“The Peddler and Evil Speech”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Metzorah, again addresses the Biblical affliction Tzara’at, צָּרַעַת. Parashat Metzorah teaches about the cleansing process for the afflicted person who has healed, and Tzara’at in the structure of the home.

In the opening verses of parashat Metzorah, G-d speaks to Moses, Leviticus 14:2, saying, זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע בְּיוֹם טָהֳרָתוֹ,  וְהוּבָא אֶל הַכֹּהֵן, This shall be the law [the Torah] of the Metzorah [the afflicted person], on the day of his purification: he shall be brought to the Kohain (the priest).

The Talmud, in Arachin 15b, explains that the disease Tzara’at is not a dermatological disease, but a spiritual disease that one contracts for speaking Lashon Harah (evil).

The Talmud cites the Talmudic sage, Raish Lakish, who explains: Why does the Torah say, this is the “Torah”–the law–of the Metzorah, מְּצֹרָע? To teach that these are the rules that pertain to one who is “Motzee shaym rah,” מוציא שם רע, who speaks evil of another.

Raish Lakish sees in the striking similarity between the word, “Me’tzoh’rah,” and the expression “Motzee shaym rah,” proof that the disease is a spiritual disease that is contracted from improper speech, and not merely a physical malady.

The Torah Temimah notes that, with the exception of this single citation in Leviticus 14:2, the disease Tzara’at is never referred to in the Torah, as “Metzorah.” Occasionally the Bible refers to the stricken person as, “Tzah’roo’ah,” and most often, the disease is called “Tzara’at,” but never “Metzorah.” That is why Raish Lakish claims that the word “Metzorah” is a “not’ree’kohn,” נוטריקון, a Hebrew acrostic for the phrase, “Motzee shaym rah”–speaking evil.

There is a well known Midrash concerning the evils of improper speech (Midrash Rabba, Leviticus 16:2):

There was a certain peddler, who would wander among the towns near Tzippori [in the Northern Galilee], and would announce [to his would-be customers]: “Who wishes to purchase the elixir of life?” All the people would assemble before him. Rabbi Yannai was sitting [nearby] and studying. He said to him: “Come here, and sell it to me.” He [the peddler] said to him: “You [Torah scholars], and those like you, don’t need it.” [Rabbi Yannai] beseeched him, so the peddler came over and brought him a book of Tehillim (Psalms), and showed him the verse in Psalms 34:13, that reads: “Who is the man who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good?” And what does the verse say after that? “Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking falsehood.” Rabbi Yannai said: “So too did Solomon say in Proverbs 21:23, ‘Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles.’” Rabbi Yannai said: “All my life I would read this verse and did not know where it was explained, until the peddler came and informed me, ‘What man is he that desires life?’ Moses therefore warned Israel, זֹאת תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָעthis is the law of the Metzorah–Motzee rah, מוציא רע [who speaks evil].’”

The commentators are puzzled as to why Rabbi Yannai was so astounded by the words of the peddler. What did the peddler say that Rabbi Yannai had not known previously? Why was the understanding of the disease of Tzara’at clearer to Rabbi Yannai, as a result of his interaction with the peddler?

Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, in his Studies in the Weekly Parashah, explains in the name of the Akeidat Yitzchak, that the peddler who interacted with Rabbi Yannai regarding the sin of evil speech did not really introduce any novel ideas that were not known by Rabbi Yannai. However, he did succeed in dramatically underscoring the enormity of the sin of evil speech. The peddler was not satisfied with the fact that he himself already knew the seriousness of the transgression, but felt compelled to go to all the public thoroughfares, to publicize the evils of Lashon Harah among the many community members who habitually engaged in evil speech. The peddler thus followed the paths of Abraham, who went before G-d, rather than Noah, who “walked with G-d.”

Furthermore, Rabbi Yannai was astounded by the depths of perception of the peddler (who was not a scholar), who recognized that speech is the unique essence of humankind, that every person’s life is closely associated and bound to the power of speech, and to the content of every person’s utterings. The peddler, who in fact turned out to be a gifted educator, taught that limiting one’s speech, and sanctifying one’s speech, is the secret of the good life, and underscores the real difference between human beings and all other creatures.

Rabbi Yannai also appreciated the clarity of the peddler’s words, that guarding one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from speaking falsehood, is the basis of proper living and its essence. Although the peddler basically spoke a simple truth, it is because of its simplicity that many people dismiss the importance of proper, sanctified speech. The peddler is comparable to a physician who reveals that a particular malady is not physical, but spiritual. So is the malady of improper speech, a spiritual illness.

The parable may be applied even further, when considering the nature of the cleansing ritual of the stricken transgressor.

In the Torah, the Kohain serves as a peddler, who through the ritual of cleansing, drives home to the transgressor the importance of proper speech and the immensity of the violation of forbidden speech. The bird that is offered to G-d on the Altar represents the chirping of the person who speaks evil, whose blood is poured into an earthen pot, as if words, like earthenware, are without meaning and impact. The splint from a cedar tree that is placed in the mixture represents the exalted stature and immense power of words, that can be transformed into a little red thread of pettiness, and the blood of the victim who was slandered.

Purification also requires the washing of one’s clothes, the cleansing of one’s outer garments and the immersing of one’s body in a mikveh. At the end of the seven day period of transformation and repentance, the person who is cleansed must bring an offering. The former speaker of evil, who is now, hopefully, sincerely penitent, must have his ear, thumb and large toe smeared with blood, so that, henceforth, the things that he hears and does with his hands and feet, will be devoted solely to the purpose of seeking and pursuing peace. Only then will the former transgressor gain atonement for his sins, and return to his tent in peace.


The peddler certainly had much to teach, and did so quite effectively.

May you be blessed.