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Class #5 - Class Notes

The final av hatumah is m’tzora.  As we will see, it’s not clear what the term tzora’at means, so we will leave it untranslated.  (It is clear that tzora’at is not leprosy.  The symptoms simply do not match. According to the translator, the word leprosy in English used to mean skin disease.)

            First we will discuss the process of how this works, and then the more philosophical material the author includes by way of shoresh.  It should not be a surprise that Rambam thinks there are several mitzvot involved in defining the conditions of what is and what is not tzora’at, and that Ramban thinks the only mitzvot define the things a m’tzora is required to do or to avoid.


Tzora’at can infect people in two different ways, and also cloth and houses, to make them tamei.  According to Rambam, there are four avot:

1.      A person who has been certified by a cohen as having tzora’at.

2.      A person who suspects he or she is infected with tzora’at, but the consulting cohen is not sure. The person goes into quarantine for one week or two weeks, depending on the circumstances.

3.      Cloth that a cohen certified as infected with tzora’at.

4.      A house that a cohen certified as infected with tzora’at.

Nothing becomes tamei because of tzora’at without involvement of a cohen.

            Let’s start with people. (Mitzvot #169 and 170.)  There are two types of tzora’at in people.  The first is a skin disease that turns the skin bright white, effects the hair on the skin, but aside from that leaves the skin healthy.  It is not impossible that this is psoriasis, an autoimmune disease with similar symptoms. 

            If a person suspects that he or she is afflicted with tzora’at, the person consults with a cohen.  The cohen either needs to be very knowledgeable in this area, or the cohen can bring a knowledgeable consultant with him to help the cohen decide whether or not the affliction is tzora’at.  The affected part of the skin must be at least as large as a bean and at least as wide as six hairsbreadths.  If the color is one that indicates tzora’at, the hair is white and the flesh below is healthy, the cohen declares the person a m’tzora.

Four different shades of white are symptoms of tzora’at:  white like clean wool, white like the membrane of an egg, white like snow, and white like the whitewash of the heichel.  Any of those shades of white, or any combination of them, indicate tzora’at. Even if the skin color changes, as long as the color is within the range of these four shades of white, the skin has the color of tzora’at.  If the skin is less white than the membrane of an egg, the person just some skin disease and is tahor. The Mishnah describes the four colors that indicate tzora’at as “two that are four.”  This is a formulation the Mishnah uses in several other situations.  Here, it seems to mean that two of the white colors are shades of the other two.

 If the cohen finds the lesion has all of the characteristics of tzora’at, the cohen immediately declares the person tamei.  If the lesion covers the person’s whole body, the person is tahor.

            Of course, the skin irritation might have some of the three characteristics (color, white hair and healthy skin) but not others.  If the color is right but the flesh does not look healthy, or there is no white hair, the person is quarantined for seven days.  If, during that week, any one of the three characteristics becomes more like tzora’at, or the affected area spreads, the cohen certifies the afflicted person as a m’tzora.  If the affected area did not spread or get white hair or develop healthy flesh, the quarantine continues for another week.  If at the end of the quarantine none of the three characteristics has gotten worse, the person is not a m’tzora.  But if the affected patch persists and later becomes more like tzora’at, the person is tamei as a m’tzora immediately.

            Rishonim disagree about the nature of the quarantine. Among the possibilities are that the person is restricted to his or her room or that the person just needs to avoid the cohen seeing the affected area. The person in quarantine is tamei. The person in quarantine transmits tumah as a m’tzora would.  But the person in quarantine does not have to let his or her hair grow, tear his or her clothing, or do the other things unique to a m’tzora.  If the person is later declared not to be a m’tzora because the lesion did not develop further symptoms, the person still has immerse in the mikvah to become tahor.

            The second type of tzora’at in people is called “netek.”   A netek is a bald spot the size of a bean within the hairy areas of someone’s body, specifically the hair on the head or the beard. If there are at least two normal colored hairs in the patch, the patch is not a netek.   (Male pattern baldness is not considered netek.)  The cohen has to examine the color and condition of any hair growing in this area.  If the cohen is not sure whether the affected area is a netek, the cohen leaves a ring of two normal hairs around the affected area and shaves a ring around that to help see if the netek is spreading.  (Actually, anyone can shave the required area; it need not be the cohen.)  Then the person goes into quarantine.  If after a week the ambiguity persists the person goes into another week-long quarantine.   There is a negative mitzvah that the person should not pull out or shave off the hair that is growing on or around the netek.  Even the cohen cannot modify the real evidence.  (We will see in mitzvah #584 that there is a parallel prohibition on tampering with other potential signs of tzora’at.)

            Mitzvah #171 instructs what to do once someone is declared a m’tzora by the cohen.  The tamei person tears his or her clothing and leaves his or her hair uncut as a sign to let people know the person is tamei.  (Note the parallels here to the behavior of someone in mourning. The questions for further study in this essay suggest that the m’tzora shares other practices with someone in mourning as well.)  The m’tzora must do something to make it obvious to others that the person is an av hatumah.  (The author says in this essay that others who are avot hatumah also must do something that makes that status obvious to others.)  Although our author does not mention it, there is another requirement.  The m’tzora is required to stay “outside of the camp,” that is he or she has to stay outside of the city or town where he or she lives. Given all these requirements, becoming a m’tzora means major, difficult life changes. The person continues that way until the skin lesion heals and no longer has the characteristics of tzora’at. 

            The cohen who certifies that the person has tzora’at has an obligation to facilitate that person becoming tahor when the tzora’at has healed.  Mitzvot #173 and 174 outline the long, complex and unusual process of the m’tzora becoming tahor.  The author says this special procedure applies to people who are m’tzoraim, and cloth and houses infested with tzora’at.  The author’s reference to cloth seems mistaken, since the source verses clearly state the infested cloth must be burned.  The situation with houses is a little more complex.

            The m’tzora takes a new earthenware bowl and puts water from a running spring into it.  (The water must be from a free flowing spring, the same type of water eligible to be used in processing the parah adumah.)  The person then takes two free, uncaged, non-domesticated birds, such as wild sparrows.  The cohen chooses the healthier bird, ritually slaughters it and lets its blood flow out into the bowl.  The cohen then buries the bird in the presence of the m’tzora.  The cohen takes one cubit of cedar, one handbreadth of eizov (hyssop according to the translator), scarlet cloth weighing one shekel, and the live bird.  All four of those items are necessary.  The cohen links them up, wrapping the woods in the scarlet cloth and holding the bird next to that bundle such that the wing tips and tail of the bird touch the bundle.  The cohen then dips all four in the blood and water mixture.  The cohen sprinkles the water from the bundle seven times on the back of the m’tzora’s hand, and then releases the bird.  If the bird comes back, the cohen chases it away.  The cohen then shaves all of the body hair of the m’tzora using a straight razor until he is “as hairless as a gourd.” (Normally, it would be forbidden to shave certain parts of a man’s beard, as we will see later in our study.)  The m’tzora then immerses in a mikvah and immerses his or her clothing in the mikvah.  After that, the m’tzora no long transfers tumah by entering a house, by carrying something or by sitting or lying on something.  A male m’tzora is forbidden to have sex at this time, but a female is permitted.  The m’tzora is still an av hatumah and transmits tumah by touching.

            On the seventh day after that, the cohen again shaves the m’tzora.  The m’tzora immerses again and immerses his or her clothing again, and then the m’tzora is a t’vul yom.  That night, the m’tzora becomes tahor, but remains a m’husar kapparah until the person brings the required sacrifices.      

            The m’tzora still has to bring sacrifices: an olah, a hattat, one log of oil, and an asham.  If the m’tzora is poor, birds are sufficient for the hattat and olah.  Like all cases of m’husar kapparah, someone else can bring the sacrifices on the person’s behalf, even without the person’s consent or knowledge. 

            The first of the sacrifices is the asham, and it is unusual.  A cohen waves the live lamb and oil as a preliminary step.  Then the m’tzora does smichah on the animal.  Some of the animal’s blood is taken into a vessel and sprinkled on the altar as usual, but another cohen processing the sacrifice puts some of the blood on his hand and dabs some of the blood on the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the m’tzora.  The cohen pours some of the oil into his hand, dips his finger in and dabs the m’tzora with the oil just as he did with the blood.  The cohen then sprinkles oil with his finger toward the kodesh k’doshim seven times.  Last, the cohen dabs some of the oil from his hand on the m’tzora’s head.


            In addition to tzora’at in people, tzora’at can affect cloth and houses.  These are both complex areas, but our author keeps his description very short.  Our discussion will reflect what the source verses say and what the author adds to that.

The third type of tzora’at appears in cloth. (Mitzvah #172.)  It can be either a red or green patch the size of a bean in cloth made of wool or linen.  The specific shades or red and green are carefully defined.  The cloth affected can be in clothing or other objects  made of cloth, such as boat sails and curtains. Looking at the source verses, Lev. 13: 37-59, the cohen must be called in to declare the infestation as tzora’at.  The cohen marks the infested area and quarantines the cloth for a week.  If the cohen then determines the infestation is tzora’at, the cloth must be burned. If the infestation has not spread, the spot is washed and the cloth is placed in quarantine for another week. If the infestation subsides during the quarantine so that the cohen finds the infestation is not tzora’at, the cloth is immersed in a mikvah and becomes tahor. 

Finally, tzora’at can appear in houses. (Mitzvah #177)  The author says this is a supernatural occurrence.  He connects it to the shoresh for this set of mitzvot, which we will discuss shortly.  He also retells a midrash that when the Jews first conquered Israel, God afflicted houses of the prior inhabitants with tzora’at so that the Jews would be obligated to destroy those houses and discover treasure the prior inhabitants had hidden there. 

Tzora’at is suspected when a patch the size of two beans, colored red or green, appears on the wall.  The house must be at least 4 by 4 cubits to be susceptible.  It must have four walls and be built of stone, wood or mud.  Brick and marble houses are not susceptible to tzora’at infestation. The infestation must be visible by light coming into the house, so if the house has no windows the house cannot be declared infested. The house must be in Israel, but outside of Jerusalem.

 When the owner sees such an infestation, the owner calls in a cohen for a consultation.  The cohen instructs the owner to remove all the items from inside the house so that they do not become tamei with the house.  If the infestation meets the requirements for tzora’at, the cohen quarantines the house for one week. If, at the end of that week, the infestation has spread, the affected stones and the mortar around them are removed and deposited someplace where tamei material can remain indefinitely.  The stones and mortar are replaced, and the house is quarantined for another week. If the infestation returns to the same place, the house is tamei and must be demolished.  

If the infestation does not return, the cohen declares that the house can undergo the process to make it tahor.  That is similar to the process to make a m’tzora tahor.  The cohen takes two birds, a crimson cloth, cedar and hyssop.  He slaughters one bird over a bowl of spring water and lets the blood flow into the bowl.  Then he bundles the other objects, dips the bundle into the mixture, and shakes the liquid off the bundle seven times on the top lintel of the door.  The cohen then chases away the live bird.


There are no remnants of the institution of m’tzora in current halachic practice.  Mostly, that is because we no longer have reason to keep track of tumah and taharah.  Also, a m’tzora can only become tahor by bringing sacrifices, which we can no longer bring.  Our author says that we are still obligated to take suspicious lesions to a cohen for evaluation, despite our being unable to do anything about the outcome of the analysis.  But, the author points out, that depends on our having cohanim with clear lineage.  The author avoids saying whether the cohanim in his day would qualify.  Perhaps in the author’s time the lineage of a cohen was considered reliable, but we are no longer so sure. 

In mitzvah #174, the author includes a long quote from Rambam explaining why Rambam counts the m’tzora cutting his or her hair and the m’tzora bringing sacrifices as separate mitzvot even though Rambam counts only one mitzvah for the nazir, who is also required to cut his or her hair and bring sacrifices.  Since we are not yet familiar with the institution of nazir, this passage is difficult to understand so we will not discuss it in full detail.  The main idea is that for the m’tzora, cutting hair is part of the ritual that leads to a lesser level of tumah.  The m’tzora accomplishes something by cutting his or her hair, along with the accompanying rituals, even if the m’tzora never brings the required sacrifices.  For the nazir, however, cutting hair and bringing the required sacrifice are m’akev, each requires the other.  The nazir who cuts his or her hair but does not bring the required sacrifices accomplishes nothing.  The author says he is relying on a translation of Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot for this passage.  Except for the Mishneh Torah, Rambam wrote in Arabic.  His works were translated into Hebrew during his lifetime.  Apparently the author either did not read Arabic or did not have the original Arabic text.


The author discusses the shoresh of these mitzvot at length.  He introduces the main concept in mitzvah #169 and continues to add new aspects in each subsequent essay.  The shoresh here involves very basic concepts about how God relates to the world He created and the people in it, and how we ought to react to our own suffering.  The author raises these very important questions but does not explain his own views in as sophisticated way as we might like. 

            The author first discusses the extent of God’s involvement in what happens in the world.  He says there are many possible approaches based on many relevant Biblical verses; this is not a simple issue, and it does not have one clear right answer.  But, the author says, it is a foundational principle.

            The author points out but does not evaluate the notion that God administers “hashgachah,” watchful care, over each individual living thing.  The author does not explain what he means by hashgachah:  how close and detailed is the attention God pays.  To give an analogy, the watchful care I extend when taking care of a toddler is very different from the watchful care I extend to my adult children.

 The author explains that some think God administers watchful care over each item, animate or inanimate, so that no thing moves or acts in the world unless that precise motion or action is what God wills.  The author considers that opinion unreasonable, although he does not explain why.  The author also says some believe that God is not involved in watchful care over what happens to His creatures.  This, the author believes, is heretical, evil and bitter.  It seems to me this passage reflects the author trying to keep things simple for his audience.  He already pointed out that these are crucial, foundational notions, but the author only states his own conclusion about them.  He does not actually explain the arguments in support of his conclusions and against other approaches.

            The author’s own opinion is that God’s watchful care is exercised over individual people and over species of other living things.  He believes this opinion is rooted in earlier rabbinic thought and in many Biblical passages, although the author does not cite examples.  Note that this watchful care is for individual people, Jews and non-Jews.  As to other living things, the author says that watchful care prevents species from becoming extinct.  It is hard to know how the author would react to the evidence of extinction of species we now have.

            When we suffer, we should see the suffering as a warning that we might be doing something improper.  Note that the author does not say that tzora’at or other suffering is necessarily the result of improper behavior, only that it might be and that the sufferer should consider that possibility and try to repent.  We cannot know for sure.

            In mitzvah #171 the author refines this by explaining how that suffering comes about as a response to our misbehavior.    The author quotes the Mishnah, Sotah 1:7 for the statement, “A person is measured by the yardstick the person uses to measure.”  People often treat others the way they perceive the others have treated them. If someone treats me nicely, I try to be nice in return.  If someone treats me badly, I might treat him or her badly.  One might think this statement means that when a person misbehaves, God returns evil to the person.  But God is good and generous, and the author says God does not cause us suffering as revenge for our not behaving the way God wants us to behave.

            Instead, the reward a person is granted depends on the amount of good the person does.  Blessing will be drawn to the good person.  Blessing will be far from the person who does wrong because the person is less close to God.  Without God’s special care, natural processes take over and that tends to be painful.  The author gives an example of someone traveling on a narrow path with thorn fences on either side.  If the person is careful to stay on the path, the person proceeds in comfort.  But if the person strays from the path, the person suffers from an encounter with the thorn fences.  God did not “punish” the person, God just allowed the consequences of the person’s inattention to accrue.  God’s special care is expressed by protecting people from normal human suffering.

            This explanation fits neatly with the definition of shoresh hamitzvah we saw several classes back.  God gives us mitzvot, and we search to understand the benefit God intended us to get from obeying those mitzvot.  If we observe the mitzvot, the benefit accrues to us.  If we do not, we lose the benefit and are worse off, not because God is punishing us, but because we have set ourselves on a course that will not lead to the benefits God intended.

            The rabbis understood tzora’at as just such a warning.  A m’tzora might be guilty of speaking improperly about others.  Miriam, after all, was afflicted with tzora’at after she criticized Mosheh.  But the author is careful to say that the m’tzora who has behaved badly might be guilty of other misdeeds in addition to or instead of improper speech; the author mentions the m’tzora might need to repent for improper possession of someone else’s property. 

            The author finds encouragement to repentance in the details of the procedures related to tzora’at.  The m’tzora is required to consult with a cohen to determine whether or not the infestation is tzora’at.  The author says that requiring the m’tzora to consult with the cohen will encourage the m’tzora to repent because the cohen, in his service in the Temple, is an agent of atonement.  The author also suggests that the cohen might help the m’tzora think through prior improper behavior.  Quarantine gives the m’tzora time to contemplate his or her past behavior.  Perhaps during the first period of quarantine the person has not fully repented, but perhaps he or she will do so during a second period of quarantine.  The m’tzora is prohibited from tampering with the evidence of tzora’at; that indicates that we should react to our own wrongdoing by facing it honestly, not by trying to hide it or rationalize it.  Rather, we should ask God’s forgiveness and recognize that God might be treating us fairly.

            The author explains the ritual of shaving the m’tzora.  The shaved m’tzora is hairless as a newborn.  Thinking of himself as newborn might encourage the person to make a new start in behavior, improving from his past misdeeds.

            Tzora’at in cloth and houses might be preliminary steps in the process of God encouraging someone to repent.  That matches well with the notion that tzora’at in cloth and houses is supernatural rather than some ordinary process of nature.  Thus, someone who finds tzora’at on cloth ought to consider whether this is a warning about some bad behavior.  If that does not lead to repentance, God might extend the warning by infesting the person’s house with tzora’at.  If that still doesn’t work, God might afflict the person with tzora’at on his or her body.  This progression reflects God’s generosity, starting with property and only going on to physical suffering if absolutely necessary.

            In mitzvah #173, the author connects the purification process of the m’tzora with repentance.  Each element of the process is a reminder.  The cedar is tall and straight, a symbol that perhaps the person has been haughty.  Rather, the person should be low and modest, like the eizov.  Using birds might convey the notion that the person should avoid chattering without thinking about whether what is being said is proper.  The author says he does not know or remember any rabbinic explanation for the scarlet cloth, although it might be a hint to encourage humility.

            Immersing in the water of a mikvah also carries powerful symbolism.  Early in the process of God’s creation the world was entirely water.  Someone who immerses in the mikvah might see him or herself as “newly created.”    It is easier for the person immersing to see himself or herself as newly created if the water is free flowing rather than gathered by human effort.  As the person thinks of his or her body being renewed, the person might be able to renew his or her actions in good ways.  In mitzvah #175 the author says that the explanation here is aimed at young people, who might reject it for deeper explanations when they mature.  The author ends this passage with a note that we need not agree with him.  “One who hears will hear, and one who rejects will reject.”