The symbolism of rituals

One of the strangest rituals of the Bible surrounds purification of the individual afflicted with “tzara’at.”

April 19, 2012 14:47
4 minute read.
Bathing cleanses leprosy

Bathing cleanses leprosy. (photo credit: Michael Freund)


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“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.

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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 symbolism.

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 spread.

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 another”).


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.

The 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 discuss people.”

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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