Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

When we think of leprosy, we conjure up images of isolated leper colonies, with miserable patients suffering from a highly infectious disease. The leprosy in our Torah portion speaks about was nothing like that.

The proof that leprosy in Am Yisrael was not an infectious disease is that if someone discovered a blemish on their skin during Chol HaMoed Pesach or Sukkot and they went to ask the Kohen if it was leprosy, they found a sign on the office door saying “Not working during chag. See you next week! Signed: Mottel Katz” (Gemara, Moed Katan 7a-b). Similarly, if a newlywed noticed something strange on their skin, the Kohen would defer them to the week after Sheva Brachot (Mishna, Negaim 3:2). In both cases, the reason is to avoid interfering with the happiness of the festival or the wedding. If it were possibly infectious, no deferrals would have been acceptable.


The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, Tazria 15:4) says that when someone in Am Yisrael (in the time of the Mishkan/Beit HaMikdash) saw a blemish, it was not a physical disease but rather a “red light,” and they should “eat, drink and rejoice.” If, however, a non-Jew saw a blemish, it was indeed a physical disease.

If you are driving in your car and suddenly you see a warning light on the dashboard that indicates “water low,” what would you do? Most people would pull into the nearest gas station and fill up. Similarly, if you see a “gas low” warning light. The reason your car has these warning lights is not to report system failure; it is to warn you ahead of time in order to prevent system failure. They are a good thing, and we should be happy most cars have them, for if they didn’t and we continued driving along in blissful ignorance, we would end up doling out hundreds or even thousands of dollars in repairs. These warning lights are lifesavers and we should eat, drink and rejoice that they exist. The other nations are not privileged to have them, and they go directly to the “failure” stage.

This is why when someone in Am Yisrael saw a blemish, instead of heading straight to a dermatologist, they would visit the Kohen, because it was a spiritual condition, not a disease.

Our Sages say that each time you encounter a list of four items in a verse, they hint at the four exiles: Babylon, Persia, Greece and Edom. For example, two weeks ago in Shmini, we read about the kashrut laws and the four mammals who only have one of the two necessary kosher signs (cloven hoof and chews the cud) – camel, hare, rabbit and pig. Similarly last week in Vayikra, we read about four types of blemishes: se’et, sapachat, baheret and tzara’at.” The Sages in each case bring proofs for each item and their connection to the four exiles.

All the above blemishes are a result of someone speaking lashon hara, slander. The Sages say that the sin of lashon hara is equivalent in severity to all the three cardinal sins (adultery, idolatry and murder) combined. When someone speaks lashon hara, red lights start going off which, if ignored, result in exile.

It began in Gan Eden, with the serpent speaking lashon hara against Hashem (“The reason Hashem doesn’t want you to eat from the tree is because He Himself ate from that tree and acquired the knowledge to create the world.”) It set off red lights, but Chava and Adam ignored them, and the final result was exile from Gan Eden.

When Moshe saw two Jews (Datan and Aviram) fighting and tried to stop them, they went and informed to Pharaoh that he had killed an Egyptian guard. Moshe then said, “Now I realize why Am Yisrael are in exile in Egypt – it is because they speak lashon hara.

It is well known that the first Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of adultery, idolatry and murder, but there were two types of murder. The first was physically killing someone with the sword; the second was killing with lashon hara, as David HaMelech says (Tehillim 64:4), “The swords of their tongues.” This resulted in the Babylonian, Persian and Greek exiles.

The second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed by sinat chinam, hatred, by one Jew slandering another, resulting in the fourth exile, Edom.

It is not incidental that we read the three parshiot Shmini, Tazria and Metzorah close to the festival of Pesach. The word Pesach in Hebrew can be broken into two separate words “peh” (mouth) and “sach” (speak), because they are intricately connected to the mouth – what goes in (kashrut laws in Shmini) and what comes out (lashon hara consequences in Tazria/Metzorah). During the festival of Pesach, we are extra strict about what we eat (no chametz), and also what we speak (conducting the Seder, singing Az Yashir on the last day).

If we all unite this Pesach to repair the sins of the mouth, then the fourth exile, which we are currently experiencing, will cease and we will once again be redeemed, as we were in Egypt.

Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: A person with leprosy had to shave off their hair. Which hair?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: How many stages are there to life? R’ Bachyei (Vayikra 12:2) says that “life” is essentially divided into three stages. The first stage, called yetzira (creation – in the womb), is entirely dark. The second, called olam hazeh (this physical world), is partially light and partially dark. The third, called Olam Haba (the next world) is entirely light. It is a progression, each stage surpassing the former.


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Eliezer Meir Saidel ([email protected]) is Managing Director of research institute Machon Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread. His sefer “Meir Panim” is the first book dedicated entirely to the subject of the Lechem Hapanim.