Clean Up Your Act

Living together as a community means learning to communicate effectively and respectfully.

Commentary on Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

Tazria presents us with a description of skin disorders and how to deal with them. In these chapters we not only have a handbook for ancient medical treatments and rituals, but also receive instructions about how to live as a community.

Leviticus 13:43-46

When the priest looks at him, and here: the swelling of the affliction is white (and) reddish, on his bald spot or on his forehead, like the look of tzaraat (leprosy) on the skin of flesh: He is a man, with tzaraat, he is tamei (unclean), (yes) tamei, tamei shall the priest (declare) him, on his head is his affliction.

Now the one with tzaraat that has the affliction, his garments are to be torn, his head is to be made-bare, and his upper-lip is to be covered. “Tamei! Tamei!” He is to cry out.

All the days that the affliction is on him, he shall remain tamei. Tamei is he. Alone shall he stay. Outside of the camp is his staying-place.

Your Torah Navigator

1. The word tamei here is translated as “unclean.” Is it a good translation? How would you translate tamei?
2. Why do you think the person who is tamei tears his clothes?
3. Why do you think he must announce to others that he is tamei? To protect himself? To protect others?
4. How does the person contract this affliction? Is it contagious?
5. Why must he stay away from others, even other people with this affliction, outside of the camp?

The rabbis have many questions about this passage and its meaning. In particular, the rabbis wonder about two aspects: How a person contracts this affliction, and why he must stay away from others while he has it. Rashi (medieval French commentator) attempts to answer these two questions.


And (he) shall cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” announcing that he is unclean, so that (people) should withdraw from him.

He shall dwell alone, “(Other) unclean people shall not dwell with him. And our Rabbis have said, ‘Why is he different from other unclean people to dwell alone?’ Since he caused a separation through evil talk (lashon hara) between husband and wife, or between a man and his friend, (therefore) he also should be separated (isolated).”

Your Rashi Navigator

1. What does Rashi say is the sin that caused his affliction?
2. What is lashon hara?
3. How does the punishment fit the crime?
4. Do you think it is a proper punishment?

A Word

“Have you heard something about someone? Let it die with you. Be of good courage, it will not harm you if it ends with you.” (Ben Sira 19:10)

Judaism defines lashon hara as slander, gossip, tale bearing, and all the other forms of damage to the individual and society that may be caused by words. We learn that talking about others is not recommended, even if what we say is true. And in some cases, even if what we say is positive.

Learning how to live as a community means learning how to communicate with other people. But it also means learning when not to communicate with others. There are times when saying little is better than saying a lot. Judaism encourages us to use our words thoughtfully and carefully. Otherwise we might say something we regret. And if we cannot prevent ourselves from talking to others, we might just have to remove ourselves from a situation for awhile so we can clean up our act.

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

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