first signs of tzara’at must be examined carefully.
Tzara’at is the collective name for afflictions that attack
the body, clothing or house; the usual translation of “leprosy” is
inaccurate. Tzara’at is
a source of tum’ah (a hard word to translate as well; the best we
might say is “spiritual defilement” determined by physical conditions),
and requires purification (taharah).
Rabbis teach that Hashem
incurs tzara’at on one whose character is flawed by, for
example, speaking ill of others or selfishness (Arachin 15-16).
At first his house is affected, then his clothing, and only after these
manifestations is his body afflicted. Tzara’at
is a “good pain,” punishing him at a stage when these faults can still
you will come to the land of Canaan which I give to you for a possession, and
I will put the plague of tzara’at in a house of the land of your possession. And he to whom the house belongs shall come and tell the
priest, saying: ‘Something like
a plague has appeared to me in the house’.
Then the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the
priest comes to view the plague, so that all that is in the house be not made
tamei; then afterwards the priest
shall come to view the house. (Vayikra
refers to the Mishnah (Nega’im 12:5):
Even if the owner of the house who notices the signs is a scholar, and
is able to determine with certainty that this is tzara’at, he may not
state categorically “NEGA” – “A plague has appeared to me in
the house,” but rather “K’NEGA” – “Something like a plague has
appeared to me in the house.” The Rambam codifies this in the Laws of the Uncleanness of Tzara’at
Why dilute the truth? As the Siftei Chachamim (Shabbetai Bass, 1641-1718) points out, at first the Torah says, “and I will put the plague of tzara’at”, which indicates certainty. So, why should the Torah now insist on the words of uncertainty, “Something like a plague”?
even if the owner of the house were to make a definitive statement, it
would have no effect, because, as the Mishnah teaches (Nega’im 3:1),
“Uncleanness and cleanness are in the power of the Kohen”:
the Kohen tells him whether to declare “tamei,” and
only then does the house become tamei.
The Kohen’s proclamation is intrinsic to the creation
of reality. All the Kohen
does is provide the basis for creating that reality.
leads to the question asked by R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (c. 1450-1526):
Why must the owner say “K’NEGA” ?
After all, prior to the Kohen’s proclamation there is no tum’ah.
So, what harm would there be in the owner saying “NEGA”?
Whatever he says will not change the situation anyway!
comprehensive summary of the major points of view in this question is
presented by R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654) in his commentary Tosefot
Yom Tov on the Mishnah. He
discusses five opinions:
R. Mizrachi quotes his teachers: The
Torah is teaching a lesson in proper behavior (derech eretz), to speak
with reservation and humility, even when the situation looks unequivocally
clear. As the Talmud says,
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachot 4a).
Mizrachi himself suggests two answers. First:
Since the Kohen is the only one to determine whether or not the
house is unclean, for anyone else to say so would be disrespectful towards the
position of the Kohen. This
is similar to the prohibition against a student, even a very knowledgeable
one, rendering a halachic decision in the presence of his teacher (Sanhedrin
R. Mizrachi’s second answer is that the Kohen should not be
rushed into making his proclamation. By the owner saying “K’NEGA”, he is taking some of the
pressure off the Kohen.
Aryeh (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, the Maharal
of Prague, c. 1525-1609) states: The
owner may not say “A plague,” simply because it is not true.
Until the Kohen proclaims it tamei, it is not a plague,
and must not be spoken of as such, because “He that tells lies shall not
remain” (Tehillim 101:7).
Aharon (R. Aharon ben Avraham ibn Chayim;
1545-1632) comments: When
the symptoms of tzara’at appear in the house, it is a plague, but it
does not attain the status of tamei until the Kohen declares it
so. Meanwhile, however, it is
still possible that the plague will dim and the Kohen will then
proclaim tahor. At this stage, the owner is enjoined, “Do not open your
mouth to the Satan” (Berachot 19a):
do not foreshadow a worst-case scenario.
question remains: Why
doesn’t this insistence on saying K’NEGA also apply to body-tzara’at
or clothing-tzara’at? Tosefot
Yom Tov notes that house-tzara’at is
the first stage in the process. Once the clothing or body has been afflicted
the die has been cast and its too late.
here we can incorporate the idea from the Korban Aharon.
At this unresolved stage between K’NEGA and NEGA, all is not lost.
In fact, Hashem is doing the owner of the house a favor by making him
aware of a fault in his character. This
seeming-plague is an alarm bell, a wake-up call to repentance.
Now is not the time to take a negative attitude, but to welcome the
warning before matters deteriorate.
From this one halacha, we gain many insights into the values that must suffuse Torah learning:
this from “K’NEGA”! How
much can be learned from just one letter!