Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

Many people associate the two parshiot dealing with tzara’at with the power of speech. Often missing a detail that should be very surprising, however, they don’t realize just how far it goes.

It is well known that one of the causes for tzara’at is evil speech, even though this is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah (and evil speech is not the only cause). However, the far more powerful example of the power of speech is the Torah’s conditioning the legal existence of tzara’at upon the priest’s declaration.


In its most radical application, the Torah instructs a possibly infected house to be cleared of furniture (so that the latter can be spared) after tzara’at has been detected by the homeowner, but before the priest declares it impure (14:36). The Rabbis point out that the homeowner can even be more knowledgeable than the priest and know with certainty that tzara’at is present; yet since he does not have the power to make the declaration, the house is not yet contaminated (see Rashi on 14:35). From there, it was not a far stretch for the Rabbis to delay the priest’s declaration in other situations in which the timing might be inopportune.

There are two ways to look at this. One is to say that the actual presence of tzara’at is irrelevant and that the entire process is merely symbolic and educational. According to such a minimalist approach, spiritual contamination is only tangentially related to physical tzara’at. Genuine contamination only occurs when God determines it according to the laws of the Torah. In this case, two steps are required: the presence of tzara’at and the priest’s declaration. The former without the latter would be just as meaningless as the latter without the former. I find such an approach unsatisfying. Tzara’at is far too similar to other diseases and infections for its physical aspect to be ignored. Rather, it makes more sense to say that it operates like other diseases, which are certainly present whether confirmed by a physician or not. But, if so, why does the Torah make the priest’s declaration so essential?

The Torah seems to be informing us here that human speech not only describes reality, it creates it. While it is true that we call something may not change its physical reality, it does change its identity. (It may also affect how we deal with it, which may ultimately lead to how we impact upon it whenever possible.) In this sense, the relationship of speech to the tangible world is like that of a sculptor to clay. The sculptor does not change the existence of the clay. But by shaping it according to his conception, he gives it its identity.

Another illustration might be found in the financial markets. What is the difference, for example, between a bull market and a downward market correction? Economists are aware of the fuzziness of this distinction, since most bull markets are ultimately also market corrections as well. Hence, in most cases, the true difference between the two is what we call it, which is ultimately also what defines it.

By providing us with the law of the priest’s declaration, the Torah helps us to think differently about speech and to internalize its power, telling us that it not only evil speech that can be destructive; neutral clinical speech can sometimes be far worse. In the case of tzara’at, the Torah tells the priest to inflict damage by declaring something impure. That damage is presumably mandated for the long-term benefit of the individual, or at least of society, to learn specific lessons about the consequences of various sins.

But when such damage is not mandated, we must be very cautious about making pronouncements that will define reality. How many children described as slow learners, bookish, or anything else may be forever boxed in by what was meant to be a casual and helpful assessment?

The message is not to refrain from making any verbal assessments, but rather simply to be aware of their power and act accordingly. One of the best ways to do that is described in the very same section of the parsha mentioned above. When the priest comes to the homeowner, the owner declares that he has noted the presence of something like tzara’at. That brief word of hesitation is enough to make all the difference in the world. Not only does it show proper humility, it leaves the situation open for further observation and nuance.

Hence, along with teaching ourselves to say, “I don’t know,” when we don’t; we should also teach ourselves to say, “maybe,” even when we do.


Previous articleCleaning House (And Mind)
Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.