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Parashat Tazria: Explaining Tzora’at From the Perspective of the Book of Job by Yaakov Bieler

March 30, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Laws of ritual purity and impurity elude logical explanations.

                Tora laws of ritual purity and impurity e.g., rules that are associated with contact with dead bodies,[1]  particular bodily excretions,[2]   and various dermatological conditions[3]  are categorized as Chukim (statutes),  i.e., laws which, at best, have rationales that are highly obscure.[4] Yet even more curious and remarkable are phenomena that are declared ritually impure and which seem to have no obvious empirical explanation—forms of deterioration of clothing, leather furniture, and buildings, as described in VaYikra 13:47-59; 14:34-53.

A series of afflictions that are challenging to explain even empirically, let alone conceptually.

                 RaMBaM[5]  categorically states that despite the fact that the same term “Tzora’at” is used for afflictions of skin, hair, clothing, furniture and houses,[6]  the actual process by which these different elements become diseased and the resultant symptoms are not literally identical. The commentator suggests that these different manifestations of Tzora’at happen in sequence[7] to an individual whom God Wishes to alert to the need for changes in his/her behavior. By beginning with things that are relatively removed from the individual’s person, and only after there is no obvious realization on his/her part that repentance is being called for, does the “disease” draw ever closer to the sinner’s own body, God is trying to communicate to the individual gradually, rather than plaguing him/her as soon as there is cause for censure.   

A Rabbinic source that probably served as the catalyst for RaMBaM’s asserting that Tzora’at could occur in a sequence of stages to a single individual.

                VaYikra Rabba[8] points to Biblical analogues for the interconnected series of maladies that RaMBaM states would take place as a means by which the sinner’s attention can be gained and introspection will hopefully lead to self-improvement:

Rav Huna in the name of R. Yehoshua bar Avin and R. Zecharia, the son-in-law of R. Levi said in the name of R. Levi, “The Master of Mercy will not plague the body initially. From whom is this derived? a) Iyov… b) Similarly the plagues of Egypt as described in Tehillim 78:47-50—‘He destroyed their vines with Hail (#7) and their sycamore trees with frost (#7). He gave over their cattle to the hail (#7) and their flocks to hot thunderbolts (#7)…But gave their life over to the pestilence[9] and smote all the firstborn of Egypt (#10)…’ c) In a like manner, Machlon and Kilyon (Naomi’s two sons who eventually die in Moav, causing their mother and Ruth to return penniless to Israel)—at first God destroyed their property and possessions and only then (Ruth 1:5) ‘And they both died Machlon and Kilyon, leaving the woman (Naomi) bereft of her two children and husband.’ So too the plagues (Tzora’at): at first they come to his/her house. If s/he repents, then the affected areas have to be removed (but the house itself can continue to stand).[10] But if not, the house has to be destroyed in its entirety. And they then affect his/her clothing.[11] If s/he repents, they will require laundering. But if not, they will have to be burned. And they then affect his/her body. If s/he repents, s/he will be purified. But if not, s/he will sit alone.

Looking at the contents of this Midrash critically:

                a) The order of the proofs that the Midrash offers:

                This source in VaYikra Rabba is curious for a number of reasons. Firstly, from a chronological as well as canonical perspective, it would appear that the Egyptian example should precede that of Iyov. Even if one were to reference Bava Metzia 15a ff. and Yalkut Shimoni Iyov #891, that record  eight different views regarding when Iyov lived (including an opinion that he was the fictitious creation of Moshe Rabbeinu!), the earliest hypothesis being that he was a contemporary of Yaakov Avinu and eventually marries his daughter, Dina, nevertheless the story of the Exodus that dominates Shemot, part of Chamisha Chumshai Tora (the Five Books of Moses)  is far more central to Jewish history than the experiences of Iyov, whose book is part of Ketuvim (the Writings).        

b)  Problems with the Midrash’s presentation of the Egyptian plagues as a proof to its hypothesis:

                However, it could be argued that an analysis of the Egyptian plagues does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the Midrash wishes to demonstrate. Egyptian personal property was not attacked until Dever (the pestilence) plague #5.[12] Earlier plagues such as Dam (blood #1),[13] Tzefardeah (frogs #2[14]—particularly if the opinion that these were poisonous frogs is accepted), Kinim (lice #3)[15] and Arov (wild animals #4)[16] already caused significant bodily discomfort. Additional plagues affecting property are #7 and #8, Barad[17] and Arbeh[18] (hail and locusts). But  Shechin (boils #6)[19] is once again a bodily attack. The Midrash can be further faulted with regard to its version of the sequence of the plagues, for not quoting the verses in Tehillim in their entirety. If we start with 78:44-46, we read: “…Had turned their canals into blood (#1) and their floods so they could not drink (#1). He sent swarms of gnats among them (#3), which devoured them; and frogs which destroyed them (#2). He gave also their increase to the destroying locust (#8) and their labor to the swarming locust (#8).” A possible rationale for the Midrash would be that a distinction is being drawn between mere discomfiture and actual destruction. While not having water to drink for a finite period of time, to be afflicted with frogs (we have to therefore assume that these frogs were not the lethal variety and that the wild animals might have inflicted injuries, but didn’t kill anyone or anything), lice, boils, etc. are not pleasant, they are also not fatal. Therefore it could be claimed that only Makat Bechorot (the plague of the firstborn) should be considered destruction of the human body, and it is preceded by the destruction of animals and crops via Dever and Barad. Nevertheless, it is clear that a good deal of interpretation would be required in order to completely accept that the Egyptian plagues can serve as an appropriate model for the principle being applied to the sequence of Tzora’at.

                c) The proof from Megillat Ruth:

                As for the story of Ruth’s husband and brother-in-law, Machlon and Kilyon, the Biblical text only states that the reason for the family’s traveling to Moav, rather than remaining in Israel, was because a famine had caused hardship in their homeland. While R. Shimon bar Yochai in Bava Batra 91a claims that Elimelech and his two sons were wealthy leaders of their generation, who left because they did not wish to be burdened with the responsibility to support those of little means,[20] and the fact that Naomi decides to return to Israel because (Ruth 1:6) “…she had heard in Moav that God had Visited his people and Given them bread (in Israel)” implies that she did not have enough resources to stay in Moav, thus supporting the contention that the wealthy family had first become impoverished prior to the deaths of the father and his sons, alternate scenarios could be imagined when following only the literal meaning of the text. Perhaps the family was never wealthy, and when their bare existences in Israel became impossible due to famine, they migrated to a place where they thought they could more easily manage.  Perhaps the men died without anything in particular happening to the family’s resources which may have been meager from the start. From the Biblical text, there is no indication one way or the other, unless one incorporates the Rabbinic tradition into the understanding of the relevant verses.

                d) The proof which appears to be the central one for the Midrash’s approach:

                Which brings us to the story of Iyov. If a biblical textual source is required to demonstrate the progression of a series of ever-closer disasters, from one’s property to one’s body, it would appear that Iyov is the ideal candidate for teaching such a principle. God’s initial directive to Satan, when the sincerity of Iyov’s religiosity and righteousness was brought into question, was, (Iyov 1:12) “…Behold all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” Satan faithfully obeys God’s Directive, and proceeds to deprive Iyov of a) his servants and herds (v. 14-17), and b) his children (v. 18-19).[21] Iyov’s unflagging faith causes Satan to return to God, and request torturing Iyov even more extensively, this time afflicting his very body (2:5-6) In fact, Elihu ben Berachel HaBuzi from the family of Ram lectures Iyov that increasingly personal and dangerous situations are signals from God that the victim of these occurrences is expected to take heed and make significant changes in his/her personal life (32:6; 33:14-30).

e)  On another level, the book of Iyov appears to contradict the conclusion of the Midrash:

                However, in the end, the Midrash that suggests that Iyov is the paradigm for God’s progressive series of hints to a sinner that he must repent, appears to fly in the face of the ultimate lesson that this biblical book appears designed to convey.  Iyov’s “friends”, including the bystander Elihu, attempt to explain to him that it is Iyov’s shortcomings that have caused him to be afflicted by God.[22] Not only do these comments vex Iyov, who continually maintains his innocence and righteousness, but God Himself severely criticizes the “friends’” approach to Iyov’s suffering. (42:7-8) “…My Anger burns against you (Elifaz the Teimanite) and your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me that which is right…like my servant Iyov.” The Halacha even makes of Iyov’s friends a paradigm of what not to do when someone is suffering: (Bava Metzia 58b) “If afflictions come upon an individual, if a person is beset by illness, or if an individual suffers the tragedy of burying children, do not say to him/her in the manner of what the friends of Iyov said, (4:6) ‘Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Recall now: Who that was innocent has ever perished, or where were the upright cut off?’” Why should the Midrash be allowed to cast aspersions upon Iyov’s moral, ethical, and religious character and behavior, when those around him are severely rebuked for having done so?

                It might be suggested that VaYikra Rabba is following the Rabbinic approach in Bava Batra16a, where in spite of the Biblical text’s avoidance of attributing any sin to Iyov, Tannaim (personalities cited in the Mishna and Midrash)  and Amoraim  (personalities cited in the Gemora) find fault with him nevertheless.  Raba,  in particular,  accuses Iyov of sinning in his heart, even if he did not do so verbally;  believing that God’s Creation was flawed, KaVeYachol;[23] believing that man has no free choice; robbing orphans of their fields, improving them, and then returning the property to them;  associating his name with  widows inappropriately,  in order that  these women would draw the attention of others (i.e., if Iyov is paying attention to them, they must be very special) and eventually marry; denying the resurrection of the dead; asserting that  God was Confused, KaVeYachol, and Sent Iyov the afflictions that surely were meant for someone else—much in the manner of Iyov’s “friends” who are deeply troubled by the idea that God may have Sent such suffering arbitrarily, KaVeYachol.


                It would appear that a profound tension exists between the desires of R. Yehoshua bar Avin and R. Levi expressing themselves in the Midrash, as well as individuals like Raba cited in the Gemora on the one hand, and a simple, direct interpretation of the Biblical book of Iyov on the other. The Rabbis are obviously trying to exploit various Biblical sources to drive home the idea that rather than wallowing in problems and difficulties, calamities should be used, if possible, as opportunities to grow spiritually and draw closer to God.[24] However, as efficacious and meaningful as such a  message may be, the texts that these commentators choose by which to illustrate their concept, do not lend themselves easily to making such a point, particularly with regard to the book of Iyov itself.  In a matter as grave and emotionally charged such as this one, i.e., trying to account for human suffering, do the ends justify the means? Does the religious principle trump the Peshat (obvious, self-apparent meaning of the texts)?  Or does a careful reading of the proof texts ultimately weaken the religious point? What do you think?

[1]VaYikra 11:24 ff.; BaMidbar 19:14 ff.

[2] VaYikra 12:1-5; 15:1 ff.

[3] Ibid. 13:1 ff.

[4] A summary of a major debate between commentators regarding whether Chukim have rationales, albeit obscure, or if they are simply means by which God is able to test and unify the Jewish people is recorded by RaMBaN on Devarim 22:6.

[5]Mishna Tora, Hilchot Tumat Tzora’at, 16:10.

[6] Skin: Vayikra 13:1 ff.; Hair: 13:29 ff.; Clothing: 13:47 ff.; Furniture: 13:48; Houses 14:34 ff.

[7] RaMBaM explains that the sequence that will occur is 1) walls of house—2) leather furniture—3) clothing—4) skin, hair of one’s body. While this is logical in terms of an ever-more personal and direct hint that something is amiss with the individual who is being affected, the order in the Tora could be understood as otherwise:

1) Body: 13:1-46

2) Clothing, cloth, leather furniture 13:47-59

(These three elements are all mentioned at the same time and repeated nine times (!) (13:47-8; 49; 51; 52; 53; 56; 57; 58; 59). Consequently, rather than reflecting a sequence of first furniture and then clothing, perhaps no sequence per se is indicated with regard to these three elements.)

3) Walls of house 14:33-53.

In defense of RaMBaM, it could be maintained that although a separate section is not devoted to leather furniture, since this element appears each following the mention of clothing and cloth, it is implied that the sequence remains intact.


[9] As opposed to the pestilence that affected only the Egyptian animals (Dever: Shemot 9:1-7), this phrase is a reference to the plague resulting in the deaths of the first-born, something that was directed at human beings.

[10] VaYikra 14:40.

[11] RaMBaM inserts a fourth stage to the Midrash’s three, involving furniture being afflicted by Tzora’at prior to clothing. However, the biblical text, that includes things made of leather together with clothing and cloth  (see fn. 7 above) could be interpreted as speaking of clothing made of leather, thereby eliminating the entire category of furniture , as well as the problem with sequence in the biblical text that I raised in that earlier footnote.

[12] Shemot 9:1-7.

[13] Ibid. 7:14-25.

[14] Ibid. 7:26-8:11.

[15] Ibid. 8:12-5.

[16] Ibid. 8:16-28.

[17] Ibid. 9:13-35.

[18] Ibid. 10:3-20.

[19] Ibid. 9:8-12.

[20]RaMBaM, Hilchot Melachim 5:9 derives from the story of Naomi’s family that even if during times of extreme hardship it is legally permitted to leave Israel, it is not to be viewed as an act of piety. Since Machlon and Kilyon were great men, God judges such individuals much more harshly than others, and therefore for them, it was illegal and led to their demise.

[21] See e.g., 5:6; 8:20; 11:6.

[22]Iyov’s children are treated as a commodity, a possession, with regard to this story. Rather than being considered a blow against Iyov’s person, the deaths of his children are presented as the final straw, but nevertheless as part of his being deprived of his property. The theme is followed through at the end of the book when God restores to Iyov not only his health, and double the number of his herds and his servants, but also double the number of children that he originally had (42:10, 13). For me, the impersonal nature of how Iyov’s children are treated, constitutes a demonstration of why  “Iyov Lo Haya VeLo Nivra” (Iyov never was and never was created).

[23] Literally “as it were” to indicate that something inappropriately attributed to the Divine, is in fact, not actually so.

[24]E.g., Berachot 5a; Eiruvin 13b “Said Rava or possibly R. Chisda: If an individual sees that afflictions are besetting him/her, he should scrutinize hs/her actions, as it is said, (Eicha 3:40) ‘Let us search our ways and delve deeply into them, and let us repent and return to God.’…”

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