Tag Archives: Ritual Purity

Parshat Acharei Mot (5774)


Leviticus 16 – 18

What Cooking Teaches Us About Ritual Purity

Meat CholentHave you ever had to make a savory dish like a roast or cholent, and find yourself first searing the meat before you utilize it for your dish? Ever wonder why you do that? Chefs seem to encourage this practice for the same reason some halachic commentators suggest this, but with a different intent. This week we get a rabbinic cooking lesson.

Previously we have been dealing with issues of ritual purity, what makes something tahor (ritually pure) and what makes something tumah (ritually impure). Leviticus has given us some pretty complex rules about what makes animals and people ritually pure, but now it is going to define what makes food fit and appropriate (kasher/kosher). Now if you have been following the parshashiot for the past few weeks you remember that we already dealt with issues of what makes something kosher. We were given the means to identify which species of living creatures are appropriate. We are also given a stern warning regarding their blood. In Leviticus chapter 7 we read:

You shall not eat any blood

in any our your dwellings,

be it from a bird or an animal.

Any person (soul)

who eats blood

shall have his soul cut off

from among his people.”

וְכָלדָּם לֹא תֹאכְלוּ, |

בְּכֹל מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, |

לָעוֹף, וְלַבְּהֵמָה. |

כָּלנֶפֶשׁ, |

אֲשֶׁרתֹּאכַל כָּלדָּם— |

וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, |

מֵעַמֶּיהָ.|

Leviticus 17:26-27

Not to over simplify, but in general anything that is permitted to be offered as a sacrifice is also appropriate for human consumption. However, there is one specific thing that we are told to be careful not to consume from them, like their blood. So paramount is this command that we will see it reiterated for us here in this parsha as well, with the entirety of chapter 17 being about the issue of the consumption of blood. This is point that is often missed by readers, who wonder why it brings this up now. One can wonder, why does it bring up eating blood during a section about sacrifices and why closely after the issues of ritual purity?

In the past few weeks we dealt with the issues of purity relating to animals, we learned which are ritually clean for eating and sacrifice. We also learned about the purity of the human animal, studying the different physical conditions and ailments which also cause ritual impurity. Of course one of the most common among them are issues of blood. When one is considered ritually impure and untouchable while a person is in a state of bleeding, be it from wound or even natural states such as nidah (females issues). For blood where to continuously flow from a person, they are unclean and anything that flow touches becomes unclean as well. Garments maybe be laundered, but in some cases other items must be burned as the impurity cannot be expunged.

But this is a general principle related to ritual purity, that when blood leaves its natural place in the body it becomes a source of impurity. It renders a person unable to worship in the temple cult of the Mishkan.

This is something that people seem to understand but not really grasp, especially walking into the book of Leviticus where the whole topic sees to revolve around ritual sacrifice, with the offering up of flesh (basar, meat) and blood. Depending on the offering the flesh is either entirely burned, or a portion is taken to be eaten; depending on the form of sacrifice and offering being performed. However, during sacrifice the blood is always dashed upon the altar and never eaten. (Leviticus 7:6)

In this week’s parsha we get a deeper look into the significance of blood, and along the way we are instructed in how to deal with blood. All of chapter 17, which makes up the fourth reading and half the fifth reading, is about how to deal with blood. The fourth aliyah tells us that anyone who bring a sacrifice are required to have to blood brought forward to the altar. To not do so is to be treated as though that man shed human blood, and he is therefore guilty of a capital crime. (Leviticus 7:4) The blood is to be burned up, being drowned out by the fragrance of the burning fat of the meat rising to the heavens.

The Torah makes it clear, anyone who does not bring a sacrifice to the door of the tent, thereby allowing the blood to be offered up, will find his soul cut-off from among their people. This is true for the Israelite as much as the ger, the convert or the resident stranger. (v.10)

Likewise we are also told almost exactly the same thing for people when it comes to the consumption of blood. As our text ultimately demands:

Therefore, I said to the children of Israel:

None of you shall eat blood,

and the stranger who sojourns among you

shall not eat blood.”

| Al-ken amarti livnei Yisra’el

| kol-nefesh mikem lo-tochal dam

| vehager hagar betochechem

| lo-yochal dam

Leviticus 17:12

This is they key verse for this week. And this is indeed the central mitzvah which observant Jews focus in on while reading this parasha. This is really what it all boils down to, we must not eat blood. No one among Israelite society is to consume blood, native and stranger alike.

The Torah makes it pretty clear in the verses leading up to here, that this is a paramount commandment. This is not something that we should take lightly. It also gives us one of the reasons why. As we read:

And any man of the House of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My attention upon the soul who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from among his people.

For the soul of the flesh is in the blood, and I have therefore given it to you [to be placed] upon the altar, to atone for your souls. For it is the blood that atones for the soul.”

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל כָּל דָּם וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת הַדָּם וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְכַפֵּר עַל נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי הַדָּם הוּא בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר:

Leviticus 17:10-11

I state that this is one of the reasons, because our sages make note that this is not the only reason why are not allowed to eat blood. We do not abstain from eating blood merely because it is used in the temple rituals of atonement. There is nothing mystical about it. Instead there is something very natural, simply respecting that it is the blood which gives life to living flesh.

This is reiterated for us in summation found in text and in the chumash commentary for verse 14:

For [regarding] the soul of all flesh its blood is in its soul, and I said to the children of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the soul of any flesh is its blood all who eat it shall be cut off.”

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דַּם כָּל בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא כָּל אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת:

Leviticus 17:14

Rashi further simplifies for us, “Damo hu b’makom hanefesh, shehanefesh taluyah bo / The blood is the place of the living soul, because the soul is dependent upon it.”

The blood is something that is sacred, because life flows through it. But unlike many cults of the world, we do sanctify the consumption of it. Instead we hold it so sacred that we do not eat it in any fashion. Jewish law is very detailed in prescribing how we avoid the consumption of blood, this is a central component of kashrut.

But why should we deal with this topic now? Why discuss it here among these parashiot? How does this relate to the other forms of impurity?

Simply put, the issues of blood purity and consumption of blood are not at all dissimilar. They both rely on a certain concept. That once blood has left its natural place in the body it becomes corrupt and dies, and thus it causes tumah – it transmits defilement upon being touched. So too when consumed.

The fact is that blood is a natural part of slaughter, but it is not natural for us to consume it. This dead blood was understood to cause harm. Our Torah tells us what to do with the blood. The blood of animals is treated with respect. The lifeblood of the animal after slaughter is to be poured into the dirt and covered. This is the way it is described when we are learn the “rules of the hunt” concerning trapping wild birds, for example. (v.13)

Most of us understand what this means for the process of slaughtering and the handling of kosher meat, as we know it today. The animal is ritually slaughtered, the animal is drained of blood, the meat is salted and soaked. In fact today meat which is kasher is over-salted.

What do I mean by over-salted? As we know korbanot – the sacrificial offerings were always salted. However, today we salt the meat a longer period of time and with the soaking remove any pooling blood that might have been displaced in the meat. The coarse salt – commonly known as kosher salt because it is commonly used for this purpose – it aids on the removed of the surface blood by drawing it to the surface, to be washed away in the soaking. Thus we do not consume blood. This is the standard by which we hold today.

Traditionally, as with the ancients, they seem to take extra care when handling their meat. Though it was undoubtedly bled, washed and salted they also applied one other step. They actually kashered their meat with a very different step than the cold water washing of today, they insisted upon chalitat basar – the scalding of meat.

Though the process is not well understood, this principle of halacha is prescribed and detailed for us in the meticulous code of the Misheh Torah by the Rambam. There he instructs us how to kasher in this methodology:

“How is it done? Rinse the meat initially. Afterwards, salt it very well. Leave it in its salt for the length of time it takes to walk a ‘mil.’ Afterwards, rinse it very well until the water turns clear and then immediately throw it into boiling water, not warm. [This is done] in order that the water will ‘close it up’ so that the blood will not come out.”

אין הבשר יוצא מידי דמו אלא אם כן מולחו יפה יפה, ומדיחו יפה יפה. כיצד עושה: מדיח הבשר תחילה, ואחר כך מולחו יפה יפה, ומניחו במלחו כדי הילוך מיל; ואחר כך מדיחו יפה יפה, עד שייצאו המים זכים; ומשליכו מיד לתוך מים רותחין, אבל לא לפושריןכדי שיתלבן מיד, ולא ייצא דם.

Mishneh Torah, Ma’achalot Asurot 6 § 10

Instead of the meat being salted for an entire hour, as is our halacha and minhag today, we are told here that meat was traditionally salted for 18-minutes (the time it takes to walk a Roman mile). However, in order to remove the rest of the blood and to seal the meat the Rambam prescribes chalitah – blanching.

During the process of chalitat basar meat is throw into boiling water, not mere lukewarm water. It is scalded in boiling water, utilized for both removing blood into the water and also sealing any blood-like juices into meat. The meat is thus blanched until is appears white on the outside, and then it is kasher – it is fit for consumption. The water is then tossed and not consumed, as discussed earlier.

Not what purpose what does this method suggested by the Rambam have? It may not seem apparent to most of us, as we most often think in terms of just not eating meat with blood inside of it. But Jewish tradition, as suggested by the text of this parsha, it suggest to us that the historic practice was actually more skewed towards the avoidance eating blood on its own own. Abstaining from eating blood as a separate entity.

Let us think in terms of cooking meat in water as the Rambam describes. Say we were making a soup or a stew, and we threw meat into the water while it was still cold or lukewarm. The meat will noticeably drain what ever fluids inside of it into the water. What ever blood might appear to be in the meat, it will drain into the water and thus color it red with its presence. To eat this, this would also be a transgression of the Torah’s prohibition to not eat blood in the most literal sense.

By scalding the meat the pores and surface of the meat is sealed, allowing the juices to remain inside. The water used for the blanching is then tossed out and the meat can then be prepared in what ever method afterward without fear of consuming the blood of the animal which one eats.

Thus we avoid eating blood, as a separate entity itself.

Now today we don’t have to worry about this as much as in prior days, so we do not regularly take this extra step. As stated, the salting period is longer and removes what ever remaining amount of stagnant blood in a much more efficient fashion. In the next half-century years after the Rambam the method of chalitat basar would be abandoned by many as halacha moved beyond that to our current methods, which we hold to be more efficient. Even the Shulchan Aruch would eventually rule the blanching method to be insufficient. (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 73; Rema, Yoreh Deah 67)

That is not to say that there are not those who do hold by the laws of chalitat basar to this day. There are people who contest that this is not just some complex chumrah and that since it is found in the codes of the Rambam it is something that must be maintained. However one feels about the development of the halachic process since the 10th century, we must keep in mind we are not allowed to just negate our mesorah and roll back to this method. In defense of the common Judaism practice of today I most point out the Mishneh Torah is said to contain laws that are not just practical today, but also those which will be re-instituted in the age to come – in the days of Mashiach, during the future Messianic age.

Simply put, it doesn’t apply to us today. But it sure gives us a lot to think about. The length that our tradition goes to avoid the consumption of blood, and to respectfully return it back to sacredness of the earth.

So what of this scalding method? For good cooks this method does not come as much of a surprise. Indeed in order to protect the moisture and the flavor of meat, most chefs do a similar process on meats before making a dish such as a stew or a casserole. But instead of boiling the meat, most often people brown the outside of the meat in a pan. The browning is not just about adding the right texture and firmness, but it also an important step needed for sealing the outside in order to keep the natural juiciness inside the meat.

As we are coming into the holiday of Pesach, we are often consumed with the issues of kashrut. That this parsha is among the ones that make us consider what makes food kosher is timely for us, at a time of the year when we are obsessed with just that. Removing the chametz from the house, and quite often replacing items in our kitchens to meet the challenges. Reviewing the laws of kashrut is apropos to the Passover season for all religious Jews.

As we start this Passover week I find myself like many of you, physically and mentally stretched to the limit. In fact this year comes with a few more physical challenges which become amplified by the stress and strain of the holiday rush. Overwhelmed by the demands of this holiday season, and the extra complexities it sets upon keeping kosher.

But then I have my many friends who are not as observant or are new to Judaism, who look at all the effort that many of us put into the Passover holiday and they get discouraged. That all they can do is abstain from bread and the like.

Some get embarrassed that they aren’t able to keep as strictly kosher as they would like. So before we end this lesson I want us to remember that kashrut is not an all or nothing deal.

Some of us, just out of natural sensitivity know to abstain from things like eating blood or eating forbidden creatures. We all have a spark of this kosher soul inside of us, even if we don’t realize it yet. We have certain things that are to our merit, if we consider it.

Yes, we should all strive for kosher living. But we ought not feel defeated if we still fall short in certain areas.

In closing I would like leave us with some words paraphrased from the sichas of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. I think this entry says it the best:

The Torah records the laws of forbidden reptiles and insects of the ground after the laws of forbidden animals, fish and birds, in order to hint that even those Jews who are on a low spiritual level, and do not observe the Dietary Laws, would still avoid eating snakes and insects and ‘would not defile themselves [by eating] creeping creatures like the other nations.’ (Rashi to Lev. 11:46)

Here we see, once again, that however low a Jew may stumble in the service to G-d, evidence can still be found of his unique Jewish character, and his inner desire to return to G-d.”

Based on Sichas Shabbos, Parshat Shemini 5743

Kol Menacham Chumash, Gutnik Edition, P. 697

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Parshat Tazria (5774)


Leviticus 12-13

Purity is About Having Awe and Humility

Does your spiritual practice still leave you struck with awe and wonder? Do you still approach your religious devotion in a way which shows humility? Essentially that is what the topic of ritual purity is about. And that is what we are going to discuss this week, ritual purity. As it will be the central topic these next few parashiot.

Pillar of Smoke and FireBut before we get there we need to catch ourselves up on this topic. The topic of ritual purity is certainly complicated, but it doesn’t need to be something that we avoid or shy away from. We just need to pick up this story where we have left off.

In last week’s parsha study we learned about the seven-day inauguration of the Mishkan (the tabernacle). And then we presumably stepped into the eighth day, the first day it is open for regular business. And on that day Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest), lay dead by an act of G-d. Just as fire had also consumed the offerings after the end of the seven days, so too fire came down and consumed these two men for bringing some sort of aish zara – extraneous fire – into the holy grounds, there on the eighth day.

In response to this the narrative is interrupted, and the kohanim (priests) are given laws to keep from also suffering the same terrible fate. They are taught regarding mourning, being urged to avoid impurity from contact of the dead. And also given the laws prohibiting intoxication during temple service, so that one should not die for this reason. (suggesting this might have been a contributing factor, see Parshat Shemini 2012)

Almost naturally the story progresses about issues of purity, so as to avoid another one of these cases. This also can make us suspect something they did jeopardized their purity or the sanctify of the sacred space. Therefore now the Israelites needed to be taught in detail how to avoid impurity. These two kohanim did something that wasn’t exactly forbidden, but it wasn’t appropriate and therefore they actually perished on account of their error. For this reason within the text the topic of purity from here on is going to be quite specific, leaving almost nothing to the imagination.

I want us to remember as we read this that the details are so intense because these laws are being given to a newly liberated slave people. These are the people fresh over the border, new to freedom and not so civilized yet. They are dusty migrants, they are not some sort of polished and manicured people on the grand tour. They are not so clean, and quite prone to the uncouth. From here on we are going to be taught everything from eating, to dealing with a discharge. Why? Because we didn’t know!

It’s hard for us to understand this, because Jews are often maligned as eternally being a prissy sort of people, born with a hyper-vigilance to sanitation. But understand the world comes to this conclusion after seeing how of our religion has progressed us in this matter, both biblically and rabbinically. But before that we were much like our neighbors, and it wasn’t pretty.

We talk a lot about fire in this book, fire is essentially needed for this temple service to be performed. But it’s something that is not really spoken about until this the story of Nadav and Avihu. But if we think about it, if they brought fire with them in a pan, where do we think there got it from? Where was this extraneous and alien fire from?  I have an idea. If we consider the common cultures of the time, we can get a pretty good idea what was wrong with the fire they brought.

It might come as a terrible surprise to modern people, but it’s quite obvious to people who have done much classical reading, that in the old days bonfires were often fueled with dung. Most commonly animal dung, which herding societies produce in bulk. But in many cases, people even use human dung. Use of dung in this way is especially true in dry and non-wooded regions, like a desert. To this day animal dung is still commonly used as fuel, except in the modern age it is industrially dried and processed first before use for maximum fuel output. Odd but true.

If we take the story of Nadav and Avihu literally and simply as an issue of purity, it is a good assumption that maybe these two erred when they failed to create a new fire or take from another sacred source in order to light the altar with. Instead they could have just taken a flaming chip (קיסם) from a dung fueled fire. They might have cut corners, and in doing so took something alien and putrid into the sacred space. Thus showing a disrespect and irreverence for G-d, and their sacred service.

A hint of this possibility seems to peak out to us from the text of a dramatic act from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, who himself was a kohen – a priest, descended from the line of Itamar. He is once told to bake cakes over a fire of dung and eat it in the presence of all the people to see:

“And as barley cakes you shall eat it, and they shall bake it with human excrement before their eyes.

“And Hashem said, ‘So will the children of Israel eat their bread unclean among the nations where I shall drive them.’

“And I said, ‘O L-RD G-d, behold my soul has not been defiled, neither have I eaten from an animal that died by itself and was torn [by beasts], from my youth until this day, and no loathsome meat has ever entered my mouth.’

“So He said to me, ‘See! I have given you cattle dung instead of human excrement, and you shall prepare your bread upon it.’”

וְעֻגַת שְׂעֹרִים, תֹּאכְלֶנָּה; וְהִיא, בְּגֶלְלֵי צֵאַת הָאָדָםתְּעֻגֶנָה, לְעֵינֵיהֶם.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ, כָּכָה יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתלַחְמָם טָמֵא, בַּגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר אַדִּיחֵם שָׁם.

וָאֹמַר, אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי יְיָ, הִנֵּה נַפְשִׁי, לֹא מְטֻמָּאָה; וּנְבֵלָה וּטְרֵפָה לֹאאָכַלְתִּי מִנְּעוּרַי וְעַדעַתָּה, וְלֹאבָא בְּפִי בְּשַׂר פִּגּוּל.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַירְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְךָ אֶתצפועי (צְפִיעֵי) הַבָּקָר, תַּחַת גֶּלְלֵי הָאָדָם; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶתלַחְמְךָ, עֲלֵיהֶם.

Ezekiel 12:4-15

Notice by the end of the First Temple Period, all these years later, Ezekiel is told to tell the people to get used to the ways of the nations, because this was what they were going to live like in exile. While Ezekiel is among the prophets who is most often willing to go along with G-d’s form of performance art, here he can’t get beyond his refined sensibilities in knowing this is vile. G-d still makes Ezekiel follow through. In the end with cow dung instead, but still it is something that is shockingly vile to the common people (not just to priests like himself) all these centuries later.

But notice when the prophet makes his objections he starts talking about the issues of purity that seem to very much march in step with the prohibitions of Leviticus. He starts with saying he has never defiled his soul in such ways. Not even with carcasses of animals which dropped dead on their own, nor animals which are torn apart by predators; nor has he ever consumed any other type of repulsive flesh (basar pigul).

Interestingly, starting in the sixth reading of Parshat Shemini we see these relating laws similarly laid out for us, right after all this drama with Nadav and Avihu is laid to rest. We begin with animals, and what is forbidden meat (basar) and what is proper. As the temple cult surrounded the offering of sacrifices, we start with the most obvious. We begin to define what animals are clean and which are not, to possibly ensure that they do not err in this matter as well. So that priests don’t bring treif into the sanctuary!

And next we follow-up with the details of purity regarding the human animal. Which is what we immediately begin to discuss as we open this week’s parsha. We get beyond purity which is merely based upon something extraneous, and begin to have to consider purity of our own person.

This weeks parsha makes us look at issues of purity within the realm of our own bodies, with impurity which at some times even bubbles and oozes from our own person. That is what this parsha discusses at length – the subject of tzara‘at, skin disorders. That is the one of the only thing which it discusses, really, except for in the first eight verses which discuss the birthing of humans. It touches on blood purity after birth, both of mother and child. And also details the sacrificial rituals that the mother is supposed to perform after the time of uncleanliness and rest has passed. (see Parshat Tazria-Metzorah 2013)

Certainly up until now we have been talking about an issue of laws and purity, and it is easy for us to assume that these laws are only in place for the Levites. But here we see laws which apply to everyone, all of us because we are all born. All of us, as we all have illness.

But these commandments, they are obvious that they apply to us. We would not dare say otherwise. As the first series of them is about a birth of a boy and lays down the law of the brit milah – circumcision. Our key verse for this week reads:

“And on the eighth day,

you shall circumcise

the flesh of his foreskin

| U’vayom hashemini

| yimul

| basar ar’elato

Leviticus 12:3

This is the highest mitzvah of all – the kick-off mitzvah of Jewish life. The mitzvah which literally embodies all the rest. A mitzvah, performed on the eighth day. Coincidence that this commandment comes down to us eight days into the story of this new temple worship in the Mishkan? Who can say, but it’s an interesting connection.

Indeed we know these commands are for all the people, because that is how our parsha opens. “Vayedaber Hashem el Mosheh laimor, daber el bnei Yisrael / And Hashem said to Moses saying, speak to the children of Israel…” And this isn’t the first place. The tone transitions from being mere commands to the priest back when we began to discuss the purity of animals in Parshat Shemini, there too G-d speaks to Moses, to tell Aharon and his sons, who is in turn to pass these instructions down to the Israelites. Just as we see here in this parsha as well.

After that eighth day G-d begins to give all the people instructions on how to safeguard this new form of worship. How to protect this new and sacred thing which returned the presence of G-d into their lives, so as not jeopardize it or themselves. Commands which needed to be observed by all the people, not just the priests in charge.

This Mishkan offered the people their connection to G-d, through the daily tamid offering. It provided a tangible way of knowing that G-d dwelt among them. It also additionally offered atonement for them through the additional offerings. But now that this new thing dwelt among them, they had to begin to act in a more appropriate way. They were now in the presence of Hashem, the King of all glory.

So staring from here on G-d begins to hand down laws which govern purity for the children of Israel, in both diet and in body.

When it discusses the issues of the body, as in our parsha this week, it starts out logically at the beginning with birth, then circumcision, etc. Almost chronologically touching on the ritual impurities associated with just living life itself, because life is messy.

Though this Mishkan was a way of connecting with G-d, it also came with a huge amount of responsibility. Though it offered them closeness to G-d, the people could not approach G-d when ever they wanted. Be they priests, or common Israelite. There needed to be a certain level of purity maintained. Not just in what they brought, but also in how they brought themselves.

With this holy service of the Mishkan in place, G-d commands the people going forward. We read this right at the end of chapter 11, in the summarization of when G-d tells them to keep away from the creeping things of the ground:

“You should not make your soul detestable with any creeping creatures which creeps. You shall not make yourselves unclean.

“For I am Hashem your G-d; you should sanctify yourselves, and be holy, because I am holy; so neither should you defile yourself with any type of swarming thing that moves on the ground.

“For I am Hashem that brought out of the land of Egypt, to be your G-d. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.”

אַלתְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶתנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָלהַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם.

כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶתנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָלהַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַלהָאָרֶץ.

כִּי אֲנִי יְיָ, הַמַּעֲלֶה אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי.

Leviticus 11:43-45

Here we get several warning about ritual purity. First, don’t make oneself tamei – ritually impure. Why? It’s obvious to us, because if they do they cannot enter into the Temple complex. If they make ourselves detestable, they cannot approach G-d. Second, they need to actively sanctify themselves. And third, the children of Israel are commanded to be holy because they are G-d’s possession, and therefore by extension it is their duty to be holy.

I know this is a long study. I apologize, I feel like I should have stopped a bit ago. But I do need us to understand this before we move on, and I also want to try to touch on something that is inspirational, which is hard to do sometimes when we go systematically through the Torah. Especially when it takes us through some pretty foul places. But we need to touch on one point, something that is lost to us because our experience of worship is much different today in a post-temple reality.

The fact is that temple worship was not at all like synagogue service we have today. People could not just go when ever they wanted. And the primary reason, was because of issues of purity. The Rambam notes this in one of his classics:

“I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence, in accordance with the command,” You shall reverence my sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30). But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words:” Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend” (Prov. 25:17). For this reason the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanliness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean…”

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed

In order for a person to go up to the Miskhan or Temple they needed to sanctify themselves. They had to wash themselves and keep themselves away from things which might make them unclean.

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

Washing before prayer at the Kotel

Rambam begins to note each one of these forms of impurity which are mentioned here in this part of Leviticus. And he notes that even if a person hasn’t made himself completely tumah (impure) by touching a dead body, there are many other ways we see here where a man can be defiled and therefore render himself disqualified to enter the sanctuary. By something we touch, or by something we eat. By sexual cohabitation, or by bodily affliction. The Rambam notes that even if one were to avoid all these things, a man can be made unclean by something as simple as being touched by creeping creatures (toads, lizards, rodents, etc; see Leviticus 11:29-31).

Fact is, the average citizen could not always be holy. The average Israelite wasn’t pure enough to come just any time. He had to make the effort, mindful of his ritual purity in order to enable him to approach the temple complex when he needed to.

The facts of real life are that people can’t always be completely ritually pure, because sometimes things cross our paths that jeopardize one’s cleanliness (like a creeping creature running over your foot), or having your food tainted. Or simple by something completely natural, like giving birth or if one is discharging. Nothing of no one’s fault at all. Nonetheless it restricted people from entrance.

This is noted by the Rambam as well, as he also gives us a reason why Israel should give heed and follow these laws of purity. He also spells out again what the intention is behind these laws:

“All this serves to keep people away from the Sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked. Our Sages, as is well-known, said, ‘Even a clean person may not enter the Sanctuary for the purpose of performing divine service, unless he takes previously a bath.’ By such acts the reverence [for the Sanctuary] will continue, the right impression will be produced which leads man, as is intended, to humility.”

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III

If people expect to give an offering or even himself serve before G-d, he needs to wash himself up. Even if he thinks he is clean. He further needs to examine his habits and his person. One needs to examine themselves and ask if they are really in such a state of purity of being and intention. One is forced to continuously ask themselves if they are really coming to G-d out of reverence. The Rambam is of the opinion this is the intended purpose of the laws of purity to produce a conscious level of humility inside people.

Today for religious Jews do not live in the shadow of the Mishkan or the Temple. We do not have that embody our connection to G-d. In this new reality we perform a different avodah – a different type of service than that of the Temple cult. We don’t sacrifice. We don’t have that constantly burning tamid offering in the midst of our camp to stoke, to remind us that we are holy.

We have a different type of relationship before G-d, we offer up prayer and the words of our lips as our sacrifices. (Isaiah chapter 1) We offer our prayers in synagogues, and not in a sacrosanct Temple. We get to come daily if we want to, not just when ever we are found to be pure and therefore permitted. We have a tamid too – an eternal offering which we get to offer; an offering which we offer in prayer daily.

Though tamid has a different application today than it did during the Temple period, our duty to strive for purity along with our Holy G-d remains. And when we remember and keep the commandments of purity, instead of them focusing around an altar they most often focus around the dinner table. This is how this doctrine of purity has reached to us from then until now.

We don’t need to complicate the topic of offerings. We understand what the symbolism of tamid offerings (Heb. perpetual, continuous) is for, if we think about it. As our sages teach us this, that it is because our duty before G-d is a daily thing which takes constant work. Our spirituality is something we work at daily.

And like those who worshiped in the Temple, we need to be mindful to daily approach our service before G-d with humility and self-inspection. We can’t ever assume that we are just worthy. We also need to maintain the understanding that precisely because we have a duty before G-d, that is the reason we must constantly inspect the purity of ourselves and our ways. We can’t ever lose respect and humility in our daily service before G-d, or else our sense of sanctity is lost.

Our Point to Consider This Week: Part of showing respect for G-d is displayed through exemplifying humility. On one hand it might be logical that being humble as servants of such an amazing G-d as ours would be near impossible. After all, we are called to serve as laborers of Hashem in this world, with so many holy mitzvot to perform. However it is precisely because of this that we should show even more humility yet. We should ask ourselves this week: Do I perform my service before G-d with intentionality and with self-reflection, along with the awe and humility that should come with such an honor?

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Parshat Tazria-Metzorah (2013)


Leviticus 12 – 15

Childbirth and the Implications of Purity: Is the Torah Being Sexist?

Mother and InfantThis week we are going to deal with ritual purification of people. This topic spans several seemingly distinct and diverse topics. This section deals with both ritual purity related to childbirth, and ritual purity related to tzaraat – a skin infliction commonly known simply as leprosy in English. It deals with issues of purity (teharah) and impurity impurity (tumah). As you see we deal with the incidental forms of impurity such as childbirth, and the consequential like tzaraat that is a divine punishment for lashon hara (slander). We deal with male childbirth, and female childbirth; and the sacrificial system that was set up for returning one to world of communal ritual after a initial birthing period has passed. It also explains how this happens for the person with tzaraat as well. This week we will mostly deal with the women’s issues.

Now I understand why many people are not so familiar with this section of Torah, except for the references related to gossip and slander. Often times people just skim over the rest in discomfort, over the seeming grossness of it all. I have even noticed in a lot of the commentaries, especially those for the youth, we just pass over this section related to the purity of women all together. Of all the verses that most of the commentaries choose to point out, it is the seemingly oddly placed third verse (see Leviticus 12:3) related to brit mila (circumcision) that we point out. I find this odd considering this is the one verse that our masters like Rashi ignored.

First before I seemingly get too critical, I must remind us that there is almost a logic to why we have done this. Circumcision is the paramount mitzvah, it’s the officiating sign of Abraham’s conversion, and for this reason is called brit milah because it is “the word of the covenant” or the “covenant promise;” milim means words or promises; interestingly it also means chatter or rhetoric. Maybe the topics of slander and purity are not so far off as we make them in our imaginations, but I digress.

As we learn from this section of Torah it is a serious thing that we stop all activities to perform. We take circumcision so seriously that it is nearly a universal custom for all Jews, even for the people who are not born into a religious family. Oddly even for someone who fell off the turnup truck like me, my family knew enough to have me circumcised just in case one day I did decide to be religious; I’m sure most of you from a suburban, secular background get this. Everything stops and we perform brit milah on a boy at eight days old because here in this section of Torah it specifically tells us to:

“On the eighth day

the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

| Uvayom hashmini

| yimol besar orlato

Leviticus 12:3

From here we derive the custom of preferably performing it on the eighth day, and during the daylight, performing the mitzvah literally b’yom – meaning “on that day.” It is so important of a mitzvah that we rush to perform this on the eighth day even if it coincides with Shabbat! It is not just because the reception of this commandment predates the acceptance of Shabbat as our heritage, it is because this is a direct stipulation of the mitzvah itself as presented here. It stands alone as a positive mitzvah.

Now we should all be asking ourselves, why does it have to be on the eighth day? We can come up with folk logic and anecdotal medical theories as to why, but the truth is that the placement of this mitzvah does show that it is kind of related to the topic of female menstruation which is the first verse of this parsha (see Leviticus 12:1).

And this is why a lot of people don’t discuss it, first on the part of immature men who are too grossed out and oblivious about women’s reproduction to discuss it. It’s not just an issue of being tznius, its more of being squeamish about talking about a woman’s period. On the part of women, it’s because many of them are appalled that the Torah talks about a women’s period in terms of ritual purity; thinking we are talking about cleanliness instead of a state of ritual accountability. I want to remind us we are not talking about cleanliness at all, we are talking about being ritually pure to perform public and religious service, after all we are in Leviticus that concerns itself with priestly order and function more than anything else.

I’m not saying that this only applies to the priestly caste, no it relates to everyone. However this is a place in the Torah where we see the functions of the citizen Israelite and the priests meeting. No really, their obligations don’t just coincide but the priests and the Israelite actually meet up for reason of inspection of their ritual purity at a certain point after their time of separation and immersion in a mikveh. The priest are stated here to be the ones who determine if a person should return to ritual service in all cases; both after a form of “menstruation” which is childbirth (which is just a clumsy way of saying a vaginal discharge), and that of a skin discharge or irruption like tzaraat.

Despite how this looks on the surface, the Torah is not singling out women here. Nor is it degrading them, even though it can be almost seem like it is by some of the simplistic and quaint divrei Torah that men like to give about women’s issues. I’ll admit, there are a few reason that an egalitarian person might find themselves a bit appalled with the traditional take on Torah here. The first reason presented by most females is that the waiting period before returning to the Temple is twice as long if she gives birth to a girl than if one gave birth to a boy, and because the Torah present’s women’s menstruation first when dealing with human purity. Furthermore women’s menstruation is juxtaposing with the description of what makes animals kasher (kosher, meaning appropriate) and their blood.

I have to admit, maybe some men understand more about Jersey cows than women’s reproduction, but the Torah isn’t degrading women to the level of farm animals. Nor is it suggesting that we treat women like a piece of meat. Bodily discharge, as stated and presented throughout this parsha, is obviously an issue for men as well as women; chapter 15 of Leviticus details a mirroring immersion and purification process for a man with a seminal discharge to round out the message.

I have a personal reason why I believe the Torah starts our with women when it discusses human purity. First off, because women are the source of all life. The Torah does present the species of animals in a certain order in the creation story, and it does mirror that when presenting animals in Leviticus; domesticated animals, wild beasts, birds and then lastly the human animal. (see Rashi for Leviticus 12:1) But when it comes to the human animal is starts with the woman first, from whose womb life comes forth. Also, a female discharge be it related to menstruation or childbirth, it is just a matter of nature in the same way being a ritual unclean or not is a matter of nature for an animal. It’s not something they can help, it is natural and not consequential.

And because it is a natural process it is more recurrent, it’s probably logical that we deal with this one first. And also because the issue of female discharge is going to be something that is factored into the reason why we choose the eighth day to circumcise. It’s also going to hold some implications for how this affects the length of the then taharah period.

Though the topic is lengthy I want to try to keep it as simple as possible for us. We start out with the “yamim kimei nidat devotah titma / days of the menstruation period for which she is unclean.” She is unclean for seven days after her discharge, then immerses in a mikveh and at nightfall is ritually pure (tahor) and she is thus no longer tumah (ritually impure). Upon inspection we see that the man’s time of impurity is also seven days. This is always the case.

The reason why the menstruation period is first mentioned and then the circumcision is because we do not delay to rush to perform the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision). We need the mother and the child with her to be reintroduced to the midst of the camp and dedicated into the community of Israel as soon as possible, and the morning of the eighth day is the first time possible. Both circumcision and naming is on the eighth day when he is presented.

Though this idea seems to hold some merit, one thing it does not answer for us is why the period of tahara is twice as long for the women who gives birth to a girl as it is for a woman who gives birth to a son. Nor does it answer for us why her nidah is also twice as long, being 14 days for a girl instead of 7 days as with a boy.

The period of waiting for a boy is 33 of tehara after 7 days of nidah; combined we get 40 days. I’m sure most of us see so many significance we can draw from that. But I ask us all to remember, she is only unclean for 7 during her nidah period, but after that she has a state of blood-purity (tehara) for an additional 33 days for a boy. For a girl however the additional days of tehara is 66 days; combined with 14 days nidah comes to 80. It rounds them for one to be exactly double of the other.

But notice it does not say that she is unclean, no she is in a state of purity (tehara), so even if blood (or spotting) emerges from her she is considered pure. Thus if this occurs she is not forced to dwell outside of the camp as a quarantined person, like one recovering from a physical affliction. True, she is not permitted to bring an offering yet until after her tehara period has passed, even though she is already considered clean and back in her own home.

And this is what the command is primary about, namely to give a mother time to bond with her child. Though a woman is returned to the comfort of the community, she is not demanded to return to the regular tasks of daily life. This is made clear to us by the words stating that she should not touch “kodesh,” meaning she should not eat of the holy donations or offerings of the Temple, nor should she enter into the holy Sanctuary. Though this offers an extended break from returning to the burdens of life for all new mothers, it is especially so for the Levite mothers by not requiring them to be active in the mechanism of Temple worship until after a time of rest.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the generations of Jewish mothers and the rebbetzins of our communities. Too often we consider the work of the rabbis and spiritual leaders, but forget the equal contribution that has been made by their partners. More often than not we get a two for one deal, by receiving not only a shliach but also gaining an equally dedicated partner along with them. Most often these are the people who plan our events, provide the elaborate onegs and simchas, work as educators, organize charity work, perform counseling and engage in the visiting of the sick, and a myriad of other tasks that people assume just happen on their own. Many times people think of the women contributors of our communities like we do the female Levites in this story, we fail to see the contribution they make because we perceive of their job of being present in the Sanctuary in order to consume the kodesh only as a privilege, but not for the truly demanding responsibility that it is. We fail to see all the background work and demands that come with it.

The Torah thus prescribes a forty-day rest for a mother after she gives birth to son and eighty days after giving birth to a daughter. In order to allow a time of rest, providing the mother her space to bond with the child and to recuperate both physically and emotionally. This also relieves her of the requirement to be examined by the priest for a question of ritual uncleanliness until after this resting period, which intern releases her from any type of concerns that would subject her to being set outside the camp for any reason.

It is true that our parsha does have one seeming inequality to it, something that almost can’t be helped giving the culture during the age of the Bible. The Torah through this command does show a great concern with introducing the male child quicker to the world of Jewish ritual than it does with females. Though a circumcision does not require one to go to the Temple, it can and will be performed literally anywhere and on any day of the week that the eighth day falls on; special considerations of ritual cleanliness would not play here. But it does for instances of a first-born male, which should be redeemed by the priests (traditionally done anytime after 31 days after birth). Our Torah does give preference that a male child should be able to be introduced to the full religious community as early as 40 days after the birth of the boy.

Though the period is extended to 80 days for the birth of a female. However even in this inequality the Torah appears to me to show a certain sense of tenderness. It seems to me to extend the period of assumed “blood cleanliness” and suspends health inspections of the mother and her daughter, as logic dictates that this would be more true in the cause of females (who are prone to spotting).

However I think it goes a bit deeper. I believe the reason for allowing a double portion of rest for the mother who gives birth to a daughter is because our Torah understands the unique bond between a mother and daughter that should not be so rushed. A mother should not be so quickly rushed away from the bedside of a daughter that she uniquely relates to through empathy and a unique form of consanguinity.

Whereas our parsha fails to deliver in “equality,” it does something touching in asking up to give twice as much chesed (kindness) to the females in our lives.


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