By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
Shabbat Parshat Tazria
29 Adar II 5765 - April 9, 2005
The Torah introduces the complex details and
laws of tzara’at, which refers to afflictions that might strike the body,
clothing or one’s house. It 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 rendered tamei.
And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: A person that (KI) on the skin
of his flesh there shall be (YIHEYEH) a rising, an outgrowth or a bright spot,
and on the skin of his flesh it shall become a plague of tzara’at; then he shall
be brought to Aharon the Kohen, or to one of his sons the Kohanim (Vayikra
If declared tamei, the metzora becomes a primary source. This means that he
renders people tamei through direct or indirect contact, all utensils through
direct contact, and the contents of a house through entry (Rambam, “ Laws of
Tara’at Uncleanness” 10:11-12).
The Sages (see Torat Kohanim here, par. 36 and Horayot 10a) are puzzled by the
wording of this introduction to the subject of tzara’at. The word YIHEYEH (shall
be) seems to emphasize the future, suggesting that tzara’at has never occurred
earlier, yet the “disease” of tzara’at did strike before: did not Hashem make
Moshe’s hand turn “like snow” with tzara’at (Shemot 4:6) at the burning bush?
Alternately, can we say that YIHEYEH means that only Israel will be stricken
with tzara’at? This cannot be, because non-Israelites can also be afflicted with
it― Na’aman, the general of Aram for example, was a metzora (Melachim II 5:1).
Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877) takes further note of the
word KI, meaning “that,” rather than the more common word ASHER. Torah Temimah
(R. Baruch ben Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1942) combines these
observations: Had the Torah wished to describe a person “in whom” there is a
plague of tzara’at, it should have said ASHER BO; the phrase KI YIHEYEH – “that
there will be” – seems awkward. Consequently, the unusual wording of this verse
restricts the application of tzara’at, as the Sages say:
Shall be (YIHEYEH) -- From the “utterance” and on (Horayot 10a; Torat Kohanim).
Only those “plagues” that occur after the “utterance” can be proclaimed tzara’at,
and thus tamei.
When was the “utterance”?
Most commentaries identify the “utterance” with the Revelation at Sinai (Rashi;
R. Ovadia of Bertinoro, c. 1450-c. 1515; see also Avoda Zara 5a, Tosafot s. v.
Ela; Nedarim 7b; Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel, c. 1250-1327 and Rabbenu Nissim ben
Reuven Gerondi, c. 1310-c. 1375).
Torah Temimah however, disagrees, since the Sages teach that all afflicted
Israelites were cured at Sinai (Bamidbar Rabbah 7:1; Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:7)!
And, even according to the view that they returned to their afflicted state
after the sin of the golden calf (ibid.), all plagues would have occurred “after
the utterance.” Thus, Torah Temimah insists that the “utterance” was not the
Revelation of the Decalogue per se, but rather the
moment the laws of tzara’at were first taught (compare Nazir 54a, Tosafot, s. v.
O kever; and Yevamot 61a).
The Torah therefore means to say:
A person that (KI)[from this moment on] shall be (YIHEYEH) on the skin of his
However, “plagues” of tzara’at that existed before the giving of the Torah
cannot be declared tamei.
Malbim argues that the use of KI, rather than ASHER, is also relevant. In
accordance with Malbim’s principles of interpretation, ASHER would have even
included a pre-existing condition, while KI is restricted to a new condition.
It is thus established that only a plague that appears after the “utterance” can
be declared tamei, whereas a plague existing from before can never become tamei.
(The principle of “from the utterance on” is also found in other areas of
Halacha, but this is not the place to elaborate.)
The principle of “from the utterance and on” is further extended to other cases
of tzara’at, such that any plague that appears under conditions of exemption is
clean, even if the plague remains after the conditions of exemption have
expired. Other examples of exempted individuals are Gentiles and a fetus in
utero (Mishnah Nega’im 3:1; Arachin 9a; Rambam, “Laws of Tzara’at Uncleanness,”
Consequently, the Mishnah (Nega’im 7:1)
formulates the law as follows:
These “bright spots” are clean: Those from before the giving of the Torah, on a
Gentile who converted, on an infant born with it …
Rambam rules accordingly (“Laws of Tzara’at Uncleanness,” 6:4), although he does
not mention the case of a plague that existed before the giving of the Torah.
What is the implication of the principle of “from the utterance and on”?
In the physical world, objects cast shadows. The perception of a shadow is
evidence of the existence of an object. Furthermore, the larger the object, the
larger is the shadow it throws.
We might use the analogy of objects and their shadows to understand, at some
level, tumah and kedushah (sanctity): The possibility of tum’ah is a reflection
of sanctity. What is more, the greater the sanctity, the more are the
possibilities for tum’ah.
Thus we see how the giving of the Torah, which
creates the sanctity of the Jewish people, also creates the concomitant
possibility of tumat tzara’at. Of course there was the plague of tzara’at before
the Torah was given, and of course the plague of tzara’at occurs to others
outside the people of Israel. But there is no tumat tzara’at without kedushat
We are who we are – the sanctified people of Israel – thanks to the Revelation
and teaching of Hashem’s Torah.
The main topic of this and next week’s 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 complain.
Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Schnall
*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