Parashat Metzora Shabbat Hagadol – 13th April 2019, Les Wheeler

When I was first offered this sermon, (my very first by the way!) I was really excited and couldn’t wait to look it up in the Chumash to see what the arashat was all about. I must say my initial reaction was pretty negative. Just more sin offerings, leprosy, dashing of blood on the altar, not something that readily stimulated any form of enthusiasm. This was until I started looking in depth at the subject, only to find, one particular view I had held since I was a young lad in Cornwall was to be completely dashed!

My long-held belief that leprosy as described in the Torah was the condition we now refer to as Hansen’s disease, was in fact nothing of the sort. Tzara’at is not leprosy as described by the English translation. Though tzara’at is most often translated as leprosy, it has almost nothing in common with the disease we know by that name today.

The error came about during the translation of the Greek Septuagint into English. The Greek word lepra was mistakenly translated as leprosy whereas the word lepra in Greek means rough or scaly and not leprosy. You may be interested to know that the Septuagint was used by the Jewish community of Alexandria Egypt around the third century BCE where the common language used by the Jewish community was Greek.

Today’s parashat describes the laws and procedures given by God to Moses on how a person cleansed of tzara’at may be admitted back into the community. The objectives of my sermon are to determine the reason for these commands, laws and rituals we read in the book of Leviticus. Do they possess a common denominator?

First, I’d like to explain what the definition of tzara’at consists of. The Hebrew word tzara’at is a ritualistic term denoting uncleanness or defilement and covered a range of conditions that could affect people, or clothing, or even the walls of buildings. The conditions described could include boils, carbuncles, fungus infections, infections complicating a burn, impetigo, favus of the scalp (a kind of ringworm disease), scabies and patchy eczema. On walls or clothes it was more likely to be fungus, mould, dry rot, lichen or similar.

There are two whole chapters in the Book of Leviticus devoted to the laws of dealing with someone who is afflicted with tzara’at. According to the Torah, when a person saw that he or she may be coming down with tzara’at they would notify a priest, who would examine them. If the priest declared the person a m’tzora (a person inflicted with tzara’at) they would be expelled from the community immediately. These rules, which were detailed and expanded by the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, imply that tzaraat did not operate in the same way as the infectious diseases we’re familiar with today. On the other hand, part of the treatment for tzara’at was isolation from the community, so there was concern about the disease spreading from person to person.

Sometimes the diagnosis was somewhat counterintuitive, for example, a person who had spots covering their whole body was not considered infected, and someone who was infected could be granted a grace period if they were about to get married.

The ancients were undoubtedly baffled by skin diseases. Swellings, rashes, boils, and skin discolourations must have frightened and bewildered them. So did moulds and fungi on the walls of homes or infections associated with sexual organs. People afflicted with tzara’at were considered “cursed” by God and “impure.” They were further considered second only to that of a corpse. Touching them, or anything that they may have touched, could spread the “curse” to others. The important thing here was not only looking for signs that the infected person had been cured but guaranteeing the community that “Gods curse” would not destroy everyone. For that reason, priests not only examined the infected person or home, but they also conducted special rituals, celebrating the end of the infection.

To provide us with some idea of the stigma and hurt suffered by someone afflicted with tzara’at in those ancient times, we can compare it to how we today react to germs and harmful bacteria. Most of us will have never seen a germ or bacteria, yet we spend much of our daily lives trying to protect ourselves and our families from coming into contact with them. Examples are: washing our hands; sneezing into a handkerchief; cleaning food utensils and disinfecting surfaces within our homes; wearing a face-masks; isolation wards in hospitals; vaccinations and staying at home when we are sick etc.

Probably the most comparable disease to tzara’t encountered in recent times, was the 2013 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. Nellie Peyton, of the Thomson Reuters Foundation writes in the Commodities News when referring to a survey conducted in the Congo: “By analysing hundreds of household surveys, the aid agency found three main theories about Ebola: that it is a political strategy, that it is a business, and that it is a curse.” Note the similarities here to tzara’at. The significant difference between Ebola and tzara’at was the efforts by foreign medical aid, something that was not available to the ancient Israelites.

Once the high priest in Leviticus declared a person a m’tzora, they were immediately isolated from the community. They were further required to wear torn clothes similar to those worn by a person in mourning and was not to wear a head covering. Whenever such an infected person appeared in public, that person was to call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” so that others might be protected from infection and impurity. A m’tzora wasn’t allowed to come within six feet of any other human, including his or her own family. The disease was considered so revolting that the m’tzora wasn’t permitted to come within 150 feet of anyone when the wind was blowing. They were isolated from their families and forced to live in a community with others afflicted with tzara’at until they either got better or, most likely, died.   If mould or fungus was discovered in a home. In this case, the priest would quarantine the house for seven days. If the mould remains, the priest would order the infected bricks in the walls to be repaired or replaced. If after a further seven days the mould persists, then entire house would be demolished.

The Talmud lists seven reasons one might be afflicted with the disease: Gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, theft, and envy. The Midrash focuses on gossip, connecting the word m’tzora, a person afflicted with the condition, to motzi shem ra, a person guilty of slander or libel.

So, what are the modern day medical interpretations of tzara’at? Though tzara’at in the Torah is a combination of the physical and the spiritual, Modern medical scholars have identified the white spots described as symptoms of tzara’at as being vitiligo, a disfiguring but otherwise harmless disease, or as psoriasis, a disease that results in thick silvery scales and itchy, dry, red patches on the skin. 

Now to the theme of todays parashat: Welcoming the healed m’tzora back into the community. If one suffering from tzara’at had apparently been healed, they would first call the priest to be examined. The priest would go outside the camp to examine the individual. If the priest saw no sign of infection, a second examination would be scheduled seven days later, and if the person was free from tzara’at, the process of tahara (purification) would begin. The cured m’tzora is to bathe, shave off all their bodily hair, and wash his or her clothing.

After the second examination, the priest required that the m’tzora bring the following items for their cleansing:

  • An earthenware bowl filled with clean spring water
  • Two birds of the same type (whether doves or young pigeons)
  • A stick of cedar wood
  • A hyssop branch
  • A scarlet thread

The priest would then sacrifice one of the birds over the earthen vessel filled with water. The blood from the sacrificed bird would mix with the water in the earthen vessel. Then the living bird, the piece of cedar wood, and the hyssop branch were then tied together using the scarlet thread, and the entire bundle was then dipped into the earthen vessel containing the blood and water. The blood and water mixture was then sprinkled seven times on the healed m’tzora, finally the remaining live bird was set free. On the 8th day the healed m’tzora was to bring to the gate of the tabernacle the following:

  • 2 male lambs and 1 ewe lamb of the 1st year without blemish
  • 1 ephah of fine flour
  • 1 log of oil

These offerings were necessary for the trespass, sin and burnt offerings performed by the priest. I won’t expand further on the method of sacrifice except to say the main objectives of these sacrifices was to demonstrate to the community that tzara’t was inflicted because of sin. That the healed individual was now free of the curse and was permitted to return without endangering his community.

It should be noted that if the person is poor and cannot afford the required offerings, a reduced number was acceptable. The principle followed here is that a person will offer “depending upon his or her means—whichever he or she can afford.”

I want now to concentrate on the animals used in these sacrificial rituals. Why were doves chosen for sacrifice? The Babylonian Talmud likens the hovering of God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 to the hovering of a dove. Judaism incorporated the “feminine” symbol of the dove to represent the spirit of God. The Song of Solomon refers to the dove as a creature of beauty and love. And since the time of Noah the image of a dove holding an olive branch continues to be a symbol of peace to this day.Small clay shrines from the Iron Age Levant depict doves perched on top the doorways of mini-temples. One such example from Cyprus, the entire exterior of the goddess’s shrine is covered with dovecotes. The doves represented feminine fertility and procreation, and came to be well recognised symbols of the Canaanite goddess Asherah and her counterpart Astarte.

The three one-year old lambs without blemish, 2 male and one female. Why were they chosen for sacrifice? To explain their inclusion we need to refer back to Parashat Tzav to find the commandments: “And you must not consume any blood, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements.”  “Therefore I say to the Israelite people, you shall not eat of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood.” After the slaughter of the animal sacrifice, its blood spilled at the moment of slaughter is to be poured on a bed of dust and to be covered with the dust and buried. Any slaughter which was not sacrificial was considered a danger, for the blood might have been improperly disposed of. Why this unusual attention to blood? Why does the Jewish tradition forbid the eating of blood? Most commentators agree there are two reasons for the Torah’s prohibitions against eating blood. The first has to do with the common use of blood by pagan cults. In pagan ceremonies the blood of animals was eaten in the belief that it would provide strength or healing from sickness. In his ‘Guide to the Perplexed’ Moses Maimonides explains that pagans believed that by surrounding themselves with pot and bowls of animal blood the spirits would come and dine with them.

Nachmanides believed that eating the blood of animals might have the effect of making a person more animal like and of decreasing human sensitivity and intellect. While modern science reject such a views, many vegetarians believe that eating the blood of animals has a brutalising effect on humans. The second reason for the Torah’s prohibitions against eating blood is that one must consider blood as sacred because it contains the soul given by God to all creatures.So what common denominator can be found in the disposal of blood from the sacrificed animal, the prohibition of eating blood and the sacrifice of doves for the cleansed m’tzora?  I believe the answer to this question can be found in (Ex. 8:21-27) when Moses explains to Pharaoh why the Israelites must be set free and allowed to go out into the desert to offer their sacrifices to God. The Israelite sacrifices would be “abominable” to the Egyptians. In other words, Israel was to sacrifice to the Lord the very animals the Egyptians worshipped as gods.

The instructions given by God to Moses was intended to outlaw the pagan practices that had been common place in Egypt. The animal sacrifice was given by God to Israel in order for Israel to learn that animals and doves were not gods. Pots of blood did not satisfy the spirits. God wants Israel to renounce the Gods of Egypt and worship him alone as the one true God.

Finally, just as the Priest in Leviticus went outside the camp to find the healed m’tzora and welcome them back into the community. I’m sure all of us here have someone that we could welcome back into the Beth Shalom community or indeed into our circle of family and friends. Shabbat Shalom ve hag Pesach sameach.