Rashbam: Detached (Tazria)

Rashbam does not write many comments on Leviticus and Bamidbar Numbers. When we get to portions like Tazria, he really has very little to say, and in what I’ve learned, I’ve seen absolutely nothing that particularly interests me. No doubt this is a shortcoming of the depth of my scholarship, but a “plain-sense” reading of Tazria really just does not inspire.

But. I have committed to a weekly blog on at least on Rashbam comment per parashah. So here we go.

Leviticus 13:30 describes one element of the various skin afflictions highlighted in Tazria. “Then the priest shall look on the affliction; and, behold, if the appearance of it is deeper than the skin, and there is yellow thin hair in it, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean: it is a netek, it is tzara’at of the head or of the beard.

I do not translate tzara’at because its common translation as “leprosy” does not actually match its description. It is simply some strange skin affliction that particularly concerned the priestly contributors to the Torah.

Rashbam’s grandfather Rashi, in trying to clarify what netek means, writes, “this is the name of the affliction when it occurs on an area of hair.” Great – so when the affliction happens near hair, it is called netek. But Rashi doesn’t really answer the bigger question, why is it called netek?

Rashbam has an idea: “Tzara’at on a hairy part of the body is called a netek, because the affliction causes the hair to detach (mitnatek). (Translation Martin Lockshin)

Rashbam points us to the root meaning of netek, which means to disconnect or detach. The affliction, therefore, must have something to do with detaching, and since it is identified with hairy areas, it must be hair that is detaching.

I typically seek some spiritual advice or insight in studying Torah. It can be difficult to find it in Rashbam, especially in Leviticus, because he is focused on understanding the text on its own merit without regard for its meaning to us.

I offer you instead this short story from a midrashic collection on Leviticus known as Vayikra Rabbah, that involves a hair, disconnection, and ultimately reconnection.

There was an incident with a certain man who was sitting and expounding. He said: There is not a single hair for which the Holy One did not create its own individual follicle, so that one should never take nourishment from another.

His wife admonished him: And now, you are still planning to leave the land of Israel to seek out a means of sustenance?! Remain and your Creator will sustain you [just as well]!

He listened to her and stayed, and his Creator sustained him.
(Vayikra Rabbah 15:3, translation from ArtScroll Kleinman Edition)

A man philosophizes about how each hair has its own source of nourishment, so there need be no scarcity-driven competition. His wife reveals to us that apparently the man was about to leave his home to find a better situation. She says, in essence, listen to your own advice! Stay here, you have roots and nourishment here. There is no need to leave.

There are mystical as well as cultural longings for Jewish roots in the land of Israel. Returning last week from a witnessing trip to the El Paso / Ciudad Juarez border, I wonder about displacement, danger, and longing for those who have journeyed north to find a more nourishing home.

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.