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SALT 2016 - Parashat Tazria

This shiur is dedicated to the refua sheleima of our alumnus
Rabbi Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut Beller.


Motzaei Shabbat

            Parashat Tazria begins by presenting several laws that apply after a woman delivers a child, including the mitzva of berit mila: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be removed” (12:3).

            The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (130a) cites in reference to the mitzva of berit mila the verse in Tehillim (119:162), “Sas anokhi al imratekha ke-motzei shalal rav” – “I exult over Your staements, like one who comes upon a vast amount of spoils.”  This verse, the Gemara comments, was said by King David to express the special joy he experienced when contemplating the mitzva of berit mila, the sign of the covenant with God permanently imprinted on his body.

            Rav Yitzchak Pinchas Goldwasser, in his Mei Zahav, notes the significance of the comparison drawn here by the Gemara between circumcision and “shalal” – a term used primarily in reference to spoils of war.  A triumphant army enjoys the riches seized from its defeated opponents only after a long, grueling battle, and often after suffering injury and trauma.  “Shalal” is not something which somebody chances upon effortlessly and without sacrifice; it is earned only after enduring a difficult period of hardship.  And this might very well be the symbolic message of circumcision.  Our covenant with God is formally established with an experience of pain and sacrifice, to indicate that the great benefits of this special relationship often require a degree of hardship and selfless devotion.  Of course, pain and suffering are not viewed as an ideal.  However, the experience of circumcision instructs that we cannot expect our status as God’s treasured nation to always be simple and smooth.  It requires hard work and sacrifice. 

            King David elatedly proclaimed, “Sas anokhi al imratekha ke-motzei shalal rav.”  He rejoiced over God’s commands even as he recognized that they are “shalal,” that they often entail difficult “battles,” struggles and sacrifices.  We cannot expect mitzvot to always be easy, and we must not allow the complexities and challenges of Torah life to diminish from our joy and sense of fulfillment over the privilege we have to live such a life.


            The Torah in Parashat Tazria introduces the laws of tzara’at, the skin discoloration which could, depending on numerous conditions, render a person ritually impure.  It is clear from the Torah’s presentation that the determination of such a person’s status is made only by a kohen.  A person does not become a metzora unless a declaration to this effect is made by a kohen after an inspection of the discoloration is made.

            The Mishna in Masekhet Moed Katan (7a) cites a debate among the Tanna’im as to whether a person with a suspicious discoloration is inspected during a regel (on Pesach, Shavuot or Sukkot).  Rabbi Meir maintains that a kohen is permitted to inspect a possible tzara’at skin infection only “le-hakel” – meaning, for the purpose of proclaiming it pure.  This means that if the kohen determines that the discoloration indeed qualifies as tzara’at, he must remain silent and not formally declare the person a metzora, as this would interfere with that person’s Yom Tov celebration.  The majority opinion, which the Gemara attributes to Rabbi Yossi, rules that no inspections are made at all on Yom Tov.

            The Gemara cites Rava as clarifying the precise circumstances which Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi address.  Namely, they speak of a situation of “hesger sheni,” the second “waiting period” prescribed by the Torah.  As we read in Parashat Tazria, a person who is found to have a tzara’at infection is [depending on the circumstances] first assigned to a state of “hesger,” a weeklong period during which he is quarantined in his home to determine whether the infection will spread.  If it does not spread, then a second “hesger” period is declared.  Rava explains that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi address the case of a person whose second “hesger” period concludes during a festival.  According to Rabbi Meir, the kohen should examine the individual, because if he sees that the infection has begun to heal, then he declares the individual pure, such that he can leave his home and enjoy the Yom Tov.  And if the kohen sees that the infection had spread, he remains silent, as declaring the person a metzora would cause him anguish, which is inappropriate on Yom Tov.  Rabbi Yossi, however, disagrees, and maintains that the kohen does not inspect the person on Yom Tov in such a case.  Rava explains that according to Rabbi Yossi, a kohen does not have the option of remaining silent after examining a possible tzara’at infection.  He must issue a ruling one way or the other.  In such a case, therefore, the kohen should not inspect the individual because he would be forced to declare him a metzora if he sees that the infection had spread.

            Rava notes in this context that if a person first notices a suspicious discoloration on Yom Tov, and had not yet been inspected at all by a kohen, then according to all opinions, he should not be inspected on Yom Tov.  Even Rabbi Meir, who, as we saw, allows the kohen to remain silent after an inspection and not issue a ruling, forbids a kohen from making an initial inspection on Yom Tov.  Rava does not explain the rationale for this ruling of Rabbi Meir.  The simplest explanation, it would seem, is that there is no value in inspecting a person at this point.  Rabbi Meir allows inspecting a person at the end of “hesger sheni” because of the possibility that the kohen will determine that he is pure, which will allow him to enjoy the Yom Tov.  In the case of an initial inspection, however, there is nothing to be gained by examining the individual on Yom Tov, since in any event he is considered pure, and we do not wish to declare him impure on Yom Tov.  Therefore, even Rabbi Meir maintains that the inspection in this case should be delayed until after the holiday.

            Tomorrow we will iy”H explore a different possible explanation of Rabbi Meir’s opinion.


            Yesterday, we noted the debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi discussed by the Gemara in Masekhet Mo’ed Katan (7a-b) regarding the protocols relevant to inspecting a suspected tzara’at skin infection.  As Rava explains, Rabbi Yossi maintained that after a kohen inspects the discoloration, he must issue a ruling; he may not remain silent and delay his ruling.  Rabbi Meir, by contrast, allows a kohen to remain silent after inspecting the suspicious infection.  This debate affects the question of whether an inspection may be made on one of the regalim (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot).  According to Rabbi Yossi, an inspection should not be made, because if the kohen determines that the individual is a metzora, he must issue this ruling immediately, and this would disrupt his Yom Tov celebration.  Rabbi Meir, however, rules that an inspection may be made, because if the discoloration indeed constitutes tzara’at, the kohen can simply remain silent, and the individual’s Yom Tov celebration will not be disrupted.

            As we saw, Rava explained that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi argue about only one specific circumstance (when the individual’s second “hesger” period concludes during a festival).  These Tanna’im were not addressing the question of making an initial examination on Yom Tov.  That is to say, if a person first notices a suspicious discoloration during one of the regalim, according to all opinions – even according to Rabbi Meir – no inspection is made. 

            Rav Moshe Mordechai Karp, in his Va-yavinu Ba-mikra, advances a surprising theory to explain why Rabbi Meir agrees to Rabbi Yossi with respect to an initial inspection on the regalim.  In Parashat Metzora (14:36), in discussing the phenomenon of tzara’at ha-bayit (tzara’at on the walls of one’s home), the Torah writes that everything must be removed from the home before the kohen comes to inspect the discoloration.  The reason, as the verse proceeds to explain, is because all the utensils in the home become tamei once the kohen declares a “hesger” waiting period to determine if the discoloration will spread.  In order to prevent the loss that one would endure by all his utensils suddenly becoming impure, the Torah required removing the home’s contents before the kohen’s inspection.  Rashi writes that once the kohen sees the discoloration, “nizkak le-hesger” – he will be compelled to declare a “hesger” period.  Significantly, the Torah does not allow the kohen the option of simply remaining silent after inspecting the house and delaying his ruling until after the house of emptied of its contents.  Instead, the contents must be removed before the kohen’s inspection.  Rav Karp asserts that this applies both according to Rabbi Yossi and according to Rabbi Meir.  Although Rabbi Meir allows a kohen to avoid issuing a definitive ruling after inspecting a tzara’at infection, nevertheless, the infection is subject to “hesger” during the delay.  According to Rabbi Meir, if the kohen chooses not to issue a ruling, then the individual – or his home, in the case of tzara’at ha-bayit – by default enters into a state of “hesger.”  Therefore, a house with a suspected tzara’at infection must be emptied before the kohen’s inspection, because even if he remains silent after inspecting the walls, the house will fall into a state of “hesger” which results in the impurity of its utensils.

            If so, Rav Karp writes, then we can easily understand Rabbi Meir’s position regarding an initial inspection on Yom Tov.  Although Rabbi Meir allows a kohen the option of remaining silent, this option will result in a default condition of “hesger.”  Therefore, he allows inspecting a tzara’at infection at the end of the second “hesger” period, because if the kohen sees that the infection had spread, such that the individual must be declared an outright metzora, he can simply delay his ruling, and the individual will remain in his state of “hesger” until after the holiday.  The worst that can happen, then, is that the individual remains in the state in which he had begun the holiday.  In the case of an initial inspection, however, if the discoloration indeed constitutes tzara’at, the best the kohen can do is remain silent, in which case the individual will fall into a default state of “hesger.”  As we do not wish for this to occur during a festival, Rabbi Meir ruled that an initial inspection should not be made on the festivals.


            The Torah instructs that when a person is declared a metzora, he must reside outside his city (“badad yeishev”) until his tzara’at is cured and he undergoes the required process of purification (13:46).  The Gemara in Masekhet Arakhin (16) explains this law on the basis of the well-known association between tzara’at and the sin of lashon ha-ra – negative speech about other people: “He separated between husband and wife, between a man and his fellow; the Torah therefore said, ‘He shall reside in solitude’.”  His period of solitude serves as a punishment for his having made people lonely by breaking relationships through his gossip and dissemination of negative information about them.

            Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim La-Torah, elaborates further on the significance of the metzora’s solitude.  Indulging in gossip and negativity often expresses an inability or refusal to tolerate other people.  A person who consistently complains about others and speaks negatively about them implicitly conveys the message that everyone besides him is bad and undermines his contentment.  His mindset, taken to its logical extreme, is that nobody else should inhabit the Earth other than him.  When we highlight and protest the negative qualities of all people, we essentially refuse to accept people for the way they are, and insist on a “perfect” world where nobody poses any kind of threat to our happiness.  The metzora is therefore shown the alternative which he in effect desires: a life of solitude.  If everyone is as bad as he makes them out to be; if he cannot tolerate other people’s faults and shortcomings, then his only option is “badad yeishev.”  The painful experience of solitude, Rav Sorotzkin writes, will serve to make the person aware of how much he craves social interaction, and how much he wishes to be in the company of the people whom he was so fond of criticizing and maligning.  The metzora is shown that if he wants to enjoy the benefits of social interaction, then he must be willing to accept the challenges of social interaction – the competition for goods and for respect, the unpleasant or even irritating aspects of other people’s characters, and so on.  If he is unwilling to accept these challenges, then he is consigned to a life of loneliness and solitude.

Living among people and experiencing the comfort of community requires a positive outlook and mindset, that we focus our attention on all that is good about others and patiently accept the rest.  If we cannot tolerate people’s faults and shortcoimngs, then we lose our right to live among them, and are driven “outside the camp,” to suffer the loneliness of seclusion.


            The Ramban, in his commentary to Parashat Tazria (13:47), establishes that the tzara’at described by the Torah, which affects skin, garments or walls of homes, is a purely spiritual, supernatural phenomenon.  It would occur, he explains, only in times when Benei Yisrael lived in a general state of spiritual greatness, such that spiritual maladies would manifest themselves in the form of tzara’at.  In this context, the Ramban notes that the laws of tzara’at apply only in the Land of Israel, the place where the Shekhina resides, as only there can we reach the state of near spiritual perfection in which tzara’at can occur.

            A number of writers have noted that the Ramban’s comments appear to be contradicted by an explicit passage in Torat Kohanim.  Commenting on the final verse of Parashat Tazria (13:59), Torat Kohanim writes with regard to tzara’at ha-beged (the form of tzara’at which affects clothing), “Just as this is a mitzva in the land, it is likewise a mitzva outside the land.”  Torat Kohanim here states clearly that the laws of tzara’at ha-beged apply equally in Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere, seemingly in direct contradistinction to the Ramban’s assertion that the phenomenon of tzara’at is relevant specifically in the Land of Israel, where the Shekhina is present.  (It should be noted that the Ramban makes this comment by way of introduction specifically to the section dealing with tzara’at ha-beged.)

            Rav Chaim Elazary, in his Darkhei Chayim, suggests an answer based on the comments of Chizkuni regarding tzara’at ha-bayit – the form of tzara’at which surfaces in people’s homes.  The Torah writes explicitly that this category of tzara’at applies only in Eretz Yisrael – “When you enter into the land of Canaan…” (14:34) – and Chizkuni explains this to mean that unlike the other forms of tzara’at, tzara’at ha-bayit did not occur in the wilderness, before the nation entered the Land of Israel.  As the Shekhina resided among Benei Yisrael in the wilderness, the laws of tzara’at applied, with the exception of tzara’at ha-bayit, which applied only once Benei Yisrael entered the land and built permanent homes.  In light of this distinction, Rav Elazary suggests that when Torat Kohanim speaks of tzara’at applying even “outside the land,” it might mean in the wilderness, during the period when Benei Yisrael lived outside the Land of Israel but still had the Shekhina in their midst.  If so, then the Ramban’s comments can be easily reconciled with those of Torat Kohanim.  He would likely concede that the laws of tzara’at were relevant in the wilderness, despite this being outside Eretz Yisrael, since the Shekhina resided among Benei Yisrael during this period and they were thus in a spiritual state that lent itself to the phenomenon of tzara’at.

            Rav Mordechai Gifter, in Pirkei Torah, suggests a different answer, noting that Torat Kohanim perhaps refers to the case of a garment which was affected with tzara’at and then brought outside the Land of Israel.  In such a case, we might have assumed that since the garment is no longer in Eretz Yisrael, it is no longer subject to the laws of tzara’atTorat Kohanim therefore instructs that since the discoloration appeared when the garment was still in the Land of Israel, it remains subject to the laws of tzara’at ha-beged even once it is taken outside the land.  This in no way contradicts the position of the Ramban, who presumably refers only to situations where a tzara’at infection was seen outside Eretz Yisrael.


            The Torah in Parashat Tazria (13:2) begins its presentation of the laws of tzara’at with the words, “Adam ki yiheyeh be-or besaro” – speaking of a situation where a person notices a whitening of part of his flesh.  The verse continues by instructing that the discoloration should be shown to a kohen, who then renders a ruling as to whether it qualifies as a tzara’at infection, based on the guidelines set forth by the Torah.

            A number of writers found it significant that the Torah here uses specifically the word “adam” in reference to a person with a suspected tzara’at infection.  Several sources indicate that as opposed to other terms commonly used for “person,” the word “adam” connotes the human being at his or her highest level and stature. “Adam” refers not merely to a human being, but to a great human being, a person of moral and spiritual achievement.  The use of the term in the context of tzara’at thus caught the attention of several writers, who noted that the word “adam” seems, at first glance, inappropriate for a person who is stricken with tzara’at on account of his misdeeds.

            Rav Nissan Alpert, in Limudei Nissan (as cited and discussed by Rav Dovid Gottlieb), suggests that the word “adam” is used in this context because of what is written in the latter part of the verse: “he shall come to Aharon, the kohen, or to one of his sons, the kohanim.”  The individual is not worthy of the complimentary title “adam” because of the causes of his tzara’at, but he is worthy of this title because of his response to his tzara’at.  Rather than ignore the problem, he seeks a remedy by approaching a kohen and beginning the process outlined by the Torah.  He accepts the consequences of his mistakes and commits himself to rectify them.  By approaching a kohen and showing him the discoloration, the person accepts the likelihood of being banished from his city because of his status, and recognizes the need for the subsequent purification process whereby he is then able to return.  And for this, he is truly deserving of the title “adam.”

            In Jewish thought, we earn stature not through perfection, or even through near perfection, but rather through honest recognition of our failings and our sincere attempts to overcome them.  We achieve the level of “adam” not by ensuring to never contract tzara’at – spiritual illnesses – but rather by endeavoring to cure ourselves when this does happen.  We will all experience periods of “impurity,” of failure and decline, and the Torah instructs that the response must be to proactively work to overcome our failures and to constantly pursue personal change and self-improvement.


            The Torah in Parashat Tazria outlines the procedure to be followed when a possible tzara’at infection appears on a person’s skin.  We read that under certain circumstances, the kohen declares a “hesger” waiting period to determine whether the discoloration will spread.  The Torah establishes that if the kohen sees after the “hesger” period that the discoloration has begun to fade, then “the kohen shall declare him pure…and he [the individual] shall clean his clothing and then become pure” (13:6). 

            The clear implication of this verse, as noted by Rashi, is that the “hesger” waiting period itself casts a status of impurity upon the individual.  Although he does not require the lengthy and elaborate purification process required of a person declared as an outright metzora (a “muchlat”), nevertheless, a person who is consigned to a period of “hesger” is regarded as tamei, thus necessitating immersion and laundering his garments.  Indeed, the Mishna and Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (8b) establish that a person in a state of “hesger” is subject to most of the laws that apply to a person declared an outright metzora.

            The question arises as to the reason underlying this status of impurity assigned to a musgar (the term used in reference to a person in a state of “hesger”).  If the kohen determines that the discoloration does not, in fact, qualify as a tzara’at infection, then why is the individual considered tamei?

            Chizkuni (13:6), surprisingly, writes that indeed, the condition of “hesger” does not, in and of itself, render a person tamei.  Rather, given his state of uncertainty, he is not as careful to avoid tum’a as people normally would be.  Chizkuni writes that a person in a state of possible impurity is not likely to bother to take the necessary precautions to maintain a state of purity, since he might already be tamei in any event.  For this reason, Chizkuni writes, a person in a state of “hesger” is considered tamei – not because of the status itself, but rather because of the likelihood that he became tamei during this period.

            Symbolically, we might suggest a different approach.  Perhaps, the tum’a associated with the “hesger” period signifies the ugliness of even suspected “impurity,” the fact that even something resembling tum’a is a cause of revulsion.  Even when an accusation is dropped, the fact that it was made and deemed credible enough to warrant a thorough inquiry casts a lingering shadow of suspicion upon the individual.  And so once a discoloration is similar enough to a tzara’at infection that it requires “hesger,” the individual is already considered “impure,” symbolizing the unseemly effects of suspicion and accusation, regardless of the outcome.

            This possibility becomes particularly significant in light of the well-known association drawn by Chazal between tzara’at and lashon ha-ra – negative and slanderous speech about other people.  Spreading negative information about people causes damage to their reputation that is often irreparable, even if the charges are ultimately disproven.  Such information causes a certain “impurity”; it generates an aura of suspicion and distrust surrounding that individual that remains even if the accusations are ignored or dismissed.  For this reason, perhaps, the experience of “hesger” results in impurity even if the discoloration ultimately does not qualify as tzara’at – because even the possibility of tzara’at, a suspicion of “impurity,” creates an aura of negativity and suspicion that does not easily dissipate.





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