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Hirsch At Your Table

Diseases in the Torah

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו שאת או ספחת או בהרת והיה בעור בשרו לנגע צרעת והובא אל אהרן הכהן או אל אחד מבניו הכהנים: (Lv 13:2)
God relates to Moshe and Aharon the symptoms of צרעת, leprosy, that might afflict a person’s skin. A person experiencing such symptoms must go to Aharon or to another כהן to be examined.

The paragraph regarding leprosy begins: וידבר ד’ אל משה ואל אהרן. God here speaks to both Moshe and Aharon, which is unusual. One might have thought that Aharon is mentioned in this context because the כהנים are intimately involved in the diagnosis of the disease; but there are many other matters where the כהנים are involved, and Aharon is not mentioned. Rather, Aharon’s name is included here because in his capacity as כהן גדול, he was responsible for educating the people. He needed to transmit the laws affecting daily life so that the average Jew could understand and apply them. This verse, concerning the signs of leprosy, was just such a law.

The word צרעת is from the root צ-ר-ע, "to erupt." The disease involves an inner infection that bursts out of the skin.

Ailments mentioned in the Torah are completely different from diseases described in modern medical treatises. This is particularly true of leprosy. The biblical leprosy cannot spread, so there is no need for public health measures to prevent contagion. The "quarantine" dictated by the Torah is extremely limited in scope and does not apply on holidays or other occasions where large crowds assemble. Evidently, then, the Torah-mandated quarantine is not designed to prevent the disease from spreading. Rather, these plagues are punishments for social misdeeds, and the Torah mandates separation from the community as a necessary and appropriate part of the punishment.

The explanation of this verse is as follows: the אדם, person, is expected to be God’s representative on earth. As such, he must be sensitive to the standards of proper social conduct. How is that sensitivity expressed? Through the עור בשרו, skin of his flesh, the outermost layer of the body that is the first to be exposed to social misdeeds. In this case, the skin was derelict in not "alerting" the person to the social ills in which he engaged, and so the skin is afflicted by a נגע צרעת, leprosy-type disease.

The word עור is from the root ע-ו-ר "to absorb external impulse." The word בשר is from the root ב-ש-ר "to cover with a sensitive coating." Cognates include: ב-צ-ר/protect, ב-ס-ר/cover. The word נגע is from the root נ-ג-ע"to touch." Cognates include: נ-ג-ח/gore, נ-כ-ה/strike.

The Torah uses the word נגע, plague to symbolize God’s intervention. Generally, this word refers to a God-induced plague, as if God Himself singled out the person as it were and touched him, bringing the plague upon him. The word "plague," however, is not an accurate translation, since the word נגע refers to the disease only as it affects the individual, and does not consider the actual source of the disease.

Jewish tradition tells us that this biblical leprosy is punishment for לשון הרע, gossip. This explanation is based on the incident in the desert when Miriam contracts leprosy for speaking ill of her brother, Moshe.

The verse lists three skin conditions that constitute leprosy, all of which consist of white patches on the skin. They are: שאת, intense bright white, ספחת, flat white, and בהרת, shiny snow white.

Chazal, our Sages, explain that the color white represents death, as evidenced by the pallor of a deceased person. The shades of white listed in this verse indicate that a person who speaks לשון הרע distances himself from life.

The word שאת is from the root נ-ש-א "to raise." The word ספחת is from the root ס-פ-ח "to attach." The word בהרת is from the root ב-ה-ר "to shine." All three words describe the symptoms of the plague.

The verse ends with the directive to bring the symptoms to the local כהן who can determine the extent of the צרעת.

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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