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“Take Heed in the Plague of Tzara’at”

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Adapted by Binyamin Frankel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


The subject of tzara’at is a broad one, and we must ask ourselves why the Torah devotes two whole parashot to setting forth in such detail its different manifestations and stages, and the procedures for purification, while nothing at all is said about the sin for which a person is punished in this way.


Tzara’at and Kehuna

According to the plain text, it would seem that tzara’at is the inverse or opposite of kehuna (priesthood), and that any behavior that goes against or harms the priesthood or the Temple entails the punishment of tzara’at. This idea arises from the many different points in the parashot of Tazria and Metzora where we find similarities between the affliction of tzara’at and the status of kehuna.

The first point of similarity is the inverse relationship between the punishment of the metzora and the obligations of the kohanim. Concerning the metzora we read,

“And the diseased man in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall grow long, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean. All the days during which the plague shall be in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone, outside the camp shall his habitation be.” (Vayikra 13:45-46)

This is a most severe punishment: torn clothes, uncut hair, public declaration of impurity, and dwelling outside the camp. Yet strangely enough, no mention is made of sin. Note that the appearance of the metzora is the complete opposite of that of the Kohen. In Parashat Shemini, we find:

“Moshe said to Aharon, and to Elazar and to Itamar, his sons: Do not let the hair of your heads grow long, nor rend your garments, lest you die…” (Vayikra 10:6)

In Parashat Ki Tetze, too, we encounter the special connection between the kohanim and tzara’at:

“Guard yourself concerning the plague of tzara’at, that you observe diligently and do according to all that the kohanim, the leviim, shall teach you; as I have commanded them, so you shall observe to do.” (Devarim 24:8)

The “guarding oneself” concerning tzara’at is included as part of the obedience or listening to the kohanim, and instruction in the laws of tzara’at is a special obligation that is entrusted to the kohanim. From the verses in our parasha we see that the Kohen is the only authority who can define the metzora as “unclean”:

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh the 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 look upon the plague in the skin of the flesh, and when the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague is deeper in appearance than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of tzara’at; and the Kohen shall look upon him, and pronounce him tamei (unclean).” (Vayikra 13:2-3)

Another prominent instance in which we find a connection between tzara’at and kehuna – with an emphasis on tzara’at as a direct and immediate punishment for slighting the kehuna – is found in Divrei Ha-yamim. King Uzziyahu defies the exclusive appointment of the kohanim to perform the Temple rites, and therefore he is punished with tzara’at.[1]

Further parallels between the kehuna and tzara’at are to be found in the placing of oil/blood upon the ear-lobe and the thumbs; in the special connection between a person and his garments; in his placement in relation to the camp of Israel (entry into the levite camp vs. exclusion from the entire camp); and in the public proclamation (“he shall cry, ‘unclean, unclean’” vs. “he shall be pronounced sanctified”), etc.

Perhaps our understanding of the undermining of the kehuna as the cause of tzara’at might be broadened to include the undermining or slighting of any position of authority – as, for example, in the case of Miriam, who questioned the unique status of Moshe:

“And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe… And they said, Has the Lord then spoken only with Moshe? Has He not spoken also with us? And the Lord heard it… And the anger of the Lord was inflamed against them, and He departed. And the cloud was removed from the tent, and behold – Miriam was snow white, stricken with tzara’at; and Aharon looked upon Miriam, and behold – she was diseased.” (Bamidbar 12:1-10)

Miriam questions Moshe’s unique prophetic status, since God has spoken also with her and with Aharon, and thus would seem deserving of the same elevated position. Once again, tzara’at appears as a punishment for disrespect towards a higher level of holiness.


Lashon ha-ra

In contrast, in Chazal’s teachings we find tzara’at viewed as a punishment mainly for lashon ha-ra (speaking badly of others):

“R. Yossi ben Zimra said: Anyone who speaks lashon ha-ra is afflicted with sores [tzara’at], as it is written, ‘Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, I shall cut him off (atzmit)’ (Tehillim 101), and elsewhere (Vayikra 25) we find a derivative of the same word – ‘li-tzemitut’ – translated as ‘utterly.’ And we learn: There is no difference between the metzora who is shut up [i.e., whose status is yet to be determined] and the metzora who is pronounced unclean [i.e., whose status has already been determined] except for disheveled hair and torn garments. Resh Lakish said: The verse ‘This shall be the law for the one stricken with tzara’at [ha-metzora]’ hints to the verse, ‘This shall be the law of one who gives someone else a bad name [motzi shem ra].’” (Arakhin 15b)

Resh Lakish’s teaching, based on a rearrangement letters, is well-known, and the most obvious support for it is the case of Miriam, who spoke lashon ha-ra about Moshe: “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam by the way, after you came out of Egypt” (Devarim 24:9). This verse follows directly on from the verse we quoted above: “Guard yourself concerning the plague of tzara’at.” Aside from what we have already mentioned about the questioning of authority, the issue that the text explicitly quotes them as raising pertains to Moshe’s marriage to Tzippora:

“And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Kushite woman whom he had taken, for he had taken a Kushite woman… And the Lord’s anger was inflamed against them, and He departed. And the cloud was removed from the tent, and behold – Miriam was snow white, stricken with tzara’at, and Aharon looked upon Miriam and behold, she was diseased.” (Bamidbar 12:1-10)

Chazal understand the crux of Miriam’s statement as being focused on “the Kushite woman whom he had taken,” and that it is as a result of her words on this subject that she is punished with tzara’at. This interpretation serves to reinforce the prohibition against lashon ha-ra, which is set forth clearly and in detail in the works of Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, Shemirat ha-Lashon and Chafetz Chaim.

It should be noted that lashon ha-ra is alluded to in the punishment of the metzora who must “put a covering upon his upper lip.” The plain meaning is that he must wear a handkerchief over his mouth, which will prevent him from speaking freely, which hints to the sin he committed through speech.


Betrayal of Am Yisrael

We shall now consider a third position: that the sin for which a person is punished with tzara’at is betrayal of Am Yisrael. Our point of departure in this approach is based on the haftarot for the parashot of Tazria and Metzora.

The haftara for Tazria recounts the story of Na’aman and his tzara’at, and the way in which he was healed. God brings deliverance for Aram through Na’aman, with this deliverance coming at the expense of Israel’s defeat:

“Now Na’aman, captain of the host of the king of Aram, was a man of great note with his master and highly esteemed, because through him the Lord had given deliverance to Aram; he was also a mighty warrior, but stricken with tzara’at.” (Melakhim II 5:1)

Na’aman is informed by his wife’s servant, a captive Israelite girl, that he might be healed by Elisha, the Israelite prophet. Na’aman is persuaded, and he sends a letter to the king of Israel, announcing his intended arrival in order to be healed. The king of Israel, having no idea how Na’aman might be healed from his tzara’at, tears his garments, but Elisha quickly reassures him:

“And when Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had rent his clothes, he sent to the king saying, Why have you rent your clothes? Let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.” (v. 8)

Elisha’s intention, then, is that Na’aman “shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.” He wants to show him that God continues to watch over Israel and cares about the fate of His people despite their terrible state, as described explicitly in the verses:

“Nor did he leave a following for Yehoachaz except for fifty horsemen, and ten chariots, and ten thousand footmen, for the king of Aram had destroyed them, and had made them like the dust in threshing.” (Melakhim II 13:7)

Although Israel is at this stage “like the dust in threshing,” Elisha seeks to demonstrate that the nation’s bond with God remains unbroken.

Elisha also has another objective, and that is to demonstrate the sanctity of the Land of Israel. In ancient times, many nations believed that every land had its own specific god, and that the conquest of a land weakened its god. Through prescribing immersion in the Jordan River, Elisha wanted to show that the unique sanctity of the Land of Israel remained, despite the conquest. Elisha therefore directs Na’aman to immerse himself:

“So Na’aman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, God and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean. But Na’aman was angry, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and so heal the infected person. Are not Amana and Parpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.” (5:9-12)

After Na’aman is persuaded by his servants to immerse himself in the Jordan despite his opposition, he is healed:

“Then he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to he saying of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (v. 14)

Thereafter Na’aman seeks to bless Elisha:

“And he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and came, and stood before him, and he said, Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; now therefore, I pray you, take a blessing of your servant. But he said, As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, I will receive none. And he urged him to take it, but he refused… And he said to him, God in peace. So he departed from him a little way.” (vv. 15-19)

While Elisha parts from Na’aman without receiving anything from him, Gechazi decides, on his own initiative, to make a request:

“But Gechazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, Behold, my master has spared Na’aman, this Aramean, in not receiving at his hand that which he bought; but, as the Lord lives, I will run after him and take something of him. So Gechazi followed after Na’aman. And when Na’aman saw him running after him, he came down from the chariot to meet him, and said, Is all well? And he said, All is well. My master has sent me, saying, Behold – even now there have come to me from Efraim two young men of the sons of the prophets; give them, I pray you, a talent of silver, and two changes of garments.” (vv. 20-23)

The significance of Gechazi’s actions becomes clear from his punishment:

“And when he went in, and stood before his master, then Elisha said to him, Where from, Gechazi? … Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants? So let the disease of Na’aman cleave to you, and to your seed forever. And he went out from his presence stricken as white as snow.” (vv. 25-27)

Elisha punishes Gechazi with tzara’at. The reason that he is deserving of this affliction is because while Israelites are being sold into slavery and have become “like the dust in threshing,” Gechazi chooses to receive “garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants.” He does not feel a common fate with the rest of the nation, and demonstrates no sensitivity concerning the state in which the nation finds itself. Elisha punishes Gechazi and his progeny with tzara’at “forever,” as a punishment for this betrayal of and severance from Am Yisrael.

The question remains why this punishment is extended also to Gechazi’s descendants, since the Torah itself specifies: “Fathers shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be put to death for fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Devarim 24:16). The answer provided in the Gemara would seem appropriate in this instance:

“Our Sages taught: ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for children’ (Devarim 24) – what does this tell us? It cannot be telling us that fathers will not be put to death for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their fathers, for the verse then goes on to state explicitly, ‘Each man shall be put to death for his own sin.’ Rather, it means that fathers will not be put to death on the testimony of their sons, nor will sons be put to death on the testimony of their fathers.

But are children then not to be put to death for the sins of their fathers? Is it not written (Shemot 34), ‘Who visits the iniquity of fathers upon their sons’? [The answer is that] that verse refers to a situation where the children follow in their parents’ footsteps [i.e., continue to sin], as it has been taught, ‘And also in the iniquities of their fathers shall they pine away with them’ – i.e., if they continue their parents’ [evil] ways.” (Sanhedrin 27b)

Apparently, the punishment that Elisha metes out to the descendants of Gechazi is well earned. In the haftara of Parashat Metzora, we read about the four metzora’im who dwell outside of the camp, and Chazal discuss their identity: “‘And there were four metzora’im’ – R. Yochanan said, These were Gechazi and his three sons” (Sota 47b). Now these metzora’im are put to the test when they discover that the Aramean camp is deserted:

“And when these metzora’im came to the outer edge of the camp, they went into one tent, and ate and drank, and carried from there silver and gold and garments, and they went and hid it, and came back, and entered into another tent, and carried from there also, and went and hid it. Then they said to one another, We are not behaving correctly; this day is a day of good tidings, yet we hold our peace; if we tarry until the morning light, punishment will come upon us; now therefore come, that we may go and tell the king’s household.” (Melakhim II 7:8-9)

While starved mothers are eating the flesh of their dead children in the besieged Shomron, Gechazi and his sons care only for themselves, carrying off “silver and gold and garments” and hiding them. Only after they have raided a number of tents and put away a considerable treasure for themselves do they go and announce the good news to the inhabitants of the besieged city.


Tidings from a Metzora

Above, we discussed tzara’at as a punishment for undermining the kehuna or leadership, or for lashon ha’ra, or for a self-centered orientation that cuts one off from the rest of Am Yisrael.

Rachel Bluwstein, the famous pioneer-poetess, views the account in the haftara from the perspective of the times in which she herself lived:


Day of Tidings / Rachel Bluwstein

For a long while the dreadful enemy

Laid siege to Samaria;

Four lepers brought her tidings,

Brought tidings of freedom.


A Samaria under siege – the entire land,

The famine is too hard to bear.

But I will not want news of redemption

If it comes from the mouth of a leper.


Let one who is pure bring news and let the pure redeem,

And if the pure proves unable –

Then let me die among the ravages of the siege

On the eve of the great day of tidings.


Let us consider the poem in the context of the Gemara in Sanhedrin, which speaks of different “tidings of redemption” connected to tzara’at:


“R. Yehoshua ben Levi met Eliyahu standing by the entrance of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s tomb… He asked him, ‘When will Mashiach come?’

He replied, ‘Go and ask him yourself.’

‘Where is he sitting?’

‘At the entrance to the city.’

‘And how will I recognize him?’

‘He is sitting among the poor lepers; they untie [the dressings of their sores] all at once, while he unties and re-bandages one at a time, saying: Should I be required [to appear as the Mashiach], let me not be delayed [by having to dress a number of sores].’” (Sanhedrin 98a)


Eliyahu describes the Mashiach as dealing with just one bandage at a time, in order that the redemption of Israel will not be delayed unnecessarily by even a few moments. The point here, however, is that once again we find the tidings of redemption entrusted to a metzora. We cannot know whether the poetess Rachel was familiar with the Gemara in Sanhedrin, but her tragic life story would seem to suggest that she was troubled by this question: Could it be that the same people who had betrayed her were themselves the bearers of the tidings of Zionism and the redemption of the land?

Rachel’s biography included a period during WWI when she caring for refugee Jewish children in Russia who were suffering from tuberculosis, and she herself contracted the disease. Upon her return to Palestine, she was expelled from her kibbutz due to her disease and sent to live in isolation, and she felt wronged and betrayed. She died at a young age, alone and childless.

Rachel understood that sometimes a message of redemption is brought by people who are not “pure.” Sometimes the messengers of redemption are metzora’im. This is not meant, heaven forefend, in the literal sense; these messengers are not lepers like Gechazi and his sons. Rather, they are “metzora’im” by virtue of their deeds. It is important to emphasize in the clearest possible terms that there can be no indulgence or forgiving when it comes to actions that go against God and His Torah. At the same time, we can still accept the subject himself – despite his actions – if he is a “metzora” who is concerned and exerts himself on behalf of Am Yisrael, and not a “metzora” who cares only about himself.

Obviously, we dare not refer to the messengers of Zionism, the pioneer leaders of the movement, as “metzora’im”; nevertheless, we must keep in mind that Zionist history has not been an unbroken chronicle of shining morality. Much can be said about problematic aspects of the Palmach, from the theft of chickens to the sinking of the Altalena. Beyond all this, however, we must recognize the tremendous importance and contribution of the Palmach in combatting Arab gangs and in the establishment of the State of Israel.

Do we wish to hear such tidings of redemption? Many eminent personalities, including some of the greatest of the Amoraim, did not:

“Ulla said, ‘Let him [the Mashiach] come, but let me not see him.’ Likewise, Rabba said, ‘Let him come, but let me not see him’… And likewise R. Yochanan said, ‘Let him come, but let me not see him.’” (Sanhedrin 98b)

However, there were others who felt differently:

“Rav Yosef said: Let him come, and may I merit to sit in the shade of the dung of his donkey.” (ibid.)

Rav Yosef does not adopt the same terminology – “Let him come, and may I merit to see him” – because he was blind. Nevertheless, he was filled with anticipation for the coming of Mashiach, and was willing even “to sit in the shade of the dung of his donkey.” This statement brings to mind Agnon’s story about “Shabbat Necessities.” He tells the story of a poor Jew who, with Shabbat approaching, had no food, and went out to find something he could bring home. He walked and walked until he came to the area designated as the communal latrine, and right there he noticed a gleaming gold coin in the midst of the muck. He took up the coin, cleaned it, and headed to the market to buy what he needed for Shabbat. Suddenly, remembering where the coin had come from, he decided that it would not be respectful towards Shabbat to use this coin for Shabbat purchases. Instead, he vowed to give the coin to charity. Agnon concludes the story by having God reward the man: some wealthy notables come to his home and end up sponsoring his Shabbat purchases.

There is room for further discussion as to whether human charity is indeed a more worthy source of finances for Shabbat necessities than a gold coin lodged in refuse. In any event, the conflict that Rachel raises reappears in the story by Agnon, who was certainly familiar with the Gemara’s description of “the shade of the dung of his donkey.”


Possibly Pure

All of this would seem to relate to an interesting question pertaining to the laws of tzara’at. We know that if there was a lightening of the skin prior to the appearance of a white hair, then the sore renders the person “tamei” (ritually impure, or “unclean”); if the white hair grew before the white spot appeared, then the person is “tahor” (ritually pure). The Gemara discusses an instance of doubt:

“Now, the following dispute was going on in the Heavenly Academy: If the bright spot preceded the white hair, he is impure; if the reverse, he is pure. In a case of doubt — the Holy One, blessed be He, rules, ‘He is pure,’ while the entire Heavenly Academy maintains, ‘He is impure.’

They ask, Who shall decide it? Let Rabba b. Nachmani decide it, for he said, ‘I am pre-eminent in the laws of tzara’at and tents’… 

As he was dying, he exclaimed, ‘Pure, pure!’” (Bava Metzi’a 86)

At first, it is not clear what sort of dispute there could be: seemingly, in a case of doubt, as in any other case of doubt concerning Torah law (as opposed to rabbinic enactments), the stricter option is to be adopted. Hence, even if there is some question whether the bright spot appeared before the white hair, the man should be declared tamei. On what basis, then, does God Himself declare that in the case of some doubt concerning tzara’at, the lenient view prevails?

A doubt concerning Torah law is indeed usually decided in accordance with the stricter view, but in the case of tzara’at such a decision has very serious social ramifications: the metzora is isolated and removed from the rest of society. Thus, the basis for pronouncing him tahor in the event of doubt is the heavy price that the opposite decision will entail in the social, human realm.

When there is some possibility that a person is completely pure, and we, adopting a strict view, distance him from society and impose heavy punishments on him, we are unquestionably transgressing prohibitions in the realm of human relations. Rabba bar Nachmani rules as God does – that where there is some doubt, the person is “pure” – because along with the seriousness of the laws of tzara’at and our concern for the purity of Am Yisrael, we dare not forget or ignore the person behind the sore.


We sometimes have questions and doubts about people in positions of authority and past and present leaders of Am Yisrael. Sometimes we suspect that there is a conflict of interests, or we object to actions that go against the laws of the Torah. It is important to remember that when the metzora’im concerned are like Gechazi and his sons, we must reject and distance them. But when the “metzora” in question is someone who cares about Am Yisrael, perhaps we must accept his tidings of redemption – even though they come from the mouth of a leper – and not be so quick to dismiss without further thought all the laws pertaining to our treatment of and attitude towards others. God Himself, in the case of a doubt concerning tzara’at, rules – “Pure!”

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Tazria-Metzora 5773 [2013].)


[1] “But as he grew strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction, for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the Temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense. And Azaryahu, the Kohen, went in after him and with him eighty kohanim of the Lord, who were men of valor, and they withstood Uzziyahu the king, and said to him: ‘It is not for you, Uzziyahu, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, who are consecrated to burn incense; go out of the Sanctuary, for you have trespassed, for it shall not be for your honor from the Lord God.’ Then Uzziyahu was angry, and had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and while he was angry with the kohanim, tzara’at broke out on his forehead before the kohanim in the House of the Lord, beside the incense altar. And Azaryahu, the Kohen Gadol, and all the kohanim, looked upon him, and behold – he was diseased in his forehead, and they thrust him out quickly from there, and he himself hastened to go out, because the Lord had smitten him. And Uzziyahu the king was afflicted with tzara’at until the day of his death, and dwelt in the house of separation, being diseased, for he was cut off from the House of the Lord, and Yotam, his son, was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.” (Divrei Ha-yamim II 26:16-21)