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Tazria 5774

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

The Sidrot of Tazria and Metzora, which we read this and next Shabbat, form the basis of the final, sixth order of the Mishnah, called Taharot, which means ’Purities’. They concentrate on all of them the intricate laws regarding purity and defilement.  The Sidra of Tazria begins with the laws appertaining to the defilement and purification of a new mother, who has just had a baby.  These laws are followed by those relating to the defilement caused by a variety of diseases which affect human beings, as well as their clothes and houses. At the end of the Sidra, we find the laws relating to the defilement caused by various human emissions. The most serious defilement in Judaism is caused by a corpse.  However, surprisingly, this law is not mentioned in the Book of Vayikra at all, but in the Book of Numbers, in the portion of the Red Heifer.  Interestingly, this year we have the rare sequence in which, we read all three portions regarding these laws on three consecutive Shabbat.  Last week, we read the special portion of the Red Heifer. This week we are reading the Sidra of Tazria and next week we shall read the final section in the Sidra of Metzora.

Both Sidrot, Tazria and Metzora, are relatively short, so that, in ordinary years, which comprising 12 months, they are read together on one Shabbat.  This year, however, since it is a leap year, they are read on separate Shabbatot.

Most of the laws contained in Tazria and Metzora are no longer observed.  They are profoundly connected to the worship in the Temple. When the Temple will be rebuilt up, following the arrival of the Messiah, these laws will be reintroduced. Nowadays, only a few laws of purity are observed.   Women become impure after menstruation and after childbirth.  On those occasions, the woman enters the status of Niddut.  Niddut means keeping a distance from her husband.  These laws are very important. In orthodox circles they are observed meticulously. They are known as the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha, Purity of Family Life. They
form the basis of the orthodox philosophy and ethics of marriage. One of the many benefits of their practical application is the constant cycle of  renewal in the relationship between husband and wife.

The other important law relating to purity is observed when we partake of  a meal and eat bread. Before eating the bread, we have to wash our hands with a vessel and recite a blessing.  This ritual is known as Netilat Yadayim.  Netilah means ‘to take’.  The blessing AL NETILAT YADA’IM, refers to the mitzvah of taking a cup, filling it with water and pouring the water over the hands in a specific sequence.

Nowadays, it is difficult to fully understand the logic behind the laws of purity.  However, the concept which the Torah reinforces within our psyche is that  there is a profound link between a person’s physical health and his mental health.  Disease can be caused by spiritual malaise and wrong habits which become addictions.  A person who neglects his soul is in as grave a danger as a person who neglects his body. In this context the rabbis explained that the plagues which are described in the Sidrot of Tazria and Metzora are the consequences of the sin of speaking evil about all the real meaning of the Lord (along with all the people who are ill and is known that the of you really are about other people. In Hebrew this sin is called LASHON HARA, which means the ’Evil Tongue’.

Some commentators explain that it is for this reason that the Torah required a person affected by the plagues which are described in the Sidra, to consult a priest as well as a physician.  In later biblical times, the prophets also became involved.  This is illustrated by the prophet Elisha, who became famous for his ability to cure people from leprosy,  even outside Israel. In our Sidra, the Torah gives a detailed description of the priest’s obligations to examine the patient carefully. He was then required to provide the patient with enterprise regarding the appropriate steps that he needed to take, in order to gain to atonement, purification and recovery.

Rabbi Yehudah Brandeis, in his book, ‘Torat Imecha’ writes that in the distant past there existed a complete confusion between medical treatment and religious ritual and magic. In later times, this confusion was totally rejected. Physicians regarded physical ailments completely independently to a patient’s emotional state. Medicine became a science which focused exclusively on the physical condition of the body.  Illness was explained as mechanical failure which could be corrected, either by means of medicines or by invasive operations. Nowadays, attitudes towards ill- health have become more balanced.   Doctors are advising that in order to remain healthy, people have to follow a healthy way of life, which includes eating the right foods and exercising regularly.  This echoes the Torah's philosophy, which underlies the laws of defilement and purity.

The second verse of The Sidra mentions the Mitzvah of BRIT MILLAH, which has to be performed on the eighth day.   The Mitzva was first given to Abraham, just before Isaac was born. Isaac was the first baby to be circumcised.  The question is:  why is this Mitzvah repeated here?   The commentator, Rabbi Chizkiah ben Mano'ach, in his commentary known as Chizkuni, writes that repetition, highlights the fact that circumcision must take place on the eighth day, even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat.  Occasionally, when a baby is born on Friday evening, just before nightfall, it is not possible to determine if Friday or Shabbat is the eighth day.  On these occasions, the ceremony is delayed till Sunday.  

Our rabbis learnt that this mitzvah is the specific duty of the baby's father from the account of Isaac's circumcision.  He must perform the circumcision himself if he is at all able.   However, most fathers cannot perform this operation. Therefore, they are required to issue a formal invitation to the Mohel, and appoint him as their agent. The Mohel is called a Shali’ach, and he performs the Mitzvah, on their behalf.  The special Blessing, however, is recited by the father. The Mishnah states that a father has certain other specific obligations towards his son.  They are:  To redeem him on the 31st day; to teach him Torah, to help him to find a wife, to teach him a craft or a profession and, some say, also to teach him to swim.

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