While last week’s Parasha (Shemini) discussed the importance of offering sacrifices with a pure heart and mind, this week’s study deals with the laws of tumah (ritual impurity) and tahara (ritual purity).
The laws pertaining to purification, including childbirth, purity in marriage (niddah), and leprosy are discussed.
These regulations may be understood in purely hygienic terms, for the religious significance, or both.
The issue, however, is not one of clean versus unclean, but pure (tahor) versus defiled (tameh).
The Biblical Regulations of Childbirth
“Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.” (Leviticus 12:4–5)
The Bible specifies a waiting period for purification after childbirth—33 days if a male child is born and 66 days if a female child is born.
It provides no explanation why the period of impurity (tameh) is double when a woman gives birth to a female child instead of a male child.
After the specified period of ritual impurity (as in the menstrual period), a burnt offering was brought to the priest.
“When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.
“These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl.” (Leviticus 12:6–7)
Today, for ritual purity, a Jewish woman customarily visits the mikvah (ritual water immersion) after childbirth before resuming sexual relations with her husband.
There are mikvahs in every Orthodox Jewish community throughout the world.
As well, instead of the prescribed offering that was to be made at the Temple, today parents generally visit the synagogue in order to give thanks to God for a speedy recovery from childbirth and for the blessing of their newborn child.
This is when the female child is given her Hebrew name.
The male child, however, is named at his Brit Milah(circumcision) on the eighth day.
“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:3)
In keeping with the Law of Moses, the Messiah was named Yeshua (Jesus) when He was eight days old, on the day of His circumcision (Luke 2:21).
“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, He was named Yeshua, the name the angel had given Him before He was conceived.” (Luke 2:21)
The English name for Yeshua, Jesus, comes from the Latin spelling of His name, Iesus.
Much of this week’s Parasha concerns leprosy.
The word for leprosy in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanakh [Old Testament]) is lepra. In Hebrew, however, the original word that is translated lepra in the Septuagint is tzaraat.
This word comes from tzara, meaning “to have a skin disease,” although the root of tzaraat may actually mean smiting. Indeed, the Talmud explains that tzaraat is a punishment for sin.
While we tend to think Biblical leprosy is like modern-day leprosy, which is accompanied by swelling of organs and rotting of limbs, a better translation of tzaraat might be scaly affliction.
Three types of tzaraat are mentioned in the Torah: an affliction of human skin (Leviticus 13:2); an affliction of garments (Leviticus 13:47); and an affliction of houses (Leviticus 14:34).
A person afflicted with tzaraat of the skin was called metzora, and had to be isolated from the community in order to prevent defiling and infecting others through contact.
“Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ [Tameh! Tameh!] As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45–46)
The second type of leprosy concerns wool, linen and leather garments.
When a garment was infected with a moldy spot, the priest would examine it for seven days and either burn it or clean it, depending on if the mold seemed to spread.
The third type of leprosy was found inside the house.
When a house was infected with “leprosy,” the stones and timber infected with mildew or dry rot would be removed and carried off to a designated place outside the camp (Leviticus 14:44–45).
If that didn’t work, then the house was totally dismantled.
Likewise, sometimes a situation in our lives or relationship has become so defiled and unhealthy that it must be leveled to the ground. We must start over in a new place, trusting that God will help us to begin anew.
Physical leprosy was considered an indication of a spiritual problem—sin!
According to the Talmud (Oral Law), leprosy, which was a broad number of ailments that included ringworm and psoriasis, could be caused by several sins:
“For TEN things plagues come [upon a person]: for idolatry, for forbidden sexual relationships, for bloodshed, for the desecration of God’s Name and for cursing God, for stealing from the public and stealing that which is not his, and for vulgarity of spirit, for speaking badly of others, and for an evil eye.” (Vayikra Rabba 17:3)
According to rabbinical tradition, tzaraat is an affliction from God as punishment for the very serious sin of lashon hara (evil tongue), which is defined as true speech for malicious purposes.
For example, in Numbers 12:10, Miriam was stricken with tzaraat after speaking evil of Moses because of his Cushite wife.