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Hirsch At Your Table

A Diseased House

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


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

כי תבואו אל ארץ כנען אשר אני נותן לכם לאחוזה ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחוזתכם. ובא אשר לו הבית והגיד לכהן לאמר כנגע צרעת לי בבית: (Lv 14:34-35)
The Torah describes a special kind of leprosy, that which afflicts a person’s home. According to the verse, this type of "house leprosy" can arise only after the Jewish people settle in the land of Israel. In the case of an outbreak, the owner of the stricken house is required to report the leprosy to a כהן.

The Torah expresses the principle that house leprosy can occur only in the land of Israel using the word אחוזה, freehold, which implies a complete settling of the land. An outbreak of house leprosy could not occur until the land was divided among the tribes, and each individual settled his personal parcel of land.

The word אחוזה is from the root א-ח-ז "to take hold of". The word אחוזה is an indication of the element of land ownership. A landowner is tied to his property.

By the same token, house leprosy could never occur in ירושלים. Unlike other parts of the land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes. As a result, there was no absolute ownership of property in Jerusalem, and the requirement of אחוזה was not satisfied.

In addition to the requirement of אחוזה, there are other conditions necessary for a house to contract leprosy. It must be four-sided and cannot be round. It must have a foundation that rests on the ground. It can share a wall of a duplex; it need not be a single-family dwelling. The house must be constructed of materials that include stones, wood and earth. The צרעת in the interior must be visible to the eye in daylight without the aid of artificial light.

As with the צרעת that afflicts a person’s skin, the house leprosy must be isolated for specific time periods and undergo reexamination to validate its status. If the house can be purified, the purification process is also similar to that of the leprosy of the skin. A כהן sprays the house with a mixture of the blood of birds, cedar wood, moss, wool cloth and running water. If, however, the כהן determines that the house cannot be purified, it must be torn down.

House leprosy, our Sages teach us, is a punishment for social sins. The Gemara explains that the phrase אשר לו הבית, "he who owns the house," means that the owner considers the house to be his property exclusively and he is unwilling to allow others to use it. The owner also refuses to lend his household goods to others. For this reason, the purification process serves as a kind of punishment in that it requires him to empty the house of all of its furnishings. Placing his belongings outside the house for all to see exposes the owner’s anti-social conduct and teaches him that his possessions were never truly his.

The word אשר is from the root א-ש-ר which means"to move forward". As a relative conjunction it means "who." The word בית is from the root ב-י-ת "to contain". A phonetic cognate of ב-י-ת is ב-ג-ד "to cover and envelope".

All of the characteristics of the house leprosy point to the social misdeeds that were committed within the walls of the dwelling. The importance of a house is not the physical structure, but the human activity that goes on within it חז"ל view the afflicted house as an entity that is socially isolated, closing itself off to the needs of its neighbors and community. This attitude is called מידת סדום; it follows the principle of שלי שלי ושלך שלך, mine is mine and yours is yours, according to which צדקה, righteousness has no place.

The word נגעי is from the root נ-ג-ע "to touch" and become infected. The word צדקה is from the root צ-ד-ק "to satisfy objective justice".

House leprosy can be contracted only after the nation enters God’s land and each family occupies its allocated portion. A house on God’s land is struck with leprosy when God is displeased with the lifestyle of the new "occupants." God bestowed these houses on the condition that their inhabitants live a Torah life, exhibit love for their fellow man and seek righteousness for the entire community.

The word תבואו is from the root ב-ו-א "to come to an attractive place". The word ארץ is from the root א-ר-ץ "to solidify". The land is a solid base for all societies.

The leprosy described here clearly shows that this "disease" is unlike any known to medical science. It has nothing to do with health or hygiene, and its treatment is unique. It is a warning to God’s people that they must act responsibly if they are to retain custody of the Promised Land.

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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