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Tazria 2011


  1. I saw Michael Isaacs at the party for Rabbi Grunewald’s departure, and mentioned that I would be giving a D’var on Tazria.  He laughed in sympathy.  Now if even he felt that this was a tall order, I knew I was in trouble.  However, I thought a relatively painless way forward would be to print out all the Chief Rabbi’s Covenant and Conversation essays on this Sedra, and mix and match a coherent story.  So I looked, only to find that the one he wrote in 2005 was repeated word for word in 2008 and 2009 and the one he wrote in 2006 was repeated in 2009 and 2010!  In other words, it was a struggle for him too.  But I have to admit that the one published this week is different, but too late for me.
  1. Moreover, there are 67 verses in Tazria, yet all three of the Chief Rabbi’s repeated commentaries focus only on the first eight verses, the very short Chapter 12 of Vayikra, and not at all on the 59 verses of the very long Chapter 13 – or at all on Metzora when, as was usually the case, it was a double Sedra.  (But again I have to concede that this year’s does deal with Chapter 13.)
  1. I then thought that I would focus instead on the Haftara, only to realise that it would be the Haftara for Shabbat Hachodesh that would be read today, which is prophetic and difficult, rather than the regular Tazria Haftara , which is a descriptive narrative (which I suspect is read very rarely, given that Tazria is usually linked to Metzora, and Shabbat Hachodesh must frequently trump it).  I will, however, say a word about it later.
  1. So what follows will be a sort of pot pourri rather than attempting an overarching theme.  And some of it is X-rated, definitely for after the watershed.
  1. So, the first thing to note is that this is the 27th Sedra of the year, which makes it exactly the half-way point in the year since Shabbat Bereishit, given that in a leap year there are few if any double Sedrot, depending on whether any festivals fall on a Shabbat (only Yom Kippur this year). 
  1. Next, what is the Sedra about?  Well, the common theme is purification – in Chapter 12, after childbirth, and in Chapter 13, in relation to leprosy, or, strictly speaking, a disease called  tsaraat.   And like the Chief Rabbi in his previous essays, but in the main not using his text, I too will concentrate mainly on Chapter 12.
  1. Chapter 12 sets out the rules for a woman’s impurity after the birth of a child – lasting a period of 7 days after the birth of a male child and 14 days after that of a female child – which are followed by periods of 33 and 66 days respectively when the woman’s blood is no longer impure but at the end of which sacrifices must be brought to atone and cleanse her – which are the same for a child of either sex.  Two questions are provoked by this:
  • Why does the woman have to atone?
  • Why is the period for a girl twice that for a boy?
  1. In relation to the first question, the polite reason given is that the woman had to make atonement as well as signify her purification apparently because throughout those periods of time she was forbidden from coming to the Sanctuary.   However, the real reason given in the Talmud is that, according to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, when she bore her child, she swore impetuously in the pain of childbirth that she would never again have intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she had to bring a sacrifice, as she would probably violate that oath. 
  1. As to why the period for a girl is twice that for a boy, the Hertz commentary says that it cannot be because a female was regarded as more defiling than a male, since the mother’s purification was the same for either sex.  In either case the woman had to make atonement as well as signify her purification and thanks for delivery from danger.  The Chief Rabbi has a rather contorted explanation about the birth of a child being for the mother like the loss of a limb, and that feeling is doubled if the child is itself capable of child-bearing.  But according to the Talmud, quoting Rabbi Shimon again, the reason is that since everyone around the mother would rejoice upon the birth of a boy, she would regret her oath to shun her husband after just seven days, but since people around her would not rejoice on the birth of a girl, she would take twice as long to break her oath!
  1. In any event, the most important mitzvah in this Chapter is that of circumcision of a male child at the age of eight days.  This of course reconfirms the command given to Abraham in Lech Lecha; but here the time period seems to be related to the end of the first seven days of the mother’s impurity, which in turn corresponds to the regular seven days of impurity during the menstrual cycle.  And Rabbi Shimon adds that circumcision is ordained on the eighth day so that the parents could join their guests in a celebratory mood on that day.
  1. Abraham, of course, was 99 years old when he received the commandment of circumcision, and Ishmael was 13 (I had thought that Islamic circumcision therefore took place at 13, but on further investigation that turns out to be wrong – there is no fixed age, and traditions vary from 7 days’ to ten years’ old.)    Isaac was yet to be born, and we are told in Vayera that he was indeed circumcised at eight days.  Interestingly, there is no reference to the brit of Jacob, because the narrative in Toledot jumps straight from the birth of Jacob and Esau to their later rivalry.
  1. According to the Rambam, Abraham was not complete or perfect until his brit – the first verse of Bereishit Chapter 17, which contains the circumcision commandment, begins with Hashem commanding Abraham to “walk before me and be perfect”.  Rambam additionally points out that Abraham’s brit is mentioned 13 times in the Torah, whereas the entire commandments of the Torah were only undertaken by three covenants.  In other words, it was viewed as exceptionally important.  In fact, the mitzvot of circumcision and of partaking of the Paschal sacrifice are the only two positive commandments that carry the penalty of excision if violated, known as karet – representing, as they do, private and public attestations of faith.
  1. It is also worth noting that, although is it not explicitly stated in the Torah, tradition has it that the Israelites were circumcised before they left Egypt.  But no circumcisions were performed in the desert, reflecting a mixture of safety consciousness in a harsh and hostile environment, and the people’s fall from grace following the Golden Calf episode.  Instead, with the new generation that entered the Promised Land, there was a mass circumcision under Joshua’s leadership, as described in the Haftara for the first day of Pesach.
  1.  And this brings me conveniently back to my promise to say a brief word about the Haftara for Tazria.  Like the Sedra, it is also in two distinct parts.  The first part describes how Elisha made a supply of loaves spread much further than seemed physically possible.  This is analogous to the story of the widow’s cruse, in which Elisha made a supply of oil last infinitely, although I have to admit that I was irresistibly reminded of the parable of the loaves and fishes in the New Testament, and maybe that’s where that later story got its inspiration.  The second part – and the reason that this passage was chosen as the Haftara for today – deals with the affliction of a non-Jewish General called Naaman with leprosy or tsaraat, and how he was cured by Elisha.  In the narrative Naaman is made to appear proud and haughty, and his cure is only achieved when he becomes more humble – which is a nice link to Richard Segalov’s D’var last week on the importance of humility. From this it is inferred that tsaraat, is a disease caused by excessive pride, which is not the rationale normally cited, namely that it is a punishment for the sin of lashan hara (which in turn is held by the Rabbis to derive from the verbal similarity between metsora, a person afflicted by the condition, and motzi ra, someone guilty of slander).
  1. At this point, having listened to a discourse on post-partum bleeding, sexual intercourse, circumcision, outrageous sexism and a horrible skin disease, I hope you’ll agree that an X-rating was warranted, and that you’ll have a great lunch.

Stephen Collins

2 April 2011

More documents on this Parshah: