G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: . . . A woman who shall seed and give birth (Leviticus 12:1–2)
Rabbi Simlai said: Just as man’s creation was after that of cattle, beasts and birds, so too the laws concerning his [ritual impurity and purity] come after those concerning [the impurity and purity of] cattle, beasts and birds. Thus it is what is written (Leviticus 11:46–47), “This is the law of the beasts and of the birds and of every living creature . . . to differentiate between the impure and the pure”; and immediately thereafter, “A woman who shall seed . . .”
Why was man created last among the creations? So that if he is not meritorious, we say to him: “A gnat preceded you, a snail preceded you.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
A woman who shall seed and give birth to a male child (Leviticus 12:2)
If the woman gives seed first, she gives birth to a male; if the man gives seed first, she gives birth to a female.
(Talmud, Niddah 31a)
It is known that the community of Israel is called the “woman” and G‑d is called the “man,” as it is written: “On that day, you shall call Me: ‘Husband’” (Hosea 2:18). So just as in the case of man and woman, when “the woman seeds first she give birth to a male,” so is it, by way of analogy, in the relationship between the community of Israel and G‑d. When the “woman”—the community of Israel—“seeds first,” meaning that there is an arousal from below which evokes an arousal from above, rather than the other way around [i.e., the person is aroused to come close to G‑d from his or her own initiative, without requiring a Divine intervention in their lives to rouse them], then the love that is born from this is a “male” offspring—an intense and enduring love.
There are three partners in man: G‑d, his father and his mother. His father supplies the white seed, out of which are formed the child’s bones, sinews and nails, the brain in his head and the white in his eye. His mother supplies the red seed, out of which is formed his skin, flesh, hair and blood, and the black of his eye. And G‑d gives him spirit and breath, beauty of features, eyesight, the power of hearing, the ability to speak and to walk, understanding and discernment. When his time comes to depart from the world, G‑d takes away His part, and leaves the parts of his father and his mother with them.
(Talmud, Niddah 31a)
What is the form of the embryo? At the beginning of its formation it is like the [species of locust called] rashon; its two eyes resemble two fly-drippings, likewise its two nostrils and two ears; its two arms are like two threads of crimson silk, its mouth is like a barley grain, its trunk like a lentil, whilst the rest of its limbs are pressed together like a formless object, and it is with regard to this that the Psalmist said, “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance” (Psalms 139:16).
How does the embryo lie in its mother’s womb? It is folded up and lying like a writing tablet. Its head lies between its knees, its two hands rest on its temples, and its two heels on its two buttocks. Its mouth is closed, but its navel is open. Its food is that which its mother eats, its drink is that which its mother drinks, and it does not discharge excrement, lest it should kill its mother. When it comes forth into the open world, what had been closed is opened, and what had been open is closed.
Come and see the contrast between the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that of mortal man. A man might put his things in a sealed purse whose opening is turned upwards, and yet it is doubtful whether they would be preserved or not; whereas the Holy One, blessed be He, fashions the embryo in a woman’s womb that is not sealed and whose opening is turned downwards, and yet it is preserved.
(Talmud, Niddah 31a)
Isaac and Ishmael were engaged in a controversy. Said Ishmael to Isaac: “I am more beloved to G‑d than you, since I was circumcised at the age of thirteen, but you were circumcised as a baby and could not refuse.” Isaac retorted: “All that you gave up to G‑d was three drops of blood. But lo, I am now thirty-seven years old, yet if G‑d desired of me that I be slaughtered, I would not refuse.”
Jewishness is not a matter of historical consciousness, outlook, ethics, or even behavior; it is a state of being. This is the deeper significance of the debate between Ishmael and Isaac. When the Jew is circumcised on the eighth day of life, he is completely unaware of the significance of what has occurred. But this “non-experience” is precisely what circumcision means. With circumcision the Jew says: I define my relationship with G‑d not by what I think, feel or do, but by the fact of my Jewishness—a fact which applies equally to an infant of eight days and a sage of eighty years.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
A Jew is in essence “circumcised” even if, for whatever reason, his physical foreskin has not yet been removed. Thus the verse says, “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised”—the flesh need to be circumcised, but spiritually the Jew is always “circumcised.”
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: The law of the man and the law of the beast are equal. The law of man is that “on the eighth day he shall be circumcised”; and the law of the beast is “from the eighth day onward it shall be accepted as a fire offering to G‑d” (Leviticus 22:27).
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that a woman after childbirth should bring a sin offering? He replied: When she kneels in labor, she swears impetuously that she will have no intercourse with her husband. The Torah therefore ordained that she should bring a sin offering [to atone for her false oath].
(Talmud, Niddah 31a)
The plague of tzaraat comes only as punishment for lashon hara (evil talk).
(Midrash Rabbah; Talmud; Rashi)
Why is the metzora different from all other ritually impure persons in that the Torah said, “He shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall his habitation be”? With his gossip and slander, he separated a husband from his wife, a man from his neighbor; therefore said the Torah: “He shall dwell alone.”
(Talmud, Erachin 16b)
The Psalmist compares slanderous talk to “sharp arrows of the warrior, coals of broom” (Psalms 120:4). All other weapons strike at close quarters, while the arrow strikes from a distance. So is it with slander: it is spoken in Rome and kills in Syria. All other coals, when extinguished, are extinguished without and within; but coals of broom are still burning within when they are extinguished without. So is it with words of slander: even after it seems that their effects have been put out, they continue to smolder within those who heard them. It once happened that a broom tree was set on fire and it burned eighteen months—winter, summer and winter.
To what may the tongue be compared? To a dog tied with an iron chain and locked in a room within a room within a room, yet when he barks the entire populace is terrified of him. Imagine if he were loose outside! So the tongue: it is secured behind the teeth and behind the lips, yet it does no end of damage. Imagine if it were outside!
(Talmud, Erachin 15a)
The speaker obviously commits a grave sin by speaking negatively of his fellow. The listener, too, is a partner to this evil. But why is the one who is spoken of affected by their deed? Are his negative traits worsened by the fact that they are spoken of?
Indeed they are. A person may possess an evil trait or tendency, but his quintessential goodness, intrinsic to every soul, strives to control it, conquer it, and ultimately eradicate its negative expressions and redirect it as a positive force. But when this evil is spoken of, it is made that much more manifest and real. By speaking negatively of the person’s trait or deed, the evil speakers are in effect defining it as such; with their words, they grant substance and validity to its negative potential.
But the same applies in the reverse: speaking favorably of another, accentuating his or her positive side, will aid him to realize himself in the manner that you have defined him.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
A man once came to see Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, and proceeded to portray himself as a villain of the worst sort. After describing at length his moral and spiritual deficiencies, he begged the rebbe to help him overcome his evil character.
“Surely,” said the rebbe, “you know how grave is the sin of lashon hara, speaking evilly of a human being. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does it say that it is permissible to speak lashon hara about oneself.”
Our sages say that the occurrence of tzaraat was confined to biblical times, implying that later generations are not of the spiritual caliber that allows for this supra-natural affliction.
The reason for this can be understood from the opening words of the Torah’s description of the metzora. “Shall occur” implies a happenstance, something out of character; “in the skin of his flesh” likewise indicates that the blemish is only superficial, affecting only the most external layer of the person. In other words, we are speaking of one whose inner being is free of imperfection, and in whom any “blemish” or malady exists only on the outside.
Thus the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) describes Moshiach as a metzora, signifying that the messianic age is a time in which the evils which have infested the world and mankind rise to the surface, so that they can be decisively overcome and cured.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The hues of the plague of tzaraat are two that are four [i.e., two categories—se’eit and baheret, each of which has a sapachat, or subcategory). Baheret (“bright”) is a bright white, like snow; its subcategory is like the lime of the Sanctuary. Se’eit is like the membrane of an egg; its subcategory is like white wool—this is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. The [other] sages say: Se’eit is like white wool; its subcategory is like the membrane of an egg.
(Talmud, Negaim 1:1)
There was once a kohen who could not earn a living, and decided to leave the Land of Israel to seek a livelihood. He said to his wife: Since people come to me to show me their plagues, let me teach you how to diagnose tzaraat. If you see that the hair in the afflicted area has died because its canal has dried up, then know that the person is afflicted. Because for each and every hair G‑d created its own canal from which to drink; if this canal dries out, the hair dries out.
Said his wife to him: If G‑d created a separate canal for each hair to nourish it, how much more so you, who are a human being, and whose children depend on you for nourishment—certainly G‑d will provide for you! And she did not allow him to depart from the Holy Land.
It was debated in the academy of heaven: If the white patch precedes the white hair, it is impure; if the white hair precedes the white patch, it is pure; but what if there is doubt (as to which came first)?
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: “It is pure.”
The entire academy of heaven said: “It is impure.”
Said they: “Who shall decide it for us? Rabbah bar Nachmeini.” For Rabbah bar Nachmeini had declared: “I am singular in the laws of tzaraat. . . .” They dispatched a messenger [to bring him to heaven]. . . . Said [Rabbah]: “Tahor, tahor (Pure, pure).”
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 86a)