The Role of the Kohen in Tzara’at

This is the law of the metzora on the day of his purification. He is brought to the Kohen. (Sefer VaYikra 14:2)

1. The Kohen pronounces the metzora suitable for purification
Parshat Metzora continues the Torah’s discussion of various forms of tzara’at. Tzara’at can take various forms. In its most severe form, it appears as a skin disease somewhat similar to leprosy. However, tzara’at differs from conventional diseases in two ways. First, its origins are spiritual. Tzara’at afflicts a person in response to sin. Our Sages attributed tzara’at to a number of sins including speaking evil of others and egotistical behavior. Second, tzara’at takes forms other than as a disease. Parshat Tazria discusses a variation of tzara’at that appears as a discoloration in clothing. Parshat Metzora describes another form of tzara’at that appears as a discoloration on a wall of a home.

Regardless of its form – whether the tzara’at appears as a skin disease, affects a garment or home – the outcome is similar. Tzara’at is associated with spiritual defilement. The person, garment or home that is afflicted with tzara’at becomes defiled. A person who is defiled is prohibited from entering the Bait HaMikdash. He is also prohibited from handling objects or eating sanctified foods. Contact with the defiled person transmits his defilement to others. A garment or home’s defilement has a similar impact. The defilement can be transmitted and defiled objects cannot be brought into contact with consecrated objects. If the tzara’at persists the outcome is more severe. A garment or home in which tzara’at persists must be destroyed. A person whose tzara’at persists is subjected to a form of excommunication and remains under ban until the condition passes.

Parshat Metzora opens with a discussion of the process that the person afflicted with tzara’at – the metzora – undergoes in order to restore his purity. The passage explains that the metzora must be brought to the Kohen. This simple passage expresses one of the unique characteristics of tzara’at. The restoration of the metzora’s health with the passing of his skin ailment does not restore the metzora to his prior state of purity. Three additional steps are required. First, the metzora must be examined by the Kohen and he must pronounce that the metzora is fit for the purification process. If the Kohen makes this pronouncement, the metzora undergoes to a two-stage purification process.[1] This process culminates with the offering of atonement sacrifices. Only after this entire process is completed is the metzora restored to complete purity.

When a person has a white discoloration on his skin, a derivative discoloration, or a bright white discoloration – he has on his skin tzara’at disease, he is brought to Aharon the Kohen or to one of his sons the Kohanim. (Sefer VaYikra 13:2)

2. The Kohen declares the stricken person to be a metzora
The initiation of the status of metzora also requires the Kohen’s involvement. The physical skin affliction – regardless of its severity – does not in itself render its victim a metzora. The person who has the discoloration associated with tzara’at must be examined by the Kohen. Only the pronouncement of the Kohen renders the afflicted person a metzora.[2]

However, this does not mean that the pronouncement of the Kohen is sufficient to render the person defiled or to qualify the person for the next step of purification. The Kohen’s pronouncement must be based upon a physical examination of the subject and a proper interpretation of the person’s condition. If the Kohen erroneously pronounces a person as defiled or erroneously declares a person as fit for the purification process, his pronouncement is ineffective. In other words, the status of the skin affliction and the pronouncement of the Kohen are both necessary conditions for tzara’at and for the purification of the metzora. But alone neither is a sufficient condition.[3]

And the Kohen should direct that the house be emptied before he comes to examine the house. And he should not defile all that is in the house. And afterwards he should come and examine the house. (Sefer VaYikra 14:36)

3. Application of the Kohen’s role to the pronouncement upon a house
The unique role of the Kohen in the establishment of tzara’at is the basis of an interesting law in Parshat Metzora. As explained, tzara’at does not appear only as a skin disease. It may also, appear as a discoloration of garments or of houses. In all of these variations, the existence and the cessation of tzara’at are established through the declaration of the Kohen. The first of the above passages describes the Kohen’s role in establishing a house as infected by tzara’at. The passage explains that the Kohen directs for the home to be emptied before he enters it to conduct his examination. Why must the home be emptied? Our Sages explain that this is a result of two considerations. First, the appearance of the discoloration does not in itself render the house defiled. Only the declaration of the Kohen can establish this status. Second, if the house is found to have contracted tzara’at, then it will be defiled and its defilement will automatically be transmitted to its contents. Some of the contents can regain their status of purity through a purification process. However, this option does not extend to earthenware vessels. These vessels cannot regain their pure status. In order to spare this loss, the Torah directs that the home be emptied before the Kohen enters to conduct his examination.[4] Because the home becomes defiled only through the Kohen’s pronouncement, these objects – removed from the home prior to this pronouncement – will not be defiled. This should not be viewed as a legal loophole. It is an expression of the fundamental structure of the law. The contents of the house are in no manner impacted or defiled by the home’s discoloration. It is only with the pronouncement of the Kohen that the house becomes defiled by tzara’at.

In short, the Kohen plays a unique role in regard to tzara’at. He is not merely a judicial authority who applies the law and makes a determination of its application to a specific case. A judge considers the facts of a case and then applies the relevant laws to determine the proper outcome. His ruling is merely an interpretation and application of these laws. In contrast, the pronouncement of the Kohen actually affects or produces the outcome. His pronouncement renders a person a metzora or renders him fit for the purification process.

4. Various factors that disqualify a Kohen from service in the Bait HaMikdash
The above discussion raises an interesting question. In order for a person to serve as a Kohen, he must be the product of an uninterrupted paternal lineage leading back to Aharon. In order for a Kohen to serve in the Bait HaMikdash additional conditions must be met. For example, certain physical deformities can disqualify the Kohen from service. Any service performed by this Kohen is invalid.

In addition, the Kohen may not be married to an inappropriate wife. For example, a Kohen is prohibited from marrying a divorcee. Any offspring or descendant of the Kohen from this marriage is a Chalal and he is disqualified from service. However, this disqualification is different from a deformity. If a Chalal does perform service in the Bait HaMikdash, the service is valid. This is because of a specific passage that qualifies the service as valid even though the Kohen is a Chalal.[5]

5. The impact of deformity or the status of Chalal upon the Kohen’s role regarding tzara’at
Can a Chalal pronounce a person to be a metzora or as fit for the purification process? What is the status of a Kohen who has a deformity? Can this Kohen make a pronouncement regarding the metzora’s purity and defilement? Maimonides explains the Kohen who has a deformity can make the pronouncements. However, the Kohen who is a Chalal is disqualified from making a pronouncement regarding tzara’at. Furthermore, it seems clear that if he does make a pronouncement, it is invalid and ineffective.[6] These laws are summarized as follows:

Type of defect: Physical deformity
Impact of Temple service: Service is invalid
Impact on capacity to pronounce regarding tzara’at: Pronouncement is valid

Type of defect: Chalal
Impact of Temple service: Service is valid
Impact on capacity to pronounce regarding tzara’at: Pronouncement is invalid

As the above table demonstrates these laws seem somewhat inconsistent. A physical deformity renders a Kohen’s service invalid but has no impact on his suitability to make a pronouncement regarding tzara’at. A Chalal is not permitted to serve in the Bait HaMikdash but if he serves, his service is valid. This same Kohen’s pronouncement regarding tzara’at is invalid.

6. Deformity does not impact the Kohen’s identity
These differing impacts of a deformity seem to reflect that this defect does not actually impact the person’s identity as a Kohen. A person who has a physical deformity may not perform service. Service must be performed by those who are physically unblemished. In other words, the requirements of Divine service dictate that the deformed person cannot perform the Divine service functions assigned to the Kohen. However, deformity does not impact the identity of the person as a Kohen. The deformed Kohen is a Kohen. He cannot perform service but his identity as a Kohen is not impacted by his deformity. Therefore, the function of pronouncing a person as defiled or suitable for the purification process is not impacted by the deformity. This function requires only that the person be a Kohen. His suitability to serve in the Bait HaMikdash is irrelevant to his suitability to make these pronouncements.

7. The Kohen Chalal’s identity as a Kohen is compromised
A Chalal’s identity and status as a Kohen has been compromised. The title Chalal means that his very status as a Kohen is imperfect. The Torah decrees that despite this deficiency in his status as a Kohen his service is valid. However, this decree does not extend to his role in pronouncing a person a metzora or suitable for the purification process. In regards to this role, only an uncompromised Kohen is acceptable. The Kohen Chalal is disqualified.

In summary, a deformity does not impact the Kohen’s identity as a Kohen. The deformity disqualifies his service but does not disqualify him from functions that require merely that he be a Kohen. Therefore, he can make pronouncements regarding tzara’at. A Kohen Chalal’s very identity as a Kohen is compromised by his status as a Chalal. The Torah accepts his service despite this compromised identity. However, only a complete and unqualified Kohen can make pronouncements regarding tzara’at. The Chalal is excluded from this role.

1. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 14:2.

2. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 13:2.

3. Technically formulated, tzara’at is the consequence of a substantial or material cause acted upon by an efficient cause. The skin disease is the material cause in that it provides the material that will be acted upon to render the person a metzora. The pronouncement of the Kohen is the efficient cause that acts upon the skin disorder and renders the person a metzora. (Rav Yisrael Chait, from author’s notes)

4. Rashi 14:36

5. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Biat HaMikdash 6:6-10.

6. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tzara’at 9:5.