Today’s daf introduces the subject of tzara’at, the biblical skin affliction often translated as leprosy. If one found a suspect blemish on one’s body, the priests were to evaluate it to decide if the person was in one of four categories: 1) pure and free to go about everyday life; 2) in quarantine for a week or two until the priests determine if the blemish had grown or shrunk; 3) confirmed tzara’at and hence impure and required to leave the camp; and 4) healed and ready to begin a seven-day purification process.
In biblical times, tzara’atwas treated as a contagious illness that required the afflicted person to physically separate themselves. But by the time of the rabbis it had morphed into more of a spiritual affliction. The priest’s word alone created the status of purity or impurity rather than revealing the objective reality of sickness.
Our mishnah asks whether a priest can check a blemish during hol hamoed or whether he should wait until the holiday is over.
Rabbi Meir says: A priest may initially examine an individual showing symptoms of leprosy on the intermediate days of a festival in order to be lenient, but not in order to be stringent.
And the rabbis say: The priest may not examine the symptoms in order to be lenient or in order to be stringent.
As we saw in the last chapter of the tractate, the rabbis were concerned with preventing onerous work from intruding on the joy of the intermediate days of the holiday. Likewise, this mishnah assumes that a negative (stringent) diagnosis would disrupt the joy of the holiday. So Rabbi Meir argues that the priest can examine the skin but may only deliver good news. But the rabbis say one doesn’t examine the skin at all, perhaps because it might be impossible to honestly examine the skin and omit bad news.
Further investigating, the Gemara suggests that the debate in the mishnah concerns only one of the stages described above. Rava makes sense of the debate in the mishnah this way:
Rava said: With regard to someone who is ritually pure, everyone agrees that the priest does not examine him. With regard to someone who is in his first week of quarantine, everyone agrees that the priest examines him. When they disagree it is with regard to his second week of quarantine.
According to Rava, everyone concurs that the priest may not examine a new blemish on hol hamoed because he may require quarantine, ruining a person’s holiday. But the priest may examine someone who had already completed a week of quarantine. That’s because the person’s status can only improve with such an examination. Either the priest will declare them pure and release them to enjoy the holiday, or he won’t, in which case their status remains the same: in quarantine awaiting the confirmation of their status.
The debate in the mishnah, says Rava, is only with regard to a person in their second week of quarantine. Such a person has everything to gain (being declared pure and free to rejoin the community) and everything to lose (being declared impure and confined to isolation until they heal and can begin a weeklong purification period). It is this case that Rabbi Meir and the rabbis disagree about whether an examination should take place.
What about the penultimate stage: a person who has been declared impure and is waiting to heal and begin the process of purification? So far our assumption has been that being declared pure is the good news everyone is hoping for. But the Gemara brings up one more twist: The weeklong process of purification includes a ban on intimate relations. So the “good news” of being declared healed may have different implications for different people.
The Gemara explains some people prefer “the company of the world” and don’t want to wait another moment before beginning the process of purification, while others may prefer “the company of their wife” — that is they don’t mind a few more days at home in which they can be intimate with her. (Ironically, the Gemara assumes that the person with tzara’atis a man, even though the first person in the Bible to have tzara’atis Miriam).
Throughout Moed Katan,a person’s experience is a significant factor in deciding what can be done on hol hamoed. Maintaining a person’s happiness during the holiday is so important that we push off the examination of leprosy so that one may enjoy the holiday worry free. Rabbi Yehuda extends this insight by saying priests also don’t check blemishes on a person’s wedding day, or for the seven days following, so the couple can enjoy the celebration. Some things can wait.
Read all of Moed Katan 7 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 19th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.