Tum'at Metzora (Impurity of a Leper)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Shiur #27: Tum'at Metzora (Impurity of a Leper)


By Rav Binyamin Tabory



The laws of nega'im (various forms of afflictions) are written in the Torah immediately following the laws of childbirth.  These laws are unique, in that whereas most laws were told only to Moshe, who then conveyed them to the entire community, these laws were presented to both Moshe and Aharon.  The Ramban (Vayikra 13:1) explains that God included Aharon in the initial presentation of these laws because kohanim are assigned the responsibility of examining nega'im and determining their status.  The kohanim were the ones in charge of seeing the nega'im and coercing the people to observe these laws.  The Ramban adds that the laws concerning the metzora's tahara (process of purification) were told only to Moshe, because it was not necessary to issue a command regarding these laws to Benei Yisrael, given the innate desire to attain tahara.


It emerges from these sets of laws that the kohen served as a spiritual guide who assisted the new mother in attaining "kappara" (Vayikra 12:8) and was also involved at times of crisis, when a nega appeared.


The Rambam enumerated thirteen different types of tum'a (ritual impurity) and explained why he considers them thirteen separate mitzvot.  Although there is obviously no prohibition against becoming tamei, the very fact that one becomes tamei as a result of touching a neveila (dead carcass) or any other type of tum'a, constitutes a mitzvat asei (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Mitzvot Asei 96-108).


The Ramban, in his comments to Sefer Ha-mitzvot, disagrees, claiming that we should not count these types of tum'a as separate mitzvot.  Rather, the various specific laws regarding tum'a should themselves be counted as mitzvot.  One prohibition forbids a tamei from entering the Mikdash, and another prohibition forbids him from eating kodashim (mitzvot lo ta'aseh 77 and 129).  Given these prohibitions, the Torah had to instruct us regarding the various types of tum'a and therefore enumerated these thirteen types; they should not, however, be considered individual mitzvot.


The Ramban cites another example to prove his point.  There is a general issur which forbids us from offering an animal with a mum (blemish) as a korban (sacrifice).  This general prohibition constitutes an independent mitzva (lo Ta'aseh 91), but the various mumim mentioned in the Torah are not individual mitzvot.  The Torah lists them simply in order to teach us what qualifies as a mum with respect to this prohibition.  Similarly, the Ramban argues, in our case, the general issurim for a tamei to enter the mikdash or eat kodashim are specific mitzvot, but the various types of tum'a do not constitute individual mitzvot.


The Megillat Esther (ad loc.) draws a distinction between these two cases in justifying the Rambam's position.  An animal's containing a blemish cannot be considered a mitzva per se.  By contrast, a person who is tamei must conduct himself in a manner of tum'a; he must strictly observe the halakhic ramifications of his status, and herein lies the actual mitzva.


In the specific case of tzara'at, we can establish a more precise definition of the mitzva.  The Rambam (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, end of the seventh principle) cites from the Sifra that there is a mitzva to declare the person (referring to a metzora) tahor or tamei.  The Rambam spells out this mitzva very clearly in the introduction to Hilkhot Tum'at Tzara'at, where he enumerates eight mitzvot relevant to this section, the first one being "to instruct regarding the laws of human leprosy according to the law written in the Torah."  The Rambam appears to refer to a mitzva incumbent upon kohanim to examine nega'im and determine their status.


The Sefer Ha-chinukh approvingly cites the opinion of the Ramban, who does not count the different types of temeim as individual mitzvot.  Nevertheless, in discussing these laws he follows the Rambam's system of the Rambam, as he usually does, and counts each tamei individually (Mitzva 159 and 169).  It appears, however, that he understood the law of tum'at metzora somewhat differently than the Ramban.  He writes that the mitzva requires anyone who sees a sign of leprosy to approach a kohen to inquire about his situation.  The individual must then conduct himself according to the law of the Torah as instructed by the kohen.  The individual should not look upon this as merely an incidental illness, but must rather engage in serious introspection and understand that the affliction resulted from a grave sin.


It seems that according to the Chinukh, the mitzva is directed towards the individual himself, rather than the kohen.  Later, the Chinukh reiterates, "Anyone who became a leper and did not conduct himself according to the law of the Torah concerning leprosy, but rather took it casually and did not approach the kohen to show him, negated this mitzva."  In the footnotes to the Makhon Yerushalayim edition of the Chinukh, an additional comment is notable.  Inasmuch as the person who sees a sign of leprosy is not tamei until the kohen so decides, the person would not want to approach a kohen at all.  Therefore, the Torah placed an obligation upon him to approach the kohen, even if he is not inclined to do so.


One could argue that according to this reasoning, there might exist two separate mitzvot, one which is incumbent upon the kohen, and another obligating the person who sees a sign of leprosy to approach the kohen.


Yet another definition of this mitzva is found in the Zohar (section 3, chapter 45, cited in Torah Sheleima, Vayikra 13:23), which takes note of the Torah's formulation that the leper "should be brought" ("ve-huva") to the kohen (14:2).  This term indicates that the Torah obligates anyone who sees someone else with signs of leprosy, to bring him before a kohen.  Ibn Ezra similarly comments (Vayikra 13:2) that the person who develops symptoms of tzara'at must be brought, willingly or under coercion, before a kohen.


The Minchat Chinukh (mitzva 171) raises the question of whether or not this mitzva applies to minors.  He explains that according to the Chinukh's view, that the mitzva obligates the leper himself, it would not apply to a minor.  He suggests, however, that the obligation instituted by Chazal of chinukh (to train one's son in the performance of mitzvot – see Rashi and Tosafot, Berakhot 48a) might create an obligation with regard to this mitzva, as well.


We should add that according to the reasoning of the Rambam, that the mitzva rests upon the kohen, or of the Zohar, that the mitzva obligates the general public, it seems likely that this mitzva would apply in the case of minors, as well.