SALT - Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5781 / 2021

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            The Torah in Parashat Metzora outlines the procedure whereby a metzora rids himself of his status of impurity.  This includes the offering of a series of sacrifices – some flour and three sheep, one of which is offered as an asham (guilt offering).  The Torah requires the officiating kohen to place some of the sacrificial blood on the metzora’s right ear, thumb and big toe.  The kohen must then take the jug of oil supplied by the metzora, sprinkle some oil toward the kodesh ha-kodashim (inner chamber of the Mikdash), and place some of the oil “al dam ha-asham” – on the sacrificial blood which had previously been placed on the metzora’s ear, thumb and toe (14:17).  The rest of the oil is placed on the metzora’s head.
            Later, the Torah describes the sacrificial offerings brought by a metzora who is poor and cannot afford three animals for his purification process.  Such a metzora brings instead just one sheep, and substitutes the other two sheep with two birds, which are less expensive than sheep.  The sheep is sacrificed as an asham, and, as in the case of an ordinary metzora, the blood is placed on the individual’s ear, thumb and big toe, after which some of the oil supplied by the metzora is placed on those areas.  In this context, however, the Torah does not command placing the oil “al dam ha-asham” – “on the blood of the asham,” but rather states that the oil should be placed “al mekom dam ha-asham” – “on the place of the blood of the asham” (14:28).  The Gemara (Menachot 10a), cited by Rashi, explains that even if the blood had dried or was otherwise removed from the metzora’s body, the oil is still placed on that spot.  The Torah in the second verse speaks of placing the oil on the site of the blood to indicate that it is placed on the spot where the blood had been, even if the blood has since been removed.  In the first verse, the Gemara explains, where the Torah speaks of the oil being placed on the blood, the intent is not to make the blood presence’s a prerequisite condition, but rather to clarify that it is acceptable to place the oil on the blood, and the blood is not regarded as a chatzitza (obstruction) between the metzora’s skin and the oil.
            Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen of Vilna, in his Binyan Shlomo (O.C., introduction), raises the question of why the provision mandating the placement of the oil even if the blood was removed appears specifically in the context of the pauper’s sacrifice.  Why is it in reference to his offering that the Torah clarifies that the oil does not have to be actually placed on the blood, but rather on the site where the blood had been, even if the blood is no longer present?
            Rav Shlomo of Vilna presents a clever answer to this question which he heard from Rav Yaakov Barit.  Elsewhere (Zevachim 44a, Menachot 15b), the Gemara establishes that the purification ritual does not need to be performed all at once.  If the metzora wishes, he may bring the jug of oil to complete the purification process even ten days after offering his asham sacrifice.  Rav Yaakov Barit proposed that this might be the reason why the phrase “al mekom dam ha-asham” appears specifically in the context of the pauper’s sacrifice.  Presumably, the most common reason why a metzora would bring the asham one day and the oil ten days later is because he has limited funds, and cannot afford to purchase all that is required at one time.  It is, quite obviously, far more convenient to offer the sacrifices and the oil all at once, and so it is likely the needy metzora who must conduct his rituals in separate stages, due to financial constraints.  Hence, it is in regard to such a case that the Torah establishes the possibility of applying the oil “al mekom dam ha-asham,” on the spot where the blood had been placed, even though it is no longer present, as this is the most likely situation when this would be necessary.
            We read in the beginning of Parashat Metzora the procedure required after a metzora, who had been declared impure due to a skin discoloration, is cured of his condition and wishes to regain his status of purity.  This process begins with a ceremony involving two birds – one of which is slaughtered, whereupon the second is dipped in the first bird’s blood, and later set free (14:5-7).  Rashi (14:4) comments that birds are used in this process because their chirping represents the faculty of speech, and the tzara’at skin infection, as the Gemara (Arakhin 16b) famously teaches, would befall a person as a punishment for the particular sin of lashon ha-ra – disparaging speech about other people
            The Sefat Emet (Metzora, 5661), developing this symbolism further, explains that sins of speech come in two varieties – speaking words which ought not be spoken, and failing to speak words which should be spoken.  Just as the Torah forbids using our faculty of speech for gossip and spreading negative information about others, the Torah demands that we use this precious asset for mitzva purposes – prayer, Torah study and instruction, and encouraging people through praise, compliments and the like.  The slaughtering of the first bird, the Sefat Emet explains, represents the need to “destroy” and eliminate our forbidden speech.  The second bird, which is released, symbolizes the obligation to use our faculty of speech the proper way, for positive and constructive purposes.
            The Tolna Rebbe suggested applying this symbolic understanding of the two birds to the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Kiddushin (57a) regarding the status of these birds vis-à-vis consumption.  The Gemara establishes that the second bird, which remains alive, is permissible for consumption, because, as Rava explains, “lo amra Torah ‘shalach’ le-takala” – “the Torah did not say, ‘send’ as a stumbling block.”  The very fact that the Torah requires releasing this bird into the open indicates that it is permissible for consumption, as otherwise, somebody might catch and wish to eat this bird not knowing about its forbidden status.  It is inconceivable that the Torah would mandate sending away the bird “as a stumbling block,” in a manner that could lead to sin, and so necessarily, this bird must be permissible for consumption.  The Tolna Rebbe remarked that if, as the Sefat Emet explains, this bird represents our using our faculty of speech for mitzva purposes, then the Gemara’s comment perhaps assumes great symbolic significance.  It instructs that when we “send” the “bird” – when we use our mouths for prayer, study, and other mitzvot – we must ensure that this activity does not become a “stumbling block.”  The Tolna Rebbe gives the example of a devoted student whose scholarly accomplishments lead him to arrogance and condescension, or to belittle others.  The Gemara emphasizes that the “bird” we “release,” the mitzvot we perform with our mouths, must not be a source of “takala,” of wrongdoing.  As important as it is to actively involve ourselves in valuable and meaningful pursuits, it is no less important to ensure that these pursuits do not cause us to “stumble” and hurt others along the way.
            The Torah in Parashat Metzora outlines the process of purification required of a metzora after his infection has been cured, which includes the slaughtering of a bird over an earthenware utensil containing “mayim chayim” – literally, “live waters” (14:5).  The simple meaning of this expression is that the water must have been drawn from a live spring or stream, as opposed to a body of still water.  Torat Kohanim specifies that the term “mayim chayim” excludes four kinds of water: mayim meluchim – salty ocean water; mayim poshrim – heated water; mayim mekhazvim – water from a spring which occasionally stops flowing; mayim menatfim – water that drips slowly, rather than flowing in a steady current.
            Malbim explains this definition of “mayim chayim” by noting that the adjective “chai” – which usually means “alive” – can also mean “healthy.”  For example, a verse in Sefer Yehoshua (5:8) refers to Benei Yisrael’s recovery from circumcision with the term “chayotam.”  And in Sefer Yeshayahu (38:21), the healing of King Chizkiyahu’s boils is described with the expression “ve-yechi.”  Accordingly, Malbim writes, Chazal deduced that the “mayim chayim” required for the metzora’s purification ceremony must be “healthy,” and may thus be neither salty nor altered through heating.  Secondly, the term “chayim” has the connotation of movement and vitality, and thus Chazal excluded water that does not constantly flow, or that drips slowly.
            As for the reason underlying this aspect of the metzora’s purification, Chizkuni and Rabbeinu Yosef Bekhor Shor suggest that the bird is slaughtered over this water because of the symbolism of the blood mixing with “live” water.  The blood of the slaughtered bird symbolizes death, and thus represents the metzora himself, who is considered to have “died.”  (The Gemara in Masekhet Nedarim (64b) famously lists a metzora among those who are considered, in a sense, “dead” during their lifetime.)  The mixing of this blood with “mayim chayim” thus signifies the metzora’s reentry into society.  Upon being declared impure, the metzora is required to live in quarantine, outside his city (13:47), and now, by undergoing his process of purification, he becomes eligible to rejoin society, to once again be part of the “live waters,” the vital, bustling community to which he had belonged.  And thus the slaughtered bird’s blood is mixed with “mayim chayim,” representing the “dead” individual’s “resurrection,” his return to “life” by reentering his city and his community.
            This symbol might perhaps be seen as a powerful expression of people’s ability to rebuild and rehabilitate themselves.  Even the metzora, who is regarded as “dead,” is later “resurrected,” brought back to life, by being welcomed back into the society from which he had been ostracized due to his misdeeds.  The metzora’s rehabilitation assures us that we, too, are capable of “resurrecting” ourselves, of growing and rebuilding after periods of decline.  Even in times of hardship or failure, when we have fallen into a state of “lifelessness,” we must trust in our ability to recover, revitalize, and become “mayim chayim” once again.
            The Torah in Parashat Tazria discusses the laws regarding tzara’at, outlining the general principles for when a skin discoloration is considered tzara’at and thus renders the individual impure.  A discoloration meeting the conditions for tzara’at is referred to by the Torah as a “nega” – “affliction” (13:2), from which Torat Kohanim deduces that “hu mitzta’er mimenu” – the discoloration causes the individual discomfort.  Torat Kohanim adds that the word used by the Torah in this context – “le-nega,” with the prefix “le” – implies that the infection causes discomfort not only to the individual himself, by also to others.  (Malbim explains that this construction has the connotation of a well-known, established fact.)
            We find among the Rishonim two different versions of this passage in the Torat Kohanim.  According to the version of the Rash Mi-Shantz, Torat Kohanim requires that others see the individual’s suffering.  The Rash Mi-Shantz explains that the discomfort caused by the tzara’at infection must be so severe that the patient groans in pain, and is thus apparent to everyone around him.  The more common text of the Torat Kohanim, however, reads, “she-af acheirim mitzta’arim mimenu” – requiring “that others, too, experience discomfort because of it.”  The Chafetz Chaim, in his commentary to Torat Kohanim, explains that the patient’s discomfort must be so significant that people who see him wallowing in agony are themselves pained by the sight.
            The Ra’avad, however, in his commentary to Torat Kohanim (as cited by Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch), suggests explaining this remark to mean that others are distressed due to the odor emitted by the infection.  According to this understanding, a skin discoloration does not qualify as a tazra’at infection unless the rotting skin emits an offensive smell that causes discomfort to everyone in the patient’s vicinity.
            This explanation perhaps assumes symbolic significance in light of the well-established teaching (Arakhin 16b) that tzara’at would occur as a punishment for slander, gossip, talebearing, and the like.  The “plague” of lashon ha-ra (negative speech about others) has a “malodorous” quality, a “repelling” effect upon people.  At first, we might feel that we can draw attention to ourselves and earn popularity by sharing private or unflattering information about people.  Such information tends to arouse people’s interest and curiosity, and so we might occasionally feel tempted to spread news about others in an attempt to boost our social standing.  But in truth, negativity and cynicism repels, rather than attracts.  We endear ourselves to others by judging favorably, by praising and complimenting, by observing people’s admirable qualities.  While the greatest harm caused by lashon ha-ra is, quite obviously, caused to the person spoken of, Torat Kohanim’s reference to the metzora’s “stench” perhaps warns us of the harmful effects upon the speaker, who loses the esteem of the very peers whose admiration he sought to earn through his gossip.
            The Torah in Parashat Metzora presents the laws relevant to tzara’at ha-bayit – discolorations that appear on the walls of houses, and could, in some cases, require dismantling the entire home.  Rashi (14:34), based on the Gemara in Masekhet Horiyot (10a), writes that the Torah here conveys “besora tova” – “good tidings,” informing them that some homes will be stricken with tzara’at, and in the course of their dismantling, treasures will be found.  The native Canaanites hid their riches in the walls of their homes, and Benei Yisrael would take possessions of these residences, but will not know of the hidden treasures inside the walls.  God would then strike the home with tzara’at, such that the home would need to be dismantled and the treasure would be found.
            The Gemara briefly mentions these treasures also in a different context – in Masekhet Bava Metzia (25b), in reference to the case of an item found in a heap of rubble, or inside a very old wall.  The Mishna establishes that the person who finds the item can keep it, and the owner of the collapsed structure or the wall cannot claim the object.  The Gemara explains that the Mishna speaks of an item with rust that is clearly ancient.  The finder is allowed to keep the item because of the possibility that it was among the articles hidden by the native Canaanites before Benei Yisrael took possession of the land.  As such, the owner of the collapsed structure or wall has no claim to the object.
            The Rosh, commenting on the Gemara’s discussion in his Tosafot Ha-Rosh, explains that these riches hidden by the Canaanites belonged to the entire nation when Benei Yisrael took possession of the land.  They are included in the “shalal” (“spoils”) – the possessions left behind by the vanquished tribes, which are distributed among the entire nation.  After many years passed, the Rosh explains, the nation no longer anticipated finding any more possessions, and therefore, the collective entity of Am Yisrael implicitly relinquished rights to such possessions.  Hence, if more items are discovered, they become the property of those who find them.
            Some have enlisted the Tosafot Ha-Rosh’s theory to answer the question posed by many as to why owners of homes stricken with tzara’at ha-bayit should be worthy of treasures.  Chazal in several places establish that the various forms of tzara’at described in Parashat Tazria and Parashat Metzora would befall people as a punishment, particularly, for the sin of lashon ha-ra (negative speech about others).  It thus seems, at first glance, difficult to understand why a person who deserved tzara’at ha-bayit would then be rewarded with the discovery of a hidden treasure.  According to the Tosafot Ha-Rosh, the answer is clear – these treasures were not, in fact, kept by the homeowners, but rather distributed among the entire nation.  (This explanation was given by Rav Chaim Feinstein.)
            Siftei Chakhamim (here in Parashat Metzora, 14:34) offers a different answer to the question of why those who are punished with tzara’at ha-bayit are also rewarded with the discovery of riches.  Quite simply, Siftei Chakhamim writes, this is precisely the “good tidings” that God here conveyed to Benei Yisrael – that even when He brings punishment, there is a “treasure” concealed within the hardship.  We are assured that at all times, even when God punishes us for our wrongdoing, He still loves and cherishes us, and continues to shower us with His blessings.  Even the curse of tzara’at ha-bayit brings the blessing of wealth – showing us that beneath the surface of every difficult situation is a great “treasure” which we can uncover if we look for it.
            The Torah in Parashat Metzora outlines the procedure required in cases of tzara’at ha-bayit – when certain discolorations appear on the wall of a person’s home in the Land of Israel.  If the spot meets the qualifications of a tzara’at infection, the kohen declares a seven-day waiting period, after which the spot is inspected a second time.  If it had spread, then the affected stones must be removed and replaced.  Then, if the discoloration resurfaces, the house must be dismantled (14:45).  If not, then a special ritual is performed to purify the home, as described here by the Torah (14:49-53).  Any people or articles that are in the home after it had been declared impure, until its dismantling or purification, are considered tamei (impure).
            Earlier, at the end of Parashat Tazria (13:47-59), the Torah presents the guidelines relevant to tzara’at ha-beged – discolorations which on garments.  Similar to the situation of tzara’at ha-bayit, a garment with a discoloration that spreads must be burned, whereas if the discoloration fades of disappears, then the garment is immersed and then rendered once again tahor (pure).
            While these two types of tzara’attzara’at ha-bayit and tzara’at ha-beged – appear similar and parallel to one another, Rav Chaim of Brisk (Kitvei Ha-Grach, 65) noted a subtle conceptual distinction between them as far as the status of impurity is concered.  Rav Chaim raised the question of why there is no halakhic source invalidating a mikveh that uses the wall of a home – for example, a mikveh inside a home, or adjacent to a home, that shares a wall with the home.  The Mishna in Masekhet Mikvaot (5:5) establishes that something susceptible to tum’a (impurity) is invalid for use as the wall of a mikveh, which helps contain the water in a single location so it could be used for immersion.  Seemingly, Rav Chaim noted, every house (in Eretz Yisrael) is susceptible to tum’a, in that any home could, potentially, be afflicted with tzara’at ha-bayit and thus declared impure.  Hence, we should conclude that a mikveh consisting of the wall of a house is invalid, and cannot be used for purification – something which is never mentioned anywhere in halakhic literature.
            Rav Chaim suggested answering this question by establishing that a house afflicted with tzara’at is a source of tum’a, but does not itself receive tum’a.  The house confers tum’a upon people and objects inside it, just as an animal carcass confers tum’a upon people and objects that come in direct contact with it, but it cannot be said to become tamei.  In Rav Chaim’s view, the purification ritual performed after the discoloration fades is intended not to purify the house, but rather to change its status so it cannot bring tum’a upon people and objects.
            When it comes to tzara’at ha-beged, by contrast, the garment actually attains the status of tum’a.  And it is for this reason, Rav Chaim writes, that the garment must be immersed after the discoloration disappears – to divest it of its state of impurity.  As Rav Chaim cites, the Gemara in Masekhet Sukka (12b) establishes that anitzei pishtan – combed strips of flax – may not be used as sekhakh for a sukka, and Rashi explains that they are disqualified because they are susceptible to tzara’at ha-beged.  Since these strips have already undergone processing, they are considered “garments” (as opposed to raw materials) with respect to tzara’at ha-beged, and are thus capable of attaining this status of impurity.  Rav Chaim shows from Rashi’s comments that a garment is, indeed, considered “ra’ui le-kabel tum’a” – susceptible to tum’a – by virtue of the possibility of tzara’at ha-beged.  This is in contrast to a home, which, as mentioned, is not assigned the status of “ra’ui le-kabel tum’a” despite the possibility of tzara’at ha-bayit.  Evidently, Rav Chaim explains, a house afflicted with tzara’at ha-bayit does not receive impurity, but rather becomes an impure entity that imparts tum’a, whereas a garment afflicted with tzara’at ha-beged receives tum’a, and is thus deemed “ra’ui le-kabel tum’a.”
            Parashat Tazria begins with the laws of tum’at yoledet – the status of impurity which befalls a woman after childbirth.  The Torah outlines the process a woman must undergo to retain her status of tahara (purity) after childbirth, which involves waiting a certain number of days (depending on the child’s gender), and culminates with the offering of a pair of sacrifices – one sheep, and one bird (either a pigeon or turtledove; 12:6-7).  If she is poor and cannot afford a sheep, the Torah allows us to offer two birds, instead (12:8).  Only after offering the required sacrifices is the woman considered pure such that she is permitted to enter the Beit Ha-mikdash and partake of sacrificial food.
            The Mishna in Masekhet Keritut (8a) addresses the case of a woman who gave birth several times without bringing the required sacrifices.  In such a case, the Mishna rules, she regains her status of tahara after offering just one pair of sacrifices.  Although she still bears an obligation to bring a pair of sacrifices for each and every birth, her status of tahara does not depend on her fulfillment of this obligation, and she is thus permitted to eat sacrificial food after bringing just a single pair of sacrifices.  (It should be noted that applies only if each birth occurred after the completion of the required waiting period following the previous birth, as otherwise, only a single pair of sacrifices is required.)  The Mishna proceeds to relate that there was a time when the merchants in Jerusalem raised the prices for the birds which women needed to offer after childbirth, to the point where the cost was prohibitive.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel decided to solve this problem by announcing that women who owe sacrifices for multiple births are required to offer only a single pair of sacrifice.  This significantly lowered the demand for these birds, and the merchants reduced the prices.
            Rashi explains that Rabban Shimon took the bold measure of suspending a Torah obligation because he feared that otherwise, grave Torah prohibitions would be violated.  Under the circumstances, given the exorbitant price of the birds, it was likely that many women would not offer sacrifices even for a single birth, and would then end up eating sacrifices in a state of impurity.  Rabban Shimon therefore deemed it preferable to suspend the obligation to offer the additional sacrifices for previous births in order to lower the prices and thus enable women to at least offer the single set of sacrifices necessary for them to regain their status of halakhic purity.
            The Netziv, however, in his Herchev Davar (to Vayikra 12:7), boldly suggests that Rabban Shimon’s pronouncement actually reflected Torah law, and did not constitute an extraordinary measure suspending a Biblical requirement.  He notes that the Gemara (Keritut 9b) infers the halakha requiring multiple sacrifices for multiple births from the Torah’s conclusion of this section – “zot torat ha-yoledet” (“this is the law of the childbearing woman” – 12:7).  The Gemara understood the word “zot” as indicating a separate requirement for each birth.  As the Netziv notes, this concluding phrase seems to appear one verse too early, as afterward, the Torah adds the provision that an underprivileged woman may bring a less expensive sacrifice.  Seemingly, the concluding expression “zot torat ha-yoledet” should have been stated only after all the laws had been presented, rather than before the law allowing a less expensive sacrifice in the case of a woman facing financial struggles.  The Netziv proposes that the concluding phrase “zot torat ha-yoledet” precedes the law regarding the underprivileged woman because such a woman who delivered several times without offering the required sacrifices is actually required to offer only a single pair of sacrifices.  Although generally a woman must bring a separate pair of sacrifices for each birth, a woman in financial straits who owes sacrifices for several births is required to bring only a single pair of sacifices.  Just as underprivileged women are allowed to offer two birds instead of a bird and a sheep, the Netziv explains, they are also given a dispensation if they owe sacrifices for several births, and may bring just one pair of sacrifices.
            Accordingly, the Netziv writes, when the merchants in Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s time raised the prices of birds, making them unaffordable for the majority of women, the women were considered “poor” with the respect to the requirement to offer sacrifices after childbirth.  Hence, Torah law did not require them to offer multiple pairs of sacrifices for multiple births, as they were included in the Torah’s special dispensation.  Therefore, Rabban Gamliel’s announcement reflected Torah law, and was not made as an extraordinary provision suspending a Biblical obligation.