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Hirsch At Your Table

Leprosy in Clothes

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


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

והבגד כי יהיה בו נגע צרעת בבגד צמר או בבגד פישתים. או בשתי או בעורב לפישתים ולצמר או בעור או בכל מלאכת עור: (Lv. 13:47-48)
After detailing the laws of נגע צרעת as they relate to the human body, the Torah describes the צרעת of clothing and clothing materials, such as wool and linen. This צרעת may be found in the interwoven threads of linen or wool, or in leather and leather products.

This kind of נגע צרעת, plague of leprosy, involving a person’s בגד, clothes, is also a punishment for social sins. A person’s clothes help define and reflect his character. "Clothes make the man" is not just a saying; it reflects reality. Clothing protects a person and is integral to all of his activities. Further, clothing is like another layer of skin. Just as the skin can be struck with a נגע, so too can the clothes a person wears. God afflicts a person’s clothing because he committed a social misdeed.

The word נגע is from the root נ-ג-ע "to touch," usually an improper touch. The word צרעת is from the root צ-ר-ע "to erupt." Leprosy is a skin disease. The word בגד is from the root ב-ג-ד "to clothe and present outer appearance".

The sins giving rise to the נגע to a person’s clothes are even more serious than those that afflict a person’s skin. This type ofצרעת is so serious that the נגע affects even the threads and fibers from which the clothing is made. The שתי, threads woven vertically, and the עורב, threads woven horizontally, made from flax or wool, are also subject to this נגע.

The word שתי is from the root ש-ת-ה "to flow in a particular direction." The verse refers to the basic threads, usually the long vertical ones. The word עורב is from the root ע-ר-ב "to mix and penetrate with foreign matter." Here it refers to the horizontal threads that are woven into the vertical ones.

This entire phenomenon of נגע צרעת is an expression of השגחה פרטית, Divine providence. God wishes to ensure that each individual acts according to His ways. In God’s society, social sins such as arrogance, falsehood, narrow-mindedness and tale-bearing cannot be prosecuted in a court of law, but can devastate a community all the same if left unchecked.

The word השגחה is from the root ש-ג-ח "to concentrate attention." The word פרטית is from the root פ-ר-ט "to separate." The word is also used for "privacy and personal matters".

The gravity that the Torah ascribes to these social sins is expressed in several ways. For example, a non-Jew who converts to Judaism is not subject to punishment (in the form of צרעת הגוף) for לשון הרע spoken before conversion. However, if prior to conversion one committed any of the social sins punished by צרעת הבגד, the punishment does carry over after conversion and the convert can be affected by the נגע.

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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