2 Iyyar 5773
Day 17 of the Omer
Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Afflictions
by Daniel Pinner
The two parashot Tazria and Metzora are usually combined; only in leap years (and always in leap years) are they read separately.
Parashat Tazria starts by setting forth the rules of ritual uncleanness and subsequent purification for a woman after childbirth (Leviticus 12), then the rest of Tazria and half of Metzora give the laws of “tzara’at”. This is usually translated as “leprosy”,and “metzora” is usually translated as “leper”, but this is totally wrong. Some of the symptoms are superficially similar to leprosy, but that is where the similarity ends. Tzara’at is a spiritual affliction, not a physical one.
The Torah begins with the basic signs of tzara’at: “Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aaron saying: A person who on the skin of his flesh has a ‘se’eit’ or a ‘sappachat’ or a ‘baheret’ which becomes a tzara’at-affliction on the skin of his flesh, is to be brought to Aaron the Kohen or to one of his sons the Kohanim. Then the Kohen will seethe affliction…” (Leviticus 13:1-3). The Kohen who looks at the symptom, and only the Kohen, can declare the afflictee contaminated, after which the purification process can begin.
The Torah uses four expressions:“se’eit”, “sappachat”, “baheret”, and “tzara’at”. Many standard translations render these respectively as “a rising” (the connotation of the Hebrew word, a cognate of “nassa”, “raise up”), “a scab”, “a bright spot”, and “leprosy”, but these are approximations. There are no precise English words for these terms, which is why some translations (such as ArtScroll and Margolin) simply transliterate the words, as we have done here.
Rashi (Commentary to Leviticus13:2) says that “these are names of afflictions, and the one is whiter than the other”.
The Mishnah (Nega’im 1:1-2, 7:2) defines the colours of these afflictions, which the Rambam collates as halachah: “Tzara’at is when a specific place on the skin of the flesh becomes whiter than the rest of the skin… Tzara’at has four visible signs: the brightest white, when the skin looks like snow, is ‘baheret’. A slightly darker white, which looks like the clean wool of a day-old lamb, is called ‘se’eit’. White which is slightly darker than the ‘se’eit’ and which looks like the plaster of the Holy Temple is a derivative of the ‘baheret’ and is called ‘sappachat’. And white which is slightly darker than the plaster of the Holy Temple and which is like the membrane of an egg is a derivative of the ‘se’eit’, and it too is called ‘sappachat’” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tzara’at-Uncleanness 1:1-2).
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 15:9)sees these four symptoms of tzara’at affliction (‘se’eit’, ‘sappachat’,‘baheret’, and ‘tzara’at’) as allusions to the four mighty empires which oppressed Israel:
“The ‘se’eit’ represents Babylon, following ‘Raise up [nassata] this parable against the king of Babylon and say: How has the oppressor ceased! How has the arrogant one ceased! (Isaiah14:4)… The ‘sappachat’ represents Media from which arose the evil Haman who incited [shaph] like a snake, following [God’s curse to the snake,] ‘On your belly you will crawl’ (Genesis 3:14). The ‘baheret’ represents Greece which was distinguished [me-baheret] byits decrees against Israel, telling them: Write on the horn of the ox that you have no share in the God of Israel. And ‘the affliction of tzara’at’ represents Edom which sprouted from the strength of the old man”.
The Matnat Kehunah (commentary on the Midrash by Rabbi Yissachar Ber Katz, Poland and Israel, 16th century) explains this last enigmatic statement. Edom was the descendant of Esau, who flourished because of the blessing that Isaac conferred upon him: “By your sword you shall live, and your brother you shall serve; but it will be that when you will have a legitimate complaint, you shall overthrow his yoke from off your neck” (Genesis 27:40).
The Targum Onkelos, TargumYonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, and Rashi all interpret this to mean that Israel legitimately rules over his older twin Esau only as long as he (Israel) obeys Torah. But as soon as the Jews stop keeping the mitzvot, they lose all legitimate claim to rule over Esau, who is then justified in throwing off the yoke of Israel.
And the S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) adds: “‘…you shall overthrow his yoke from off your neck’, because you will indeed be skilled in warfare and capable of greatness”.
Therefore – concludes the Matnat Kehunah – “he [Edom] is the hardest of all exiles, like the affliction of tzara’at”.
The Midrash sees other allusions to these four oppressors scattered throughout the Torah. The first is the Creation narrative: “The earth was unformed and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep…” (Genesis 1:2).
The Midrash expounds: “‘The earth was unformed…’ alludes to the Babylonian exile, as it says ‘I saw the earth and behold it was unformed’ (Jeremiah 4:23). ‘…And void…’ alludes to Median exile, as it says ‘they hastened [va-yav’hilu, similar to u-vohu “and void”] to bring Haman’ (Esther 6:14). ‘…And darkness…’ alludes to the Greek exile which darkened the eyes of Israel with their decrees, telling them: Write on the horn of the ox that you have no share in the God of Israel.‘…On the face of the deep’ alludes to the exile of the most evil of kingdoms, which like the deep cannot be fathomed” (Bereishit Rabbah 2:4; Yalkut Shimoni,Bereishit 4).
The second allusion to these four oppressors is in the river which flowed forth from Eden to water the Garden, splitting into four headwaters – Pishon, Gihon, Hiddekel (Tigris), and the Euphrates (Genesis 2:10-14).
“The Pishon represents Babylon, following ‘Their horsemen spread [pashu] themselves forth’ (Habakkuk 1:8)… The Gihon represents Media… Hiddekel represents Greece which was swift [kala] and sharp [hadda] in their decrees, telling them: Write on the horn of the ox that you have no share in the God of Israel…The Euphrates represents Edom, because it persecuted [hephira] and distressed His children; also because it was fruitful [pharat] and multiplied by the blessing of the old man [Isaac]”(Bereishit Rabbah 16:4).
Three allusions to the four oppressors of Israel.
The ‘se’eit’, the primordial unformed earth, and the Pishon river all represent Babylon. The ‘se’eit’ is the first sign that tzara’at might be present, though as yet unformed and unconfirmed. According to the Zohar (Volume 1, Chayyei Sarah 125a), Rashi, and S’adiah Gaon, the Pishon river is the Nile, the river which irrigates Egypt – the country of our primordial exile, the country to which Israel descended when they were as yet unformed, the country where they evolved from an amorphously defined family to a recognised nation.
The ‘sappachat’, the void,and the Gihon river represent Media. The ‘sappachat’, as we have seen,“looks like the plaster of the Holy Temple”. Media, which morphed into Persia, was the empire which both oppressed Israel and allowed them to return to their homeland. Persia was the empire which both hindered and allowed the Jews to rebuild the Holy Temple. So it is appropriate that the ‘sappachat’, representing Media, resembles the plaster of the Holy Temple.
Media was the empire which conquered and defeated Babylon, which had destroyed the first Holy Temple. So it is intriguing that the Gihon river took over from the Pishon in welcoming Israel to the shores of the Red Sea: “Egypt chased after them and caught up with them when they were encamped by the Red Sea, gathering pearls and precious stones which the Pishon river swept from the Garden of Eden into the Gihon, and the Gihon took them to the Red Sea, and the Red Sea cast them to the shore” (Targum Yonatan, Exodus 14:9).
The ‘baheret’, the primordial darkness, and the Hiddekel represent Greece. The word ‘baheret’ is the feminine noun form of the adjective ‘bahir’ (bright). Greece appeared to be the epitome of enlightenment with its philosophy, art, architecture, erudition, love of learning, music, legal system, and so forth; yet their rejection of holiness and their attempts at forcing to Israel to declare that they “have no share in the God of Israel” made them the epitome of darkness.
Similarly, though the word ‘baheret’denotes brightness and the ‘baheret’ is indeed the whitest of the signs of tzara’at, it is nevertheless the harbinger of spiritual uncleanness. Like Greece, the dazzling pure whiteness is deceptive.
The affliction of ‘tzara’at’, the face of the deep, and the River Euphrates represent Rome. Though the River Euphrates is the last of the four rivers to be mentioned, it has a special status: twice the Torah calls it “the great river” (Genesis 15:18 and Deuteronomy 1:7), and both times Rashi comments: “Because it is attached to the Land of Israel it is called‘great’, even though it is the last-mentioned of the four rivers which go forth from Eden”. By delineating the border of Israel it acquires its special status.
This follows the Midrash (Sifrei,Devarim 6): “‘Until the great river, the Euphrates River’ – this teaches that its greatness and its strength correspond to the Land of Israel”.
(Incidentally, this explains why the Torah calls the Mediterranean Sea “the Great Sea” in Numbers 34:6: the Mediterranean Sea also defines Israel’s border.)
And then the Midrash continues (as does Rashi): “A common aphorism says, the servant of a king is a king. Cling to distinguished people and you will be considered distinguished”.
The Roman Empire and its successors indeed achieved greatness; as the S’forno (cited above) put it, “skilled in warfare and capable of greatness”. True – but sadly, Esau chose to make his greatness in evil, in opposition to Israel. Hence the Talmudic dictum: “If someone will tell you that Caesarea and Jerusalem are both in ruins – do not believe it; or that they are both populated – do not believe it. But if he tells you that Caesarea is in ruins and Jerusalem is populated, or that Jerusalem is in ruins and Caesarea is populated – believe it!” (Megillah 6a).
As much as Jerusalem symbolises Israel and Jewish independence, so Caesarea symbolises Edom and Roman domination. The one is bounded by the other. Like opposite ends of a see-saw, as the one ascends the other inevitably descends. Just as the River Euphrates defines the physical limit of Israel, so Edom defines the spiritual limit of Israel.
That is Edom’s greatness.
Edom is symbolised by tzara’at. And tzara’at has two diametrically opposing characteristics: it is both a curse and a blessing.
Tzara’at can afflict both the body and the house, and a house afflicted by tzara’at has to be dismantled. This seems like a curse – but it can also eventually turn out to be a blessing. The Talmud (Horayot 10a) and the Midrash (Sifra, Metzora 5; Vayikra Rabbah 17:6) record that when the Canaanites heard that the Israelites were approaching the Land of Israel, they concealed their wealth in the walls of their houses to deprive the Jews of it. When a house afflicted by tzara’at would be dismantled, the owner would then discover the concealed treasures.
There is yet another allusion to these four oppressors (Babylon, Media,Greece and Rome) in last week’s parashah, Sh’mini. The Torah defines kosher animals as those which chew the cud and have cloven hoofs, and then lists four animals which fulfill one criterion but not the other. The camel, the hyrax, and the hare all regurgitate food but do not have cloven hoofs; the pig has cloven hoofs but does not regurgitate food, so all are unclean (Leviticus 11:4-7).
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5) tells us that the camel represents Babylon, the hyrax represents Media, the hare represents Greece, and the pig represents Rome.
Why is Rome represented by the pig? – For two reasons. First, when the pig lies down, it stretches forth its fore-legs, as if to show everyone its cloven hoofs – its outward sign of cleanness. The uncleanness is internal – it doesn’t chew the cud. Likewise Rome displayed to all its culture, art, philosophy, judiciary – “the grandeur that was Rome” –while internally it committed unspeakable perversions and murder.
But the other reason is more optimistic. Esau can one day repent. He came from the holiest of parents, and though he became utterly evil in his lifetime, the civilisation he founded has the capacity to return to those holy roots. This is symbolised by the pig, the‘chazir’, connoting ‘chazar’, return or repent.
This is the end of tzara’at: after the affliction comes the purification. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 15:9) concludes its exposition on Parashat Tazria: “In this world the Kohen sees the afflictions; but in the World to Come – says God – I will purify you. Thus it is written, ‘And I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be cleansed’ (Ezekiel 36:25)”.