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Vayikra/Leviticus 13:40 And a man, if his head becomes smooth, he is bald, he is [ritually] clean.
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Our text - from one of the more puzzling sections of the Torah, concerning the set of skin conditions collectively known as tzara'at and usually mistranslated as 'leprosy'1 - concerns the case where hair loss makes a person partly or completely bald. Biblical Hebrew is careful to distinguish between , baldness at the back of the head, in this verse and , baldness at the front of the head in the following verse. In both cases, the Torah is very clear: , he is ritually clean or pure. Baldness by itself, however much other social stigma may be attached to it throughout the ages, is not a source of ritual impurity.HaShem does not have a problem with men or women who have hair loss at the back or the front of their heads, unless they have a sore or blemish in the skin area that indicates tzara'at as it would do elsewhere on the body.
Due diligence on the verb in the text - , the Nif'al 3ms prefix form of the root - reveals that the root is used only fourteen times in the Tanakh and only twice in this exact form and voice: here and in the next verse (v. 41). David Clines tells us that it can mean: "to polish", for example a sword; "to pull hair out of a person", as in "And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair" (Nehemiah 13:25, ESV); to lose hair, in this verse and the next; "to burnish", "the pots, the shovels, and the basins ... were of burnished bronze" (1 Kings 7:45, ESV).2Ibn Ezra reports that "Hebrew has a specific word that means 'to lose the hair' as in 'I offered my back to the floggers, and my cheeks to those who tore out my hair. I did not hide my face from insult and spittle' (Isaiah 50:6, NJPS)", a verse long associated in Christian circles with Yeshua and featured as such in the libretto of Handel's famous oratorio, "The Messiah".
The forceful 'plucked out' meaning is, however, almost certainly too strong here, a situation that intends to talk about natural hair loss. To demonstrate that the ancients thought that way too, theSeptuagint uses the verb , "to be bald" and Targum Onkelos changes the Hebrew to the softer Aramaic , loses, and adds the implied 'hair' to preclude the possibility of losing one's head! Neverthless, some classical commentators combined the meanings in a powerfully visual way; The Ramban says that "the hair is plucked out by force, leaving the head shining like burnished brass." In modern times, Baruch Levine suggests that " means 'to be rubbed, scratched' - so that the hair is plucked out. The Akkadian cognate maratu is frequently used with this meaning in medical texts."
The word , used here as the adjective 'bald', comes from the root , "to make a bald patch, or to shave."3 It is often used as a sign of shame, mourning or humiliation in the Tanakh, where the prophets warn Israel and the surrounding nations of impending judgement. Isaiah draws a contrast between current times of opulence and luxury and the L-rd's judgement for the arrogance and wickedness of Judah and Jerusalem: "Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty" (Isaiah 3:24, ESV), while Amos warns the northern kingdom Israel that "I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on every waist and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day" (Amos 8:10, ESV). Micah foretells the days of the Babylonian exile, instructing the people to " Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair, for the children of your delight; make yourselves as bald as the eagle, for they shall go from you into exile" (Micah 1:16, ESV). This is not natural baldness, but an intentional sign meant to be seen.
However, deliberately shaving one's head is strongly deprecated among G-d's people. The people as a whole are instructed, "You are the sons of the L-RD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead" (D'varim 14:1, ESV), while the priests are categorically told, " They shall not make bald patches on their heads, nor shave off the edges of their beards, nor make any cuts on their body" (Vayikra 21:5, ESV). In both cases, the text goes on to explain why: for the people it is because they "are a people holy to the L-RD your G-d, and the L-RD has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth" (D'varim 14:2, ESV); for the priests, likewise, "They shall be holy to their G-d and not profane the name of their G-d. For they offer the L-RD's food offerings, the bread of their G-d; therefore they shall be holy" (Vayikra 21:6, ESV). The actions of shaving the head and cutting the flesh were both recognised as pagan practices of manipulating or placating the gods. We can see this in the priests of Ba'al that opposed Elijah, who "cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them" (1 Kings 18:28, ESV). It was also a prevalent mourning custom in the ANE. G-d's people and G-d's priests are called to be different.
We, on the other hand, do not live in the ANE and ancient funerary customs or pagan religious rituals are rarely a matter of concern to us. Or are they? Setting aside the issues of self-harming as being cries for help from emotionally disturbed and vulnerable people who need assistance to regain a stable balance and often to overcome challenging addictions and life choices, a closer look at many people today - mainly younger, but also including a number of older folk - we can see the re-emergence of ancient practices that damage or disfigure the human body in a number of ways. While the craze for so-called 'piercings', the insertion of metal studs, rings and other objects into the ears, nose, lips, tongue, stomach and even more sensitive parts of the human anatomy has been common-place for some years, the wide-spread growth of tattoo parlours on just about every high street in the country - another practice clearly forbidden to G-d's holy people - tells the story of people who are consistently abusing their physical bodies in the pursuit of idols: fashion, vanity, popularity, acceptance or reputation. Rav Sha'ul makes it abundantly clear in his first Corinthian letter that the Torah's prohibitions apply to followers of Yeshua, when he writes to remind the community there who they are: "Do you not know that you are G-d's temple and that G-d's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV). Just in case they didn't hear - or didn't want to hear - this, he repeats it a couple of chapters later: "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?" (6:19, ESV). Believers simply don't do these things.
But, allegorising a little, can we also apply this to our congregations? If one of the reasons people pierce or tattoo their bodies is to look like their contemporaries and social peers and to gain their acceptance as 'cool' and "one of the crowd", do our congregations behave in a similar way? Every local church or congregation is supposed to be a visible manifestation of the Body of Messiah. When the world looks at our bodies (individual and corporate) do they see Yeshua? Do they see something that is holy - set apart, different from the world - or do they see something that apes the world, following its standards, its behaviour and its appearance? Do we stand against the world, condemning its brutality, its exploitation and its inhumanity, while helping those who are caught and entrapped to find release and peace with G-d, or have we embraced the methods and strategies of the world to advertise and promote ourselves - adopting a holier-than-thou attitude while being practically indistinguishable? These are hard questions. No-one - and no congregation - wants to look like an idiot, old fashioned and ridiculous. Bonnets, buggies and shtreimels all have the same effect!
Let's revisit our text: a person with natural baldness is ritually pure. It makes no mentions of toupees, hair implants of wigs! The key word here is natural. People who are themselves, who are comfortable in their own skin (and clothes!), who laugh and cry with you, who share their lives with you, who encourage you to be yourself without judging you, who try to see and help you to become the best in you - these are the people and congregations who will attract others and will grow the kingdom of G-d. They may not have the highest attendance or the most innovative programs, but they will be making disciples who will stand the distance and endure until the return of the L-rd. They are the ones who will hear Yeshua say, "'Excellent! You are a good and trustworthy servant. You have been faithful with a small amount, so I will put you in charge of a large amount. Come and join in your master's happiness!'" (Matthew 25:23, CJB).
1. - Tamar Kamionkowski cites the work of Ron Amundsen and Akira Oakoakalani to suggest that "European colonists have exploited the erroneous equation of tzara'atwith leprosy to denigrate native populations." (Kamionkowski, Leviticus Wisdom Commenatary, Liturgical Press, 2018), page 125.
2. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 244.
3. - Ibid., page 404.
Further Study: Luke 16:10-13; 2 Corinthians 6;16-18; Ephesians 2:19-22
Application: Is it time to get our act together and stop trying to be the biggest, fastest, slickest in order to draw a crowd and keep them coming? Can we stop seeing numerical growth as the sole measure of success? It is better to be faithful with what we have been given and allow the Ruach to make disciples for Yeshua as He conforms us all to the image of Yeshua rather than to the image of the world!
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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