Rabi Bernie Fox
A person who has on the skin of one’s flesh an affliction of tzara’at, and he is brought to Aharon the Priest or to one of his sons – the Priests. (Sefer VaYikra 13:2)
A garment when there is on it an affliction of tzara’at, [whether] a garment of wool or linen. (Sefer VaYikra 13:47)
When you come to the Land of Cana’an that I give to you as a possession, and I will place an affliction of tzara’at on the house of the land of your possession. (Sefer VaYikra 14:34)
I. Three forms of tzara’at
The Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora include a discussion of the affliction of tzara’at. This affliction is initially described as a skin disease. It is generally characterized by a white blotch. A person who has a white skin discoloration is brought to a Kohen – a Priest. The Kohen studies the discolored area. Based on criteria outlined in Parshat Tazria, the Kohen determines whether the person has tzara’at. If the person has the affliction, then he or she is declared to be tameh – spiritually defiled. The person is quarantined until the Kohen determines that the affliction has passed.
Later, in Parshat Tazria, the Torah explains that another form of tzara’at can appear on garments, cloth, and leather. This form of tzara’at’s has its unique characteristics. It renders the garment tameh and this defilement may be transferred to objects or people. A Kohen evaluates a discoloration to determine whether it is tzara’at. The Torah provides methods for treating the garment and removing its tzara’at. If it cannot be removed, the garment, cloth, or leather is destroyed.
In Parshat Metzora, the third form of tzara’at is described. This appears on the wall of a house. It has its unique characteristics and treatment. It renders the house tameh and this defilement may be transferred to objects or people. Again, the assessment of the discoloration, the response, and treatment are performed by a Kohen. If the measures to remove the tzara’at are unsuccessful, the house must be demolished.
II. Tzara’at of inanimate objects
The tzara’at that afflicts a person is a physical malady. But tzara’at in its broader framework afflicts even inanimate objects – garments and houses. This demonstrates that it is not fundamentally a physical disease. Instead, one of its expressions is as a physical disease but its essential character is not biological. What is its nature and why does it afflict inanimate objects?
All forms of tzara’at are a consequence of sin. The Torah specifically associates tzara’at with lashon ha’ra – speaking negatively about another. It records that Miryam, Moshe’s sister, shared with Aharon negative comments about Moshe and she was stricken with the affliction.1 However, other sins can provoke the punishment.2 Because tzara’at is a Divine punishment, it has a miraculous character. It is not strictly a physical malady, limited to human beings. It can afflict inanimate objects – garments, cloth, leather, and even houses.
Because tzara’at is a punishment, it is reasonable for it to directly strike a person as a skin affliction. Why does it also strike garments and houses? If a sinner deserves tzara’at why not punish the sinner directly? Why afflict or destroy his or her property?
One reason is that the unique character of tzara’at is evidenced by its expression in inanimate objects. Imagine tzara’at only affected human beings and not their possessions. One stricken by tzara’at would be tempted to interpret the affliction as a naturally occurring physical disease. Rather than evaluating one’s behaviors and repenting, the afflicted individual would look toward medical science for a cure. The Torah forewarns against this response by extending the affliction to inanimate objects. This demonstrates that tzara’at is not a purely natural phenomenon. It is a spiritual malady.
III. The stages of tzara’at
Rambam – Maimonides – provides another interpretation. He comments that generally, the three expressions of tzara’at occur sequentially. The sinner’s home is stricken first. Hopefully, the person repents. However, if the sinner persists in his or her behavior, then tzara’at progresses and afflicts the person’s garments. If the sinner refuses to respond to this punishment, then he or she is afflicted with the skin disorder.3
According to this interpretation, the order in which the forms of tzara’at are presented in the Torah is non-sequential. Tzara’at first afflicts a person’s home, then one’s garments, and finally one’s body. The Torah presents the forms of tzara’at in the opposite order. First, it describes the laws governing the skin affliction of tzara’at. Then, it discusses tzara’at of clothing. Finally, it deals with tzara’at of houses. Why does the Torah not present the forms of tzara’at in the order in which they occur?
And Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah did all that Hashem commanded Moshe. (Sefer Shemot 38:22)
IV. Betzalel’s insight
This question points to a basic idea about the organization of material in the Torah. Often, the Torah organizes its material based on conceptual considerations. This is clearly demonstrated by an earlier instance. Betzalel was appointed by Hashem to manage the fabrication of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle – and its vessels. These vessels included the Ark, Menorah, the Table on which the Shewbread was placed, the Golden Altar, and Copper Altar. The above passage states that Betzalel accomplished his mission according to the specifications Hashem gave to Moshe. Rashi comments that Betzalel anticipated details that Moshe did not communicate to him. Specifically, in his instructions, Moshe first directed Betzalel to create the vessels and then he directed him to create the structure of the Mishcan and its courtyard. Betzalel reasoned that one first builds a house; then, creates its contents. He proceeded in this order. Moshe acknowledged that Betzalel acted properly and that his order conformed to Hashem’s instructions.4
V. The commandment to create the Mishcan There is a difficulty with Rashi’s comments. When the commandment to create the Mishcan is presented in the Torah, Hashem first provides Moshe the instructions for the Ahron – the Ark, the Menorah, and the Table. Only after these instructions are communicated, does Hashem command Moshe to create the Mishcan. Why does the commandment not follow the logical order identified by Betzalel? Why did Hashem not first instruct Moshe in the creation of the Mishcan and afterward in the creation of its vessels?
The answer is that Betzalel was correct in his assessment of the order in which the fabrication should take place. The house should be created first. Then, its vessels are created and place within. However, this order of fabrication does not reflect the conceptual relationship between the elements. The Ahron and the other vessels are the essential components of the institution. The Mishcan is its housing.
Consider a museum. The building may have beautiful architecture, but it is not the essence of the institution. Its contents are its essence. The board of the museum will want to be sure that it has a place to house the valuable artifacts that it plans to acquire before their purchase. But they would acknowledge that these artifacts are the sole reason for the museum’s existence.
An important principle emerges from this analysis. Often, the order in which the Torah presents material is dictated by conceptual considerations. It does not present the instructions for the creation of the Mishcan and its vessels in the order in which they were to be fabricated. The elements are presented in the order that communicates their conceptual relationships.
VI. The fundamental form of tzara’at
This principle explains the order in which the laws of tzara’at are presented. The primary form of tzara’at is a skin affliction. The two other forms – in clothing and houses – are preliminary warnings. In other words, if the skin affliction of tzara’at did not exist, then the other two forms would not exist. Because the most fundamental form of tzara’at is a biological malady, it is presented first. Without describing tzara’at of the skin, the other two forms cannot be discussed. They only exist as preliminary stages or warnings intended to prevent a sinner from contracting the skin disease.
VII. The importance of the Torah’s organization
The Torah contains many important narratives. It discusses our Avot – the Patriarchs. It describes our suffering in Egypt, our rescue from bondage, Revelation, our travails in the wilderness, and the beginnings of our conquest of the Land of Israel. It includes the six hundred thirteen commandments and some of their details. But the Torah is not only a collection of these narratives and a listing of commandments. It organizes these commandments according to conceptual considerations. The organizational scheme provides insight into underlying principles governing the commandments.
The above discussion illustrates this principle. Tzara’at is a strange phenomenon. It is rendered more bizarre because we do not encounter it in our time. A casual or skeptical reader may dismiss it as myth or superstition. A more careful and thoughtful reader will first consider the material from an objective and non-judgmental perspective. This reader will uncover the conceptual content that fills the Torah’s discussion of tzara’at. The above discussion is a single example of this content. When the reader encounters this content, he or she will recognize this is not myth or superstition. Writers of mythology and recorders of superstitions do not incorporate conceptual substrata into their presentations. The conceptual content of the Torah reflects its truth and divinity.
1 Sefer BeMidbar 12:1-16.
2 Mesechet Erchin 16a.
3 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 16:10.
4 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 38:22.