Ari Sacher

‘Contextual’ Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5783

The Book of Vayikra is known as “Torat Kohanim” – “The Laws of the Priests”. It serves as a sort of handbook to Kohanim officiating in the Tabernacle (Mishkan). The first two portions in the Book of Vayikra, Vayikra and Tzav, discuss the various sacrifices offered in the Mishkan and the portion of Shemini discusses the Initiation Ceremony of Aaron and his sons followed by a small sample of the laws of purity. The ensuing portions of Tazria and Metzora take a deep dive into the laws of ritual purity. Purity is a critical concept as far as the Mishkan is concerned for a number of reasons. First and foremost, a Kohen cannot serve in the Mishkan as long as he is ritually impure and, further, a Kohen sometimes serves as a gatekeeper, determining who is and who is not ritually pure.

The first instance of impurity discussed in the Portion of Tazria concerns a woman who has just given birth [Vayikra 12:2]: “If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days; as [in] the days of her menstrual flow, she shall be unclean”. One might have thought that as the bleeding experienced during childbirth is not connected with her menstrual cycle then perhaps this woman remains ritually pure. The Torah teaches otherwise: Uterine bleeding always causes ritual impurity, no matter what the source of the blood. The only problem with this explanation is that the Torah does not discuss menstrual bleeding (nida) for another three chapters [Vayikra 15:19]: “If a woman has a discharge, her flesh discharging blood, she shall remain in her state of menstrual separation for seven days, and whoever touches her shall become unclean until evening.” How can the Torah compare the impurity of the blood experienced at childbirth with the impurity associated with nida if we do not yet know that a nida is even considered ritually impure?

This question is asked by the Netziv of Volozhn[1] in “Ha’Amek Davar”. The Netziv answers by referring to a verse in which our matriarch, Rachel, has stolen the idols of her father, Laban, and has hidden them underneath a pillow upon which she is sitting. Laban ransacks Jacob’s entire camp fruitlessly searching for his idols and when he finally gets to the place where the idols are actually hidden, Rachel refuses to budge from the pillow. She tells her father [Bereishit 31:35] “Let my lord not be annoyed, for I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me”. The Ramban[2] asks how Rachel could possibly use menstruation as an excuse not to rise before her father. The Ramban answers, “In ancient days, menstrual women kept very isolated… For the ancients in their wisdom knew that their breath is harmful, their gaze is detrimental and makes a bad impression, as the philosophers have explained[3]… And the menstrual women dwelled isolated in tents where no one entered”. Referring back to the Torah’s edict regarding childbirth, it should be understood as telling us that a woman who experiences uterine bleeding as a result of childbirth should be treated in the same way that society at the time already treated a menstruating woman.

In the very next verse, the Torah brings another commandment that Jewish society at the time had already adopted [Vayikra 12:3]: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised”. Why does the Torah need to tell the Jewish People that they must circumcise their males? They had been doing this already for more than four hundred years, ever since G-d had commanded our forefather Abraham [Bereishit 17:12] “At the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations”. What is the Torah’s innovation here?

Contrary to popular belief, the Jewish People did not introduce circumcision to the world. Evidence exists that ritual circumcision was being performed by the Egyptians as early as 2300 BCE, confirmation of this being a wall painting from Ankhmahor, Saqqarah, Egypt (dated in the eighth Dynasty, 2345–2182 BCE) clearly showing adult circumcision. This was about six hundred years before G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his family. It is believed that the Egyptians adopted circumcision even earlier, from peoples living further south in modern day Sudan and Ethiopia. Nevertheless, this does not detract even one iota from Abraham’s adoption of circumcision. Abraham extended the context of the act of circumcision. When he and his descendants circumcise themselves, they do so at G-d’s behest as a sort of initiation rite to enter into a covenant with G-d[4]. Circumcision runs to the very core of the identity of a Jew: A Jew who does not circumcise himself warrants the punishment of karet – being cut off from the rest of Jewish People. The commandment in the Portion of Tazria extends the context of the act of circumcision even further. The Ralbag[5], writing in “Bi’ur Milot”, teaches that the repetition of the requirement to circumcise one’s son in the Portion of Tazria transplants the act of circumcision from the context of “rite” to the context of “commandment (mitzvah)”. The act of circumcision must now be seen not as a mere “if-then rule” – “If you are circumcised than you are in and if you are not than you are out” – but as a commandment subject to the intricacies of halacha. For example, based on this verse, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [132b] rules that a person must circumcise his son on the eighth day after birth, even if this day falls on a Shabbat, a day in which creative labour, including inflicting a wound, are typically prohibited. Were it not for this verse, we would have to wait until Sunday to circumcise a child born on the Shabbat. Our first son was born in Jerusalem after Shabbat came in[6] but before sunset. We were faced with a halachic dilemma: When should we circumcise him – on Friday[7], on Shabbat, or perhaps even on Sunday? Was he considered to have been born on Shabbat even though it was Shabbat only in Jerusalem? Perhaps we should just take the careful way out and push the whole thing off to Sunday. It is the verse in the Portion of Tazria that adds this layer of legal context, incorporating the act of circumcision into the living and breathing corpus of halacha that has enabled the Jewish People to survive two thousand years of exile.

When the Torah compares the uterine bleeding associated with childbirth with that associated with menstruating, it is not, Heaven Forbid, suggesting that “Here is another woman that you must stay away from”. Quite the opposite is true. The Torah is changing the context of uterine bleeding. The blood that had kept Rachel isolated from her family is now bound by the corpus of halacha and by moving nida from into the context of halacha, the Torah moves it from a context of impurity to a context of purity. Certain shades of blood render a woman impure while others do not. A stain on a white cloth renders her impure while the same stain on a grey cloth does not. Certain halachic leniencies are available to permit a woman to her husband if her menstrual cycle prevents her from becoming pregnant. Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer[8] directs our attention to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [4a] that tells about King David who was speaking, as it were, to G-d, telling Him how all the “kings of the east and the west” get out of bed late in the morning and sit around boasting while he wakes up at dawn and “dirties his hands” with blood in order to permit a woman to her husband. Rabbi Meltzer notes that the King of Israel sullied himself specifically to render a woman pure. The laws of nida refine the human sex drive and by doing so create intimacy between a husband and wife. They are fit to be adjudicated upon by the King of Israel and to be stamped with the eternal stamp of the King of Kings.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, known by his acronym “Netziv”, was the headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century.

[2] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century

[3] The Ramban was a medical doctor and his words were based upon the best scientific knowledge available at the time. A rabbi who says something similar today should be censured.

[4] The word “brit” means both circumcision and covenant.

[5] Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, known by his acronym “Ralbag”, lived in France in the 14th century

[6] Jerusalemites accept Shabbat 40 minutes before sunset, much earlier than the rest of the country.

[7] The bris was on held Friday morning.

[8] Rabbi Meltzer lived in Belarus and in Israel in the previous century. He studied under the Netziv.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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