Michael Carasik

Tazria–Metzora: All, or Nothing at All

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of baseball, and my thoughts are turning today to Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ great Hall of Famer, who used to say, “Let’s play two today!”

Why am I thinking about Ernie Banks? Because somewhere in our Jewish past there must have been a Rabbi Ernie who said, “Let’s read two this week. Let’s not just read Parashat Tazria; let’s read Metzora also.” This week, and for three of the next four weeks, we’re playing doubleheaders on Saturday, as they used to do in the big leagues, so we can reach Parashat Bemidbar, the beginning of the book of Numbers, before the holiday of Shavuot.

Metzora, on which I’ll be focusing this week, gets its name from the מְּצֹרָע metzora, conventionally translated into English as “leper.” For now, I’m going to keep that same terminology, though the medical people tell us that this biblical affliction is not the leprosy of history, now called Hansen’s disease. Instead, I want to talk about “purity.”

When you are a leper (in the Leviticus sense) who examines you? Not a doctor, but a priest. And there is one aspect of the priest’s diagnosis that seems, at first glance, extremely puzzling. If the priest sees “leprosy” on the person’s skin, the priest proclaims him tamei. In vv. 12–13, we read that if the “leprosy” covers his entire skin, from head to foot, wherever the priest can see, and has turned entirely white, the priest proclaims him tahor – the opposite of tamei!

The NJPS translates the Hebrew word tamei as “unclean” and the Hebrew word tahor as “clean.” But this is not an issue of dirt. These same two words, tamei and tahor, are used for an entire biblical system of what is sometimes also called “ritual purity.” This quality determines whether something, or someone, is permitted or forbidden to come in contact with things and places that are holy.

Now, it’s easy enough to understand that if a person has some sort of strange looking discoloration on his body, you might be tempted to try to keep that person away from the center of holiness, assuming, as indeed they apparently did, that God was striking this person with some affliction. He had better stay away from the Temple or the Tabernacle until he was cured of the affliction.

But how can it be, if the affliction spreads to cover the person completely, that the person suddenly becomes ritually clean? It would seem that he is 100% ritually unclean. But that, in fact, is the kicker. It is precisely the 100% that makes the person clean.

I’m using these words clean and unclean rather casually; the other set of English words used to translate tamei and tahor are impure and pure. Even more than clean and unclean, these are words that also have potential moral implications, so nowadays some people are a bit leery of using them.

Hebrew tahor, like English pure, can have a neutral, technical nuance. Two dozen times in Exodus (and three times in Chronicles) we find the expression זָהָב טָהוֹר zahav tahor ‘pure gold’. All but the last of these — the gold that overlays Solomon’s ivory throne in 2 Chr 9:17 — refer to the gold used in the Tabernacle or Temple: pure gold, 100% gold.

The gold used for the Tabernacle has no admixture, and neither does the leper of Leviticus 13 when the leprosy has spread completely across his body. It is not the leprosy itself that makes him unclean; it’s the mixture of his leprosy and his regular skin.

The idea of mixture left the priests very uncomfortable. In Parashat Kedoshim (the nightcap of next week’s Torah doubleheader), Lev 19:19 will prohibit the following three actions:

  • interbreeding two species of animals
  • sowing two kinds of seeds together
  • wearing shaatnez, cloth made of two kinds of material

The linsey-woolsey so beloved of early European settlers in America was totally, totally not kosher according to the book of Leviticus. Even Deuteronomy, which has a more socially conscious perspective and looks on the priestly system with something of a jaundiced eye, has these same three laws.

Biblical religion does not like mixing. Mixing leaves you unbalanced. As my physical therapist wife could tell you, if you are unbalanced you are in great danger of falling. The next thing you know, you have cracked your skull and it’s all over.

Looking at the human body from a contemporary perspective, we have skin and an immune system that are meant to keep the stuff that isn’t us from mixing with the stuff that is us. That, I think, is the essence of what the biblical system of ritual “purity” is meant to ensure as well. You do not want unholiness coming into contact with holiness. When things are mixed, it’s dangerous. When the leprosy spreads completely across the skin of the affected person, we may not know what he is, but whatever it is, he is 100% that. There’s no mixture there, so we can handle it. It’s easy for human psychology to deal with. There are many other obvious examples of this kind which I will leave to you to think about.

It may seem a bit strange for me to be making this point in a week when we have two readings mixed together, but in fact the original separation between these parashot is somewhat artificial to begin with. Next week, we’ll look at two chapters that were deliberately separated by the Bible itself and try to figure out why.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at
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