Studying the Laws of Leprosy

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by David Silverberg


The Midrash on our parasha (Vayikra Rabba 19:3) addresses two seemingly contradictory verses in Shir Hashirim: the "Dod" (male lover) is described as "black as a raven" (5:11) and "[white as] the Lebanon" (5:15). One explanation cited by the Midrash is that of Rabbi Shemuel Bar Yitzchak, who viewed these verses as references to certain areas of the Torah:

"Even when they seem inappropriate and 'black' to teach in public, such as the laws of emissions, leprosy, menstruation, and childbirth, the Almighty says, 'Behold they are pleasant before Me,' as the verse states, 'The mincha [meal offering] of Yehuda and Jerusalem will be pleasant to God…' Know that this is so, for, after all, the parshiyot of the 'zav' [male who experiences emissions] and 'zava' [female who experiences emissions] are not included together [in a single parasha, despite their similarity]; rather, each one stands independently [this testifying to their importance]."

At first glance, it would appear that the Midrash refers to these parshiyot as seemingly "inappropriate and 'black' to teach in public" because they deal with private matters involving male and female bodies, regarding which modesty ought be applied. If this were true, however, then the laws of "nega'im" - leprous skin infections - should not have been included in the list, for these laws deal with exposed parts of the body as well. It seems, then, that these areas of study are "black" because of the widespread aversion to involvement in these disciplines. These topics are dry and unappealing. In fact, the expression "Nega'im ve-Ohalot" (Maskehet Nega'im deals with the laws of leprosy, and Masekhet Ohalot covers methods of transmitting ritual impurity) appears in several contexts as a code-word for dry, technical areas of halakha. For example, it was once said to Rabbi Akiva, "What are you doing studying aggada - go deal with Nega'im and Ohalot!" (Sanhedrin 38b). The Gemara in Masekhet Chagiga (11a) comments, "Nega'im and Ohalot have little mention in the Scripture but many halakhot." The general popularity of aggada over halakha emerges in a story related in Maseket Sota (40a) of two amoraim who came to a city, whereupon one began teaching halakha and the other aggada. Almost the entire city went to hear the lectures on aggada!

The Almighty therefore declares that although these areas do not generally arouse interest, he considers them pleasant, as the verse states, "The 'mincha' of Yehuda and Jerusalem will be pleasant to God…" But how does this verse relate to our issue?

The Mishna at the end of Masekhet Menachot observes that the Torah applies the expression "of pleasant fragrance to God" to all sacrifices - animal sacrifices, bird sacrifices, and meal offerings, despite the vast difference in expense incurred between them. The Gemara adds, "[This comes] to teach you that whether one does much or little [is irrelevant] so long as he directs his heart to Heaven." The "mincha" (meal offering) is the cheapest sacrifice (as evidenced from the laws of "korban oleh ve-yored" - Vayikra 5), brought specifically by the poor. The mincha thus symbolizes an offering generally looked upon with disdain, but accepted by the Almighty as wholeheartedly, as it were, as any other korban. Therefore, the pleasantness with which God accepts the mincha, as spelled out in the aforementioned verse, accurately represents His positive outlook on the generally unpopular parshiyot of zav, nida, tzara'at, etc.

It is not clear from the Midrash whether the "impropriety" of these areas of halakha is purely subjective, determined by popular conception, or if the Almighty Himself affords greater importance to certain areas of study and looks at others as more peripheral. It would seem, however, that the Midrash refers to a subjective description, as suggested by its wording, "Even when they seem inappropriate and 'black'… "

We find support for this position in a striking gemara in (Eruvin 64a): "What does it mean, 'He who keeps company with harlots will lose his wealth'? Whoever says, this topic is pleasing and this one isn't pleasing, loses the wealth of Torah." A person must relate to all areas of Torah study with the same level of fondness, and may never view certain areas as unappealing.

One may, however, wish to question this comment in the Gemara in light of a seemingly contradictory passage (Avoda Zara 19a): "A person can study Torah only in the place where his heart desires." Apparently, this comment bids one to choose the area of study that arouses his interest.

The answer is that one may never relate to a topic as "ugly," or claim that it is boring or pointless. He is entitled only to claim that a certain area does not appeal to him personally or doesn't speak to him, specifically. Although one may be permitted to avoid studying topics that do not appeal to him, this in no way legitimizes a perspective that sees these areas as of a lesser quality or lesser importance. The basis of one's relationship to Torah study must rest upon the awareness that within every part of Torah scholarship lies immense value. One must strive to master the entire gamut of Torah knowledge, despite the fact that due to time limitations he focuses only on those areas that interest him the most. The yeshivot selected several masekhtot for their curriculum not because they saw these masekhtot as more important, but because of the limited time generally spent by students in yeshiva. They therefore decided to focus on the more basic masekhtot that provide the young student with the foundations upon which he will be able to continue and progress in the world of Gemara and halakha after his years in yeshiva.

One must study not only that which appeals to him, but must strive to reach a level where all subjects of Torah appeal to him.


(Originally delivered at Se'uda Shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5754 [1994].)