Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Some Thoughts About Tzara'at
Every year as we read the Parsha of Tazria we are confronted with the Torah treatment of what is erroneously referred to as leprosy. Inevitably someone brings the issue to my attention as did a dear Israeli friend a week earlier and my grandson Gavriel this Erev Shabbat. As usual a number of ideas and thoughts passed through my mind as I was contemplating the issue and though I don’t believe the issue is closed and solved (will it ever be?), I went on a different track and looked at it from a different perspective this time around.
Tzara’at is when one presents on his body a mole like lesion on the skin that is white or off-white going towards the pink. The smallest size of this lesion is a square that could contain 36 hairs, quite a small area. Incongruously however, if the discoloration covers the whole body the person is considered clean. Thinking about this the question that came to my mind is, what prompts a person that has a tiny lesion like that to run and tell the Cohen about it? Why not just ignore it? I then thought that the verse in Devarim 24:8 addresses exactly that question.
ח הִשָּׁמֶר בְּנֶגַע-הַצָּרַעַת לִשְׁמֹר מְאֹד, וְלַעֲשׂוֹת: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יוֹרוּ אֶתְכֶם הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם--תִּשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת.
8 Take heed in the plague of leprosy, that thou observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you, as I commanded them, so ye shall observe to do.
However the Rabbis do not see this as an obligation to report the lesion but rather as the prohibition to cut it off or remove it. I found no mention of the obligation to report it. Is reporting voluntary? I have not found any discussion about this in Massechet Negaim nor in Rambam Hilchot Tume’at Tzara’at. Not seeing is not a definite proof and maybe someone will enlighten me if I am incorrect but until then I am operating under that assumption.
Looking at the cases in Tanach that depict occurrences of Tzara’at we have first where we have one of Moshe’s hand becoming white when he refused to go to Egypt. That probably can be seen as a vision rather than a physical occurrence (rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles explains it thus). The case of Miriam is depicted as a visible lesion –
י וְהֶעָנָן, סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל, וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם, מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג; וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל-מִרְיָם, וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת.
10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.
In the case of Uziyahu, the verse makes a point of telling us that the lesion was on his forehead (Divrei Hayamim 2:26:19), where it could not be concealed, which further supports my thesis about reporting being voluntary or at the most a choice one has to make. The case of Na’aman in Melachim 2:5- a careful read of the story leads one to conclude that it was not Tzara’at of the unclean kind but a real skin disease (more about this later).
Rambam in Pirush Hamishna Negaim 12:5 explains why the Mishnah refers to the Metzora as a Rasha – an evildoer -
(My translation) – Tzara’at that the Torah discusses is a punishment for Lashon Hara (saying evil things about the other) so that he will be separated from people affording them respite from his evil tongue. It starts in his house, either he takes notice and repents or it spreads to his bedding – i.e. leather utensils - either he repents or it spreads to his woolens, either he repents or it spreads to his body. This thing is a sign and a portent just as is the water of the Sotah. It is clear that these are unnatural occurrences not logically explainable, for clothing and houses are inanimate things and the changes that occur are not lesions [Tzara’at] (which can occur only in biological entities). The Torah named them as such as I explained. So too the human lesions, you see that He (God through the Torah) considers baldness as Tzara’at; furthermore He considers one whose whole body has turned white to be clean when [logic dictates] that it is the ultimate, most intense Tzara’at. Therefore these must be legal definitions [as opposed to real illness] and it is based on this that the Mishnah refers to the Metzora as an evildoer.
Rambam does not consider Tzara’at a real skin disease but rather an innocuous discoloration of the skin that when it occurs the Torah teaches to see it as a reminder for transgressions of speech. Rambam furthermore compares Tzara’at to the waters of the Sotah. In MN3:49 he explains the rational for the Sotah ritual in a psychological vein though quite foreign to our modern women’s right sensibilities.
There are frequently occasions for suspicion of adultery and doubts concerning the conduct of the wife. Laws concerning a wife suspected of adultery (Sotah) are therefore prescribed (Num. v.); the effect of which is that the wife, out of fear of the "bitter waters," is most careful to prevent any ill-feeling on the part of her husband against her. Even of those that felt quite innocent and safe most were rather willing to lose all their property than to submit to the prescribed treatment; even death was preferred to the public disgrace of uncovering the head, undoing the hair, rending the garments and exposing the heart, and being led round through the Sanctuary in the presence of all, of women and men, and also in the presence of the members of the Sanhedrin. The fear of this trial keeps away great diseases that ruin the home comfort.
Rambam minimizes the effect of drinking the water and emphasizes the preparatory rituals that lead up to that moment as the main concept behind the water drinking process. The publicity of the process is the main feature and the greatest deterrent for improper behavior. Comparing Tzara’at to Sotah seems to cast it in a similar light, namely a psychological context. Is the Torah telling us that such a skin lesion, a non-medical lesion which may go unnoticed, should be viewed as a wakeup call for introspection? Is it that knowledge and guilt that compels the person who notices the lesion to go to the Cohen and be exposed? Is the Torah creating an artificial anomaly and uses suggestion as a powerful tool to trigger introspection?
With this in mind I read Rambam at the end of Hilchot Tume’at Tzara’at -
יג [י] הצרעת--הוא שם האמור בשותפות, כולל עניינים הרבה שאין דומין זה לזה: שהרי לובן עור האדם, קרוי צרעת; ונפילת מקצת שיער הראש או הזקן, קרוי צרעת; ושינוי עין הבגדים או הבתים, קרוי צרעת. וזה השינוי האמור בבגדים ובבתים שקראה אותו תורה צרעת בשותפות השם--אינו ממנהגו של עולם, אלא אות ופלא היה בישראל כדי להזהירן מלשון הרע.
Rambam points out that Tzara’at does not stand for a specific disease but is rather a generalization of various occurrences that are not biological illnesses - ממנהגו של עולם – but rather are seen by Jews as - אות ופלא – signs and markers of improper behavior.
I come away from all this with the impression that Tzara’at is a Halachik construct used to make us aware of the damages uncontrolled gossip can cause. There is no intrinsic disease, just a tool to use for self-improvement. A person, who has a problem with uncontrolled gossip and wants to change, will use Tzara’at as a tool to work on himself through temporary isolation and distancing from society allowing for proper introspection on his own bad behavior and work on overcoming it.