Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Tazria

Parashat Tazria

April 4, 2019

A D’var Torah for Parashat Tazria
By Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

Much of the text of Parashat Tazria is about skin disease. These verses, from Leviticus 13:1-46, lay out in remarkable detail numerous variations of skin-related afflictions and how these are to be treated.  On the surface one might think that the intention is to demonstrate concern for the physical health and welfare of the community. On the other hand, perhaps the underlying concern is less literal, and is, rather, a statement on the importance of distinguishing between that which is impure from that which is pure. A third take, and what I believe may be a significant function of this text, is that this is about power, specifically the power of the kohanim, the priests. Let us examine each of these viewpoints.

The detailed descriptions of the many variations of skin lesions, and how they are to be managed, seem to read like a medical manual for its time. Such detail! Is the lesion red or white? Does it lie above or beneath the surface of the skin? What about the hairs within the lesion – have they turned white? Are there open sores? Swelling? As we are told at the outset in Leviticus 13:2, every case is to be carefully examined by a priest – Aaron or his sons – in order to determine how to proceed. If the condition is determined to be diseased, the person must go live outside the confines of the community. With some other symptoms, the afflicted one is told to remain in isolation for seven days and then return to be re-examined. Upon said re-examination, the priest decides whether the individual is clean and therefore may return home, or whether they are unclean and must be sent away.

When one looks at post-biblical commentaries, however, there is reason to suggest that this text may actually not be particularly concerned with public health. In Mishna Nega’im 1:1-3, we read that if a skin lesion is discovered during Shabbat, one waits until Shabbat is over before presenting oneself to the priest. OK, so these were clearly not seen as emergency situations. But this citation goes on to state that a groom may wait until the end of his seven-day wedding feast before bringing himself before the priest for examination of his skin disease, and anyone who discovers having such skin symptoms during a pilgrimage festival may wait until the festival period has ended. If contagion were truly a concern, these delays would not have been warranted. The final clue in this Mishnaic passage is the statement that a non-Jew who becomes so afflicted is not made impure by his skin disease.

This last statement in particular suggests that there is greater concern with making distinctions between Israelite purity and impurity than with the afflictions themselves. And indeed, with every description of a particular skin affliction, the priest concludes by pronouncing the person either tahor (pure, or clean) or tameh (impure, unclean). To cite two examples: “…if [after seven days of isolation] the disease is dark and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean” (Lev. 13:6).  “And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean…” (Lev. 13:8).

So it is that the kohanim are not only the sole examiners, they are also the ones who decide between matters of purity and impurity. This clearly gives the priests a tremendous amount of power. Which is not to suggest that they misused their power. In fact, it may be that one reason for the amount of detail with regard to determining purity versus impurity, was so that the priests would have clearly laid-out guidelines for making these determinations.

The power held by the priests was, after all, divinely ordained, and was put in place for a sacred purpose. Last week we read, “And God spoke to Aaron saying…this is a law for all time throughout the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the clean and the unclean; and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” (Lev. 10:9-11).

In a way, the amount of detail relating to the priests’ examination of skin disease parallels the countless details which were set forth with regard to the building of the tabernacle. Just as the tabernacle represented a physical dwelling place for God’s Presence among the people, the priests represent a personification of God’s Will on behalf of the Israelites. As such, one might say that the Divine is in the details.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.