THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Tazria – פרשת תזריע
April 6, 2019 – א ניסן תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Edite Vieira in memory of Maria Da Conceicao De Jesus Sebastiao.
Consigning Tzara’at to History
Most studies on tzara’at either a) examine the spiritual significance of the disease as understood by the sages and later homilists or b) attempt to identify the modern medical equivalent of this ancient Biblical malady. Analysis of the former type is mere theological speculation; analysis of the latter is largely guesswork and necessarily inconclusive. This essay focuses on the more knowable issue: when, how, and why a Scriptural law fell into desuetude.
Tzara’at was part of the ancient Israelites’ social reality. The people who contracted the disease became outcasts, whether because of the technicalities of Mosaic Law or because society instinctively understood that diseased people needed to be quarantined lest contagion spread (see II Kings 7:3). During the Second Temple period, the laws of tzara’at were still observed. Of the various chambers located in the Women’s Courtyard of the Holy Temple, the northwestern chamber was reserved for metzora’im who came to undergo purification rites and offer obligatory sacrifices (Mishnah Middot 2:5).
The sages disagreed about whether the law of tzara’at-afflicted houses was ever carried out in practice. The consensus Tannaitic position is that there never was and never will be a building formally condemned and demolished for its fungoid growth. Two sages disagreed and mustered anecdotal evidence that an afflicted house did exist and that it had the full measure of Scriptural law applied to it. Rabbi Elazar b’Rabbi Shimon claimed that a region in the vicinity of Gaza was known as חורבתה סגירתה, which might be translated as the “ruins of the quarantine.” Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda said there was a place in the Galilee where people used to mark off an area for its impurity because they claimed that there were afflicted stones there (Tosefta Nega’im 6:1).
As noted by Professor Yoel Elitzur, the sages had good reason to dismiss the anecdotal evidence. The place name of the locale near Gaza is not compelling proof that it was the site of a tzara’at-afflicted structure בית מסוגרת. The term סגירתה could mean that the city was shut tight and militarily impregnable (Joshua 6:1). Moreover, Rabbi Elazar b’Rabbi Shimon was a fifth generation Tanna who lived in the Galilee decades after Jewish life near Gaza was disrupted. An ambiguous historical tradition reported by someone far removed in time and place from the purported fact is not reliable. Rabbi Shimon ben Yehuda’s proof is weak on its surface; no specific place name is offered, just that it was somewhere in the Galilee. Moreover, he describes the practice of marking off territory as something that used to happen (implying that it no longer did in his time) and that the people marking off the territory claimed there were afflicted stones on the spot (implying that those claims were not independently verified). At best, it can be said that the historical evidence for tzara’at-afflicted houses is stronger than Rabbi Yonatan’s patently ridiculous assertions that he sat on the grave of a court-executed rebellious son and on the ruins of an idolatrous city (Sanhedrin 71a).
The purification of human metzora’im continued into the early years of the post-Temple period. Rabbi Tarfon, a priest, performed the purification rite on three metzora’im (Sifra Metzora 1). This was possible because the rite only calls for the use of two live birds, cedar wood, crimson wool, hyssop, fresh water, and an earthen vessel (Leviticus 14:5-6). Sacrifices, which require the existence of the Temple, are not part of the initial phase of purification; those are offered on the eighth day of the process. Clearly, Rabbi Tarfon believed that there was religious value – if not also therapeutic benefit – in the performance of the non-sacrificial rite alone.
At some point, however, likely in the early Tannaitic period, the formal designation by priests of diseased persons as metzora’im, as well as their purification from such condition, fell into disuse. The Talmud is entirely silent on the matter. The earliest acknowledgment in rabbinic literature that tzara’at had long ceased to be part of practical Judaism is in a Geonic responsum. “Since the Temple was destroyed, those afflicted with tzara’at are not impure. If, God forbid, nowadays a scholar was to contract tzara’at, we would not have to exclude him from the academy or the synagogue because the Scriptural injunction ‘and your camp shall be holy’ no longer applies (Shaarei Teshuva 176).”
The relaxed Geonic approach to those suffering from skin disease contrasts with a tougher stance taken by later halakhists and commentators. Ra’avyah, while noting that it was unnecessary for him to set down the laws of metzora in his halakhic compendium because those laws were no longer observed in his time, nonetheless commented that it was the practice socially to isolate the afflicted because of the danger they posed to the rest of the community (Ra’avyah Moed Katan 840). Rabbi Joseph Karo commented that tzara’at is repulsive and is a physical blemish bad enough to justify the dissolution of marriage (Bet Yosef Even Ha-Ezer 39). Ramban noted that whereas a man who experiences a nocturnal emission has freedom of movement provided that he does not prematurely re-enter the camp (Deuteronomy 23:11), the metzora is bidden to sit outside the camp in isolation and not move about or interact with others (Leviticus 13:46). Why? Aside from any ritual purity considerations, the metzora’s odor and breath are injurious to others.
A late Midrashic work quotes the Amora Rabbi Yochanan as saying that, since the destruction of the Temple, there has been no means to escape corpse impurity and that a metzora has no longer been a source of impurity (Lekach Tov Tazria 33b). A century ago, Louis Ginzberg noted that the author of Midrash Lekach Tov sometimes made incorrect statements. In this instance, both his comments are historically inaccurate. As I wrote in my 2013 essay “Still Using the Ashes,” the ashes of the red heifer were still available in second century CE Eretz Yisrael to purify people from corpse impurity. And, as the above cited Tarfon story shows, the metzora was still a source of impurity in the immediate post-Temple era. Moreover, Rabbi Yochanan himself addressed the matter of tzara’at affliction (Berakhot 5b), possibly indicating that, in his time, they were still sources of impurity.
Nevertheless, Midrash Lekach Tov offers a plausible reason why the laws of tzara’at ceased to be implemented. The Jewish community lacked teachers who were trained in the art of identifying which skin abnormalities did or did not qualify as tzara’at. Already in the Tannaitic period, Rabbi Hananiah ben Hakhinai stated that one cannot issue a formal pronouncement on tzara’at unless first adequately trained by one’s mentor (Sifra Metzora 7). Rav, too, mentioned ruling on tzara’at samples as an example of something a young scholar ought not to do without first undergoing a rabbinic apprenticeship (Yerushalmi Hagigah 77a). Tur also explained the non-implementation of tzara’at laws as resulting from the absence of professional expertise (Hilkhot Eretz Yisrael 3). [Interestingly, he does not advocate the social isolation of the metzora; instead, he advises that prayers be recited for his swift recovery, just as prayers are recited for those suffering from all other medical conditions.]
Rambam ruled that tzara’at laws are always and everywhere applicable, even in the post-Temple period and in the diaspora (Hilkhot Tum’at Tzara’at 11:6). In his commentary on the Mishnah, he cited the example of Rabbi Tarfon as proof that, theoretically, even in his own time it would be possible to perform the initial purification rite involving birds, cedar wood, crimson, and hyssop. He doubted whether it would be permissible for the metzora to shave his head completely. Since the full mitzvah of purification is unattainable in the absence of the Temple, Rambam was concerned that the positive command of shaving might not override the general ban on rounding the corners of one’s head or shaving one’s beard. Yet for all of Rambam’s enthusiasm about the contemporary applicability of tzara’at laws, there is no indication in his writings that any practical measures were taken. Why not? Radvaz found an answer in another section of the Mishneh Torah where Rambam ruled that a diseased person is not impure until formally declared so by a priest whose Aaronid genealogy has been confirmed (Hilkhot Terumot 7:9). Since priests satisfying such a strict genealogical test do not live among us, and despite the reality that many people are today afflicted with skin disease of one sort or another (psoriasis, eczema, et al), there can never again be an impure metzora.
More recent scholars have offered other reasons why the metzora’s purification rite can no longer be performed. One concern is that the priest must wear priestly attire. Yet if the purification rite is not absolutely necessary, something very much in doubt, then the priest could not lawfully wear the kohanic belt, which contains sha’atnez. Alternatively, we are uncertain about the identity of the “crimson stuff” needed for the ritual. Rabbi Jacob Emden theorized that a person can contract metzora impurity even in the absence of any priestly examination (Shu”t Ya’avetz 1:138). Yet he explained that the purification ritual is still not performed because it is entirely superfluous. The “land of the heathens” has ever-present, rabbinically imposed impurity and in the absence of the ashes of the red heifer, corpse-impurity abounds; the contemporary metzora would gain nothing from undergoing the process set forth in Leviticus 14.
If the most compelling of the above theories regarding why the metzora law fell into disuse is that the learned class experienced an unfixable break in the chain of tradition, it is worth pressing further and asking why that break might have happened. It certainly was not because an entire generation of Jews lived and died without anyone’s experiencing skin discoloration. I would argue that in the post-Temple period certain aspects of religious practice died not on account of legal technicalities that made them inoperative, but, simply, from popular neglect. Especially in the case of a complicated and burdensome law like the metzora, it would make sense that people no longer felt the need to show their bodily abnormalities to an ecclesiastical authority.
With the demise of the Temple, the social and cultural standing of the priestly class plummeted. It is not surprising that, of all people, it was Rabbi Tarfon who endeavored to preserve metzora purification for post-Temple Judaism. Tarfon was once absent from the academy. When he returned the following day, Rabban Gamliel inquired about the previous days’ absence. Tarfon answered, “I was performing a [Levitical] service.” Gamliel incredulously asked how Tarfon could claim to have performed a Levitical service in the post-Temple era. Tarfon explained that he was busy eating Terumah, which, according to his Scriptural exegesis, is akin to Temple service (Pesahim 72b). The precise contours that post-Temple Judaism would eventually develop were, of course, unknown to the rabbis of the late first and early second centuries CE. Tarfon, a proud Kohen, wishes to perpetuate a style of Judaism in which the Aaronid caste still played a prominent role.
Tzara’at is but one example of many Biblical institutions that the modern Jew never even thinks about outside of the annual Torah reading cycle. The true story of how a law ceased to be operative is hardly ever the simplistic version that it was just suddenly dropped the day after Titus burned down the Sanctuary. Despite the indifference of the masses to some onerous laws, there were attempts by pietists and scholars to save as much of practical religion as they could, even in the absence of the Temple. Loyalty to, and love of, our ancestral faith demands no less.