“The Odd Ritual Practices of the Metzorah!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to rabbinic tradition, the “tzah’ra’aht” affliction is not a bodily disease, but a physical manifestation of a spiritual illness that results from “lashon hara,” speaking evil about others. Its purpose is to show gossipers and defamers that they must mend their ways and cease their inappropriate speech.

In parashat Tazria we learn that there are several forms of tzah’ra’at. The affliction may take the form of a “baheret,” a whitening of the flesh of the skin, a “s’ayt,” a rising on the skin, or it may appear in the area of a burn. It may also appear on the bald scalp or beard area of a person’s head or face.

In Leviticus 13:45-46, the Torah concludes the list of the different forms of tzah’ra’aht and pronounces the rules governing the behavior required of the metzorah–the person who is deemed to be afflicted. In Leviticus 13:45, we are told, “V’ha’tzah’roo’ah ah’sher boh ha’neh’gah, b’gah’dahv yih’yoo f’roo’meem, v’roh’shoh yih’yeh fah’roo’ah, v’ahl sah’fahm yah’teh, v’tah’meh tah’meh yik’rah,” And the person with the tzah’ra’aht plague, his garment shall be rent, his head shall be unkempt and he shall cover himself up to his lips. He is to call out: “Contaminated, contaminated!” The following verse informs us that all the days that the metzorah is stricken with the affliction, he is declared impure and must dwell in isolation outside the camp.

What is the reasoning behind the unusual behavior required of the person stricken with tzah’ra’aht? The fact that the afflicted gossiper is required to rend his garments and is not permitted to cut his hair clearly indicates that the metzorah must go through some form of a mourning period, dressing and acting like a mourner. A number of explanations are offered to account for these rituals of mourning. The Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) suggests that the grieving may be seen as a sign of repentance for the behavior that brought the punishment upon the metzorah. Alternatively, he may be grieving for the people that he hurt. It could also mean that the metzorah is, in effect, sitting shiva for the evil that has died in him.

The metzorah covered his lips, just as it was customary for a mourner to pull a collar or a scarf over his lips and pull a cloak over his head, perhaps as a sign of detachment from everyday experiences. The metzorah was forbidden to greet people and therefore covered his upper lip. His head was to be covered as a sign of humility, the same humility that was absent when he took advantage of others by speaking evil about them.

The metzorah was to call out: “Contaminated, contaminated!” to warn others to stay away from him, lest he contaminate them. The Talmud in Moed Katan, 5a, suggests that another reason for this proclamation was to inform others of the metzorah’s anguish so that they would pray for him to be healed. Perhaps, it was not sufficient for the perpetrator to privately express anguish for his evil deeds. By having to call out, the metzorah would suffer publicly for his misdeeds.

The metzorah also dwells in isolation. The Talmud in Arachin, 16b, suggests that the slander that the metzorah spoke caused husbands to be separated from their wives and friends from one another. Therefore, the metzorah himself is punished through forced isolation from society, meedah k’neged meedah, a punishment that fits the crime. It may also be that the ultimate punishment for a gossiper is to have no audience. When he is isolated outside the camp, he can have no victims.

The rabbis in tractate Baba Metzia 58b, emphasize the enormous sinfulness of lashon hara by stating, “Ha’mal’bin p’nay chah’vay’roh b’rah’bim k’eeh’loo sho’fech damim,” One who embarrasses another publicly is as though he has shed blood. The penalty for this transgression, which cannot be undone, is severe and publicly humiliating.

Nevertheless, the temptation to gossip is extraordinarily powerful. Very few successfully mastered the mitzvah of avoiding lashon hara, refraining from speaking evil and hurting others with their tongues.

Today, when there are no miraculous signs or skin inflammations to warn us to keep away from slanderers and gossipers, we need to be far more cautious and alert. We must choose our friends carefully and avoid situations where others are likely to be maligned. We must do our best to guard our tongues and help others guard their tongues as well, by refusing to even listen to hurtful speech. It is in this way that we most effectively bring redemption to ourselves and to the world.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, also known as Shabbat HaChodesh, is the last of the four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion concerning the new month of Nissan is read from Exodus 12:1-20.