Toward the end of Parashat Metzora, the Torah discusses the status of ritual impurity that takes effect when a person experiences bodily discharges. In the case of a zav or zava – a man or woman who experiences an unusual discharge, as opposed to normal semenal emissions or menstruation – the purification process entails the offering of two birds as sacrifices (15:14-15, 29-30).
The case of a zav or zava is exceptional in that the individual brings two birds as a sacrifice regardless of his or her financial status. In other instances when the Torah requires offering two birds, this is because the individual is poor and cannot afford the standard, more expensive, offering. One example appears earlier in Parashat Metzora, where the Torah describes the special sacrifices offered by a metzora as part of his purification. The standard requirement includes three sheep, but a poor metzora brings instead a sheep and two birds. In the case of a zav or zava, by contrast, even if the individual is wealthy, he or she offers two birds, and does not have to offer a larger sacrifice.
The Meshekh Chokhma suggests an explanation for this difference between the case of a metzora and that of a zav or zava. He notes that whereas a metzora is required to publicize his state of impurity (Rashi to 13:45), the status of a zav or zava, understandably, would usually remain private. As such, the Meshekh Chokhma writes, the Torah wanted the metzora’s purification to be publicized – just as his state of impurity had been publicized – but the zav or zava’s purification to be done as discreetly as possible. For this reason, every zav and zava brings birds, and not animals. As the Meshekh Chokhma observes, the offering of a bird sacrifice requires just a single kohen, whereas the offering of an animal sacrifice involves numerous kohanim. When an animal is sacrificed, its blood is collected during the slaughtering, and it must then be brought to the altar and sprinkled. The animal is thereupon skinned, its fats are placed on the altar, and all its meat must be partaken by the kohanim by the following morning. This is a far more public procedure than the offering of a bird sacrifice, which requires just a single kohen who kills the animal, extracts the blood against the altar, and then removes certain parts of the bird. Additionally, the bird has only a small quantity of meat, and thus only a very small number of kohanim participate in its consumption. Accordingly, the Meshekh Chokhma suggests that the Torah required a zav and zava to offer birds in order to help maintain their privacy. This is in contrast to the metzora, whose purification should be made public, and whose sacrifice therefore entails elaborate animal sacrifices which involve numerous kohanim.
In light of the Meshekh Chokhma’s analysis, we might perhaps suggest an additional explanation for why the Torah permits a poor metzora to offer the standard sacrifice if he so wishes (as we’ve discussed in our last two editions of S.A.L.T.; see Mishna, Negaim 14:12). According to the Meshekh Chokhma, it appears, a metzora in a state of poverty is given the option to choose between a cheaper, more private offering, and a more expensive but more public offering. Essentially, he is allowed to decide whether he prefers the public nature of animal sacrifices to make his purification known, despite the added cost, or to forego on the additional publicity in the interest of reducing the financial burden of his purification. He is allowed to choose between these two options because each offers an advantage over the other, and the Torah grants him the right to choose which he prefers.