Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Metzora 5765/ April 16, 2005


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar- Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




Leprosy and the Land of Israel


 Rabbi Shimon Golan


The Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies Midrasha for Women


Tzara’at, usually rendered as “leprosy,” is an inclusive name for a variety of different and strange afflictions, including eruptive plagues upon houses, as appears in this week’s reading (Ex. 14:34):  “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you posses.”

Based on the opening of the verse, Ibn Ezra asserted, “This law is practiced solely in the land of Israel, for the sake of the greatly elevated status of the land – for the Sanctuary is amidst them, and the Glory of the Lord is within the Sanctuary.”  Even though this chapter about plagues upon houses was not included in the obligations and commandments pertaining to the soil (mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz), the laws regarding this affliction are only practiced in the land of Israel, the reason being the great sanctity of the land.  Below we shall elucidate the connection between tzara’at and the elevated status of the land of Israel.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down

Rashi suggests one way of understanding the connection between plagues on houses and the land:

The plagues on houses bring them [the Israelites] good tidings; for the Amorites buried gold treasure in the walls of their houses throughout the forty years that the Israelites were in the wilderness, and the plague causes them to break apart the house and find it.

In other words the Holy One, blessed be He, directs matters in such a way that the Israelites entering the land will have the good fortune of discovering gold treasure and becoming rich.  This explanation is reasonable for plagues on houses during the first few years after their entry into the land.  But presumably the land would continue to be built up and new houses would be built by the Israelites; how are plagues on them to be explained?

The Zohar also emphasizes that the laws relating to diseased houses pertain to the first period after entering the land, but gives a different reason for breaking apart the houses.  Whereas Rashi emphasizes the material advantage in taking apart the walls, the Zohar focuses on the spiritual:

When the Israelites arrived in the land, the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to purify and sanctify the land for them, to make room for the Presence of the Lord, so that the Presence not dwell in an unclean place.  Therefore, when the plague came upon a house they would destroy the buildings of wood and stone that were erected in a state of impurity.   Consider, if the act of breaking apart the affected stones were solely for the purpose of finding treasure, they should have returned the same stones to their places afterwards…   But Scriptures orders the stones “to be pulled out,” and says, “and take other coating,” in order to remove the spirit of uncleanness, so that the land be cleared and sanctified as it had previously been, and the Israelites will be in a state of sanctification, in sacred dwellings, so that the Presence dwell among them.

In order to make this idea of sanctifying the land and its dwellings relevant, the Zohar concludes: “Therefore, whoever erects a home must recall with his mouth that he is building it for the sake of the Holy One, blessed be He, and then heavenly Providence will dwell in his home.”

Purity of the Land

I would like to suggest yet another explanation for the connection between plagues upon houses and the land of Israel, one based on an idea advanced by Maimonides when he explains what biblical leprosy is ( Hilkhot Tum’at Tzara’at 16.10):

Tzara’at is a noun used collectively for many different things which do not resemble one another; whiteness in human skin is called tzara’at , and loss of patches of hair from the head or beard is called tzara’at, and a change in look of one’s clothing or houses is called tzara’at.   The change that is discussed in clothing or houses, which the Torah calls by the same word tzara’at, is not something which occurs in the normal way of the world, rather it is a wondrous sign that occurred in Israel to warn them against lashon ha-ra (slanderous gossip), for the walls in the home of someone who spoke lashon ha- ra would become affected, but if he mended his ways the house would become pure.  If he continued in his wickedness until the house was broken apart, then the leather goods in his home, on which he sat and lay, would become affected.   If he mended his ways they would become pure, but if her persisted in his wickedness until they be burned, then the garments he wore would become affected.  If he mended his ways, they would become pure.  But if he persisted in his wickedness his skin would change and become leprous, and he would be separated from society and publicly left alone until he no longer participated in the conversation of the wicked, which is jesting and gossiping, and it is this which the Torah cautions us against, saying:   “In cases of skin affection be most careful … Remember what the Lord your G-d did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.”  The Torah   says, take note of what happened to Miriam the prophetess, who spoke out against her brother, although she was older than him and had raised him, endangering her life to save him from the sea; nor she did not even speak ill of him, rather she erred in comparing him to the rest of the prophets; and he did not even take note of all these things, for it is said that Moses was extremely modest; nevertheless, she was immediately stricken with leprosy.  All the more so for wicked and foolish human beings, who speak “great and wondrous things” [said in sarcasm].

According to Maimonides, tzara’at (first and foremost, plagues upon houses) is a heavenly sign warning us against the sin of lashon ha-ra and calling on us to mend our ways.

We should add to Maimonides’ remarks what Nahmanides said (in his commentary on Leviticus 18:25) regarding the special connection of the Holy One, blessed be He, with the land of Israel:

The venerable Lord created everything, … and gave each and every people, according to their nationality and land, a known star and fortune, … as it says, “These the Lord your G-d allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven” (Deut. 4:19), for He gave all of them Zodiac signs in the heavens, and above them He gave the heavenly angels to be rulers over them… Lo, the venerable Lord is the supreme G-d and Lord of Lords of the entire universe; but the land of Israel … is G- d’s inheritance, reserved for His Name; He placed no angels over it to be officers policing it and ruling it, when He gave it to His people, who proclaim the oneness of His name and are the seed of those He loved.”


“But outside of the land, even though everything be for the venerable Name, the purity there is not complete, on account of the servants [angels] that rule over it, and the peoples who go astray after their minister angels, worshipping them as well.”

Learning from all the sources cited, we can suggest the following idea:  tzara’at, as we said, is a sign from G-d.  The initial sign, and apparently the least destructive, is a plague upon houses.  In order to receive a weak signal one needs extremely good receptive conditions, which exist only in the land of Israel, not outside it; for outside of Israel, as Nahmanides put it, the purity is not complete.   This imagery, of course, is a metaphorical presentation of the idea that the affliction of tzara’at should be viewed in its spiritual sense in which the land of Israel has a special status, and not in its medical sense, in which case there would be no difference between different countries.

The Case of Naaman

Based on this distinction, I wish to propose a new way of looking at the story of Naaman, commander of the army of Aram (II Kings 5:1-15), who was “important to his lord and high in his favor…   But the man, though a great warrior, was a leper.”  According to the biblical story, a Hebrew maiden, who had been taken captive and was working as a servant in Naaman’s household, suggested that Naaman come “before the prophet in Samaria; he would cure him of his leprosy.”  Elisha suggested to Naaman, “Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean,” however Naaman found it hard to accept this advice:   “But Naaman was angered and walked away.”  In the end, after being persuaded by his servants, “he went down and immersed himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of G-d had bidden; and his flesh became like a little boy’s, and he was clean.”

I would interpret this as indicating that Naaman expected a medical solution, and from that point of view there was no need to immerse himself in the Jordan, of all rivers, for “are not the Amanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (5:12).   The message to Naaman, however, was that he had to cope with his affliction on the spiritual level, and in this respect the rivers of Israel, especially the Jordan, play an important role. 

The baraita in Tractate Bava Metzia (21b-22a), which asserts, “The Jordan river that took from one and gave to another, what it took it took and what it gave it gave,” is interpreted by Nahmanides in his novellae ( Hiddushei ha-Ramban) in light of the Jerusalem Talmud as follows:

Sometimes the Jordan is drawn in the direction of the land of Israel, so that it ends up taking from the land of Israel and giving abroad, and sometimes it is drawn towards the land of the other nations, so that it ends up taking from the land of the other nations and giving to the land of Israel; what it took it took, and what it gave it gave, as it is written, “The boundary of the Reubenites was the edge of the Jordan” (Josh.13:23).  The boundary depends on the Jordan river.  

A Spiritual Sickness

Assuming that treatment of Naaman’s leprosy was done on the spiritual level brings us to suppose that the reason for his leprosy should also be sought on the spiritual level.  In this regard I found two different legends bearing on the subject.  Numbers Rabbah (7.5) says:

Tzara’at comes from eleven things:  cursing the Lord, illicit sexual relations, bloodshed, attributing to one’s fellow traits that he does not have, being arrogant, entering an area that is not one’s own, lying, stealing, swearing falsely, profaning the name of G-d, and idolatry.   On being arrogant – that is Naaman, for it says, “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was important.”  What is meant by being important?  That he was arrogant because he was a great warrior, and that is how he became leprous.

Midrash Tanhuma ( Tazria 11) has a different explanation:

What brings affliction upon one?  … Provoking the Israelites, as it is said:  “The Lord will smite them with this plague,” for rising against Israel.   Do not be naïve, for in this world the Holy One, blessed be He, has exacted a price from Israel’s adversaries, smiting them with leprosy.  Who was he?  Naaman, as it is said:  Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was important to his lord and high in his favor,…   But the man, though a great warrior, was a leper.”  Why was he smitten with leprosy?  Because he took a young maiden captive from the land of Israel.

It seems one could combine both interpretations (illustrating that both are the words of the ever-living G-d).  The arrogance mentioned in Midrash Rabbah finds expression in the desire to subjugate Israel, while in actual practice this was implemented by taking captive a young maiden from the land of Israel.   Correction of the wrong can be made by; therefore Naaman must present himself before the prophet Elisha (following the recommendation by the maiden who was taken captive) and must immerse in the Jordan river, and not in one of the rivers of Damascus, as a correction of his ways: he must recognize the special traits of the people of Israel and the land of Israel, represented by the river Jordan.

The midrash of the Sages (Gittin 57b) provides a fitting conclusion to our thoughts:  Naaman became a resident alien (ger toshav).”  In the end he accepted the seven commandments of the sons of Noah and chose to live in the land of Israel.