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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Daf Shvui No. 71

Parashat Tazria

The Opinions of Our Sages on Leprosy as a Punishment - Extents and Sources

Dr. Meir Gruzman

Department of Talmud

Our sages were of the opinion that leprosy is inflicted as a punishment for the sin of slander (lashon hara) and this idea is expressed throughout the Talmudic period in the words of Tannaim and Amoraim alike. The first source is the Sifra (the tannaitic midrash to Leviticus), which places this thought in the mouth of a priest (kohen), when an Israelite comes before him saying: "I have seen what seems to be a plague in the house" (Leviticus 14:35). The kohen replies with words of chiding and admonition, telling him: "My son, plagues come only as a result of slander" (parashah 5:7). The same opinion is repeated by the Tanna Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who says of slanderers that "plagues overtake them" (Avot D'rabbi Natan, version A, Chap. 9); by Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar (a fifth generation Tanna) who says: "Plagues also come upon those who speak slander" (ibid.), and by Rabbi Yossi ben Zimra (at the end of the Tannaitic period), who says: "Everyone who relates slander is afflicted by plagues" (Arachin 15b). Amoraim also expressed this same opinion: Rabbi Yochanan in the second and third generations (ibid), Rabbi Pedat in the third generation (Tanchuma, Metzora 1), Rabbi Yehudah Halevy ben Rabbi Shalom in the fifth generation (Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, Parashah 6:5), and others in numerous, anonymous Midrashic sources.

Despite this undisputed unanimity of opinion, no one biblical source clearly and exclusively supports this rulation between "the evil tongue" and leprosy. Those who express it base their claims on a variety of sources. Some see the leprosy which affected Moses - one of the signs he used in Egypt - as a source for this opinion.

When God told him to go to (the people of) Israel, he said to Him: 'my Lord, surely they will not believe me!', as it is said: 'and they will not believe me!' God said to him: O, Moses, do you already know that they will not believe you? They are believers the sons of believers and you say to Me: 'And they will not believe in me'? Put your hand to your bosom! Immediately: 'And when he took it out, behold, his hand was diseased with leprosy' (Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, 7:5).

In other words, Moses was afflicted with leprosy because he slandered his fellow Jews, accusing them of weak faith.

Others see the story of the leprosy of Miriam as the source: Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses "because of the Kushite (black) woman he had taken". The result being:

And the anger of the Lord was inflamed against them, and He departed, and the cloud was removed from above the tent and behold, Miriam was stricken with leprosy, white as snow, and Aaron looked upon Miriam and behold she was diseased with leprosy (Numbers 12:9-10).

Our sages commented: "For we have found that in the case of Aaron and Miriam who spoke slanderously of Moses that punishment overtook them" (Sifra, Metzora 5,7; Vayikra Rabbah, Metzora 17,3; Tanchuma, Metzora 4; Avot D'rabbi Natan, Version A, Chap. 9).

There are, however, those who go to the early Prophets and see the narrative of Gehazi as the source for this opinion. As is known, Gehazi, Elisha's servant ran after Na'aman on his own intiative, stopping him and telling him this lie: "My master has sent me, saying, behold at this very moment two young men from Mount Ephraim, sons of the prophets, have come to me. Please give them a talent of silver and two suits of clothing" (2 Kings 5:2). Na'aman believed Gehazi, and gave him two talents of silver and two suits of clothing. When Elisha heard this he called Gehazi, rebuked him for what he had done, and pronounced a curse on him: And the leprosy of Na'aman will cling to you and your descendants forever". The curse had immediate results: "And he left his presence stricken with leprosy, white as snow" (2 Kings 5:27). On this basis Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Plagues afflict those who speak slander, as we have seen in the case of Gehazi who spoke slandererously of his master and leprosy clung to him till the day he died" (Avot D'rabi Nathan, ibid.).

Other authorities see in the word metzora (leper) as the abbreviation (notarikon) of the words motzi - ra (one who speaks evil) and as such the source for the interpretation: "Resh Lakish said: What is the meaning of 'this shall be the law of the leper (metzora)? [It means] this shall be the law of one who slanders (motzi shem ra - lit: one who brings out an evil name)" (Arachin 15b; Tanchuma, Metzora 1). Still others prefer to use the verse "whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I destroy" (Psalms 101:5) as the source. They compare the word atzmit ("I will destroy") to letzmitut ("forever") saying just as letzmitut means permanently or absolutely so atzmit means "I will absolutely destroy" which implies leprosy (Arachin 15b-16a). Another approach finds the source in the verse: "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles (mitzarot)" (Proverbs 21:3). The midrash exegesis of the verse is: "Do not read mitzarot but rather mitzara'at... (from leprosy)" (Tanchuma, Metzora 2).

Continuing the same line of reasoning, the purification of the leper is also explained in relationship to the sin of slander:

‎What is different about the leper that the Torah said: 'He shall dwell alone, his dwelling shall be outside the camp'? He separated between a husband and his wife, between a man and his friend (by his slander), therefore the Torah said 'he shall dwell alone' (Arachin, 16b).

Immediately follow other comments of the same nature:

What is different about the leper that the Torah said that he should bring two birds (as a sacrifice) so that he may become pure? The Holy One Blessed be He said: He acted as a babbler, therefore let him offer a babbler, birds that babble, as a sacrifice (ibid.).

Why must he bring "cedar wood" (etz erez) as part of his purification sacrifice? Because he made himself haughty, like a cedar tree (by his talk), he was afflicted with leprosy. And why "hyssop" (ezov)? Because among all the trees none is more lowly than the hyssop, and since he (the slanderer) has made himself lowly he will be cured by the use of the hyssop" (Tanchuma, Metzora 3).

Moreover, the sages saw the period of shutting in the leper to follow the development or disappearance of his leprosy not only a time for passive observation; the priest was to take an active role in eliminating the disease.

During the seven days of seclusion he (the kohen) would chastise him each day. He said to him, my son, repent from your spoiled ways and you will be cured immediately. And as soon as he opened his heart to repent he would see that his affliction of leprosy had become clean (Midrash Pitron Torah, Urbach edition, p.49).

In short: the appearance of the leprosy is triggered, according to our sages, by the sin of slander, and is eliminated by repentance from that sin.

However, there are three examples of slanderous speech in the Bible for which the guilty parties were not punished with leprosy.

A. Do'eg the Edomite, the chief herdsman of Saul, was present at Nov at the time that David and his young men received sanctified bread from Ahimelech the priest and also the sword of Goliath, "wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod". Later when he was "standing among the servants of Saul" (I Samuel am. 22:9) he related to the king what he had seen, saying: "I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nov, to Ahimelech son of Ahituv. And he inquired of the Lord for him and gave him food, and he gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine". The result is well-known: the king called Ahimelech to him, rebuked him and decreed: "You will surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father's house", and he instructed Do'eg to kill him and all the other priests: "And he sruck down the priests and on that day he killed eighty five men, wearers of the linen ephod, and he put Nov, the city of priests, to the sword" (I Samuel 22:18-19). The words which Do'eg spoke before Saul are considered slander by our sages: "Do'eg began to speak slanderously" (Tanchuma, Metzora 1; Sanhedrin 106 b;). If so, why was he not punished with leprosy as were other slanderers?

B. Elijah, the prophet, fleeing from Jezebel who sought to kill him, arrived at Mt. Horeb and there he heard the word of the Lord spoken to him: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" In his reply he said: "I have been very zealous for the Lord, God of hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your prophets with the sword, and only I am left and they seek to take my life" (I Kings 19:10). He repeats this once again in his reply to the "still, small voice" (I Kings 19:12-14). Our sages considered this accustion made by Elijah as evil talk (Pesikta Rabbati, 11) and here again we may ask: why was Elijah not punished for the slander which he hurled at the People of Israel?

C. Isaiah, at the time of his dedication as a prophet, saw the Lord "sitting on a high and uplifted throne, seraphim standing above Him" calling out one to another "Holy, holy, holy" (Isaiah 6:1-3). This vision shocked him and he cried out: "Woe is me for I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips and amongst a people of unclean lips do I dwell" (ibid., 5). Immediately one of the seraphim flew to his side with a burning coal, touched it to his lips, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips and your sin is taken away and your iniquity is forgiven" (ibid., 7). According to our sages (Pesikta Rabbati, 11) this was a punishment for the fact that Isaiah spoke slanderously of the children of Israel. Why, then, was Isaiah not punished with leprosy as all other slanderers were punished?

One possible answer would be that we should not see the relationship as a strict rule which implies that every slanderer without exception is afflicted by leprosy. The sages did say that leprosy appears as a result of the sin of slander, but they really meant that when it does appear it is due to this sin. It is definitely possible that some slanderers are punished in other ways, depending on the severity of the sin and the decision of the Almighty.

Do'eg the Edomite, according to the sages, was definitely punished even more severely. He was banished from this world and the world to come (Yalkut Shimoni on Samuel, 131), he did not live out half his years, and was punished by excision (karet) (Sanhedrin 106b). One should not ignore the opinion of Rav [or Rav Ashi] cited therein that Do'eg was also afflicted with leprosy. Elijah was told: "And anoint Elisha son of Shafat as a prophet in your place" (I King 19:16). He did not become a leper, but due to his sin he was dismissed from leadership of the people and his prophetic gift was handed over to Elisha son of Shafat. The command to anoint Elisha was given, according to the sages, for no reason other than as a punishment for his sin (Pesikta Rabati, ibid.). Isaiah was also not punished with leprosy but his lips were scorched with the coal which the seraph touched to his lips. Only that severe act alone could remove his sin and cause his iniquity to be forgiven.

Beyond this answer, it is possible to differentiate between various kinds of evil speech, and as a result to understand that each merits a separate punishment. In a number of midrashim our sages said that leprosy also appears as a punishment for other sins. In one source we find that "plagues of leprosy result from eleven things: idolatry, desecration of God's name, adultery, stealing, slander, bearing false witness, a judge who corrupts justice, false swearing, illegal entry, thinking false thoughts, and one who creates hostility between brothers" (Tanchuma, Metzora,4). Another midrash states: "Leprosy occurs as a result of eleven things: cursing the name of God, adultery, bloodshed, on saying of his friend something which is untrue, rudeness of spirit, illegal entry, untrue speech, stealing, swearing falsely, defilement of the name of Heaven and idolatry" (Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, 7,5).

A comparison of the two midrashim shows us, among other things, that the "slander" mentioned in the Tanchuma is explained as: "saying something of his friend which is untrue" in Bamidbar Rabbah. Hence, leprosy is not incurred by in every type of slander, only by that kind which contains "something which is untrue", i.e., evil talk which is also untrue. In light of this, and after a re-examination of the statements made by Do'eg, Elijah and Isaiah, we can determine that their malicious gossip, for all its evil, did not contain "something which is false" and therefore they were spared the punishment of leprosy. Do'eg told Saul what had actually taken place between David and Ahimelech, without a word of falsehood. Elijah spoke of the true situation in his time, and Isaiah expressed his feeling about the moral level of Israelite society. As he truly felt this way, there was nothing false about it.

On the other hand, the slander in the cases of Moses, Miriam and Gehazi included "something which was untrue". Moses said, "For they will not believe me and will not listen to my voice", but the Lord said that they are "believers the sons of believers!" Miriam, who spoke ill of Moses, included "something which is untrue" in her statement, for she attributed to Moses a level of prophecy no higher than her own or that of her brother Aaron ("For has he not also spoken through us?"). Gehazi, who presented Elisha in a negative light, also said "something which is untrue" concerning the errand upon which he was supposedly sent by his master.

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