The symbolism of rituals
By SHLOMO RISKIN
One of the strangest rituals of the Bible surrounds purification of the individual afflicted with “tzara’at.”
“Then he shall sprinkle [the mixture] seven times upon the person being purified
from the tzara’at; he shall purify him and set the live bird free upon the open
field” (Leviticus 14:7).
One of the strangest and most primitive-sounding
rituals of the Bible surrounds the purification of the individual afflicted with
“tzara’at,” a skin disease that apparently, at least in biblical times, struck
those guilty of slanderous gossip (metzora – one who is afflicted with tzara’at;
motzi-ra, one who spreads evil talk). Because the root cause of the malady was
spiritual rather than physiological, it was the priest – the kohen – rather than
a doctor who had the responsibility of examining the white spots that appeared
on the skin of the individual to determine whether quarantine was necessary, and
then – if he was able to declare the person free of the disease – initiate a
process of purification.
It is with this particular ritual that our
portion of Metzora opens. The kohen commands two birds to be taken; the first to
be slaughtered in an earthenware vessel, its blood mingled with the living
waters of a spring, and the second – kept alive – to be immersed within the
mingled blood waters in the earthenware vessel. The waters are sprinkled upon
the person cured of the malady, whereupon the live bird is allowed to fly away,
leaving the city limits….
THIS RITUAL act of purification is fraught with
There are few biblical infractions as serious as speaking
slander; three different prohibitions recorded in Scripture proscribe such
speech. The first is gossip regarding another, which may in itself be harmless,
but which is no one else’s business and can easily lead to evil talk (the
prohibition of rechilut – when, for example, one tells another the cost of a
neighbor’s new house). The second is lashon hara – downright slander – reporting
the negative action of another which may actually be true but ought not be
The third and worst of all is motzi shem ra – disseminating a lie
about an innocent person.
From such unnecessary chatter, reputations can
be broken, families can be destroyed and lives can be lost (“with the negative
turn of their noses, they can become responsible for the death of
Hence, three people incur penalty for such talk: the one who
tells it, the one who listens to it and the one who spread it further. And when
the kohen gadol (high priest) appears once a year before God in the Holy of
Holies with the incense sacrifice, it is for this infraction against slander
that he seeks atonement on behalf of the Jewish nation.
With this in
mind, let us analyze the symbolism of the purification process. In idolatry, the
point of offering a sacrifice was to propitiate the gods – idolaters believed
that the world was run by the warring gods and humans could only seek to bribe
them. In Judaism, by contrast, humans are full partners with God in perfecting
this world. Our sacrifices represent the one who brings them, with the
sin-offering animal standing in the place of the owner, “telling” him that it is
he who deserved to die but for Divine loving- kindness, and the whole burnt
offering “telling” him that he ought devote “all of himself” to the service of
the Almighty in the perfection of the world.
In our case of the metzora,
the slanderous, scandalous chattering twitters are symbolized by the two birds;
one is slaughtered as gossip is considered akin to taking a life, and the other
is sent off to fly away.
The best way to explain this symbolism is by
means of a remarkable hassidic story told of someone who asked his rebbe how he
might gain Divine forgiveness for his sin of slander. The rebbe instructed him
to confess his sin and beg forgiveness of those whom he had slandered; then he
instructed him to take a feather pillow, bring it to the marketplace late in the
afternoon when the wind was strongest, open the covering, allow the feathers to
fly, and then set about collecting all the scattered feathers.
distraught hassid returned to the rebbe that evening, reporting that gathering
the feathers was a “mission impossible.” “So it is with slander,” replied the
rebbe; “You never know how far your evil words have spread, since each person
you told may well have told his friends...”
Rav Yisrael Salanter
explained why the portions Tazria and Metzora follow Shmini, with its laws of
kashrut: because what comes out of your mouth is far more significant that what
goes into your mouth.
Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with saying this:
“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah
Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.