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Parashiot Tazria-Metzora: Tzora’at’s Silver Lining? by Yaakov Bieler

April 26, 2012 by  
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The assumption that most forms of Tzora’at are a Divine Communication of critique:

According to Jewish tradition,[1] the various plagues[2] that fall under the rubric of Tzora’at are brought about by sins of various types.[3] If Tzora’at is to be understood as a form of Divine Censure for objectionable actions and character traits, to be “cured” only after sincere repentance, it follows that these various conditions are not inevitable, but rather precipitated exclusively in response to human behaviors that individuals have the choice to either engage in, or refrain from. It is therefore entirely consistent when each Tora section dealing with the various forms of Tzora’at begins with a conditional form of the phrase containing the state-of-being verb:

Human skin (VaYikra 13:1 ff.)—“A person, ‘Ki Yihyeh’ (if/when there will be) in the skin of his flesh…” 

Hair (Ibid. 13:29 ff.)—“ A man or a woman ‘Ki Yihyeh Bo’ a plague on the head or the beard”

Clothing (Ibid. 13:47 ff.)—“And the garment ‘Ki Yihyeh Bo’ a plague…”

Furniture (Ibid. 13:48)—“…In an animal skin or anything made of leather.”

A noticeable change in the literary pattern.

But there is a key exception to the linguistic pattern established for the types of Tzora’at being discussed in these passages of VaYikra:

VaYikra 14:34

When you come to the land of Canaan that I Give to you for a possession, “VeNatati” (and I—HaShem—Will Place) a plague of Tzora’at in a house of the land of your possession.[4]

Suddenly it appears that Tzora’at, at least as far as one’s home in the land of Israel is concerned, is not something that might or might not happen; but rather it is a certainty that occurs as a result of God’s Will, independent of any human shortcomings. The inconsistency in language when the case of the plagued house is compared with the other manifestations of Tzora’at, leads the Midrash, duly paraphrased by RaShI, to suggest that if the house is ultimately destroyed—not every instance of a plagued home leads to its demolition, as indicated in VaYikra 14:48 ff.—it is because God Desired to Enrich its inhabitants rather than Cause them a loss.

VaYikra Rabba 17:6; Yalkut Shimoni VaYikra #563

R. Shimon bar Yochai taught: When the Canaanites heard that the Jews were coming to fight them, they hid their valuables in their houses and fields. Said the Holy One, Blessed Be He, “I Promised their forbearers that I would Bring their descendants into a land filled with all goodness, as it is said,

(Devarim 6:10-11)

And it will be that when the Lord, your God shall Bring you to the land that He Swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov, to give you great and goodly cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and hewn-out wells that you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant, when you shall eat and be satiated.

What did the Holy One, Blessed Be He, Do? He Sent plagues against his (the Jew’s) house, resulting in his destroying it and finding the hidden treasure.

RaShI on VaYikra 14:34

This was an announcement to them that the plagues would come upon them (inevitably), because the Emorites (?)[5] concealed treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during the whole forty years the Israelites were in the desert, and as a result of the plague they would destroy the house and discover them.[6]

Questions that arise in association with this Rabbinic assertion.

Although this Midrashic interpretation accounts for the change in the introductory phrase containing the state-of-being verb from a conditional context to one of certainty, nevertheless several technical as well as philosophical and theological problems are generated by such an approach.

Firstly, not every time there is Tzora’at in a house, is it necessarily destroyed. Scenarios that result in less than total destruction of the effected building include the explicit statement that only the contaminated stones have to be removed and the house repaired and replastered (14:39ff.), as well as the implicit suggestion that if the original plague is not observed by the Kohen to have spread on his return visit seven days later, not even replacement of the stones and plastering is required. In the former case, unless one says that the treasure is hidden directly behind the affected stones, the new Jewish owners will not be led to discover any hidden valuables, and as for the latter case, if nothing is destroyed, then obviously nothing will be discovered.

But even more fundamentally, it is difficult to maintain that despite the Tora’s employing the same language of “Tzora’at” for plagues affecting one’s body and inanimate possessions, that in only the majority of cases is the disease to be viewed as some form of miraculous punishment similar to what Miriam experiences after speaking badly about her brother Moshe, whereas the same phenomenon—the Tzora’at of houses—serves as a means to provide Jews with a windfall reward and a punishment to the Canaanites in the sense that not only their homes and fields are being acquired by the Jewish newcomers, but that their hidden wealth is also being acquired by another nation.

Interpretations intended to account for these difficulties.

Consequently, several commentaries devoted to explicating RaShI seek to incorporate both the punishment and the reward dimensions in their approach to Tzora’at that affects houses.

One approach contends that the role of Tzora’at affecting a house varied at different points in Jewish history.

Maskil LeDavid

…The Biblical verse (14:34) suggests that a particular message was being delivered to Israel (concerning the inevitability of Tzora’at affecting houses when they first enter the land), and although plagues will (eventually) affect houses as a form of punishment, and as we have said, the Master of Souls will not attack these souls initially, but rather the plagues will first affect the houses (before they directly attack an individual’s person),[7] nevertheless when the Jews first came to the land of Israel, these plagues were not the result of punishment, but rather a form of reward, and that is what is hinted in this verse.

According to this view, one wonders when the transition from reward to punishment took place. It is possible to imagine that at least for a short period of time, when people would see Tzora’at on the walls of their homes, they would eagerly anticipate finding valuables as everyone had in the past, only to be disappointed, because Tzora’at of the house had entered into a new phase. Furthermore, wouldn’t some people be tempted to destroy Canaanite homes that they come upon even without Tzora’at, once it is presumed that more often than not treasure was to be found?

A second interpretation suggests that the association between plagues and treasure symbolizes that inherent within any punishment is always something positive.

Divrei David on VaYikra 14:34

…Certainly the plague that attacks houses is the result of transgression. Yet this is an act of compassion on the part of the Blessed God, by virtue of the possibility that Tova MeiEin Ra’ah (good which arises from the essence of the punishment), i.e., that the treasures will be found.

Divrei David appears to suggest that the loss of one’s home is one of the most devastating tragedies that an individual can suffer with respect to his possessions. Clothing and furniture can either be replaced or done without far more easily than one’s shelter against the elements and the outside world. Consequently, by means of the discovery of hidden treasure, HaShem had Compassion on individuals who on the one hand deserve to be punished for their previous improper behavior, and yet are perhaps in danger of becoming so disconsolate as a result of their loss that they will not strive to correct their iniquity in order to be able to repent and move forward.[8]  We should keep in mind that the treasure is found only after the house’s owners are forced to resign themselves to their home’s destruction. The trauma has already had its effect, and the newfound wealth cannot necessarily make up for the sense of loss that is originally experienced when the Kohen pronounces that the house must be demolished. The Jews who finally arrive in Canaan after forty years of wandering, probably particularly valued finally having a permanent roof over their heads. All things being equal, it is likely that the house’s inhabitants would have preferred to have neither their home destroyed nor finding unanticipated treasure. Nevertheless, if one believes that the “Punisher” does so out of love and concern for the improvement of the “punish-ee”, he will be able to better tolerate what has happened to him and understand it in a positive context.

R. Shlomo Kluger (cited in Matityahu Blum’s Tora LaDa’at, Vol. 2, Kew Garden Hills, NY, 5744, pp. 80-81) essentially reverses Divrei David’s perspective:

…Even discovering golden treasures, if they are acquired via plagues, it is to be considered a punishment, because if the individual was truly worthy, he would receive the wealth in a dignified manner rather than by means of suffering. 

But couldn’t it also be said that if HaShem Wished to truly punish the individual, He would Do so without providing any form of reward? It would appear that the difference between Divrei David and R. Shlomo Kluger is one of emphasis, i.e., when an inherently contradictory phenomenon, such as simultaneous punishment and reward, occurs, should I emphasize the reward in spite of the punishment or vice versa? Does the reward mitigate the bitterness of the punishment, or does the punishment taint the pleasure of the reward?

A third approach could possibly be extrapolated from comments by R. S.R. Hirsch on the reason why the calamity of having one’s house destroyed due to Tzora’at happens in the first place.

The Gemora, Yoma 2b, finds in these very words a hint of the kind of social misbehavior which called for the proclamation by a Nega of God’s Displeasure with the inhabitant of the house: (14:35) “Asher Lo HaBayit” (lit. that to him is a house), so it says there (in the Talmud) “Mi SheMeyached Beito Lo” (a person who retains the house exclusively for himself), that he does not wish to lend his utensils, and therefore says that he does not have the article requested, the lies of such a man God Exposes to the public by having his house cleared out into the street…

While R. Hirsch does not cite the Midrash’s/RaShI’s contention that the destruction leads to the discovery of hidden treasure, and therefore could be understood to reject such a situation, we could speculate that perhaps the finding of the treasure allows the individual a second chance, i.e., he can rebuild his house, repurchase the utensils that he lost and this time share his abode as well as his possessions with those in need. In that case, it is not so much a reward that comes along with the punishment, but rather an opportunity for redemption, an opportunity to demonstrate that the lesson has been learned.


                While Tzora’at in general, and Tzora’at that would affect one’s home leading to its destruction, are not phenomena with which we have to cope today, reflecting upon what these conditions might have been like, and the emotions they may have engendered during the biblical period can lead to our looking upon ourselves and our possessions in a new spiritual light.

[1] This approach is based upon what happens to Miriam in BaMidbar 12:1 ff. and the Tora’s subsequent insistence in Devarim 24:9 that we remember her sin and the particular  Divine Response to it

[2] Tzora’at  can affect human skin (VaYikra 13:1 ff.), hair (Ibid. 13:29 ff.), clothing (Ibid. 13:47 ff.) furniture (Ibid. 13:48), and houses (Ibid. 14:34 ff.)

[3] R. S.R. Hirsch (The Pentateuch, trans. and explained by S.R. Hirsch, Vol. 3, Part 1, trans. into English by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, Gateshead, England, 1976, p. 359), as part of a lengthy essay on Tzora’at at the end of VaYikra 13 summarizes several primary sources in the Oral Tradition that associate this phenomenon not only with slander as in the case of Miriam (see fn. 1), but with a wide variety of transgressions and character failings:

Arachin 16a—Seven sins bring about Tzora’at:

1)   Lashon HaRa (speaking badly about another, even if the report is accurate)

2)   Shfichat Damim (the spilling of blood) 

3)   Shevuat Shav (an oath that is needless)

4)   Gilui Arayot (sexual impropriety)

5)   Gasut HaRuach (arrogance, crudity)

6)   Gezel (thievery)

7)   Tzorat HaAyin (cupidity, unkind selfishness)

Arachin 16b—The Metzora causes separation between man and wife, friend and friend. Therefore it is only proper that, in turn, a separation be imposed upon him and the community in general.

                        His sin offering includes a bird because he was guilty of “chattering” like a bird.

VaYikra Rabba 16:1—Eight evil character traits and actions are causes for Tzora’at:

                                    1)   Einayim Ramot (lit. proud eyes; arrogance)

                                    2)   Lashon Sheker (lit. a lying tongue; lies)

3)    VeYadayim Shofchot Dam Naki (hands that spill innocent blood)

4)    Lev Choresh Machshevet Avon (a heart that constantly is considering iniquity)

5)    Raglayim Memaharot LaRutz LaRa’a (feet that are rushing off to do evil) 

6)    Mishloach Madanim Bein Achim (intentionally aims to cause discord among brothers)

                                    7)    Yafiach Kezavim (spreads falsehoods)

                                    8)    Eid Sheker (false witness)

VaYikra Rabba 16:6—The Metzora transgresses the prohibition of Motzee Shem Ra” (casting false aspersions on another).   (The Midrash is engaging in word play, breaking up the word Metzora into Motzee and Ra.)

[4] The Talmud in Horiyot 10a notes this change in language re Tzora’at during the course of analyzing a similar linguistic variation in another context:

Our Rabbis taught: (VaYikra 4:22) “’Asher Nasi Yechta’ (when a ruler sins)…”

(This phrase is being contrasted with the Tora’s introductions to other instances where a sin offering must be brought:

4:2 “’Nefesh Ki Techta B’Shegaga…’ [a soul if it sins inadvertently]”

4:3 “’Im HaKohen HaMashiach Yechta…’ [if the priest that is anointed sins]”

4:13 “’VeIm Kol Adat Yisrael Yishgu…’ [and if the entire congregation of Israel sins]”

4:27 “’VeIm Nefesh Achat Techeta B’Shegaga MeiAm HaAretz…’ [and if one of the common people sins inadvertently]”)

this might have been taken as a Decree (the ruler is fated by Heaven to sin). Therefore the text stated, (4:3) “If the priest that is anointed sins…” Just as in the latter case, the text means “if and when” so too in the former case (despite the use of “Asher”).

It was said in passing: “It might have been taken as a Decree”. But could one imagine such a thing (i.e., how is it conceivable that given our belief in free choice, someone could be made to sin by Divine Fiat)?


(The assumption that free will is suspended and transgressions are decreed from Above [aside from specific exceptional cases such as Pharoah, the sons of Eli, Mipiboshet and Avner] is roundly rejected by R. Yaakov Abuav, compiler of Ein Yaakov and author of the commentary, “HaBoneh” on the Gemora in Horiyot 10a.

Broad free will is a gift of God to man, whereby His Knowledge does not coerce a person to do or not do a particular thing, since, [Avot 3:15]: “Everything is foreseen, and yet permission is given.” [See RaShI on Berachot 33b]: It is not decreed regarding a particular person at the time of his conception, independent of his being wise or unintelligent, wealthy or poor, whether he will be righteous or evil, and it is also not determined that he will be controlled by a planet or a constellation. For this is what the prophet said, [Yeshayahu 40:26] “Lift up your eyes to the Heavens, and see Who Created these.” [As opposed to believing that one is controlled by the Heavenly Bodies] it is a Commandment to calculate the orbits and seasons of the stars and planets, thereby to understand the greatness of their Creator, [Ibid.] “Who Takes our their hosts according to number, to each one He Calls a name.” Even after their [the stars’ and planets’] creation, He Knows them and Guides them in every detail. However not by means of this [engaging in such calculations—including astrological chartings] are they to be viewed as controlling the free choice of man, [Ibid.] “because despite their [the stars’] great power and massive strength, no individual person will be left behind,”   in terms of his own great power and massive strength to make his own decisions and be responsible for himself, no one will be left behind and subjected to such coercion, as it is written, [Shoftim 12:3; I Shmuel 28:21] “My soul is in my hand always”, i.e., my soul and my will is always in my hand and under my control, so that a person can conduct his affairs in accordance with what appears right in his eyes…)

For we find it is written, (VaYikra 14:34) “…And I—HaShem—Will Place a plague of Tzora’at in a house of the land of your possession.” This is an announcement to them that they will be visited by plagues (and therefore have no choice in the matter)—these are the words of R. Yehuda… Now just as R. Yehuda declared that the Biblical text is an announcement (regarding the inevitability of plagues breaking out in houses) so too it could have been assumed that regarding the sin of the ruler it is inevitable. Therefore “If” had to be written in the next instance.   

It is to be noted that R. Yehuda’s method for removing the question from the case of the sinning ruler, is not available to us with regard to Tzora’at affecting houses. In the sequence of instances of Tzora’at, the case of a plague in a house is not only the last instance of plague that the Tora deals with, but it is set off from the other instances by the beginning of Chapt. 14 which deals with purification from the ritual impurity generated by Tzora’at. Consequenly, the implication of inevitability suggested by “And I will Place a plague” is not subject to modification by subsequent examples of parallel situations.

[5] The change in RaShI from the original Midrash is curious. The Emori are one of the ten nations originally enumerated to Avraham at the Brit Bein HaBetarim (Beraishit 15:21) and the seven specified just before the Jews enter Israel (Devarim 7:1). Whereas “Canaani” is an umbrella phrase including at least all of the seven nations, “Emori” is typically not used in this manner. The Emorites are singled out in Rabbinic tradition in two chapters of the Tosefta (Shabbat Chapt. 7,8) as well as in the Talmud, e.g., Sanhedrin 52b; Avoda Zora 11a, as involved in superstitious practices that are not quite defined as idolatry—“Serach Avoda Zora”—and are primarily associated with divination, incantations and cures for disease.

The assumption that the Emorites secreted valuables within the walls of their homes calls to mind discussions regarding the manner in which Bedikat Chametz (the search for leavening on the eve of Pesach) is to take place when it entails extending one’s arm into a crack in the wall which separates the abodes of a Jew and a non-Jew:

Pesachim 8a-b

It was taught in a Baraita: We do not obligate him to extend his hand into holes and cracks (in the wall) because of danger.

What is the “danger”?

…R. Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Because of danger associated with non-Jews.

And the Baraita follows the view of Polimo, as it is  taught:

A hole (in the wall) between (the residences) of a Jew and an Aramean, one searches (for leavening) up to the point where one’s hand reaches, and regarding whatever remains, he cancels it in his heart.

Polimo said: One does not check at all because of the danger.

            (RaShI–…So that the non-Jew does not say that the Jew is engaging in witchcraft against him.

What danger is there?

If one says that the Jew (who is skulking around at night by the light of a candle) will be suspected for engaging in witchcraft, when he does this, what does he do?

There, where it is permitted, since it is daytime and there is natural light, the non-Jew will harbor no such suspicions; at night, when the search is done by the light of a candle, there is cause for suspicion.

This view is cited in Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 433:7, and Mishna Berura #30 states that even if he Jew did not search at night, he should do so during the day when he will be above suspicion.

Is it possible that since some of these Emorite practices involved putting into their walls not only valuables, but also other objects of religious significance, therefore RaShI substituted “Emori” for “Canaani” in his Biblical commentary?

[6] Eliezer Brody, in his collection of biblical commentaries, Pi HaBe’er (Ashdod, 5761, pp. 223-4) poses the intriguing question, which blessing would one make upon discovering Tzora’at on the wall of his home? Ignoring the possible anachronism that these Berachot may have been legislated by the Rabbis at a later point, and following the dictum in the Mishna Berachot 9:2, “…upon receiving good news, one blesses, ‘Blessed…Who is Good and Does Good’; upon receiving bad news, one blesses, ‘Blessed…the True Judge’”, does one respond to the disturbing and disruptive possibility of having to take apart and perhaps even destroy his home, or, in anticipation of new-found riches, would one invoke the celebratory blessing? In response, R. Brody cites Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 222:4 “One blesses ‘Blessed…Who is Good and Does Good’ even when one fears that a bad result might come from it…And similarly, one blesses ‘Blessed…the True Judge’ even if good might eventually come from it…” Dr. Lisi Levisohn, a psychologist, commented that the Halacha apparently feels it is important that one acknowledges their immediate feelings without mitigating them with possible eventualities. Consequently, whatever may lie within the walls of the home that had previously been occupied by the Emori, my initial reaction to seeing Tzora’at even before calling in the Priest, is dread and worry, requiring a Tzidduk HaDin (a justification of the judgment) on my part.

[7] RaMBaM, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Tumat Tzora’at 16:10

…And this change that is reported concerning clothing and houses that the Tora calls Tzora’at using the same term (that applies to particular human diseases) is not in accordance with natural law but is a sign and a wonder among Israel to warn them concerning Evil Speech, for an individual who engages in Evil Speech, the walls of his house change. (Although in the Tora the plague that affects the house is listed last, according to RaMBaM it is the first stage of a series of events that are intended to put pressure upon the sinner to change his ways.) If he repents, the walls of his house will be purified. But if he continues to engage in sin to the point where his house is destroyed, then the leather implements upon which he sits and reclines in his house change. If he repents, they are purified. But if he persists to the point where they have to be burnt, then the clothes that he is wearing change. If he repents they are purified. If he persists to the point where they have to be burnt, his skin changes and he is afflicted with “Tzora’at” and he will be separated and subject to public exclusion until he will be unable to further engage in the conversation of the wicked which is scoffing and Evil Speech…

[8] On Nitai HaArbeili’s comment in Avot 1:7 “…and do not despair concerning punishment”, R. Abraham Twerski (Visions of the Fathers, Sha’ar Press, 1999, p. 37) writes,

            …Although it sometimes tests the strength of one’s faith, we should know that the ways of God are ultimately just, even when we are unable to understand why reward or punishment are meted out in certain ways. It is at this time that we must surrender to the ultimate Wisdom of God.

…We may not understand why suffering occurs. The Chofetz Chaim referred to the epic of Joseph and his brothers, and pointed out how they were repeatedly bewildered by all that transpired. When Joseph revealed himself to them and said, “I am Joseph”, everything suddenly fell into place and was understood. Similarly, the Chafetz Chaim said, when God will Reveal Himself to us at the Redemption, and say, “I am God”, all of the heretofore unanswerable questions will be answered at once.

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