Back to Blogs

Parshat Tazria-Metzora – Ritual purification

Nissan 5783 | April 2023

Today we are far removed from the world of tuma and tahara – ritual impurity and purity. It’s not just that we don’t understand the Torah’s reasons for determining different types of tuma and the ways of achieving tahara, we are also unfamiliar with the basic details related to this world. We are more familiar with tuma of nidda (menstruation), yoledet (postpartum new mother), and zava (non-menstrual vaginal emissions). Since the tuma that results from these situations also affects a couple’s intimate relationship, we are more informed about these topics.[1] Over the generations it became accepted to apply the laws of zava to all these aforementioned physical states, so in these cases as well we are generally out of touch with the different laws that apply to each situation as they are described in the Torah and Chazal.

The parshiot of Tazria and Metzora deal with the world of tuma and tahara. They are found between the parshiot of Shemini – which relates the events of “the eighth day” of Chanukat HaMishkan, the Dedication of the Tabernacle and the death of Aharon’s two sons – and Acharei Mot – which seems to continue Shemini with the introduction, “After the death of Aharon’s two sons.” Parshat Acharei Mot continues with the statement, “Speak to Aharon your brother, he may not approach the Kodesh (sanctity/sanctuary) at any time.”

Why does the Torah insert the laws of tuma and tahara between what seems to be two parts of the same story? This can be understood as further verification for Rambam’s position that the laws of tuma and tahara are a way to create distance and maintain reverence for the Sanctuary, which one may not enter whenever they like.[2] Thus, “he may not approach the Kodesh at any time” can be understood as an instruction to all of Israel, and not only to Aharon. Furthermore, this indicates that tuma is not something that distances a person from life, but rather tuma is a part of life that is utilized as a method to distance certain people from the Mikdash at certain times. The tahara process is what allows one to rise above the mundane and approach the sanctified.

These parshiot deal with several types of tuma: tuma from an external source – like the tuma of a sheretz (small or crawling animals) or certain contact with tamei people or objects, tuma from normative, healthy bodily emissions – such as nidda (menstruation), yoledet (postpartum new mother), and shikhvat zera (semen), tuma related to certain unhealthy, physiological phenomena  and bodily emissions – such as zav, zava (men or women with abnormal genital discharge) and tzara’at (spiritual infection often mistakenly translated as leprosy). Tumat meit (ritual impurity from contact with a dead body) is described extensively in Bamidbar Chapter 19, providing an interesting literary separation between the events of the second year after the exodus from Egypt and those of the fortieth year. Since this separation is focused on tumat meit it alludes to the idea that the thirty-eight years in the interim were dominated by the death of the generation that left Egypt. Nevertheless, it’s clear from the stories of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths and Pesach Sheni that the people were already familiar with the laws of tumat meit.

Pathways to tahara

Alongside the descriptions of tuma, the Torah relates various ways to become tahor. The Torah doesn’t always describe the entire purification process, but the Sages teach us that aspects described in certain cases also apply to others. For example, it may be surprising to some that the Torah does not relate that women must immerse or cleanse themselves after the tumot of nidda or yoledet; but it’s self-evident as this is the basic way to become tahor.

This standard is originally described in relation to clothing or vessels that were rendered impure when a sheretz fell on them: “Anything – a wooden vessel, garment, leather, sack, or any vessel or tool that can be used for work – that a dead sheretz falls upon becomes tamei; it shall be placed into water and remains tamei until evening, and it becomes tahor.”[3] This verse describes two important stages. The first – “it shall be placed into water.” Other Torah verses reference washing clothes or people bathing, but Chazal rely on this verse to explain that such terms always refer to what we call tevila – fully immersing the tamei object in water.[4] The second stage is it “remains tamei until nightfall and it becomes tahor,” meaning that the object is not completely tahor when it emerges from the water, but is deferred until evening – sunset. In the interim it is referred to as “tvul yom,” meaning it was immersed that day and therefore not completely tahor until that night.

This basic process of tahara is also applicable to people who become tamei and are allowed to tovel (immerse in a mikvah) immediately – they too wait until evening to become tahor (such as people who are tamei from shikhvat zera, contact with a woman in nidda, or a sheretz).

Waiting period

Some tumot also require a waiting period before purification, and not just afterwards. The Torah states that the tuma of a woman in nidda lasts seven full days, and therefore her tevila is at the end of the seventh day, counted from the beginning of her menses, meaning the night of the eighth day. The zav and zava also wait before tahara – although they are required to wait until they have seven consecutive clean days “sheva neki’im” that separate the emissions that made them impure from their ability to become tahor. This tevila is normally during the day, as “full days” are not required. Even though women in nidda are stringent and wait sheva neki’im until tevila like a zava, their tevila still takes place at night in accordance with the laws of nidda.[5]

Some forms of tuma have a stage of kapara, atonement, following tahara. Until they bring these korbanot they are considered “mekhusarei kapara”, lacking atonement. Zav, zava, yoledet, and metzora are all required to bring korbanot (sacrificial offerings); after a lengthy period of tuma these people renew their relationship with the Temple by offering korbanot, further emphasizing the importance of tahara as a prerequisite to access sanctity.


Let’s focus on the water that is necessary for tahara. The Torah states that water can make something pure (“places in water” as we saw above), but water can also spread tuma and even become tamei, as we learn that when a sheretz comes into contact with “Any food that can be eaten and becomes wet – it becomes tamei, and any drink that can be drunk in any vessel – becomes tamei.”[6] If water is in a vessel it can become tamei, as can food that gets wet.

If so, when is water a source of tuma and when is it a source of tahara?

The Torah states: “A spring or cistern collecting (mikva) water is tahor and anyone that touches a carcass within it shall be tamei.”[7] A spring or cistern of rainwater is tahor by definition, even if it contains something that spreads tuma, such as a sheretz. Nevertheless, as the verse states, if someone touches the carcass of the sheretz they will still be rendered tamei even though the sheretz is in a water source that can make things tahor. In other words, while the water can make a tamei person or object tahor if the tuma was “contracted” from an external source or a former physiological state, it can’t make something that is tamei by definition tahor. The waters of the spring or the mikva can remove the impression left by the tuma. but can’t change the status of the source of tuma.

Does this apply to all water sources?

The Torah mentions different types of water reservoirs. Spring (maayan) water is flowing water.[8] This “mayim chayim” (living or moving water) is necessary for the tahara of the zav.[9]  On the other hand, a “bor” (lit. pit, often translated as cistern) is a hole in the ground where water collects. A cistern is manmade, but a mikva can be any place where rainwater collects or gathers.

Both these reservoirs are valid places for tamei people (aside from a zav) to immerse themselves to achieve tahara. The sages defined a maayan as “mayim zokhalim,” water that crawls or flows, as opposed to a bor or mikva which contains standing water that accumulated in one place.[10] They determined that each type has a unique way of rendering things tahor, and therefore standing water in a spring or a mikva made from flowing water don’t have the same effect. Additionally, both these water sources must be in the ground, as we saw that water collected in a vessel or drawn by a vessel can become tamei, and therefore by definition can’t make something tahor. These laws affect the ways that mikvaot are built today; the tevila is in the ground and attached to a water reservoir that was not drawn or collected from a flowing source.

The laws of tuma apply to the human world; produce can’t become tamei in its natural environment, but once washed by a person it can be rendered tamei. Water in its natural place can’t be rendered tamei, such sources of water actually make things tahor, but when it is in a human-made vessel it can be rendered tamei. Tools and vessels made by people can be rendered tamei, but things that are attached to the ground cannot.[11]

Tahara involves a return to an original, primordial state. This may be the reason the water is meant to be “natural,” whether it is rainwater that has collected naturally or a free-flowing natural spring. Drawing water, transferring it between vessels, or taking it from its natural place transforms it from a substance that makes things tahor to an artificial human substance that can itself become tamei, and certainly can’t make something else tahor.

This is not to say that nature is inherently preferable to human development. As we saw, many types of tuma are the result of a healthy life (nidda and shikhvat zera) and some the fulfillment of mitzvot (yoledet – be fruitful and multiply, tumat meit – acts of kindness). Life is not meant to be static and people are not meant to remain in a state of constant tahara. As opposed to an angel that is characterized as “omed,” standing, a person is “mehalekh,” walking or moving. A person is meant to change and change the world around them.

But sometimes halakha demands that we return to an earlier state in order to move forward. After tahara, which is like a natural “restart,” a person can return to the Sanctuary and renew their relationship with sanctity, and couples can return to one another and renew their intimate relationship.

[1] Kohanim (priests) are more familiar with the laws of tumat meit (ritual impurity from dead bodies), since the prohibition against their  becoming tamei to dead bodies (except for certain family members) still applies today..

[2] Vayikra 16:2, Rambam Guide to the Perplexed III 47

[3] Vayikra 11:32

[4] See example in Rambam, Hilkhot Mikvaot 1:2

[5] According to the Torah there is a 7 day process for a person who is tamei meit to become tahor. On days 3 and 7 water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer (para aduma), and at the end of the process they do tevila and wait until the end of the day for the final tahara.

In the Torah both the metzora and yoledet have a dual process of tahara. The first stage allows them to resume elements of their home lives, the yoledet is allowed to resume marital relations with her husband and the metzora is allowed back into the Israelite camp, although not allowed to have relations with their spouse. The second stage which completes the tahara process allows the person contact with the sanctified, when they go to the Temple and offer korbanot.

[6] Vayikra 11:34

[7] Vayikra 11:36

[8] Compare to Bereishit 26:19, Yirmiyahu 2:13, Shir HaShirim 4:15 and more

[9] Vayikra 15:13

[10] Sifra Shemini Parsha 9 end of Chapter 10, 1-5

[11] Many raw materials also can’t become tamei. These are general rules, the details of the laws are much more nuanced.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.