Sensitivity To Speech

Rabbinic interpreters regarded leprosy as punishment for the sin of careless speech.

Commentary on Parashat Metzora, Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33


The portions of Tazria and Metzora are perhaps, for many, the two most uncomfortable portions of the Torah, dealing with all kinds of issues related to ritual purity and impurity. Ritual impurity, or tumah, has nothing to do with hygiene. Instead, tumah is a spiritual state that prevents a person from participating in the worship life of the community. One becomes impure through a variety of means, all of which are perfectly natural, such as illness, childbirth, physical discharges and contact with a corpse.

Purity and impurity are not related to good or evil. However, impurity is considered to be a spiritual disability. For example, Tzaraat, the skin affliction that is discussed at length in this part of the Torah, is not the biological disease leprosy (as it has historically been translated — it is probably something more like psoriasis or impetigo, which are common in the desert), but rather a state that the Torah understands as the physical manifestation of a spiritual or ritual problem.

This is not a medical treatise, nor are the Kohanim (priests) serving as paramedics. Rather, tumah is a purely ritual concern, and as the ritual leaders of the community, it falls upon the priesthood to facilitate purification for those who find themselves in a state of impurity.

In Focus

And God spoke to Moses, saying, “This shall be the law of the Metzora (one afflicted with tzaraat) on the day of his purification; he shall be brought to the Kohen (priest).” (Leviticus 14:1)


In Parshat Metzora, the Torah discusses the process of purification the Metzora must undergo in order to become ritually pure again.


The late Rabbi Pinchas Peli (z”l) relates the following tale:

In the town of Sepphoris, the voice of a street peddler was heard, crying out, “Who wishes to buy the elixir of life?” The great Rabbi Yannai was sitting in his academy studying when he heard the peddler’s voice. He went out on his balcony to see what it was the man was selling, but he could see nothing. And so he sent one of his students to bring the peddler to his study.

As the peddler entered, Yannai said, “Come here, show me what it is that you have to sell.” The peddler replied, “What I have to sell is not required by you, nor by people like you.” But the Rabbi pressed him, and finally the peddler approached him and drew a Book of Psalms out of his satchel. He opened the book and showed the rabbi the passage that states, “Who is the man who desires life?” (Psalm 34:13), and then the passage that follows immediately thereafter: “Keep your tongue from evil; depart from evil and do good.”

Rabbi Yannai, then said, “All my life I have been reading this passage, but did not know how to explain it until this peddler came and made it clear to me. Now I see that the same idea is also expressed by King Solomon, who proclaimed in a proverb, ‘He who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble.'” (Proverbs 21:33)

Who are they who desire life? They who keep their tongues from evil. The one who guards his mouth and his tongue guards his soul from trouble.

When we look at the historical setting of this story, in Palestine in the early third century, we can see that this story is not just a simple little moral tale. The land of Israel at this time was in turmoil. There were revolts and insurrections against the Roman conquerors. Roman spies and informers were everywhere, constantly on the watch for clues of rebellion.

The peddler, in his surreptitious manner, was passing the word that everyone should be wary of what they say. In a good Jewish manner he was passing the word: loose lips sink ships. Rabbi Yannai, by responding with his own remarks, indicated his support for this clandestine effort. He reiterated the message: those who desire life, those who want to survive these oppressive times, should watch their words.

It is interesting though to see the context in which this midrashic story is presented (Vayikra Rabba 16). It is presented in a commentary on the laws of Tzaraat, which are presented in our Torah reading this week. The laws of the Metzora have long been the basis for numerous rabbinic homilies against the spread of lashon ha-ra — literally “evil speech” or gossip. Metzora, the rabbis conjectured, sounded just like motzi-ra–the bringing forth of evil with the mouth. Cause and effect: if one is guilty of lashon ha-ra, one will be afflicted by tzaraat and thus becomes a Metzora.

But the Torah tells us that tzaraat is not a permanent condition. One can become healthy again. Neither the condition, nor the sin that precipitated it, is hopeless. There is always the possibility of Teshuva–expiation for one’s misdeed–and a process by which the unclean Metzora could again become pure and rejoin the community. This process always exists for us, no matter what our sin.

Dvar Aher

Also implicit in this verse is the thought that the Metzora, even while he is still outside the camp, should be impelled by his own free will to repent and come to the priest in order to be cleansed. It is only in response to his personal resolve to become pure that he should be taken to the priest and thus brought closer to the state of purity.

Only after the Metzora has decided to take positive action leading to repentance and purity, shall “the priest go forth out of the camp” to cleanse him. People must rise to actions themselves before they can expect action from above. (Shem MiShmuel)

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

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