28 Nisan 5775
Day 13 of the Omer
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Tazria-Metzora: Afflictions
by Daniel Pinner
[Note: Due to the extra day of Pesach outside of Israel which this year fell on Shabbat, Jewish communities in the countries of exile are one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading. This will continue until Shabbat 27th Iyyar (16 May), when communities in Israel will read Parashat Bechukkotay (Leviticus 26:3-27:34) and communities in the exile will catch up by reading the double parashah Behar-Bechukkotay (Leviticus 25:1-27:34). My comments until then will focus on the Torah-reading appropriate for Israel.]
The two parashot Tazria and Metzora are usually combined; only in leap years, and always in leap years (meaning seven years in every 19-year cycle), 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 inaccurate. 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 (Priest) or to one of his sons the Kohanim. Then the Kohen will see the affliction…” (Leviticus 13:1-3). The Kohen who sees the symptom, and only the Kohen, can declare the afflictee contaminated; and then, if and when the symptoms disappear, the purification process can begin.
The Torah uses four expressions here: se’eit, sappachat, baheret, and tzara’at. Many English translations render these respectively as “a rising” (se’eit being a cognate of נשא, “raise up”), “a scab”, “a bright spot”, and “leprosy”, but these are inaccurate 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 Leviticus 13:2) says that “these are names of afflictions, and the one is whiter than the other”.
The Mishnah (Nega’im 1:1-2 and 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 [nasata] 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 [saph] like a snake, following [God’s curse to the snake,] ‘On your belly you will crawl’ (Genesis 3:14). The baheret represents Greece which distinguished itself [me-baheret] by its 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 [Esau, Rome] 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, “the old man”, 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, Targum Yonatan, Targum Yerushalmi, and Rashi all interpret this to mean that Israel legitimately rules over his older twin Esau only as long as Israel obeys the 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, Rome] is the hardest of all exiles, like the affliction of tzara’at”.
Another 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 Euphrates (Genesis 2:10-14).
“The Pishon represents Babylon, following ‘Their horsemen spread [pashu] themselves forth’ (Habakkuk 1:8)… The Gihon represents Media… The Hiddekel represents Greece which was swift [kalah] 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 broke faith with [heiphira] and distressed His children; also because it was fruitful [phara] and multiplied in accordance with the blessing of the old man [Isaac]” (Bereishit Rabbah 16:4).
The symptoms of tzara’at and the waters of the Garden of Eden: two allusions to the four oppressors of Israel.
The se’eit (Leviticus 13:2) and the Pishon river (Genesis 2:11) 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 (commentary to Genesis 2:11), S’adiah Gaon, and the Ramban (commentary to Genesis 3:22) 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 wherein they evolved from an amorphously defined family to a recognised nation.
The sappachat (Leviticus13:2) and the Gihon river (Genesis 2:13) 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 (the Gihon river) was the empire which conquered and defeated Babylon (the Pishon river), 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 (Leviticus13:2) and the River Hiddekel (Genesis 2:14) represent Greece. Baheret is a feminine form of 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 (Leviticus 13:3) and the River Euphrates (Genesis 2:14) represent Rome. Though the River Euphrates is the last of the four rivers to be mentioned, it has a special status: twice (Genesis 15:18 and Deuteronomy 1:7) the Torah calls it “the great river”, 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 defines Israel’s western 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, which is the River Euphrates’ greatness, so Edom defines the spiritual limit of Israel.
That is Edom’s greatness.
Edom – the Roman Empire, the Roman exile – 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 and 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.
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)”.