The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Metzora 5757
The Torah and Science Section
Professor Yishayahu Nitzan
The Faculty of Life Sciences
The disease gonorrhea is mentioned in the Torah
in Parashat Metzora which we read this week. Chapter 15 of Leviticus
deals entirely with the laws of both males and females afflicted
with gonorrhea and as we shall see further on the disease as
we know it today is consistent with the description of the male
sufferer of gonorrhea. Verses 2 and 3 tell us: "... any
man who has a running issue out of his flesh (because of)
his issue he is unclean. And this will be his uncleanliness
when he has this issue, whether his flesh is running with the
issue or his flesh is stopped up by the issue, it is his uncleanliness".
Rashi comments : "The issue is similar to the water of dough
made from barley, and it is dissolved, and similar to the white
of an egg which has not become rotten". Rashi's explanation
differentiates between the physical appearance between gonorrhea
and an issue of semen, according to Rav Huna in the Talmud (Niddah
35b). Gonorrhea is not related to an issue of semen and the
Torah itself makes the distinction between the two in verse 16
where the emphasis is on the law dealing with someone who has
had an issue of semen. There we find the following: "And
if a man has an emission of semen then he shall bathe all his
flesh in water and he will be unclean until the evening".
Rav Huna explains (Niddah 35b) that gonorrhea, unlike an issue
of semen, comes from dead flesh, that is when the member has
no hardness. Maimonides and the Tashbetz both add that gonorrhea
is not emitted with difficulty nor is there in its emission any
passion or pleasure but simply an emission which seeps out.
Rashi, Ibn Ezra and the Rashbam describe two discernible types
of gonorrhea, one is a clear issue, similar to saliva, which
comes out drop after drop, and this is what is called that "his
flesh is running" with the issue, and a second form which
is a thicker emission which congeals and stops up the flow from
the body, and this is called "his flesh is stopped up".
What is gonorrhea and what do we know of it? Gonorrhea is a contagious pus inflammation which causes a bacterial infection especially of the genitals. The disease is caused by negative specks in the body which are transmitted through sexual contact. It is contagious in men and women alike. The symptoms of the disease appear in men since the male sexual organ is external whereas the female sexual organ is internal. In males a saliva-like pus emission begins to appear anywhere between two to seven days from the time of infection. The emission carries the bacteria within white cells.
Gonorrhea was already known in antiquity and even then doctors were aware of the connection between sexual contact and the transmission of the disease. The common wisdom of ancient medicine and of the doctors of the Middle Ages was that this disease brought about a weakening of the tubes which transmit the sperm making them unable to contain the sperm any longer. Only since the seventeenth century has it become clear to doctors that the substance emitted by the patient afflicted with Gonorrhea is pus and not semen. As we saw above the Torah had already made that distinction. Rav Huna in his comments in tractate Niddah (35b) simply sharpens and defines the difference which was already well known to our sages who understood that there was no connection between gonorrhea and an emission of semen.
Returning to the ways in which gonorrhea is transmitted, as we know them today, we find that, in fact, most cases are transmitted through sexual contact. However it is possible to find cases of direct transmission of the pus on the dirty hands of a patient to his own eyes or those of someone else. This also makes it possible for a newborn baby to be infected with gonorrhea when passing through the birth canal of an infected mother. This gonorrheal infection can cause blindness (opthalmia neonatorum). In the past another form of indirect contagion existed through the washing of infants using the same washcloths some of which were infected with the gonorrhea bacteria or through contact with pyjamas, towels or sponges which had previously been infected.
It is noteworthy that the Torah suggests a hygienic method of preventing the transmission of gonorrhea. In verse 11 we find: "And anyone that he who has the issue touches, if he has not washed his hands in water, then he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and he shall be unclean until the evening". Further on in verse 12 it adds: "And any earthen vessel which he who has the issue touches shall be broken and every wooden vessel shall be rinsed in water".
In females, as we have already explained, the symptoms
are not parallel to those seen in male. The concept of gonorrhea
in women does not relate to the emissions from the womb or the
vagina which can also occur in healthy women. In verse 19 we
read: "And if a woman has an issue, and her issue in her
flesh is blood...", on which Rashi comments: "Her
issue is not considered an issue to cause uncleanness unless
it is red", meaning that it contains blood. The Torah
provides another example concerning women (verse 25): "And
if a women has an issue of her blood for many days which it is
not at the time of her menstruation, etc." A woman who
has gonorrhea is one who has an emission of blood whether at its
proper time in her regular menstrual cycle - when she is called
a "niddah", or when it is not at the regular time and
the bleeding is from the womb and then she is called "zavah".
Other non-bloody emission do not constitute uncleanness, and
as we know there are many types of emission in the life of a woman
when no blood is visible and she is not a "zavah", not
considered to be infected with gonorrhea.
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.