that emerged after the Flood, G-d blessed Noah and his sons, again saying "Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth [reproduction]." But the text continues, "Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat... You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it [nutrition]" (Gen. 9:1-4).


On the eighth day of the inculcation ceremonies for the Tabernacle, the Torah sought to establish new limitations on these two areas, nutrition and reproduction. The world had reached a new era, new conditions had come into being, the Divine Presence now dwelt among the Israelite encampment.[8]

In these new circumstances, these aspects of life were given another dimension, previously non-existent: notions of uncleanness, purity and sanctity. Recognition that certain animals are unclean goes back to the time of Noah (Gen. 7:8), but here the Israelites were explicitly commanded in this regard.[9] The restrictions concerning purity were established in consideration of the developments that mankind had undergone thus far. Primordial man was only permitted to eat plants; the descendants of Noah were permitted the flesh of all animals; the Israelites were permitted to eat only certain animals that are not carnivors. Similarly one can see why the commandment of circumcision was mentioned in the passage on a woman at childbirth, since this commandment is significantly connected with birth.

Additional significance attaches to observing these restrictions of purity: it makes it possible to establish sanctity, one of the things that characterizes closeness of G-d. The passage listing the clean and unclean animals concludes as follows: "You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean ... you shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44-45). Refraining from drawing close to sanctity in a state of uncleanness is helpful in averting the dangers entailed therein: "You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them" (Lev. 15:31).

The passages that follow, on people with leprosy and discharges, can be viewed in like manner. These passages were perceived by the homilists as dealing with ailments indicative of G-d's punishing or warning man.[10] This is to show us that the Divine Presence in the Israelite camp goes hand in hand with direct involvement of G-d in our lives, which is sometimes difficult to live with, as proven by the story of Aaron's two sons, who died "when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord" (Lev. 16:1). Remember that earlier G-d had warned Moses, "If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you" (Ex. 33:5).

In conclusion, the passages on the laws of purity and impurity can be seen in the context of the emergence of a new reality in which a closeness was formed between the Creator and human beings. On the one hand this closeness made it necessary to take precaution and establish new curbs on human behavior in order to avoid the dangers inherent in this closeness. At the same time, the fundamental actions of human life, eating and reproduction, assumed a greater depth, extending their significance beyond mere survival.


[1] Both delayed to the book of Numbers.
[2] Other questions also arise, such as the order of the passages on leprosy, which is dealt with in Abarbanel's commentary on Parashat Tazria.
[3]Rabbenu Bahya, Beur al ha-Torah, Jerusalem 1977, II, p. 468.
[4] Leviticus Rabbah, Margaliyot edition, ch. 15.5, p. 331.
[5] Ibid., ch. 15.6, p. 332.
[6] Both explanations given by Rabbi Elhanan Samet, "Tum'at ha-Yoledet u-Milah le-Shmonah," Parashat ha-Shavua, Yeshivat Har Etzion (Beit ha-Midrash ha-Electroni) 2000. Samet notes that menstruation is also considered a condition of sickness, since the Torah uses language of illness in connection with it: "concerning her who is in menstrual infirmity" (Lev. 15:33). His approach does not easily explain why the passage on impurity resulting from emission of semen is include among these infirmities, unless this passage is viewed as appended to the passage on discharge.
[7] Regarding what could be eaten, Adam was commanded: "And the Lord G-d commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge ... you must not eat of it" (Gen. 2:16-17). The punishment given Adam and Eve touched on these two areas: "By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat," and "In pain shall you bear children."
[8] See the midrash in Numbers Rabbah (Vilna ed.), ch. 12.6: "Rav said: Something which had not existed since Creation until that moment was brought into being on that day. From Creation until that hour the Divine Presence had not dwelled in earthly realms, rather, from the erection of the Tabernacle onwards. Therefore it says, 'va-yehi,' to indicate that something new had been created".
[9] See Rabbi D. Z. Hoffman's introduction to his commentary on Leviticus, ch. 11, p. 218.
[10] On leprosy as a sign of warning, see Leviticus Rabbah (Margolies ed.), ch. 14.34, p. 381. On leprosy and discharge as punishment for sin, see ibid., ch. 18.2, p. 400; ibid., ch. 18.3, p. 404.
Several stories can be found in Scripture indicating this: leprosy of elevated, important figures who are close to G-d, such as Moses (Ex. 4:6), Miriam (Num. 11:9), Elijah's servant Gehazi (II Kings 5:27), and Uzziah King of Judah when he entered the Temple to burn incense (II Chron. 26:19). The homilists transposed the theme of leprosy into additional stories, and sometimes the punishment of having discharge, alongside. See Leviticus Rabbah , ch. 14.3, pp. 374-377.