I would like to talk about something very close to our hearts: blood…1
And also a few other things, but let’s start off with blood…
So, there’s a lot of blood in this week’s parashah, Metzora`. For starters, there’s a good deal of blood in Chapter 15, when our parashah discusses menstruation, which is, aside from a natural biological function that happens automatically, also a natural automatic biological function that causes women to become tame’, impure, on a highly regular basis. But, as an Egalitarian Jew, I have often wondered how I, as a man, can also become impure on a highly regular basis. Fortunately, I was able to find my answer in Parashat Metzora`.
Before God even mentions the case of a woman who zavah dam, has emitted blood, God spends about half of Chapter 15 talking about a man in a similar case. We read in Chapter 15, verse 2:
אִ֣ישׁ אִ֗ישׁ כִּ֤י יִֽהְיֶה֙ זָ֣ב מִבְּשָׂר֔וֹ זוֹב֖וֹ
Any man who has released a discharge from his flesh—
This guy is impure.
And as we read on, it becomes clear that God means that both the man and the discharge are impure.
But, all euphemisms aside, what is God really talking about? Just about any translation of this verse will use the words “discharge” or “emission” or something else that’s really vague and could mean a whole bunch of different things you don’t usually hear about so often from a bimmah: spit, mucus, blood, vomit, urine, semen, or anything else that could be emitted from flesh.
When I don’t understand the words of Torah, the first place I like to turn to is similar words in related languages. I found out the following:2
The Arabic word dhaaba, which sounds a bit like the Hebrew zav (“emit”) means “melt, dissolve, or flow.”
The Arabic word bashar, which sounds a lot like the Hebrew basar (“flesh”), means “skin.”
The Assyrian word bishru, which also sounds a lot like the Hebrew basar, means blood-relation.
Since this didn’t help me much, I then turned to the second place I usually turn to: the commentary of the great medieval Rabbi Rashi.
When Rashi looked at this verse to write some comments about it, he was also confused by the words zav (“emitted”) and “mibbesaro” (“from his flesh”). Rashi says that, from these words alone, we can only guess that anything that can possibly be discharged from any part of the flesh must fit into this category. But Rashi goes on to say that it is only when the Rabbinic tradition comes around that someone finally comes up with a decisive pinpointing of what what could possibly be zav mibbesaro: as you may have guessed or heard before, our Rabbinic tradition has understood these words to refer to semen from a man’s “flesh.”
But as Rashi reads on in the passage, he admits that some of the language doesn’t sound like it is necessarily referring to semen. In fact, when he reads the next verse and it says:
רָ֣ר בְּשָׂר֞וֹ אֶת־זוֹב֗וֹ
His flesh has spitted its emission…
This is salivary language (language that alludes to spitting).
And only five verses later, we read of the following case:
וְכִֽי־יָרֹ֥ק הַזָּ֖ב בַּטָּה֑וֹר
When the one who emits spits on a pure person!
So, right now, our best guesses are that the zov (“emission”) that God is talking about is either semen or spit. But, isn’t there a huge difference between semen and spit?
In a state of absolute confusion, I next turned to the next greatest fountain of Jewish knowledge I could easily gain access to: Gabe Seed.3 Last night, Gabe told me to look at the Entsiklopedyah Talmudit, the Talmudic Encyclopedia, and I did, and I found an answer that finally made sense to me.
The Entsiklopedyah Talmudit had an answer from Ravad, another Medieval rabbi and a near-contemporary of Rashi, though Ravad’s work was a little bit later.
Ravad tells us that the zov that is being referred to here in fact could refer to any emission from anywhere— whether it be our mouth or our nose or our ear! Ravad tells us what what zov could refer to, but he does not say necessarily what zov does refer to.
So, looking again at the text—knowing that the zov in fact could mean anything—I tried to see if I could figure out what the zov really is.
From the text itself, it might not really be clear what exactly it is that is being emitted, but whatever is it, it is definitely something that men can’t help emitting. We know this because we know that women can’t help menstruating and God uses the same tense when speaking about women menstruating and men emitting their zov. About the women, God says in verse 19:
וְאִשָּׁה֙ כִּי־תִֽהְיֶ֣ה זָבָ֔ה
When a woman releases blood…
And in Verse 2, we already read:
אִ֣ישׁ אִ֗ישׁ כִּ֤י יִֽהְיֶה֙ זָ֣ב מִבְּשָׂר֔וֹ
When a man releases a discharge from his flesh…
So, what do all men naturally release?! What is the emission of zov that makes a man automatically tame’, impure?!
The emission of zov is the inevitable leshon hara, ill speech of others that comes out of our mouths, that makes a person tame’ when you have to tell people an ugly truth for their own good.
The emission of zov is the inevitable leshon hara that we hear others say but we can’t avoid—even when we hear one thing and it goes out the other ear; that makes a person tame’.
The emission of zov is the inevitable charon ha’af, literally “steam of the nose” or anger, our blowing off steam, which we exhibit when we must be proactive; that makes a person tame.
It is all of these: every inevitable action that we do not want to have to do, but we do have to do anyway that makes us tame’.
Of course, the zov is not just when we involve ourselves in something we don’t want to be involved in; the zov includes all that which we literally emit—whether we’re sneezing or using the bathroom or experiencing any other natural biological functions.
But there is a difference between the inevitable and the malicious. There’s a difference between what we can’t avoid and what we consciously choose to do that is against God’s will.
You can say tough assertive words to defend yourself and become tame’, or you can maliciously spit in disgust.
You can have a nocturnal emission and become tame, and you can engage in intercourse with a spouse and become tame’, or you can maliciously rape.
You can even sneeze grossly and become tame’, or you can maliciously, as the French Guard from Monty Python and the Holy Grail puts it, blow your nose at some silly Englishman.
In a day and age when there is no Temple, we have to be even more conscious of what we can do that makes us tame’. Although we can go to a mikveh on a regular basis, we cannot offer sacrifices anymore. And though it might not be necessary for us to expand our own definitions of when one is tame’ or is not tame’, it is important for us to realize that after we become tame’, we always have the opportunity to regain the purity of our previous state. Whether it be through what we still can do of the prescribed ritual we read in the Torah or learn from our rabbis, or whether we cool down our anger or avoid slanderous words, we can ultimately use our organs anew for a holy purpose.
In the commentary of Vayyikra Rabbah regarding the words zav and mibbesaro, Rabbi Shim`on Ben Yohai relates a story to us:4
בשעה שעמדו ישראל על הר סיני
When Israel stood on Mount Sinai
”כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה֖‘ נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע:“5
“All that the Lord has commanded us: we will observe and we will hear,”
באותה שעה לא היה בהֶן זָב וּמצרע
There was neither a single person who had emitted anything, nor was there a single leper among them.
There weren’t lame people among them.
There weren’t blind people among them.
There weren’t mute people among them.
There weren’t blind people among them.
And there weren’t imbeciles among them.
על אותה שעה, הוא אומר
At that moment, God said,
כֻּלָּ֤ךְ יָפָה֙ רַעְיָתִ֔י וּמ֖וּם אֵ֥ין בָּֽךְ:6
“Your entirety is beautiful, my beloved, and there is not a blemish within you.”
Just as Israel, after long travels and a blemished history, stood on Mount Sinai in pure perfection before God and God’s revelation, so too, after our inevitable moments of inconvenience and incidental impurity, we can find ourselves again at ease and attain our own moments of Truth.
When Things Come Out Of Our Flesh: Parashat Metzora in 2008