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SBL e-journal

David Bar-Cohn





Tzaraʿat Purification: A Vestige of Demonic Exorcism





APA e-journal

David Bar-Cohn





Tzaraʿat Purification: A Vestige of Demonic Exorcism








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Tzaraʿat Purification: A Vestige of Demonic Exorcism

In Priestly law, impurity is stripped of its mythic origins in the demonic realm but still retains its dangerous, physical presence, and must be mitigated by specific acts of ritual cleansing and banishing, depending on the type of impurity. Purification from the skin disease tzaraʿat (Leviticus 13–14) offers the starkest example of such a ritual.


Tzaraʿat Purification: A Vestige of Demonic Exorcism

Carmina figuratum of a dragon, at Parashat Metzora (Lev 14:1-15:33), ff. 133v & 134r, Add MS 26878. British Library

A person healed of the skin affliction tzaraʿat (often mistranslated as leprosy)[1] must leave the camp and undergo a series of purification rites over an eight-day period before returning to regular life.[2] The ritual includes slaughtering a bird over spring water, dipping a second live bird plus several other items in the blood-tinged water, and sprinkling the mixture onto the healed person:

ויקרא יד:ו אֶת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה יִקַּח אֹתָהּ וְאֶת עֵץ הָאֶרֶז וְאֶת שְׁנִי הַתּוֹלַעַת וְאֶת הָאֵזֹב וְטָבַל אוֹתָם וְאֵת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה בְּדַם הַצִּפֹּר הַשְּׁחֻטָה עַל הַמַּיִם הַחַיִּים. יד:ז וְהִזָּה עַל הַמִּטַּהֵר מִן הַצָּרַעַת שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים וְטִהֲרוֹ...
Lev 14:6 He shall take the live bird, and also the cedar wood, the scarlet wool, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. 14:7 He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him...

The live bird is released to carry away impurity, in much the same way that the scapegoat is released to carry away Israel’s sins (Lev 16).[3] Both are rituals of disposal.[4] The instruction is to take birds that are חַיּוֹת “living” (Lev 14:4), which likely means “wild,” undomesticated birds, excluding pigeons or doves which pose a risk of returning the disposed impurity to the area of habitation.[5]

The various elements in this rite are found in ancient Near Eastern rituals.

Two Birds

A striking parallel to this two-bird rite appears in a 13th century B.C.E. Akkadian medical text, found in Emar (in modern Syria),[6] involving the treatment of the skin disease saḫaršubbû. After the patient is healed:

This patient stands before Shamash. You shall burn one partridge and a crab before Shamash, [and] with (another) partridge you shall wipe his body and he will let (it) go.[7]

In Akkadian namburbu rites, used to counter evil omens,[8] a male bird is released before Shamash, the sun god, along with the incantation, “May the evil of this bird cross over [the mountain],” or “May a bird take my sin up to the sky, may a fish take my sin down to the abyss.”[9]


Use of blood for purification is attested in a Hittite ritual:

They smear with blood the golden god, the wall, the utensils of the entirely new god. The new god and the temple become clean.[10]

Cedar Wood

Cedar wood is used in Mesopotamian ritual to make magical figures and as an ingredient in incense and folk medicine, for instance:

...you drive (into the ground) around [the sick man] three splinters of cedar wood.[11]

Its pleasant, cleansing odor is thought to be one reason cedar is employed in cult practices.[12] Cedar oil is used in Egypt for embalming fluid,[13] and it resists fungus, which may make it particularly useful in treating house-tzaraʿat (Lev 14:51), possibly fungus or mold.[14] Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010), a Bible scholar who specialized in the Priestly Text and its rituals, suggests that “of all woods with magical powers, cedar might have been selected because of its color, red,” which is associated with blood.[15]

Cedar wood is the weapon of the storm-god Baal,[16] and many ancient Levantine cultures believed the cedar forest in Lebanon to be the abode of the gods.[17] In the Bible, Isaiah rebukes King Sennacherib of Assyria, who envisions himself in godlike terms, knocking down cedar trees:

מלכים ב יט:כג בְּיַד מַלְאָכֶיךָ חֵרַפְתָּ אֲדֹנָי וַתֹּאמֶר (ברכב) [בְּרֹב] רִכְבִּי אֲנִי עָלִיתִי מְרוֹם הָרִים יַרְכְּתֵי לְבָנוֹן וְאֶכְרֹת קוֹמַת אֲרָזָיו מִבְחוֹר בְּרֹשָׁיו וְאָבוֹאָה מְלוֹן קִצֹּה יַעַר כַּרְמִלּוֹ.
2 Kgs 19:23 Through your envoys you have blasphemed my Lord. Because you thought, ‘Thanks to my vast chariotry, it is I who have climbed the highest mountains, to the remotest parts of the Lebanon, and have cut down its loftiest cedars, its choicest cypresses, and have reached its remotest lodge, its densest forest.

Similarly, Ezekiel (31:8) refers to אֲרָזִים... בְּגַן אֱלֹהִים “cedars… in the garden of God.” Thus, the cedar’s associations with divine traits such as strength and durability, its pervasive use in healing rituals, and its red (bloodlike) hue, made it a potent magical ingredient.

Red Yarn

Red-dyed wool, which the Torah calls שְׁנִי תוֹלַעַת, lit. “worm-crimson,” is extracted from the shell of a cochineal (scale insect).[18] The use of red threads in apotropaic or purification rites is attested in ancient Near Eastern texts.[19] One example is a Hittite rite for purification from witchcraft, wherein a red thread is placed on the person and the incantation recited (CTH 402):

[Whoever] has made him blood red, whoever has bewitched him, I am taking from him blood redness and bewitching and I am giving (them) back to its [owner]…[20]

The annals of the Assyrian King Shalmaneser III similarly link red-dyed wool with blood:

I piled them up, I covered the wide plain with the corpses of their fighting men, I dyed the mountains with their blood like red wool.[21]

Use of red ochre in burial rites to symbolize blood is attested as far back as the Neolithic period.[22] The efficacy of red yarn is therefore likely through its association with blood, which—along with red cedar (and the red cow, in the case of Num 19)—enhances the potency of the mixture.[23]


Syrian hyssop (origanum syriacum), also known as zaʿatar, is a wild herb that was readily available, growing out of the cracks of rocks or walls.[24] As a medicinal, it was used as a tonic and digestive aid.[25] Its use as a “sacred wood” wand is depicted in an Ugaritic exorcistic rite:

Cast out (the culprit) from “the recognized one” (as follows…) Let one invoke you with hyssop. Even I myself will invoke you (with hyssop)! I will charm (you) (with) the sacred wood![26]

In the two-bird rite, hyssop is used together with other items as a ritual dispenser, and it is used by itself as such in the red cow rite (Num 19:18), as well as in the exodus story, to brush blood on the doorposts during the plague of the firstborn (Exod 12:22).[27] Psalm 51 shows that hyssop is known biblically as a tool of purgation:

תהלים נא:ט תְּחַטְּאֵנִי בְאֵזוֹב וְאֶטְהָר תְּכַבְּסֵנִי וּמִשֶּׁלֶג אַלְבִּין.
Ps 51:9 Purge me with hyssop till I am pure; wash me till I am whiter than snow.

Its leaves have hairs, giving it the capacity to hold onto liquid, thus making it ideal to dispense liquids.[28] The Mishnah (Parah 11:11) specifies that the hyssop must contain buds, which would add to the liquid-holding surface area and aid in sprinkling.

Cedar and hyssop may form a contrasting pair, the idea being that cedar is mighty and enduring, and hyssop is humble and ephemeral. This is reflected in the description of Solomon’s wisdom, where these two elements reflect a merism—a rhetorical device, which combines two contrasting parts to refer to the whole—indicating the total extent of Solomon’s knowledge:

מלכים א ה:יג וַיְדַבֵּר עַל הָעֵצִים מִן הָאֶרֶז אֲשֶׁר בַּלְּבָנוֹן וְעַד הָאֵזוֹב אֲשֶׁר יֹצֵא בַּקִּיר...
1 Kgs 5:13 He discoursed about trees, from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall…

In sum, the many ANE parallels imply that the two-bird rite of purification functioned as a way of cleansing the person of possible remnants of the impurity by transferring them to the bird and sending it out of the camp, thus ensuring that the person is purged from, and remains free of, the illness.

The Demonic Origins of Impurity

Ancient Israel’s purity legislation is set within a world that views impurity as a demonic invasion, requiring exorcistic rites in order to cleanse. Among ancient Israel’s neighbors, impurity was associated with the incursion of demons or malevolent spirits. For example, a Babylonian incantation reads:

An evil spirit… has overcome him… something impure for the body has seized upon him.[29]

Demons are similarly thought to be one of the causes of illness,[30] as formulated in this ancient Egyptian greeting:

Welcome, O great god who expels disease-demons![31]

Demons are “impure” because they inhabit the underworld, the realm of the dead,[32] and they threaten to inflict harm or death upon the world of the living.[33] Purification entails an act of exorcism, expressed, for instance, in the Babylonian incantation:

Nin-Anna, the mighty Scribe of the Underworld, recites a purifying incantation before me. By Ningirsu, master of the sword, may you be exorcised! Evil Spirit, evil Demon, evil Ghost… unto my body may they not draw nigh…”[34]

Nearly all cases of impurity in the Torah—including seminal emission, menstruation, postpartum blood, tzaraʿat, and corpse contamination—have been understood by some scholars as rooted in a belief in demons.[35] Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Priestly authors accepted this worldview. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the Priestly and Holiness legislation may be recasting these rituals into a polemic against such a view.

A Polemic against Demonology?

Deuteronomy explicitly polemicizes against demon-worship:

דברים לב:יז יִזְבְּחוּ לַשֵּׁדִים לֹא אֱלֹהַּ אֱלֹהִים לֹא יְדָעוּם...
Deut 32:17 They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they had never known…

Similarly, Leviticus warns:

ויקרא יז:ה לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יָבִיאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת זִבְחֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹבְחִים עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה וֶהֱבִיאֻם לַי־הוָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֶל הַכֹּהֵן וְזָבְחוּ זִבְחֵי שְׁלָמִים לַי־הוָה אוֹתָם... יז:ז וְלֹא יִזְבְּחוּ עוֹד אֶת זִבְחֵיהֶם לַשְּׂעִירִם אֲשֶׁר הֵם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תִּהְיֶה זֹּאת לָהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם.
Lev 17:5 This is in order that the Israelites may bring the sacrifices which they have been making in the open—that they may bring them before YHWH, to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to YHWH… 17:7 and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray. This shall be to them a law for all time, throughout the ages.

This indicates that the Priestly sect was working to counteract a popular belief in demons.

Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889–1963) argues that the near complete absence of references to demons in the Priestly text implies that the authors rejected demonology, having actively exorcised demon talk from their purity laws.[36] Kaufmann maintains that impurity, after being stripped of the demonic layer, is “no more than a condition—one might almost say a religious-aesthetic state.”[37]

Jacob Milgrom, citing this position approvingly, says, “In the Bible, impurity has been thoroughly eviscerated of any mythological or demonic content.”[38] Milgrom contends that by the time the biblical text was penned, the originally exorcistic two-bird and red-cow rites were essentially ritual artifacts, and that the Priestly writers neutralized impurity of any potency or ability to do harm.

Kaufmann and Milgrom, however, have gone too far in characterizing biblical impurity as innocuous. For the Priestly legislators, impurity is indeed a destructive power that requires purging. Yet, it is not an independent demonic force but a nameless power under YHWH’s control.

Impurity as an Embodied Presence

Even if the Torah does not cite demons as the cause, Priestly purity legislation includes cases that must have been construed as more than harmless ritual conditions or states.[39]

Treating tzaraʿat and certain genital discharge as cases of impurity reflect concerns over disease and contagion.[40] These conditions pose a tangible mortal threat and are accompanied by physical symptoms, where the body is fatigued or in a compromised state. For the ancients, such weakened embodied experience reinforced a belief in demonic attack.[41] Concern about contact with human corpses and carrion may also express concern over contracting illness from these problematic objects.

The Priestly authors’ phraseology, such as וְטֻמְאָתוֹ עָלָיו, “his impurity is upon him” (Lev 7:20), and עוֹד טֻמְאָתוֹ בוֹ, “his impurity is yet on him” (Num 19:13)—using the prepositions על (“upon”) and בו (“on” or “in”)—indicate that impurity is conceived by the authors as a presence “upon” a person. Likewise, purification texts describe impurity being purged “from” a person or object, using the prefixed preposition mem, as in וְכִפֶּר עַל הַמִּטַּהֵר מִטֻּמְאָתוֹ, “and he will clear the purification candidate from his impurity” (Lev 14:19), and וְקִדְּשׁוֹ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “and sanctify it from the impurities of the children of Israel” (16:19). This language is consistent with the concept of impurity as an embodied presence.

Demons associated with impurity in the ancient Near East do not simply vanish into oblivion in Priestly legislation, but neither do they survive as-is. Such dark forces are thought to indeed exist, but they are no longer autonomous; they lose their mythological character. What is left is a nameless, destructive force over which YHWH maintains control.[42]

One of the hallmarks of the Priestly text is its lack of mythological references, including references to angels.[43] Destructive phenomena such as negef נֶגֶף (e.g., Exod 30:12, Num 8:19) and mashchit מַשְׁחִית (e.g., Exod 12:13) are invoked as nameless agents of YHWH.[44] Just as YHWH controls these forces, YHWH can make even the severe impurity tzaraʿat come and go, as seen in narratives about Miriam (Num 12) and Moses (Exod 4). Thus, in the Priestly conception, impurity is one of many destructive forces emptied of prior mythological content and brought under YHWH’s direct oversight.

Magic Recast as YHWH’s Life-Laws

The Priests inherited the two-bird rite from their surrounding cultures, based on the pervasive and longstanding belief in demonic impurity and exorcistic remedies. Milgrom describes the two-bird rite of the metzora as “a rite of exorcism… preserved in nearly pristine form.”[45] Yet the Priests clearly wished to deemphasize demons in their writings. How then did they frame impurity and purification? Commenting on the term חַיּוֹת (lit. “living”) describing the birds in the metzora ritual, Milgrom points out the motif of “life” throughout the two-bird rite:

Life is the theme, the Leitwort, of the ritual: “live” waters (v 5) are employed; blood, the symbol of life, is added to the waters; so too the red yarn and the (red) cedar, which, again symbolically, supplement the blood or life-giving qualities of this potion … because the scale-diseased person is akin to the dead, this rite effects his restoration to life.[46]

The realm of death is expelled by utilizing ingredients that boost life. Yet I would argue that the rite was perceived as more than “symbolic.”

Just as the other ancients viewed their magic as efficacious, banishing evil spirits and conferring renewed vitality on the purification candidate, so too do the Priestly authors view their purification rites as efficacious, utilizing life-infused ritual to banish impurity’s dangerous presence.[47] The ingredients and procedures of such rites hold the capacity to produce a tangible effect, but that ability derives from divine sanction, and scrupulous adherence to YHWH’s life-laws, an idea expressed later in Leviticus:

ויקרא יח:ה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָה.
Lev 18:5 You shall keep my laws and my rules, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live: I am YHWH.


April 19, 2023


Last Updated

July 8, 2024


View Footnotes

David Bar-Cohn is Manager of Operations at TheTorah.com. He holds an M.A. in Bible (magna cum laude) from Bar-Ilan University; his thesis is titled, Rites of Replenishment: Observations on Priestly Purification (Bar-Ilan, 2022). He is the author of the book Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings (Urim, 2014), an analysis of the birkhot hashachar prayers. David also holds an M.A. in Clinical Psychology and received semikha in Yoreh De’ah.