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Torah Sparks

April 5, 2008 – 29 Adar II 5768

Annual: Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59 (Etz Hayim, p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 12:1 – 13:39 (Etz Hayim p. 649; Hertz p. 460)
Maftir: Exodus 12:1 – 20 (Etz Hayim p. 380; Hertz p. 253)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16 – 46:18 (Etz Hayim p. 1291; Hertz p. 1001)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

When a woman gives birth, she enters a state of ritual impurity. If she gives birth to a boy, she is in a state of niddah (separation) for seven days, and she remains ritually impure for 33 days. Following the birth of a girl the corresponding periods are two weeks and 66 days. At the end of this time she is to bring a burnt offering and a purification offering and she is restored to a state of ritual purity.

God instructs Moses and Aaron about tzara’at, a scaly skin disease traditionally translated as “leprosy” but clearly not the condition known today as Hansen’s disease. When a person developed a rash or other signs of skin disease, the priest was to examine it and determine if it was in fact tzara’at, which would render the person ritually impure. If the diagnosis was uncertain, the priest was to quarantine the person for seven days and then examine him again. If the diagnosis was still uncertain, the person was to be isolated for another seven days; if the rash had not spread, he was declared ritually pure. Once a person was determined to have tzara’at, he was declared ritually impure and sent to live outside the camp.

Tzara’at could affect fabrics as well as people. Once a priest had determined that an article of cloth or leather was affected it was to be burned.

1. Daughters and Sons

Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be impure seven days; she shall be impure as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. – On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. – She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days. (Vayikra 12:2-5)

  1. Why must the mother bring a sin-offering after childbirth and why must she keep more “days of purification” for a girl-child than for a boy-child? According to the sages, she must bring a sin-offering after childbirth because many women in the agony of their labor vow never again to have relations with their husbands, but then, in their rejoicing over the new-born infant, they regret their resolution. The sacrifice serves to atone for the rashly made vow. This also explains also why she must wait longer to make the offering in the case of a female infant than in the case of a male... When a girl-child is born, the rejoicing is not so great as it would be over a boy-child, so that the mother will take longer to regret her rash vow than if the baby had been a boy. Klei Yakar [Rabbi Solomon Ephraim ben Aaron of Lunchitz, d. 1619, Poland])
  2. After a daughter was born to Rabbi Shimon Berabbi, he was disappointed. His father, Rabbi Judah, seeking to comfort him, said, “The possibility for further increase has now come into the world.” But Bar Kappara said to Rabbi Shimon, “Your father has offered you vain comfort. The fact is, as we have been taught, the world cannot endure without both males and females. Nevertheless, happy is he whose children are males, and alas for him whose children are females.” (Baba Batra 16b)
  3. It is written in the book of Ben Sira: “A daughter is a deceptive treasure to her father. Because of anxiety on her account, he cannot sleep at night – when she is young, lest she be seduced; when she reaches puberty, lest she play the harlot; after she grows up, lest she fail to marry; after she is married, lest she have no children; after she has grown old, lest she practice witchcraft.” (Sanhedrin 100b)

Sparks for Discussion

The reason that a new mother’s period of impurity is twice as long for a daughter as for a son is a mystery. What is clear is that our commentators take it for granted that all parents would prefer that their children be sons. The passage from Sanhedrin offers some less than complimentary reasons why that might be. Can you think of legitimate reasons why parents would have preferred sons in the economic and social climate of earlier centuries? Do these reasons still apply? If parents were able to choose the sex of their children, do you think the gender distribution of the population would be different?

Imagine you have just been blessed with a new nephew. Would you drive 100 miles to attend his brit milah? Take a three-hour flight? Travel to Israel? Would you do the same to attend the naming/Simhat Bat of a new niece?

2. Not So Fast!

The priest shall examine the affection in the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure. (Vayikra 13:3)

  1. On the day that discolored flesh appears. (13:14) What does Scripture teach? It comes to teach that there is a day when you may see it and there is a day when you may not see it. Hence our rabbis said, “a bridegroom is granted [exemption from examination] all the seven days of celebration for himself and his garments and his house; and similarly on a festival one is granted exemption all the days of the festival. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Why the redundancy? [ra’ah ha-koken – the priest shall see – appears twice in this verse] One can say that the verse refers to two different aspects. In the first, the priest shall examine the affection. This involves the physical act of looking, where the priest checks to see if there are signs of tzara’at. The second aspect, though, refers to another type of “looking.” Thus we are told, for example, that if the person is a bridegroom in the first seven days of his marriage or if a person comes to the priest in the middle of a festival, the priest does not judge the person to have tzara’at until that week or that festival has ended, so as not to disturb his joy. Thus, the priest must “look” at various external factors as well, for the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness. (Meshekh Hokhma, Rabbi Meir Simha Hakohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Latvia)
  3. In the world to come, a person will have to give an accounting for every good thing his eyes saw, but of which he did not eat. (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 4:12)

Sparks for Discussion

Given the attention the Torah pays to the diagnosis of and purification rituals for tzara’at, it would seem logical that the identification of this condition and the quarantine of people with tzara’at should be of paramount importance. However, the rabbis teach that even a person with obvious symptoms is not to be declared to have tzara’at at times of personal or communal celebration. What can we learn from this? Are there times when ritual requirements should take a back seat to the needs of the individual or the community? Can you think of situations in which we routinely ignore the letter of the law in order to better serve God and Torah?

Imagine there is a new family in your community, a young couple with two small children. The wife tells you that in recent months they have begun to celebrate Shabbat on Friday nights with candles, kiddush, and a special meal. However, she says, there are some weeks when her husband gets stuck at work and cannot be home in time for dinner. On those Fridays, she simply feeds the kids fish sticks and puts them to bed. She wants to know if when this happens, she should also feed her husband fish sticks when he gets home, or can the two of them go out for a nice dinner together. How would you answer her?

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