Parshat Tazria: Tumah and Tzara’at

When a person shall have on the skin of his flesh a white blotch, a similar discoloration or bright white spot and it is suspected of being a mark of tzara’at on the skin of his flesh, then he should be brought to Aharon the Kohen or one of his sons the Kohanim. (VaYikra 13:2)

The parasha begins with a description of the laws governing the tumah accompanying birth. The parasha then enters into a discussion of tumat tzara’at. Tumat tzara’at is a form of tumah associated with a skin affliction. This skin affliction is generally characterized by the appearance of a white blotch on the skin. In some ways, tzara’at is similar to leprosy. In fact, the term tzara’at is often translated as leprosy. The laws of tumah and taharah are often complicated. Many people are intimidated by this area of halachah and assume that the contents of their parasha are beyond their grasp. This is unfortunate. The laws of tumah and taharah are fascinating. This is particularly true of the laws governing tumat tzara’at. The material that follows provides an introduction to one of the forms of tumat tzara’at. Hopefully, this introduction will make the material a little more approachable.

The pasuk above provides a description of the white blotch associated with tzara’at. The pasuk describes three types of blotches. These are se’ait – a white blotch, sapachat – a similar discoloration, and baheret – a bright white spot. What is the difference between these three terms? Our Sages explain that baheret is the brightest form of tzara’at. This discoloration is as white as snow. Se’ait is a somewhat duller discoloration. Its shade is compared to the color of the fleece of a newborn lamb. Sapachat is a derivative of baheret. Its whiteness is less intense than se’ait. Its shade is similar to the plaster of the Temple. Se’ait also has a sapachat – derivative – version. The sapachat of se’ait is the dullest form of tzara’at. Its color is compared to the white of an egg. The following chart summarizes the various shades of tzara’at in order of intensity:

Table 1. Forms of Tzara’at

Intensity (1=highest)
Name
Description of Shade

1
Baheret
Snow

2
Se’ait
Newborn lamb’s wool

3
Sapachat-baheret
Plaster of Temple

4
Sapachat-se’ait
Egg white

As the above chart indicates, there are two primary forms of tzara’at. These are baheret and se’ait. Each primary form of tzara’at has a derivative form. These are sapachat-baheret and sapachat-se’ait.

The order of intensity of these four discolorations is interesting. As we have explained, baheret is the brightest form of tzara’at. However, the next most intense form of tzara’at is se’ait. This is surprising. We would expect sapachat-baheret to be closest in brightness to baheret. It is a derivative of baheret! It is reasonable that it should be very similar in intensity. However, this is not the case. Se’ait is the second brightest form of tzara’at. Sapachat-baheret follows se’ait in intensity.

This requires an explanation. Sapachat-baheret is a derivative of baheret and sapachat-se’ait is a derivative of se’ait. Therefore, we would expect the forms of tzara’at to be arranged as follows: 1) Baheret, 2) Sapachat-baheret, 3) Se’ait, 4) Sapachat-se’ait. In other words, in what sense is sapachat-baheret a derivative of baheret? Is not the form of tzara’at most similar to baheret! How can we explain the order of the four forms of tzara’at?

In our pasuk, there are two hints to the answer to our question. The first hint is derived from the terms baheret and se’ait. What is the literal meaning of these terms? The term baheret is derived from the word bahir. This means bright. The term se’ait literally means elevated. The Sages explain the derivation of the term se’ait. A white spot that is seen against a darker background appears to be depressed or sunken relative to the background. The se’ait is not as intensely white as the baheret. The se’ait appears to be depressed against the darker background of the surrounding skin. However, it does not appear to be as deeply depressed as a baheret. This is because the baheret is brighter. In other words, the se’ait is elevated relative to the baheret. This analysis reveals that the terms baheret and se’ait describe a relationship. These terms describe the relative intensity of these two white discolorations. Baheret means the whitest blotch. Se’ait means a discoloration that is less intense than baheret.[1]

The second hint in our pasuk is derived from the term sapachat. As we have explained, the term sapachat indicates a derivative form of tzara’at. Although baheret and se’ait each have a sapachat – a derivative, the term only appears once in the passage. We would expect the term sapachat to appear twice. Once to describe the derivative of baheret and a second time to communicate that se’ait also has a derivative.

Viewed together, these two hints provide a fundamental insight into the four forms of tzara’at. It seems that these four forms can be divided into two levels of intensity – a primary level and a secondary level. Each level includes two shades of tzara’at. These two shades are defined relative to one another. The primary level is composed of the two brightest shades of white. These two shades of tzara’at are defined relative to one another. The brighter is baheret and the duller is se’ait. The secondary level of intensity is the sapachat level. On this level, there are also two shades. These are defined relative to one another. The brighter is sapachat-baheret. This term means that this tzara’at is the brighter shade on the secondary level of intensity. The duller tzara’at is sapachat-se’ait. This term means that this tzara’at is the duller shade on the secondary level.

We can now understand the reason our passage mentions the term sapachat only once. The term sapachat does not indicate a derivative form of tzara’at. It refers to a derivative or secondary level of brightness. There is only one derivative level of tzara’at. Therefore, the term sapachat appears a single time in our passage.

Based on this analysis, it is possible to explain a fascinating law. There is a minimum size for tzara’at. A blotch that is less than this size does not produce a state of tumah. The required size is equal to a Cilician bean. Assume two blotches are adjacent. Each is a different form of tzara’at. Are these two adjacent blotches joined together in order to fulfill the minimum size requirement? In other words, if a blotch the exact size of a Cilician bean is composed of two different forms of tzara’at, is the person tameh – defiled?

The chart below illustrates the answer of Rav Ovadiah Me’Bartenurah.[2]

Table 2. Combinations of Tzara’at and Tumah

Combination
Tumah

Baheret and Se’ait
Yes

Baheret and Sapachat-baheret
Yes

Baheret and Sapachat-se’ait
No

Se’ait and Sapachat-se’ait
Yes

Se’ait and Sapachat-baheret
No

Sapachat-Se’ait & Sapachat-baheret
No

The above chart indicates that both shades of the primary level join together to meet the size requirement. In addition, a blotch on the primary level joins with its parallel shade on the sapachat level to satisfy the requirement. In other words, baheret and sapachat-baheret join together. However, a blotch on the primary level does not join with the non-parallel shade on the secondary level. This means that baheret and sapachat-se’ait do not join. Finally, the two shades on the sapachat level do not join.

This seems to be an odd arrangement. We would imagine that the shades that are the most similar should most easily join. However, this is not the case. Se’ait and sapachat-se’ait join to meet the minimum size requirement. These two shades are separated by an intervening shade – sapachat-baheret. Yet, se’ait and sapachat-baheret – which are very similar shades, do not join. Also, sapachat-baheret and sapachat-se’ait – two similar secondary level shades – cannot be joined! What is the reasoning underlying this pattern?

In order to understand the answer to these questions, an illustration will be helpful. Reuven and Shimon are brothers. They are sitting on the shore of a lake. On the surface of the water, there is an image corresponding with each brother. Let us consider the relationships among the components of this illustration. Reuven and Shimon are clearly related. They are brothers. Reuven’s reflection is related to Reuven and is derived from his image. The same relationship exists between Shimon and his reflected image. Reuven does not have a direct relationship with Shimon’s reflected image; neither does Shimon have a direct relationship with Reuven’s reflection. Certainly, there is no direct relationship between the reflected images themselves. The following table enumerates these combinations and the relationship or lack of relationship between the components of each combination.

Table 3. Components of illustration and their relationships

Combination
Relationship

Reuven and Shimon
Yes (Brothers)

Reuven and Reuven’s reflection
Yes (Primary image and its derivative reflection)

Reuven and Shimon’s reflection
No

Shimon and Shimon’s reflection
Yes (Primary image and its derivative reflection)

Shimon and Reuven’s reflection
No

Shimon’s reflection and Reuven’s reflection
No

A similarity between Table 2 and Table 3 is evident. This similarity suggests a more precise understanding of the four shades of tzara’at and their relationships to one another. The two levels of tzara’at are not equal. Baheret and se’ait are comparable to Reuven and Shimon in the illustration. Sapachat is a secondary or derivative level of tzara’at. This level corresponds with the reflected images in our illustration. More specifically, a shade of white on this secondary level is regarded as tzara’at only because its relative brightness to the other shade on the level defines it as a derivative of the corresponding shade on the primary level. This means that the sapachat shades are not inherently shades of tzara’at – just like Reuven’s reflection is not Reuven. Instead, the sapachat is only regarded as tzara’at because of its derivative relationship to a primary form of tzara’at. In other words, the various shades of tzara’at from baheret to sapachat-se’ait are not shades within a range of intensity, and any shade in this range is regarded as tzara’at. Instead, the Torah identified the two shades of baheret and se’ait as the primary forms of tzara’at and assigned each its own derivative. Sapachat-baheret is not tzara’at simply because it falls within a range of intensity for the whiteness of tzara’at. It is tzara’at because the Torah acknowledges a secondary level of intensity, and on this level, the sapachat-baheret is parallel to and a derivative form of baheret. Of course, the same analysis applies to sapachat-se’ait.

Sapachat-baheret is a derivative form of baheret. It is a derivative of baheret on the sapachat level. Therefore, a baheret and its sapachat can be joined. This is because the primary form can combine with its derivative. These two shades are related in a manner similar to Reuven and his reflected image. However, a se’ait and sapachat-baheret cannot be joined. This is because the sapachat-baheret acquires its identity as a form of tzara’at from its relationship to baheret. However, there is no relationship between se’ait and sapachat-baheret. They are similar to Shimon and Reuven’s reflection. They are not related.

Similarly, sapachat-baheret and sapachat-se’ait do not join. This is because these forms derive their identity as forms of tzara’at from their respective relationships with the parallel shade on the primary level. However, these two forms of sapachat are not innately forms of tzara’at. Therefore, they cannot be joined – just and the reflection of Reuven and Shimon are not related.

Hopefully, this brief discussion clarifies some of the laws discussed in the parasha and provides an example of the beauty of the halachot that regulate tumah and taharah.

[1] For a more complete discussion of these terms see Rav Yisrael Lipshitz, “Mareh Kohen,” 1:3.

[2] Rav Ovadia Me’Bartenurah, Commentary on Mishne, Mesechet Negaim 1:1. For a more complete discussion of this issue see Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 1:3.