Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Letting one's hair down, literally--biblical version

Here's a quote from the parsha (assigned Torah/Bible reading) for this past Shabbat/Sabbath:

"45 And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, . . . " (Vayikra, Parshat Tazria, Leviticus, chapter 13, verse 45).

Where have I heard something similar before? Oh yes, here:

18 And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and let the hair of the woman's head go loose, . . . "(B'midbar, Parshat Naso, Numbers, chapter 5, verse 18)

Calling all rabbis, rabbinical students, Bible scholars, biblical archeologists, anthropologists, etc.: What was the significance of loosened hair in the biblical era?


Related: Sotah: Trial by ordeal. (See also Elie's response to that post, Sorting out Sotah.)

21 Comments:

Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i don't have an outside proof, but based on the context of those two quotes, i'd say it represents a lack of societal norms or civilization; releasing the hair is a sign that this person is getting placed outside the boundaries of proper Israelite community.

Wed Apr 09, 02:24:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"releasing the hair is a sign that this person is getting placed outside the boundaries of proper Israelite community."

Sigh. That may very well be the case, but I'm not too happy with that idea. The person with tzoraat--whatever that is ("leprosy" is a mistranslation, I've heard)--is not "guilty" of being sick (unless you want to go all midrashic and say s/he is being punished for gossiping). As for the sotah, her hair is let down before the "trial" (about which you can follow the link to read my opinion) has even begun, which is almost the biblical functional equivalent of a perp walk.

I guess what it comes down to, in plain English, is that I'm not comfortable with the whole idea of tumah/"ritual impurity." Why did a woman have to bring a sin offering for giving birth? Is pregnancy a sin? Is menstruation a sin? Is a nocturnal emission a sin? Why does biblical and/or rabbinic Judaism consider natural bodily functions "unclean"? I can understand separating a person from the camp if s/he were deemed to have a contagious disease. But the traditional conflation of natural bodily processes with ritual impurity really bothers me.

Wed Apr 09, 03:55:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

I don't think it's about being outside the community's norms as in being ANTI - community, but more as in being liminal - we no longer know whether you are treyf or kosher, in other words.


The whole sotah thing is an excercise in rites of passage, frankly. Maybe I'll post about it to walk you throug.

Wed Apr 09, 07:37:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah, that doesn't quite solve the problem. Why should a person's ritual acceptability change because of something beyond his/her control?

Wed Apr 09, 10:44:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

the tum’a system seems to be based around the clear delineation between life and death. dead bodies are the ultimate source of tum’a. reproductive fluids are tamei’ — they are potential life unused. tzara‘at lightens skin like pale death. even birth, as an experience, skirts the edge of death, in its danger and in how it brings new life — and therefore new death — into the world.

Thu Apr 10, 12:06:00 AM 2008  
Blogger B.BarNavi said...

Also, the process for capturing a bride during the war (in Ki Tetzei) involves shaving the head.

Thu Apr 10, 03:18:00 AM 2008  
Blogger katrina said...

I heard (this is a midrash, but how else are we to make sense of Tazria-Metzorah without midrash of some kind?) that a woman who has just given birth was supposed to bring a sacrifice because in the pain of labor, she might have cursed her husband (or maybe even God, but I might have added that part on my own). Definitely her husband.

Thu Apr 10, 09:38:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Elie said...

According to the Gemara, the "paruah" = "loosening" of hair for a metzora means going without a haircut - the same as a mourner. In fact this verse is one of the sources for the fact that mourners do not get a haircut. Similarly the metzora tears his clothes, again like a mourner. Keep in mind that - all due respect to King James - tzaraas is in no way, shape or form the disease we now call "leprosy". Rather, it is a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. The Metzora is someone who, due to his violations of certain societal norms, has been struck with a tragic and actually supernatural illness. He is thus is expected to internalize this lesson by mourning his (temporary) exclusion from society.

Note that "going without a haircut" is the same sense in which the verb "paruah" was used in the previous week's parsha (Shmini), when Aaron was told not to "let his hair loose" - i.e., go without a haircut - despite his bereavement. As a Cohen Gadol, he was not permitted to engage in the usual mourning customs; this is reiterated in the first aliyah of parshas Emor.

Thu Apr 10, 10:59:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Steg, this is beginning to sound familiar--I have a feeling that you've explained this to me on a previous post. So it's an issue of similarity and/or proximity to death? Maybe so, but it sure sounds like a punishment to me. (I'm hopeless.)

That doesn't explain why the priest lets down the hair of the Sotah (suspected adulteress), though. It's a perp walk, I'm tellin' ya. :(

Thu Apr 10, 11:01:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Holy Moses, I'm gettin' new comments in while I'm still responding to the old ones! No complaints, mind you. :) But I'll need a few minutes to catch up. Please be patient, especially since I can respond only between phone calls.

Thu Apr 10, 11:03:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Elie said...

As far as Sotah is concerned, I have wrote a detailed post about it a while back. Essentially the ritual - which contrary to popular misconception, is only conducted if both parties agree freely - is a dramatic way of finding the truth in a murky situation, and providing a basis for the couple to reconcile if at all possible. Today, we would call it "psychodrama" or "shock therapy".

Thu Apr 10, 11:05:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

B. Barnavi, shaving the head of a woman captured in war ("bride" my foot!--"slave" is more like it) actually makes some sense. The point was to make the captives unattractive to their captors, in order to discourage such marriages, which would be involuntary for the captive. Score one for the Torah!

Thu Apr 10, 11:12:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Katrina, I think I've heard that midrash. Shoot, even pregnancy has its challenges.

Thu Apr 10, 11:34:00 AM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Elie said, "tzaraas is in no way, shape or form the disease we now call "leprosy". Rather, it is a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. The Metzora is someone who, due to his violations of certain societal norms, has been struck with a tragic and actually supernatural illness."

I have to admit that I'm very skeptical concerning the existence of physical diseases with spiritual causes. On the other hand, I suppose one could argue there's not much difference between a spiritual/medical illness and a psychosomatic illness.

Elie, I just reread--well, just before a major phone frenzy and typing/e-mailing assignment--your post on Sotah. It's just as good on the second reading. I think the rabbis did an admirable job of taking much, if not all, of the sexist sting out of the ritual.

Thu Apr 10, 01:38:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Elie said...

I have to admit that I'm very skeptical concerning the existence of physical diseases with spiritual causes.

Well that aside, it is certainly clear that the symptoms of tzara'as as described in the Torah in painstaking detail, bear little similarity to the symptoms of leprosy. So whatever tzara'as was, we know for sure that:
- It isn't "leprosy"
- It's nothing like any other currently-known disease either

Beyond that, one can choose to accept the further elucidations of chazal, or not.

And thanks for the nice words about my Sotah post! It's one I spent a relatively significant amount of time and effort on, but which got much less notice (at least judging from comments) than I had hoped!

Thu Apr 10, 01:45:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"So whatever tzara'as was, we know for sure that:
- It isn't "leprosy"
- It's nothing like any other currently-known disease either"

I should ask my friendly local dermatologist about that.

". . . my Sotah post . . . one I spent a relatively significant amount of time and effort on, but which got much less notice (at least judging from comments) than I had hoped!"

Oops, guilty as charged. As best I can recollect, I didn't comment at the time because I thought that your approach was in the apologetics family. I think I'm a bit more willing to credit the rabbis with creatively interpreting the Biblical text and setting up new regulations to tone down the blatant sexism than I was when I first read your post .

Thu Apr 10, 04:22:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

Why should a person's ritual acceptability change because of something beyond his/her control?
Why should a 12 year old not count for a minyan? Why should a Kohen who walks through a graveyard have to wait until the next day to do sacrifices? Why should a woman be tumah after birth?

These are not moral judgements, they are ritual statuses. Some things that are sins cause tumah, but other circumstances for it are not violations of mitzvot, just circumstances.

Ritual is not rational. It's not about whether someone is morally, professionally, or temperamentally qualified for a particular ritual role - it's about whether they are in the right ritual state.

I don't think you're taking it in quite the right context, partly because ritual status has been linked over time with political and economic power in ways that are not directly relevant to the ritual at hand.

Fri Apr 11, 12:53:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

Why did a woman have to bring a sin offering for giving birth? Is pregnancy a sin?

This is a really good question. The funniest answer I've seen (and I wish I could remember where, because it was an ancient source) was that she may have cursed her husband during the birth, and so just in case, she brings a sin offering. :)

Fri Apr 11, 12:55:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

oops, I see I already duplicated someone's account of the cursing birth.

Fri Apr 11, 12:56:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Tzipporah (and probably a few other commenters), maybe I'm trying to look for an explanation where there really isn't one. Maybe it would be best if I just thought of the laws of tzoraat (tzaraat?) and many of the other laws concerning animal sacrifices as chukim, laws that don't necessarily
seem logical to us mortals. I suppose kashrut doesn't make much more sense, either, but we observe it anyway.

"I don't think you're taking it in quite the right context, partly because ritual status has been linked over time with political and economic power in ways that are not directly relevant to the ritual." You may have a point.

Sat Apr 12, 10:12:00 PM 2008  
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