The Purification Rights of the Metzora

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Metzora

The Purification Rites of the Metzora

By Rav Michael Hattin

INTRODUCTION

God spoke to Moshe saying: this shall be the matter of the Metzora on the day of his purification: he shall be brought before the Kohen. The Kohen shall go out of the camp and see that indeed the afflicted one has been healed from the plague of tzara'at. The Kohen shall command that two clean living birds be brought for the individual undergoing purification, along with cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop. The Kohen shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered, upon water from a living spring that has been gathered within an earthenware vessel.

He shall then take the (remaining) living bird, along with cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop, and he shall immerse them along with the living bird into the blood of the slaughtered bird that is upon the water from a living spring. He shall then sprinkle seven times the one undergoing purification from tzara'at, and when he has purified him, he shall release the living bird into the wide open field…(Vayikra 14:1-7).

Thus begins Parashat Metzora, with a detailed account of the purification rites for one who has emerged from the condition of tzara'at and now waits impatiently to rejoin his kin and his community. In many respects, these rites are particular to the metzora (or to the related situation of house tzara'at – see Vayikra 14:33-57) but there are also a number of points of contact between these rites and those associated with other sufferers from various forms of tum'a (ritual unfitness).

TRACING THE OUTLINE OF THE PROCESS

Let us begin by outlining the process of purification, supplementing the Biblical text with relevant material from the Mishna, Tractate Nega'im Chapter 14:

First of all, the Kohen must ascertain that the metzora has indeed been healed from his condition, much as the Kohen was responsible for initially declaring him tamei and causing his banishment from the community. Then, while the metzora is still residing outside of the encampment of Israel, two birds are to be taken, of a tahor (fit for consumption) and undomesticated species. Additionally, the Kohen must take a new earthenware vessel, and fill it with a small amount ("revi'it" – approximately 100-150 ml) of water drawn from a flowing spring. One of the birds is then slaughtered above the vessel, and its blood is drained into the waters. The Kohen then takes the cedar wood, hyssop and a ribbon of wool dyed scarlet, and bundles them together, securing the grouping with part of the scarlet ribbon. The living bird is brought together with the bundle, so that its wingtips, head and tail are all in contact with it, and then all of the items are ceremoniously immersed into the earthenware vessel. The Kohen then sprinkles the liquid seven times upon the hands of the metzora, and then the living bird is released to its freedom.

Afterwards, of course, the metzora must follow the rest of the ritual as it is described later in our text: he must shave all of the visible concentrations of hair upon his body and immerse himself, before entering the confines of the camp. In this transitional stage, he may not have relations with his wife for a period of seven days. On the seventh day, he must again shave the hair of his body and immerse a second time, but he remains unfit to partake of sacrificial meats until the presentation of his offerings on the eighth day. These eighth day offerings consist of a sin offering, a burnt offering and a guilt offering, the attendant meal offering and a special presentation of oil. The specific species for the offerings are adjusted in accordance with the financial state of the supplicant, and the exact ceremonial of the presentation that includes the placement of some of the blood and oil upon parts of his body is described in Vayikra 14:10-20.

CONSIDERING THE PRECEDENTS

What might the significance of these things? Why must the metzora present two birds at the outset and why is one of them then set free? What about the three species of cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop, as well as the need for the living waters of a free-flowing spring? Although it may not be possible to ascertain the meaning of all of the specific items that are needed for the complex choreography of the purification, we may at least succeed in tracing the general thrust of the matter.

We may begin our investigation by noting that at least in so far as the basic scheme is concerned, we have already encountered a similar ceremonial. Recall that as the people of Israel were poised to leave the land of Egypt and the plague of the firstborn was about to strike, God commanded the people to prepare the paschal lamb. This special sacrifice, a statement of Israel's trust in God as they took their first tentative step away from Egyptian polytheism, was to be slaughtered on the eve of the fourteenth day of Nissan. The blood of the lamb was to be gathered into a receptacle and then smeared upon the lintel and doorposts of the Hebrew huts in order to ward off the destroyer from their households. But the Torah specifies in that context that the people were to take "a bundle of hyssop and to dip it into the blood that is in the receptacle…" (Shemot 12:22), thus providing us with a tantalizing precedent for the purification rites of the metzora that also include a dipping of hyssop into a mixture of blood and spring water.

On the other hand, we also find a similar series of steps associated with the purification rites of one who had come into contact with a human corpse. As spelled out in Parashat Chukat (Bemidbar Chapter 19), corpse tum'a can only be relieved by the puzzling ceremony of the "para aduma" or red heifer. In this scenario, a perfectly red-haired cow that had never been utilized to draw the plough, is slaughtered beyond the confines of the camp. Its body is then completely incinerated in a specially prepared bonfire, and the ashes are then carefully gathered. These ashes are subsequently mixed as needed into a vessel containing spring water, and the Kohen then takes a bundle of hyssop, dips it into the mixture and sprinkles it upon the tamei individual on the third and seventh day. After the sprinkling of the seventh day, the person immerses himself in a mikva and after nightfall is tahor.

DRAWING THE LINKS

In all three of the situations, a liquid that is either exclusively blood or else at least includes it as a main ingredient, is first gathered into some sort of receptacle, typically earthenware. A bundle of organic material that includes hyssop is next dipped into the liquid and some sort of sprinkling or smearing is then done with it. Afterwards, the status of the afflicted individual is transformed. Interestingly, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra not only links the various ceremonials together, but maintains that the paradigm for them all is the Pesach sacrifice of Shemot Chapter 12:

Behold, the purification rites of the metzora, the house stricken with tzara'at, and the individual who has come into contact with a human corpse are all similar. Behold all of them are modeled after the Passover sacrifice in Egypt (commentary to Vayikra 14:4).

Of course, when we begin to consider the Passover in Egypt more closely, other similarities suddenly materialize. First of all, we note that the Pesach sacrifice represents Israel's emergence as a nation. On the morrow of that night of horrors, they would leave Egypt as a free people. Finally, they would be liberated from the bondage of the brick pits and be ready to take their place in the world as God's own. The Pesach sacrifice thus acted as the catalytic act that would catapult them forwards in their national spiritual development; the threshold of their homes, ceremoniously marked with its blood, would mark the brink of their beckoning destiny. Once they would cross that doorway into the blinding light of freedom there would be no turning back (for a fuller treatment of this subject see the author's earlier articles on Parashat Bo, available from the archives).

EXILE AND REDEMPTION

In more general terms, when considering the experience of Egypt, one may speak of exile and redemption. Banished from Canaan, the people languished in physical exile and its attendant spiritual torpor. They were not only far from their land and their familiar landscape, but from their God as well. In Egypt, Israel fell prey to self-alienation, becoming estranged from their mission and destiny in the world.

When Israel left Egypt, though there was much spiritual work that lay ahead of them, they embarked on an odyssey that would eventually bring them first to Sinai and finally, decades later, back to the Promised Land. In other words, their national redemption was the goal, though the process would turn out to be many more times more complicated than perhaps any of them had anticipated on the eve of the Exodus.

The metzora as well, stricken with a condition that our Sages maintain is a consequence of spiritual deficiency, is banished from the camp. In effect, he too must suffer the estrangement of "exile" as he ponders his sorry state and begins the process of spiritual repair. How he pines for restoration to his family and community, eagerly anticipating the day when the Kohen will pronounce him fit! But how the days seem to drag on interminably! Though he too may succumb to temporary despair, the memory of his former life will sustain him until he is remembered by others in turn. As that day finally dawns, he too takes the ritual objects of the Exodus from Egypt, the blood and the hyssop, and marks the moment of his self-transformation, before he begins the arduous process of returning to the camp in complete form.

PURIFICATION FROM DEATH

We shall not press the comparison too far by also including in the discussion the purification rites from death. Any man who has come into contact with a human corpse is unfit to stand before God. The Mishkan as the place of experiencing God's presence is the source of all life and, as such, represents our ultimate destination; tum'a is the antithesis of those things. We do not blame the human being for being mortal, but we protest against the state of death that our moral choices have introduced into the world. While in a state of tum'a, we suffer spiritual estrangement and experience a form of exile, exile from life and from vitality. When we are ready to emerge from that state to once again stand in the presence of God, we prepare by undergoing the rites associated with the red heifer. Once again, a mixture of living waters and ashes, life and death, is sprinkled upon the individual with the aid of the organic hyssop, a tenacious plant that thrives in even the most arid and ashen environments. Thus, the threshold of experience is once again marked by the taking of these items that mark the passage from death to life, as the tamei person transcends morbidity to once again secure life.

Though we tend to associate blood with death, the rites of the Passover and the metzora relate it to life, to the organic life force that is bound up with the oxygenated sanguine cells. The living waters, drawn from a flowing spring, are also symbols of life, for where there is water there is vitality. We may of course also relate the Passover and the red heifer to the metzora. The two birds, presumably, signify the two antithetical states and the emergence from the one to the other. Thus, the Mishna (tractate Nega'im 14:5) relates that at the outset, they must be equivalent in appearance, size and value. And they must be of an undomesticated species in order to emphasize the vital spark that animates and invigorates. At the conclusion of the first stage of the ceremony, the live bird is set free into an open space, "the field", signifying the metzora's re-emergence into a state of pristine potential. The whole world beckons, just beyond the completion of his purification!

The three situations, then, the slave in bondage in Egypt, the metzora banished from the camp, and the person who has experienced death, all share a common fundamental link. All have experienced, in one form or another, the sting and the stupor of mortality, whether physical and real, or spiritual and no less real. And though we no longer have a Temple and tzara'at is a thing of the past, there still remains the "remnant" of the Passover. All of us, as we too prepare to usher in the Passover season, would do well to consider the significance of these things, and to seize life – physical and spiritual, individual and national – as our destiny.

Shabbat Shalom