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But What About Tzara'at Habeged?

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

Who knows eight? I know eight! Eight is the number of days the metzora has to wait until he can bring his sacrifices and be purified from his impure state. It is unlikely that anybody sang this version of the song at their Seder table.  For a start this version has yet to be written. The main reason that the song does not include this line  is that this week's parshiot are probably  the least well known of all those in the Torah.  As soon as the word tzara'at (often translated as leprosy though not to be confused with the actual medical condition) is mentioned, people mumble something about not speaking lashon hara and then switch off.

Let's try and get over our initial reaction and look at some of the details found in these parshiot. We know that the Torah discusses three different forms of tzara'at , that afflicting a person's flesh, that which appears on clothing  and finally tzara'at on a house. The three forms of tzara'at are found in the Torah in this order and it is generally understood that the flow is from the most severe to the least severe form of tzara'at.

This listing of the three forms of tzara'at raises two questions, one which relates to the structure and the other more fundamental to the entire issue.   When we look at the end of parshat Tazria we discover that the Torah discusses tzara'at which afflicts clothing.  At the beginning of the next parsha, Metzora, we find the discussion of the purification process for a person whose flesh has been affected by tzara'at.  Why did the Torah interrupt its discussion of tzara'at of the flesh in order to discuss tzara'at which appears on a person's clothing?

Our second question relates to the purification process itself. The Torah describes in detail the sacrifices required and a somewhat complicated ritual which is to be completed in order to achieve purification from the impure state of personal tzara'at, i.e. that which has afflicted a person's body.  A similar, though not identical process, is required in order to overcome the tzara'at which has afflicted a house.  In stark contrast to these, the process for purifying clothing with tzara'at requires either washing the article of clothing or in certain cases destroying it. There are no sacrifices to be brought nor does the Torah require any other ritual service in this case. What is the significance of this discrepancy?

Rav Amnon Bazak (Ram in Yeshivat Har Etzion and author of several books on Tanach) presents an excellent answer to our first question about the structure of the parshiot. In doing so, he also relates to the nature of tzara'at habeged. I highly recommend reading Rav Bazak's  shiur which can be found here: http://etzion.org.il/en/person-garment-and-house. Our ideas below may lead us to understand the structure of the parshiot rather differently than Rav Bazak, more of a  chiastic structure,  but I leave the details of this to our readers to investigate.

We will focus on our second question and propose a slightly different outlook on tzara'at. Many assume that tzara'at is a Divine punishment for committing the sin of lashon hara. This is based on the story of Miriam and Aharon conversing about Moshe, and Miriam subsequently contracting tzara'at.  However, there are several other cases of tzar'at in Tanach which do not appear to be connected to lashon hara. This may lead us to a different understanding of the reasons for which a person may receive tzara'at. These ideas have been discussed previously both by my esteemed colleague, Rav Jonathan Bailey http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1448, and by this author http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1084 .

The problem we encounter however is that while there are various instances in Tanach of tzara'at affecting a person, we find no such examples of tzara'at which afflicts clothing or a house.  How are we to understand the nature of the Divine message in these instances?

On introducing the section about tzara'at habayit, the Torah tells us that it only applies in Eretz Yisrael. Why should this be?

One of the explanations found in the mefarshim is that the tzara'at in the house is employed to locate idols or articles connected to idol worship which may have remained in the houses from the time when they were inhabited by the Cana'anite nations. 

On a different level, based on the fact that the Kohen, prior to determining whether the stain in the house is actually tzara'at, instructs the owner to empty the house of all its contents, the Midrash explains who may deserve his house to be afflicted by tzara'at:

A person says to his neighbor, "Lend me a kav of wheat."

The neighbor replies: "I have none."

"Then a kav of barley?"

"I have none."

A woman says to her neighbor: "Lend me a sifter."

She replies, "I have none."

"Lend me a sieve?"

She replies, "I have none."

What does the Holy One do? He brings a plague on the house, and when the man is forced to take out all of his belongings, everyone sees and they say, "Didn't he say that he had nothing? Look how much wheat he has! How much barley! How many dates there are here!"(Vayikra Rabba 17)

 

It appears from this Midrash that the tzara'at on a home comes to remind a person not to be stingy or miserly to his neighbours. The privilege of owning a home requires us to use it for positive things such as "gemilut chasadim".  We further suggest that the homes we are destined to build in Eretz Yisrael are to be our only real permanent homes and therefore define more clearly how we are to use our home as a source of social interaction.

Although we have by no means exhausted the discussion about tzara'at habayit, we have at least cited one or possibly two reasons suggested as to why it may appear. The same can be stated about tzara'at haguf (affecting the person or the flesh) as discussed in the two shiurim found in the links above.

But what about tzara'at habeged?  Earlier we quoted the idea that the Torah presents the types of tzara'at in descending order, tzara'at habayit being the least severe.  However, we note that if the Kohen deems the tzara'at on the house to be genuine, the entire house must be dismantled and the materials of which it is made are to be discarded.  Surely this is more severe than burning a piece of clothing?  Here we are dealing with losing one's entire home not just one shirt!  This loss, apart from being a severe financial blow, requires an entire upheaval. Until a person is able to build anew he is likely to have to relocate his family on a temporary or even permanent basis.  Once this ordeal is over we can be sure that the owner of the previously tzara'at afflicted home will have learned to appreciate the sense of camaraderie and community.

Let us return to tzara'at haguf. If a person is found to have such a condition he is required to sit outside the camp for a full seven days. He is to have no interaction with other people (with the possible exception of his co-lepers) but rather must sit out the week in solitude. This too will cause him to incur financial loss as he will be unable to work for the duration of his time outside the camp. And we can be certain that this person too will learn the benefit of being a member of society and enjoying good neighbourly relations with those around him.

We have therefore shown that tzara'at which affects the body or the home are not only similar in terms of the process of purification. They also relate to similar traits in the afflicted person or home owner and allow him the opportunity to reflect on the nature of his interaction with society and mend his ways.

If we assume that tzara'at is a Divine message to the afflicted person, as would seem mandated by the biblical text, then tzara'at habeged would appear to be the least severe form of the condition.  One can change one's clothes much more easily than one can change one's character or even move homes.  We regularly change our clothing. We discard old clothes; we purchase new outfits.  In this sense the purification process for tzara'at habeged is not too traumatic. Yes, in ancient times, clothing was not as disposable as it is today but to change a garment is still not as great an upheaval as to move homes or remaining in solitude for a week and certainly does not require the sort of soul searching needed to correct a bad trait.

Once we string all these ideas together, we see that tzara'at habeged is really the mildest form of tzara'at.  It comes to warn us that all is not right in respect to our relationship with those around us.  After all, our clothing is a representation of how we want to be perceived by society; it is our most basic interaction with our family and friends. It is also the easiest to alter and adjust.  It is for this reason that tzara'at which affects clothing is the first warning. We are to look at our interpersonal relationships and, if need be, make some simple changes comparable to changing our clothing. If we do not heed this warning, then the Divine condition of tzara'at may afflict our home or our body and be a cause for a much greater upheaval.

What then is the message for us today who don't generally come into contact with tzara'at? I have a few ideas but here too I will allow you all to contemplate this and come to your own conclusions. Please feel free to share these and any other comments with me at ryh@harova.org

Rav Yonatan 

 

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