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Metzora vs. Tamei Met
Rav Amnon Bazak
A. "The Metzora is Considered as Dead"
Verses 1-32 of chapter 14 address the process of purification and atonement prescribed for the metzora, a person afflicted with the physical symptoms of the spiritual disease called tzara'at. This process, which is quite mysterious and leaves many questions unanswered, is strongly reminiscent of the process of purification prescribed for a tamei met, someone who has contracted impurity through contact with a corpse. We may point to the following main points of similarity:
1. Both processes require the same "equipment," and both are set forth in similar language. In our parasha we read:
Then the kohen shall command and he shall take for the one to be purified and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop. (14:4)
For the purification of a tamei met, we find:
The kohen shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet. (Bamidbar 19:6)
2. In both parashot, an animal is taken and slaughtered, and parts of its carcass are placed in a vessel containing living waters. All of these actions involve the kohen. In our parasha:
He shall take for the one to be purified two live, pure birds and the kohen shall command that one of the birds be slaughtered in an earthenware vessel with living waters (14:4-5)
Concerning the tamei met:
That they bring you an unblemished red heifer and you shall give it to Elazar the kohen, that he may take it outside of the camp and it shall be slaughtered before him and they shall take of the ashes of the burnt purification offering for the one who is impure, and living waters shall be placed with it, in a vessel. (Bamidbar 19:2-3, 17)
3. In both instances, the living waters are sprinkled on the person undergoing purification, using a branch of hyssop:
He shall take the living bird, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them, along with the living bird, in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over living waters. And he shall sprinkle upon the one to be purified of tzara'at seven times, and he shall pronounce him pure (14:6-7)
A person who is pure shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it upon the tent and upon all the vessels and upon all the people that were there, and upon whoever touched a bone, or one who was slain, or a corpse, or a grave. (Bamidbar 19:18)
4. Both purification processes conclude with the washing of clothes and immersion on the seventh day:
And it shall be on the seventh day he shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and he shall be pure. (14:9)
And on the seventh day he shall purify himself, and wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and shall be clean at evening. (Bamidbar 19:19)
What is the meaning of this parallel? It seems that the connection between the two cases can be understood in light of Chazal's teaching that "a metzora is considered as though he is dead" (Shemot Rabba 1:34). This idea is implied by the text in our parasha, but is made explicit in the story of Miriam. After she contracts tzara'at, Aharon tells Moshe:
"Let her not, I pray you, be as one who is dead, whose flesh is half consumed upon emerging from his mother's womb." (Bamidbar 12:12)
Just as a tamei met requires a specific process of purification, the metzora needs a similar process of purification from the temporary death that has settled on his body.
The perception of the metzora as having the status of one who is dead is also reflected in the behavior of the metzora while he must remain outside of the camp:
And the one with tzara'at, who is plagued his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall grow long, and he shall have his upper lip covered (13:45)
Growing one's hair long and tearing one's clothes are customs of mourning. This we learn from Moshe's command to Aharon and his sons, following the death of Nadav and Avihu on the eighth day:
"You shall not let your hair grow long, nor shall you tear your clothes and your brethren, the entire house of Israel, shall bewail the burning which God has burned. (10:6-7)
Aharon and his sons are commanded to continue with their Divine service and not to follow the customs of mourning, while the metzora is commanded to follow the mourning customs essentially, to mourn for himself, for the temporary death that is visiting his body, just as one mourns the death of a close relative.
B. Purification and Atonement
However, along with the similarity between the purification of a tamei met and the purification of the metzora, there is a great difference between them. The purification of the tamei met is concluded with the immersion in water on the seventh day. For the metzora, in contrast, the immersion on the seventh day completes only the first part of what he must do the purification. This is followed by the second part the sacrifices, which bring atonement. In the purification of the tamei met, there is no mention of the concept of atonement at all, while in our parasha the root "k-p-r" (to atone) is a key word, appearing seven times.
Of course, this difference reflects the real difference between the metzora and the tamei met. As noted in our shiur on parashat Tazri'a, tzara'at is treated in Tanakh as a punishment for sin, and the impurity that it entails is the result of that sin. For this reason, it is not sufficient that the metzora undergo purification in order to restore his state of purity; he must also undergo a process that makes atonement for his evil actions and bring about the necessary change within himself. The tamei met, in contrast, is not regarded in a negative light; the impurity contracted through contact with a corpse is an unavoidable part of reality (and in some cases even the inevitable side-effect of fulfilling a mitzva). While this state requires purification, no atonement is necessary.
This fundamental difference between the metzora and the tamei met may also explain some of the discrepancies in the process of purification, which, on the whole, is common to both of them.
First, the purification of the metzora includes one law that does not exist at all for the tamei met the matter of shaving the hair, which is set forth with emphasis and in detail:
The one who is to be purified shall wash his clothes and shave all his hair, and bathe in water, and he shall be purified. Thereafter he shall come into the camp, and shall remain outside of his tent for seven days. And it shall be, on the seventh day, that he shall shave all the hair off his head, and his beard, and his eyebrows all his hair shall he shave (14:8-9)
It seems that the shaving of the hair is the outward expression of the change that the process of purification and atonement brings about inside the metzora. His healing is a sort of rebirth, and he emerges from the process like a newborn infant, with no hair on his body. A tamei met, in contrast, is not required to create a new identity for himself.
We noted above that both processes involve mixing parts of the carcasses of animals with living waters and sprinkling the water on the person who seeks purification. Once again, when it comes to the details, there are significant differences. In the purification of a metzora, one of the birds is slaughtered in an earthenware vessel, its blood is mixed with the water, and the hyssop and other items (including the living bird) are dipped in this mixture:
He shall take the living bird, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them, along with the living bird, in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over living waters.
In purifying the tamei met, it is the ashes of the red heifer, rather than its blood, which is mixed with water. Even if we are unable to understand the full significance of the items used in these processes, it would seem that the inclusion of the blood of the bird in the purification of the metzora shows that it includes a dimension of atonement, as we are taught:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. (17:11)
For a tamei met, who requires no atonement, the process of purification involves no blood.
A third difference pertains to the number of sprinklings. A tamei met requires only two:
If he purifies himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day, he shall be purified; if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he shall not be purified. (Bamidbar 19:12)
The metzora needs seven sprinklings:
He shall sprinkle upon the one to be purified seven times, and shall pronounce him purified. (14:7)
Chazal emphasize this point:
Purification from a state of tzara'at requires seven sprinklings, while a tamei met does not require seven sprinklings. (Torat Kohanim, Metzora, parasha 2).
This difference can also be explained in light of our discussion above. Seven sprinklings usually occur in the context of atonement for sin, as, for example, in the sin offering of the anointed kohen (4:6); the ox offered for a sin committed unknowingly by the entire nation (4:17); and, of course, the sprinkling of the blood as part of the Yom Kippur service:
And he shall sprinkle of the blood before the covering seven times with his finger and he shall make atonement for the Kodesh from the impurities of Bnei Yisrael and for their iniquities, for all of their transgressions. (16:14-16)
The metzora, who requires atonement, needs seven sprinklings, while a tamei met, who requires only purification but no atonement, suffices with the sprinklings carried out over a seven-day period, on the third day and on the seventh day; he does not need seven sprinklings each time.
D. Sending Away From the Camp
There is another important difference between the metzora and the tamei met, but here the comparison is somewhat complex. In Parashat Naso, we read:
Command Bnei Yisrael that they shall send away from the camp anyone with tzara'at, and anyone who is a zav, and anyone who is impure through [contact with] the dead. (Bamidbar 5:2)
In other words, anyone who is impure is sent away from the camp.
However, the parashot concerning purification which we discussed above convey a different impression. With regard to the metzora, we are told:
All the days that the plague is in him he shall be impure; he is impure. He shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall be his habitation. (13:46)
And again in our parasha:
The kohen shall go outside of the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold if the plague of tzara'at is healed in the one who is afflicted the one to be purified shall wash his clothes, and shave all of his hair, and bathe in water, and shall be purified; afterwards he shall come into the camp, and shall remain outside of his tent for seven days. (14:3,8)
In the unit discussing the tamei met, there is no mention at all of his being sent outside of the camp. This absence is especially remarkable in view of the fact that other people mentioned in the same parasha those who carry out all the operations pertaining to the red heifer are indeed sent out of the camp:
That they bring you an unblemished red heifer and you shall give it to Elazar the kohen, that he may take it outside of the camp and it shall be slaughtered before him The kohen shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. And the kohen shall wash his clothes and bathe his flesh in water, and afterwards he shall come into the camp and a pure man shall gather the ashes of the heifer and place them outside of the camp (Bamidbar 19:3-9)
What is the relationship between the unit on the banishment of those who are impure in Parashat Naso and the units on purification? Why is it that in the latter units, the Torah draws a distinction between the metzora and the tamei met, while the unit on sending away those who are impure makes no distinction between them?
It would seem that the two parashot express two different perspectives on the sending away from the camp. Parashat Naso discusses the obligation that Am Yisrael has to send out those who are impure, "So they do not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell" (Bamidbar 5:3). The sanctity of the camp requires that those who are impure are sent out, and from this perspective, there is no distinction between the different types of impurities.
The units on purification, in contrast, deal not with the nature of the camp (i.e., the environment) but rather with the metzora and the tamei met themselves. The metzora is sent away from the camp as part of the process of atonement for his evil ways which caused him to contact tzara'at. The tamei met is not regarded in the same light, having committed to transgression. Looking at the two units together, we therefore see that the tamei met is sent out of the camp only from the perspective of Parashat Naso that is, as part of the general requirement to maintain the purity of the camp. The metzora is sent away for an additional reason, too his process of atonement requires that he be isolated from society.
In practice, there is a very prominent difference between the metzora and the tamei met. The latter is barred only from the Mikdash, while the metzora is sent out of Jerusalem, as the Rambam rules:
It is a positive commandment to send all who are impure out of the Mikdash, as it is written, And they shall sent away from the camp anyone afflicted with tzara'at, and every zav, and anyone impure through contact with a corpse. The camp referred to here is the camp of the Divine Presence, which extends from the Ezrat Yisrael inwards. Do we then assume that the metzora, the zav, and the tamei met are all limited to the same area? [No, and] it is for this reason that the verse teaches, concerning the metzora, He shall sit alone; outside the camp shall be his habitation this means the camp of Israel, which corresponds to the area from the entrance to Jerusalem inwards. Just as the metzora, whose degree of impurity is severe, is sent further away than his fellow [in impurity], so accordingly on all levels: the more severe a person's degree of impurity, the more restricted he in in relation to his fellow in impurity. Therefore, the metzora is sent out of all three camps, which means outside of Jerusalem A tamei met even the corpse itself is permitted to enter the Temple Mount The cheil idolaters and teme'ei met are sent away from it . (Rambam, Laws of Entering the Mikdash 3: 1-5)
In summary, then, the impurity of the metzora is more severe than the other types of impurity, and this is understandable if we view tzara'at as a punishment.
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 The command that he "have his upper lip covered" is also a classic mourning custom, as we learn from the case of the prophet Yechezkel, who was similarly commanded not to follow the standard mourning customs: "Sigh in silence, make no mourning for the dead; tie on your turban and put your shoes on your feet; do not cover your upper lip, and do not eat the bread of people" (Yechezkel 24:17). See also Mikha 3:7.
 Six times it appears in the context of the person who is to be purified of tzara'at; once (verse 53) it applies to the purification of the house that is struck with the plague. We discussed the parallel between the purification of the house and the purification of the metzora, in terms of the need for atonement, in our shiur on parashat Tazri'a.
 This understanding may also shed light on the next part of the process: "The kohen shall take some of the blood of the guilt offering, and the kohen shall place it upon the middle of the right ear of the one to be purified, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the big toe of his right foot and the kohen shall put some of the remaining oil in his hand upon the middle of the right ear of the one to be purified, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the big toe of his right foot, along with the blood of the guilt offering" (14:14,17). Placing the oil and the blood on the extremities of the body of the metzora undergoing his purification likewise creates a similarity to a newborn infant, who is born covered in blood and whose body is immediately anointed with oil. (Yechezkel's prophecy describing the gathering up of the abandoned infant girl employs the same imagery: "I washed you with water, and I rinsed away your blood from you, and I anointed you with oil" Yechezkel 16:9.)
A similar procedure is prescribed for the kohanim, during the seven days of their inauguration: "And he slaughtered it, and Moshe took of its blood and put it upon the middle of Aharon's right ear, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the big toe of his right foot. And he brought Aharon's sons, and Moshe put of the blood upon the middle of their right ear, and upon the thumbs of their right hands, and upon the big toes of their right feet" (8:23-24). Here, too, the context was a sort of rebirth, for through this inauguration, the kohanim assumed a new identity as servants in God's Mishkan. Perhaps this is the source of the connection between the kohen who carries out the purification and the subject who is purified a discussion that lies beyond the scope of this shiur.
The idea of rebirth may also answer a different question that has occupied many of the commentators the reason for the location of the unit about the yoledet (a woman who gives birth) at the beginning of Parashat Tazri'a (chapter 12), immediately preceding the discussion of tzara'at.
 Similarly, Elisha instructs Na'aman, who is suffering from tzara'at: "Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored to you, and you will be pure" (Melakhim II 5:10).
 This point is especially clear in light of the fact that a sprinkling seven times is in fact mentioned in the context of the purification of a tamei met but not in relation to the person requiring purification. Rather, it appears in the context of the sprinkling of the blood of the red heifer after it is slaughtered: "Elazar the kohen shall take of its blood with his finger and sprinkle of its blood towards the front of the Tent of Meeting, seven times" (Bamidbar 19:4).