Five Rashis, Tazria: It’s Mostly About Tsara’at

Parashat Tazria deals with fairly technical issues, the rituals around a woman’s recovery from childbirth, and tsara’at, commonly (and, likely, inaccurately) translated as leprosy. I tried for Rashis that wouldn’t be too detail-oriented, but that also wouldn’t misrepresent the parsha. I hope you find them productive.

The Recovery From Childbirth

The parasha opens with a description of the halachic aspects of a woman’s postpartum acts. With a boy, she is like a niddah for seven days, goes to mikvah (something we don’t always remember: by Torah law, every niddah went to mikvah after seven days, as long as the menstrual flow ended before dark on that seventh day—our practice today follows a custom the Gemara attributes to Jewish women, to treat every case of bleeding or spotting as zivah, a whole different phenomenon as far as the Torah was concerned), and then waits with what the Torah callsדמי טהרה, which Rashi translates as “blood of purity,” blood that does not render her ritually impure.

For those thirty-three days (both numbers are doubled, to fourteen and sixty-six if she has a girl, for reasons Rashi does not address), as Rashi puts it in 12;4, on the words בדמי טהרה and then on בכל קדש, she is not allowed to go to the Beit haMikdash nor to touch anything sanctified, including terumah, during that time, but she is not ritually impure (such as in terms of she and her husband living together), regardless of how much blood she sees.

Rashi compares her to a טבולת יום ארוך, a person who has gone to mikvah for any form of ritual impurity, and has to wait for nightfall to complete the process. All those intervening days are like waiting for a long nightfall, waiting for the end of the Torah’s seeing her as a woman who recently gave birth.

He doesn’t say it, but it seems to me close to understanding the Torah as establishing a recovery time, where her experience of the childbirth isn’t over, even as there’s nothing more she needs to do to respond. She just waits for her body to recover, and the Torah gives her that time.

Why Tsara’at Isn’t Leprosy

The next three Rashis that seemed to me interesting enough to discuss here (Tazria is a challenging parsha—ordinarily, I find 10-20 Rashis I can imagine commenting about, and whittle it down to the Five. Here, there were only six, which made choosing both easier and harder) deal with specific rules of tsara’at, each of them surprising (to me) and confirming that this is not purely a physical ailment.

On 13;3, the words ושער בנגע, Rashi notes that the Torah refers to a hair in the tsara’at lesion turning white. It is not that the lesion containing a white hair renders it certain tsara’at, it is that the lesion turned the hair white—there was hair there before, and once the lesion came, it turned white. In that same comment, Rashi reminds us that tradition understood all the references to hair to mean at least two hairs, despite the use of the singular in the Torah.

Finally, in the last comment on that verse, Rashi notes that this is a גזירת הכתוב, that the hair turning white rendering the lesion tsara’at is how the Torah decided it should go, not any natural or obvious conclusion that everyone would reach.

It’s Not Always Urgent

Eleven verses later, the Torah refers to וביום הראות בו בשר חי, which most literally means the day that live skin appears, but uses the verb הראות, which can be read as “is seen.” Rashi understands that to mean there are days on which these lesions will be seen and days on which they won’t. A bridegroom is given the seven days of celebration after his wedding, as are all Jews given the entirety of the major holidays.

The appearance of a lesion doesn’t automatically render it tsara’at (in contrast to physical diseases, which are that disease whether or not we declare it so), the checking and pronouncement of it (by a kohen only) is what gives it that status. This Rashi is noting that we are not always required to use the first opportunity to declare that.

Last in this group, 13;35 says that if a head or face lesion is inspected by a kohen and found not to qualify as tsara’at, having been closed for two weeks but not spread, later spread is still a sign the lesion has now become tsara’at. The verse itself gives a sense that some lesions are “pre-tsara’at,” a sort of warning sign tsara’at is on the table, that we might want to take heightened care to avoid it.

Spread and the Need for Specific Instructions

Rashi, on the words אחרי טהרתו, comments on the Torah’s only seeing spread as a sign of  tsara’at after the two weeks are over, at least for head and face tsara’at (before that, the Torah spoke of its not having spread as a reason to close it off, but did not say spread would prove it was tsara’at).  The Torah uses the words פשה יפשה, a doubling of the verb for “spread,” to teach us that spread is always a sign of tsara’at.

It seems unnecessary. Elsewhere in tsara’at laws, spread is a full sign, and in head and face, lack of spread led to closing off the lesion for another week: doesn’t that show that spread is a sign of tsara’at?

To me, Rashi is again confirming that the rules of tsara’at aren’t inferable, that it’s not a natural phenomenon we can treat based on what we’ve seen or know from elsewhere—it is Torah-established, leaving us to do only what the Torah said, no more and no less.

Sharing Our Troubles With Others

Privacy is undoubtedly an important value in Judaism, צניעות really being about refraining from living our lives in public, being aware that that which is private is meant to be kept private. Yet our parsha tells us of one time when the opposite is meant to be true, when we are supposed to make our private situation a matter of public knowledge.

13;45 tells us that a confirmed מצורע, a person who has tsara’at, has to tear his clothing, grow his hair, and cover his mustache. These are all signs of mourning; tsara’at isn’t primarily medical, it’s religious, a punishment from Hashem, and the proper reaction to punishment is sadness and mourning at having deserved this outcome.

The last action the Torah lists for the metsora to take is to cry out טמא טמא, impure, impure. Rashi explains that it is to warn people to stay away, because contact will render them impure as well. R. Eliyahu Mizrachi, a supercommentator, thinks Rashi got this from Mo’ed Katan 5a, which uses this verse as the source for putting a marker on a grave, to help people avoid the ritual impurity engendered by contact with a grave.

A more explicit Talmudic reading of this verse, though, sees this cry in a different light. Shabbat 67a (and parallel passages) reports a baraita that saw this as a way for the metsora to announce his troubles to the community, such that the community would pray for him, in the hopes of hastening his healing.

For all that the afflicted person might deserve the tsara’at, the community is to pray for him to be healed.  To get that help, the metsora has to let them know his situation.

Two situations, then, where we are supposed to make known what’s going on with us: when our private situation might impact others if they aren’t informed, and/or where by letting others know, they might be able to help us in our times of need. (Both of those arise in other situations today, and I am not sure we are always good about letting people know in either).

Allowing us to close on a more positive note, the Gemara is clear that we always seek to aid our fellow Jews; whatever brought them to a time of trouble, we look to be part of the solution, to help them find their ways back to better times and a return to the warmth of full communal participation.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.