Sign In Forgot Password

Dan Has Questions About Ancient Medical Practices, and The Passage Of Time: Parshat Tazria and Rosh Chodesh Nisan

03/31/2022 09:30:42 AM


Dan Lemon

This week we read Parshat Tazria, and several special Rosh Chodesh readings as well (more on that later). Tazria means "pregnant", and the parshah is mainly concerned with sickness, wellness, and assorted physical conditions and what to do whenthey occur. 

The overarching theme that continues form last week is about purity and cleanliness. Most of the Parshah deals with skin diseases, such as visible rashes and sores, and assigns the priests the role of determining what to do about them. Personally, I'm delighted that I can go to a doctor to diagnose me when I'm sick and I don't have to rely on our rabbis' medical knowledge (and I suspect they are equally pleased about that). But in ancient times, without modern medicine, somebody had to decide if your illness might be contagious and might put other people at risk. It's hard to imagine a time when there was no medical science, when the causes of diseases were not known and the priests tried to do their best. As usual, the Torah goes into great detail on the topic, in this case on the appearance and symptoms of various skin ailments (so maybe don't read this Parshah while you're eating). And yet, we are nonetheless very familiar with some of the ancient practices that surrounded such illnesses.

Here's something that's difficult to imagine, but try: It's thousands of years ago and you are on of the million-ish Jews living close to one another on your way to the land of Cana'an. There are no trained doctors or nurses or medical technicians, no modern science or medicine. Nobody's ever heard of bacteria or viruses; nobody knows what cells are, let alone DNA. There are no blood tests or x-rays or MRIs. There are no pills or vaccines or drug stores. But people still get sick, and sometimes the people around them get sick too.

- Since there was no medical science, how might you react when someone gets sick?

- Since there was no epidemiology, what might you tell sick people to do to keep them from infecting others?

- What would you think if you yourself got sick? How would you feel (other than sick, that is)?

A lot of Parshat Tazaria is instructions to help the priests recognize the appearance of certain diseases and when and for how long to quarantine the sick people. I would guess that, a few years ago, you might not have known what a quarantine was, but I bet you do now.

- Have you or anyone you know had to quarantine or self-isolate during the COVID pandemic?

- What did you or they do during that time (or if you didn't know anyone who had to quarantine, what might they have done)?

- What do you think is the hardest part of having to be in quarantine?

With any luck, the pandemic may finally be coming to a point where it doesn't impact our daily lives so much. Maybe we'll need to get regular boosters, maybe we'll need to take more precautions now and then when an outbreak occurs. Thinking back on the past two years:

- What will you remember most about the pandemic? How might you describe it to people in the future who didn't live through it?

- What did you learn from the pandemic?

- Is there anything about the pandemic you will miss?

- What are you happiest to get back to now that it seems the worst is over?

One of the things I learned is that we still seek our community and rely on each other and our extended families even if we can't be together physically. I learned that we can keep celebrating, just in a different way. And I learned that some of you enjoy attending junior congregation from home in your pajamas!

The concluding Torah readings today are special because this Shabbat is a special day.

- Any idea what is is? (Here's a hint: This special day occurs 12 times in most years of the Hebrew calendar, and actually occurs 13 times this year.)

This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the month (literally, "the head of the month", just as Rosh Hashanah is "the head of the year"). In this case, it's the first day of the month of Nisan.

- Do you know what special holiday occurs during the month of Nisan? (Here's another hint: If your favorite food is bread or pizza, you may not love this holiday, but if you like getting together for a big meal with family and friends, it might be your favorite.)

Nisan is known for the holiday of Pesach (Passover). Every month, we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, especially when it occurs on Shabbat as it does today. The special Torah reading is about special sacrifices that were brought on the first of every month.

- Why might the first of every month be considered a special day?

- Why might any particular day of the calendar year be different or more special from another day?

When the Torah was written, Nisan, which is now the seventh month of the Jewish calendar year, was actually the first month.

- Why might this month have once been considered the beginning of the year? (Think about what season we're in and what happens in the natural world during this season). 

So the first month, which we now call Tishrei (deriving from an ancient word for "beginning"), when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah (the new year), was actually month seven back then. Sometime around 2,000 years ago, the Rabbis decided that Tishrei was the anniversary of the creation of the world and, for that reason and to distinguish the Jewish calendar from other calendars that started in springtime, promoted Tishrei from month one to month seven.

There are actually four symbolic "new years" during the Jewish calendar year. Rosh Hashanah, when the world was created; Pesach, rememebering the time when we were freed from slavery and later reached the land of Cana'an; Tu B'Shevat, the birth or rebirth of the trees and the natural world after the winter; and Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, which is both a time of reflection before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and is also considered the "new year of animals" to remind. us of their importance to us. 

This certainly reminds us that calendars, and exactly how we count the passage of time, is somewhat arbitrary.

- If it were up to you, is there a particular day or time of year that you would make the beginning of the year? Why?

- Are there hours, days, weeks or times of the year that seem to you to pass slowly? Why?

- And are there other times that seem to pass quickly?

With appreciation that the passage of time can bring growth, restore our health, and lead to new learning and new adventures, I wish you a happy Nisan, and Shabbat shalom.



Thu, September 28 2023 13 Tishrei 5784