One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
He shall then send away the live bird outside the city, onto the [open] field. He shall thus effect atonement for the house, and it will be clean. –Leviticus 14:53
God punished Miriam for speaking slander by afflicting her with tzaraat, an unsightly skin ailment. Tzaraat also can affect a house, and according to the Rambam, that, too, is caused by evil speech: “When a person speaks lashon harah, the walls of his house change color.”
The purification process for a person or a house afflicted with tzaraat involves two birds: One is killed, and the other is dipped in the blood of the dead bird (with the other required items) and then set free. Rashi likened the chatter of birds to the evil chatter of lashon harah.
But why is one bird allowed to live? In other Torah rituals involving an animal, the creature dies. The Kli Yakar explains that the dead bird represents prohibited speech, while the living bird represents holy speech. Avoiding lashon harah means killing evil speech, but also giving life to words of Torah and mitzvot.
The Talmud (Yoma 11b) identifies another possible reason for house tzaraat: It’s a punishment for not lending your possessions to others, instead saying falsely that you don’t have the requested item. House tzaraat requires removing all your possessions from the house, meaning that your lie will be exposed.
Both kinds of lashon harah that cause tzaraat relate to how we treat others. When we hoard our blessings, or spread nasty rumors, we stain ourselves. Like the living dove dipped in the blood of his fellow, we too are stained by the suffering of our neighbor.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University
Let’s face it: The rituals described in this verse and in all the verses in this chapter to rid ourselves and our dwellings of contagion of various sorts are downright strange. What is not at all strange, though, is the sense that we have under such conditions: Like our ancestors, we desperately want to remove the infestation and return to safety and normality. We do that today, however, in ways vastly different from those described in this verse and chapter. We treat infections and other bodily maladies through medicine, and we repair rot in our houses in ways that experts in that process prescribe.
This verse, though, discusses not only our need to repair physical abnormalities. It also bespeaks a sense that we need atonement when bad things happen to our bodies or homes, presumably because we believe that something we did wrong caused such maladies. This raises a much more serious issue — namely, the relationship between sin and suffering. This is too deep and difficult a topic to be dealt with adequately in a short essay such as this, but two things should be obvious to us: First, as the biblical books of Job and Kohelet already assert, there is no one-to-one correspondence between sin and suffering but, second, when we do sin, we deeply feel the need for a process of atonement to feel whole again. Here, too, the feeling and need are the same, but our response is different from what is described in this verse.
IDF officer, Munition Corps
Purifying oneself from tzaraat — the leprosy punishment for gossiping — is grueling. You sacrifice, ask forgiveness and your house is quarantined until you achieve teshuvah (repentance). Repentance culminates in dipping a live bird in the blood of another and setting it free. This ritual may seem primitive; in truth, it contains great wisdom.
The penitential process brings you to your knees. You’ve been branded a sinner, isolated, and seen your house contaminated with this humiliating disease. The lesson here is not in overcoming leprosy — but overcoming adversity.
When I applied to become an Israel Defense Forces officer, a doctor blocked my application because I have asthma. I was crushed. I always dreamed of serving as an officer. I became determined to prove that my asthma wouldn’t stop me. By working out intensely, I improved my breathing. Then, after appearing before eight army doctors over four months and one medical board, I began officers’ training.
Sometimes in life, we feel like we have reached rock bottom. At such moments, you have a choice. You can be hopeless and remain defeated — or be hopeful and, through the failure, learn to become better.
Reading this verse made me think of that classic Hollywood happy ending: riding off into the sunset. Even if you feel like a bird who has been trapped and dipped in blood, keep seeking your “open field,” ready to fly toward redemption. Always remember: Don’t let low points in life drag you down. It’s up to us to spread our wings and allow ourselves to fly.
Pressman Academy, Judaic Studies faculty
As interpreted by the commentators, tzaraat is a punishment for lashon harah — sins of improper speech. The commentaries explain that first a person’s home, then one’s clothing, and finally the person would be affected, in increasing levels of severity.
The Stone Chumash (the five books of Moses annotated with commentary)observes, “Tzaraat-type afflictions on houses are clearly supernatural occurrences.” Furthermore, the process by which the priest purified the home involved slaughtering a bird, splattering the home with the bird’s blood, and then sending a live bird dipped in the blood of the slaughtered bird to the outskirts of the city. Are we sure this part of Leviticus wasn’t written by one of our own local, bloodthirsty, sci-fi/hor-ror screenwriters?
As it turns out, in the Netflix series “Stranger Things,” viewers are introduced to a similar concept: A family home is haunted by creepy creatures pushing through the walls. The dimension beyond the wall, called the “Upside Down,” is a monstrous world that is a dark reflection of our own. In the series and in our text, then, the walls may represent barriers that should stand between ourselves and the evil lurking within.
Tosefta Negaim 6:1 states: “The afflicted house never was and never will be, but was only written in order to have us interpret it.” My husband said the same thing about this excellent Netflix series, but it still scared the living daylights out of me — so much that I sadly had to give up watching it to preserve my sanity.
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
Does freedom mean living in any home you wish? Or ought one’s domicile recede into insignificance, for the world is yours to explore? Who envies whom? Does the wanderer who calls no address a true home, who sleeps under the stars or on her friend’s couch, envy the one who dwells in a mansion? Or does a person sit in his fancy abode, adorned with every accoutrement, and feel imprisoned by its walls, wishing to break free?
These questions lurk within the obscure passage regarding a house infected with tzaraat, the biblical scaly “disease” that is often (mis-)translated as leprosy. Rabbi Barukh Halevi Epstein notes a redundancy in “outside the city, to the open field.” He quotes Rabbi Yossi HaGlili in a midrash, who read “outside the city” to refer to where the bird lived, not to where the bird would be released. The conclusion? The bird in this verse/ritual is a dror, a sparrow, that lives beyond the city. Dror itself means “liberty,” and is built from the Hebrew root meaning “to dwell.” The sparrow’s liberty comes from being able to live anywhere. The afflicted house is purified by releasing to the fields the species that transcends home, house and walls: the owners of that afflicted home overdosed on house. Became intoxicated with their own dwelling. That is the source of the tzaraat, which must be expunged.
We must house the un-housed; the crisis is unacceptable. And, we must never let our own homes be prisons. Something about living healthily, in God’s world, is not to be claimed by any four walls. Live like the sparrow.