Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

In the two parshiyot Tazria and Metzora we read about the nega’im, the “blemishes” that affect the walls of the home, garments and the skin of someone who speaks lashon hara.

The treatment of someone who speaks lashon hara is completely disproportionate in the Torah compared to the other sins.

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If things deteriorate to the stage of blemishes on the skin, the Kohen isolates the person outside the camp for seven days – he is not allowed to speak to anyone, he is not allowed to study Torah, not allowed to daven regularly. The only thing he is allowed to do is to contemplate the severity of his sin. If the person does not do teshuva, the blemish gets progressively worse. If he does teshuva, then the blemish clears up, but that is not nearly the end of it, now begins the purification stage.

First comes a korban – involving two birds, a piece of cedar wood, a thread dyed scarlet with the tola’at shani worm and a clump of eizov (Origanum syriacum, the main ingredient is the Israeli spice za’atar) – which requires offering one of the birds as a korban, dipping it and sprinkling blood on the sinner and releasing the second bird.

Then comes washing of all the clothes, shaving off every hair on the body and immersing in the mikvah. The sinner is then allowed back in the camp, but must sit outside his tent for seven days, he cannot go indoors. After seven days this is repeated – shaving off every hair on the body, the head, the beard, the eyelashes, again washing the clothes, again immersing in the mikvah.

Then the sinner has to bring three separate, additional korbanot at the entrance to the Ohel Mo’ed – an Asham, a Chatat and an Olah, involving waving in the air, dipping blood and placing on the earlobes, thumbs and big toes of both the Kohen and the sinner and smearing the remaining oil on the bald scalp of the sinner.

This is unprecedented – there is no other sin that requires this.

Imagine sitting at a bus stop waiting for a bus. You see a police car rushing past, lights flashing and siren blaring. “He must be chasing a speeding car” you think to yourself. What if you now see three police cars and a SWAT van going by with all the fanfare? This must be more serious! Now imagine ten police cars, a SWAT van, three fire trucks and a HAZMAT unit!!!!

HKB”H, in most circumstances, tries to minimize the shame caused to the sinner. For example someone bringing a Chatat offering, brings it in the same place as someone bringing an Olah, so as not to shame him. With lashon hara it is exactly the opposite. The entire procedure is deliberately made as visual and as public as possible. There is no way to mistake someone who simply has to bring a Chatat from someone who spoke lashon hara. The korban is waved in the air, the scalp is smeared with oil, etc. It is all deliberately humiliating.

Have you ever seen someone with every hair on their body shaved off? Including the beard and eyelashes? The person who spoke lashon hara, did teshuva and completed the entire, humiliating procedure – but still has to go to shul every day completely bald until his hair begins to grow back, which can take weeks. You can use a wig to mask the loss of hair, but what about the beard? The eyelashes!?

Every detail of every part of the above treatment is symbolic and addresses a necessary, different aspect of the sin (but would take longer than this space to explain fully). The question remains, why such disproportionate treatment?

If someone commits a sin that requires an Asham or a Chatat, etc., it is a specific sin that causes “limited” damage – it is containable. The sinner knows who he has sinned against, whether it be another person or HKB”H and he can repent and ask forgiveness from the relevant party.

When someone speaks lashon hara however, the sin is uncontainable. It begins by telling the lashon hara to someone else, but then it takes flight (like releasing the second bird and letting it take flight). That person tells it to another, etc., and the “virus” begins to spread exponentially (like a pandemic). There is no possible way, once the cat is out of the bag, to get it back in the bag and to repair the damage.

Damage that is multileveled must be addressed on multiple levels. The humiliation that the sinner receives, while seemingly disproportionate and extreme, is infinitesimal compared to the irreparable damage he caused. This is the cataclysmic force that is lashon hara, which Chazal tell us, led to the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash.

We will soon be celebrating Pesach and sitting around the seder table. The festival of Pesach all has to do with the “mouth” פה סח. The reason we landed up in Egypt in the first place was because of lashon hara – Yosef telling lashon hara about his brothers. The entire Pesach seder in fact comprises the different stages of the sin of lashon hara and the purification process. קדש –sanctifying the home after a blemish, ורח – the first washing, יחץ – causing division in Am Yisrael, מגיד – telling lashon hara, רחצה – the second washing, מוציא מצה – letting the “cat out of the bag,” מרור – the bitterness caused, כורך – holding the cedar piece, eizov and the scarlet thread together, שולחן עורך – inviting people to dinner to gossip, צפון – revealing hidden secrets, ברך – in its other sense, meaning to curse, הלל – praising someone, which can also be a form of lashon hara, נרצה – finally atoning for the sin.

What about כרפס? What is כרפס? There is no vegetable that is called כרפס in the Hebrew language. Some say it is celery, some say parsley – in fact it is any vegetable you prefer to use. The Chida (HaRav Chaim Yosef David Azulai) says that כרפס is an acronym for כלל ראשון פה סגור.

Its purpose is to teach us where to keep our tongues – inside our cheeks and not wagging loosely outside.

Parshat Hashavua Trivia Question: The nega’im were not medical conditions and were not contagious. Which two periods of time was the Kohen on “vacation” and would not answer questions regarding nega’im?

Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: To what four tangible white objects are the nega’im compared? The Mishna (Nega’im 1,1) discusses the three types of nega’im, Baheret, Se’et and Sapachat (according to the Mishna, Sapachat is not a category on its own, but an “intermediary, sub-” stage). Baheret: white snow, changing to the color of whitewash that the Heichal was painted with. Se’et: white egg shell changing to the color of white wool. That’s according to Rebi Meir. The opinion of the Chachamim regarding Se’et is that it starts with a white wool color and changes to egg shell color.

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Eliezer Meir Saidel is Managing Director of Machon Lechem Hapanim www.machonlechemhapanim.org dedicated to researching the Lechem Hapanim and owner of the Jewish Baking Center www.jewishbakingcenter.com which researches and bakes traditional Jewish historical and contemporary bread.