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   by Jacob Solomon

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It (the tzaraat) has all turned white - he is clean (13:13).

Firstly, a brief note on tzaraat. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that tzaraat is not 'leprosy' as we understand it. He also demonstrates that the reasons for quarantines and, in confirmed cases, exclusion from the 'camp' are not to prevent the spread of disease. Among the many proofs brought: if the malady covers the entire body he is clean, but if the skin begins to heal he becomes a metzora. If the reason for confinement was because of the danger of the disease spreading, he would surely be excluded when the symptoms are most obvious!

Following the introduction, what is tzaraat, if not a conventional disease? Why should a small amount of healing of tzaraat symptoms lead to a person being declared a metzora? And why should a complete cover of tzaraat render a person spiritually clean?

The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 168) notes the connection that Chazal make between tzaraat and its spiritual root causes: slander, tale-bearing and other aveirot bein- adam le-haveiro, as enumerated in the Talmud (Arachin 16a). The Chinuch writes that the detailed laws applying to the individual afflicted with tzaraat are:

To fix in our souls that G-d's Providence applies to every human being individually… to the slightest details, and so it is with a sufferer of tzaraat during the days of his confinement. If he repents, then purifying signs will appear and he will be healed. If he does not repent, then the opposite will happen.

Extending this idea, tzaraat is not so much a punishment, as a warning from the Almighty. As Moses said to the Israelites before his death: Like a father who chastises his son, so… G-d chastises you (Devarim 8:5). G-d brings suffering on individuals so that they may reflect on their past behavior and correct those faulty character traits for the future. The purpose of tzaraat then is to help a person do teshuva on aveirot bein- adam le-haveiro. His mandatory exclusion from contact with others until the tzaraat has healed will give him ample time to reflect on where he has gone wrong in the past, and to resolve to improve his conduct in the future.

Why then, should a small amount of tzaraat be ritually unclean, but a complete spread be regarded as clean?

The discussion above showed that occurrence of tzaraat is hashgacha peratit - Divine Intervention in the life of the individual. However it is also a warning, and as such is only effective if it is listened to. This is expanded below.

The Talmud derives that shaming a person in public is one of the most serious aveirot (Bava Metzia 59a, based on Bereishit 38:24). Notwithstanding, the Rambam rules that it is permitted for a teacher to shame a student in public if it is absolutely necessary for his spiritual progress (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:5). If the teacher is not able to correct the student's conduct in a less extreme way he has the discretion to embarrass his student publicly. As proof, the Rambam cites the Neviim who used public rebuke in getting their message across to those G-d ordered them to bring His Word.

This idea helps us to understand the meaning of the different degrees of the tzaraat symptoms.

Parashiot Tazria-Metzora imply that very small amounts of tzaraat were to be dealt with discreetly. The suspected symptoms were shown only to the Kohen. The metzora was excluded to a place where he would not be in view of the general public. And when the symptoms finally disappeared, the korban metzora (including two birds, as opposed to a cow or a sheep) was small in size, so that it would not draw the public's attention. Nevertheless the metzora went through a very meaningful, if unpleasant, spiritual experience. He was excluded from the general public - he needed time to think about his misdeeds. And the nature of the korban was in itself designed to induce humility - a person who realized his own problems would be less likely to comment on and gossip about the shortcomings of others. As the Talmud (Arachin 16b) points out, each of the various components of the korban metzora symbolized the haughtiness of the past and the need to behave more modestly in the future. In other words G-d is urging the metzora to do teshuva without having causing shame in the process.

Not all people could become aware of their social misdeeds through the 'discreet treatment'. There are those individuals who would not correct their faults even after following the 'discreet' path described above. The Almighty Himself knows who those individuals are: as King David put it, G-d " creates… their heart, (and) understands their deeds" (Tehillim 33:15).

Therefore this type of person had to go through Divinely ordained public embarrassment so that he would put his misdeeds right. By being completely covered in tzaraat symptoms he would be be ritually pure. But by being pure he would not have the privilege of being secluded by the Kohen. Instead his tzaraat would be on view to the public - they would know that the Almighty singled him out as a gossip or slanderer. He would therefore have been publicly shamed by the Almighty as a means of correcting his misdeeds.

In summary, a key to understanding the Parashiot is the notion that the laws of Metzora are the Creator's intervention in enabling the individual to correct faults in attitudes towards others. The form that the tzaraat takes in each case is varied to the personality of the individual, which only the Almighty fully understands.


1. Why, in Temple times, did a woman have to bring both (a) a sin offering (following Talmud Nidah 31b) and (b) a burnt offering (following Ibn Ezra) after purification following childbirth?

2. The word 'tzaraat' is popularly translated as 'leprosy'. Why does Hirsch disagree with this rendering, and what does he suggest as a more accurate meaning?

3. A small amount of 'tzaraat' qualifies for the status of 'metzora' - therefore impure. A maximum amount of 'tzaraat' - full body cover - however renders the sufferer 'tahor' - clean. How is this apparent contradiction viewed by (a) Rabbeinu Bachye, and (b) Hirsch?

4. Following the Kli Yakar, for what sins was 'tzaraat' a Divine punishment?

5. Why, according to Rashi, is a certified Metzora excluded from community?

6. What categories of garments could acquire 'tzaraat'?

7. What lesson is the presence of 'tzaraat' in garments meant to teach the owner, according to the Rambam?


1. The sin offering, following Nidah 31b), was to atone for the possibility that in her agonies of childbirth she may have sworn never to live with her husband again. The burnt offering (following Ibn Ezra) after purification following childbirth atones for resentful thoughts she may have had against her husband, or against G-d, during her labor pains.

2. The word 'tzaraat' is popularly translated as 'leprosy'. Hirsch, however demonstrates that both its physical symptoms and spiritual causes are not connected with leprosy. Instead, he understands it as a unpleasant Divine-induced experience, so that the may experience the anguish his conduct caused others (see answer to #5), which should lead him to the right frame of mind, repentance, and eventual recovery.

3. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, this aspect of the law of Tzaraat is a decree of the Torah which is beyond human understanding. Hirsch, however, regards his skin becoming completely covered in Tzaraat as indeed a more severe stage than partial cover. Why is he then declared pure? He is, in effect, being spared the pains of being isolated as a Metzora because he has sunk to such a low spiritual level that the painful Metzora experience will not persuade him to change his personal conduct for the better.

4. Tzaraat, according to the Kli Yakar's quoted sources has its spiritual roots in anti-social conduct - namely haughtimess, evil gossip, and greed.

5. According to Rashi, a certified sufferer of Tzaraat is excluded from community because his affliction is a punishment for slander. As slander destroys relationships between family and friends, it is fitting that he, likewise, should know what it is to suffer isolation from family, friends, and from the whole community.

6. The categories of garments that may acquire 'tzaraat' include those made of wool and linen (including the processed threads not yet woven into the garment), and leather. (13:47-8)

7. The presence of 'tzaraat' in garments is meant to be a warning to its owner of the evils of selfish behavior and gossip. According to the Rambam (Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat 16:10), the first stage of Tzaraat affects property, and if that message goes unheeded, it will occur on the body of the offender himself.


Regarding the laws of a woman immediately after childbirth…

The Talmud (Berachot 54b) brings the following tradition, based on Psalm 107. Four categories of people are required to bring a thanksgiving offering: those surviving journeys by sea, or desert, and those who recovered from dangerous illness, or were freed from perilous imprisonment. Surely it would be more fitting for a woman who survived the rigors and pains of childbirth to also bring a thanksgiving offering, rather than to have to bring a sin offering?

My efforts at tackling the issue raised above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website for Parashat Tazria for 5760.

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.


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