5769 - #26


          At the beginning of his summation of the laws of tzara’at,1 entitled Nega’im, which he presents at the conclusion of parshat Tazria, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 13:59 writes: “No part of God’s Torah can serve, as much as this chapter on [negaim], to show the absolute folly of the erroneous idea of “the tendency of the Laws of Moses to be rules and regulations to be enforced for health and sanitary purposes.” The general world sees these laws, with their emphasis on seclusion, as the ancient, Jewish, medical response to the disease of leprosy, advocating for combating this illness by isolating its victims. With these words, Rabbi Hirsch is emphatically declaring that this is clearly not the purpose of these laws – and that a purview of them clearly shows, with numerous examples, that the rules of tzara’at have no connection to this purpose. Of course, given the secular bias2 of these theorists, these arguments may have little chance convincing these individuals of the error of their perceptions. Nevertheless, Rabbi Hirsch’s assertion may open to us a most interesting insight into this entire Torah presentation.

            The issue is not solely the cause of this affliction but our response to it. The secularist, in defining this disease medically, sees the cause of such affliction as amoral. The subsequent isolation is, thus, solely an attempt to protect the greater society. As such, those afflicted are seen as victims themselves, forced to endure this pain of isolation for the benefit of their neighbours. It is, thus, not surprising that a mystique has developed around the fate of the leper due, perhaps in part, to its perceived Biblical focus. This may be part of the reason that great moral excellence was attributed to those who attempted to assist the leper, the one whose affliction is even mentioned in the Bible. This, of course, was never a focus of those who understood the true nature of Torah.

            In defining tzara’at in spiritual terms, the affliction clearly reflected a moral consequence.3 The pain of isolation, as such, was not simply a corollary result of the necessities demanded in treating the disease but was a direct consequence of that which precipitated the disease. Tzara’at was an indication of the need to isolate a specific individual in punishment for some previous indiscretion. The focus of the study of tzara’at, thus, included the causes, the reasons, for someone to be so afflicted by God – and the focus of such investigations was on sins for which isolation would be an appropriate consequence. T.B. Arachin 16a, as such, presents seven sins for which one can be punished with tzara’at, all reflecting immoral behaviours and weaknesses that can negatively affect society.

            The lesson is clear. If one cannot act properly in a social context, the appropriate consequence is isolation, removal from the social framework. What is most significant, though, is the breadth of this gemara’s understanding of what can be the cause of social disorder, all appropriately punishable with isolation. Three general categories seem to emerge from a perusal of these seven items. Obviously, direct attacks upon another -- such as loshon hara, murder, perjury and theft -- challenge the social fabric and a response of isolation to be imposed upon such a perpetrator is understandable. If one cannot act properly towards his/her fellow, segregation from interacting with others is an appropriate response. Overextended concern with oneself – as evidenced in the expressions of haughtiness or stinginess – also can be seen as a further cause of social discord. Society demands that one balance his/her own desires and interests with those of his/her fellow. One too filled with self, especially without any concern for another, can be a pariah on the social order. It is not only actions that can directly harm another but also feelings that can lead one to overlook the other that must face the consequence of isolation.

            Concern for the causes of social discord leads us to focus on matters which generally include harm to another. The inclusion of gilui arayot, sexual impropriety, in this list, though, adds a different dimension. Sexual impropriety does not necessarily imply harm to another, the perceived base of social discord. In that both parties usually share the desire, consent between the parties in a sexual sin, and thus the lack of one directly harming the other, would seem to imply that the concern in legislating against such behaviour is not social discord. The inclusion of this category of sins in the causes of tzara’at informs us that harm to another is not the only yardstick of negative social consequences. Society demands structure; sexual impropriety is a challenge to this structure. The affliction of tzara’at may additionally be informing us that parties to such sexual misdeeds, even as they do not perceive themselves to be harmful to each other, may also demand a consequence of isolation for those attempting to destroy the necessary order. Maintaining social order demands much effort. Tzara’at, with its subsequent consequence of isolation, was a direct Divine reminder of this fact.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


1 Tzara’at is often translated as leprosy; however, this is a mistranslation which can result in various misunderstandings, as will be further discussed in the Insight. There is simply no translation for this word.

2 The secular bias to which I am referring is the assumption that foregoes God’s active involvement in the world and thus denies the possibility that the Torah was truly given by Him. Rabbi Hirsch’s view of tzara’at is clearly built upon a perspective that the disease has a spiritual base which flows from a recognition of the Divine origin of the Torah and Creation. If one rejects such an assumption, the disease can only be interpreted within the confines of medicine notwithstanding indications to the opposite. As such, if a person is bound to such a perspective, no arguments will be accepted to challenge this viewpoint and a different explanation will always be presented to explain any difficulty. The many arguments presented by Rabbi Hirsch would be pushed aside under a guise that they may simply have been reflections of a literacy license to add mystique or some supernatural perspective to what is really, simply, a fact of medicine. This reality is a challenge that we often face. If one is totally committed to the idea that the Torah is but a product of ancient man, often no argument against this idea will even be contemplated. The secular bias will always declare that there must be another reason, even if we do not know it. Further on this issue, see Rabbi Sholom Carmy, The Nature of Inquiry: A Common Sense Perspective, The Torah U-Madda Journal, Volume 3.   

3 Of course, all illnesses can be seen as an indication from the Almighty of sin. The dividing line between a spiritual illness, such as tzara’at, and any illness is, thus, somewhat blurred. The lesson from an affliction such as tzara’at is still more direct. It should be noted, though, that recognition of the moral source for any illness does not, in anyway, diminish from our duty to care for the sick. This, it would seem, would also apply to one with tzara’at. It should be noted that while Miriam’s affliction with tzara’at, as presented in Bamidbar 12:10, was clearly in response to an indiscretion, the nation, in recognition of the further pain that travel would cause her, waited for her affliction to conclude before moving, as recorded in Bamidbar 12:16.

(c) Nishma, 2009





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