By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
3 Iyar 5764 - April 24, 2004
Tzara’at, the collective name for afflictions that attack the body, clothing
or one’s house, 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). Only certain types of
tzara’at are pronounced tamei.
The first signs of tzara’at must be examined, and its later developments
And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: A person who has on the skin
of his flesh a rising, an outgrowth or a bright spot, and on the skin of his
flesh shall become a plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought to Aharon
the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim. And the Kohen shall see (V’RAAH)
the plague on the skin of his flesh, and hair in the plague has turned white,
and the appearance (UMAR’EI) of the plague is deeper than the skin of his
flesh, it is a plague of tzara’at. Then the Kohen shall see him (V’RAAHU), and
pronounce him tamei (Vayikra 13:1-3).
A central theme of this entire passage is seeing, especially by the Kohen. The
verb-root R-A-H, “see,” is repeated, in different forms, 49 times! The
following are examples of laws of tzara’at that depend on vision (from Mishnah
• There are four major shades (MAROT, “appearances”) of white that can be
tzara’at: snow, whitewash, white wool and the membrane of an egg (1:1).
• The plague is examined by natural unoccluded light of the late morning or
early afternoon (2:2).
• A Kohen who is blind, even in one eye, or who has lost much of his sight, is
disqualified to rule on a plague (2:3), even on the basis of another sighted
• Only those parts of the body that are normally flat enough to be seen in one
glance, and which are usually unconcealed when naked, are examined (6:7-8). “A
man is examined [standing] as though he were hoeing [spreading his legs
slightly], and as though he were picking olives” (2:4).
• If a Kohen is inexpert, a scholar accompanies him to examine and tell him
what to pronounce, but “Tumah and taharah are in the power of the Kohen”
The motif of sight is established in verse 3 above, wherein Meshech Chochmah
(R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926) connects the two versions of “see” with
two aspects of what the Kohen must see. First:
And the Kohen shall see (V’RAAH) the plague on the skin of his flesh — he must
examine the plague for signs of tumah.
Then the Kohen shall see him (V’RAAHU) — the Kohen must take the person into
account. Thus, if he is a bridegroom he is allotted the seven days of
celebration before pronouncing him tamei; similarly, if it is a festival he is
given the entire festival (Nega’im 3:2), so as not to disrupt his joy.
What emerges from this are two conceptions of vision: 1. A judgment about an
objective reality (as might be the case, for example, when an expert in
Kashrut inspects a species of animal to determine if it is permitted); and
2. The creation of a reality.
The Kohen’s vision creates the reality of tumat tzara’at.
Our first impulse is to reject this. We intuit that there is a reality “out
there” – known, certainly, to Hashem – and our sense of sight, like all our
senses, is little more than an “information gathering mechanism.”
And yet, extraordinary methods of gaining access to truth, such as prophecy,
are inadmissible to the halachic process (see Pesachim 114a, Rambam, Laws of
the Principles of the Torah 9:1). The sole responsibility rests with halachic
authorities, using natural means. Their vision establishes halachic reality.
When it comes to deciding questions of Halachah, we invoke the principle that
the Torah is “not in heaven” (Devarim 30:12).
It is ironic that some famous instances of “It is not in heaven” deal with the
ostensibly otherworldly laws of tumah and taharah. One is the case of the
“oven of Achnai” (Bava Metzia 59a-b). Another concerns a question of tzara’at
judged by Rabbah bar-Nachmani:
In the Heavenly Academy they were arguing: If the bright spot precedes the
white hair, it is tamei; and if the white hair precedes the bright spot, it is
tahor. If it is doubtful [which came first], the Holy One Blessed be He says
it is tahor, and the entire Heavenly Academy says it is tamei. They asked,
“Who shall decide? – Let Rabbah bar-Nachmani decide, who said, ‘I am peerless
in the laws of Plagues and Tent-tumah.’” They sent a message for him, but the
angel of death could not touch him, because his mouth never ceased from its
learning. Meanwhile, the wind blew among the reeds, and Rabbah bar-Nachmani
thought it was a legion of mounted soldiers looking for him [he was a fugitive
from the government]. He said, “Let me die at the hands of the angel of death
rather than be delivered into the hand of the government.” At the time of his
death he said, “Tahor, tahor!” A divine voice went forth and said, “Fortunate
are you, Rabbah bar-Nachmani, for your body is tahor and your soul departed
Despite all this, the law follows the earthly majority! (Nega’im 4:11).
Modern scientists have come to realize that they, too, determine reality.
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
“postulated that observers in different systems moving with respect to each
other would perceive the world differently. The observer thus became involved
in establishing physical reality. The scientist was losing the spectator’s
role and becoming an active participant in the system under study” (Harold J.
Morowitz, “Rediscovering the Mind,” Psychology Today, August 1980).
The Kohen shows the way of the Torah: with our vision we can create worlds.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
The main topic of these
Torah portions is tzara'at. The word 'tzara'at' is usually translated as
'leprosy'; but the Rabbis viewed tzara'at as a supernatural external sign
of an internal, spiritual condition. While it can signify various
different spiritual pathologies, tzara'at is most closely associated with
the sin of lashon hara - speaking evil of others. An example of this
association is found at the end of parshat B'ha'alotcha. There, Miriam
speaks against her brother Moshe and is immediately punished with tzara'at.
The Rabbis applied the concept of lashon hara not only to speaking evil of
other people, but also to speaking evil about the Land of Israel - in
particular to the spies who tried to dissuade Bnai Yisrael from entering
the Land by saying that it was 'a land that devours its inhabitants.' The
Rabbis explain that the reason that the story of the spies follows
immediately upon the story of Miriam and her tzara'at is that just as
Miriam spoke lashon hara about her brother, so the spies spoke lashon hara
about the Land of Israel. We see then that we should not say bad things
about the Land of Israel, especially if such talk will dissuade people
from coming to the Land.
It is easy to fall into the habit of complaining about Israel. We must
make all efforts to refrain from voicing negative comments. We should do
what the Rabbis of the Talmud did (see end of massechet Ketubot) - try to
improve conditions in Israel so as not to give people any reason to
Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Schnall
Har Nof, Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness , Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254