M’tzora (Leper)

M'tzoraLeviticus 14:1 to 15:11

The main topic of this week is a skin disease commonly recognized as leprosy by Biblical commentators and the ritual purity / impurity associated with it. This information seems as if it’s centuries old. But, with a little digging, we find that it is still relevant to the contemporary Jewish community.

This week’s parshaM’tzora – is the second half of the double portion, Tazria/M’tzora. Because this is a leap year, with an extra month on the Jewish calendar, the readings are read over two weeks.

The major subject of both readings is the way the community is to react to a skin disease that the Torah traditionally identifies as leprosy. As I stated last week, the Torah tells us that any person with this disease becomes “ritually impure.”

We also read that childbirth makes the mother “ritually impure.” This impure state also affects menstruating women, any person who has contact with any sexually related body discharges. The Torah also tells us that contact with a deceased person or a dead animal makes a person ritually impure.

At first glance these factors seem unrelated. One must consider that “ritually pure” and “ritually impure” is not good versus evil…… or clean versus dirty …. Many of the factors identified as “ritually impure” are considered positive actions and considered very good. The birth of a child is commanded by God – “Be fruitful and multiply.” The visiting of the sick and burial of he dead are considered good deeds. Body fluids resulting from sex create ritual impurity; but. sex is also considered a mitzvah. So, as these example show, “ritual purity/impurity.” has nothing to do with good versus bad.

Add to this the fact that most of these distinctions don’t even apply today. In Biblical days an impure person couldn’t enter the Tabernacle or Temple, or offer or consume a sacrifice to God….. Because the Temple no longer exists, and we don’t offer sacrifices, the matter of ritual purity seems to have no affect on contemporary life…… So, why study it today?

Commentators have tied the skin diseases to the sin of gossip. This may be the result of the fact that Miriam developed this disorder after spreading gossip about Moses….. But, this theory does not tell us why childbearing, contact with a dead person or animal, or contact with body fluids also result in ritual impurity.

After some study, this writer sees that contact with birth and death result in ritual impurity. The skin disease with its white scaly appearance resembles dead flesh. This may be the reason why it is he only disease that causes ritual impurity in the Torah. Contact with body discharges associated with sex (creation of life) and consumption of blood (considered to be a life-force) are also causes for ritual impurity. These matters of life and death are considered a matter of concern to God … man can extend life; but, ultimately the creation of life and death are considered in the powers of God.

So, birth and death are in the realm of the Eternal …. And because we are told that any direct contact with the Eternal by mankind will result in death …. It can be assumed that contact with those factors that are exclusively the will of God are also considered holy. For this reason, contact with the factors of birth and death will bring a person closer to God… and God’s own work. While this closeness to God does not make a person godlike or result in death, this closeness to items that are exclusively in God’s domain results in “ritual impurity.”

Through this process of not participating in Tabernacle/Temple activities and sacrifices to God a person shows a respect for God and God’s powers. While the matters of ritual purity don’t have the same effect in modern life as it did in the days of the Temple, there are many traditions that live on. The dietary laws seem to limit “clean” animals to vegetarians … those that do not eat other live beings. They have less contact with death, so they are permissible to eat…. The processes of menstruation and emission of body fluids are ritually impure because they are connected with the unsuccessful creation of life. Tradition states that contact by a man with a menstruating woman is to be avoided. The mikvah lives on as a way to eliminate ritual impurities. So we still view the matters of birth, death, and life itself as God’s domain… not that of man or women.

Earl Sabes

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