Saturday, April 25, 2009

The tsuris of Tzoraas

At Shaleshudis today, Saul Guberman noted Rabbi Wein's answer to the common question, "Why don't we have tzaraas today?"

Rabbi Wein explains that Tzaraas is a visible consequence of telling lashon hara (gossip). What one said secretly, behind the other's back, becomes visible, such that everyone can see your disfigurement, that you gossiped about another person. The secret becomes visible. Today, since everybody gossips, the sign is no longer visible, because whatever it was, everybody has it.

I prefer the Chinuch's answer, which is more pragmatic (I tend to prefer pragmatic to magical explanations), although it still depends on magical instantaneous Divine retribution, because that's what Tzaraas was.

About 2300 years ago, our sages noticed that no matter how many people were afflicted with tzaraas, it was no longer working as a Divine deterrent to gossipping. Let's review the tzaraas process. One gets a skin lesion, and worries that it might be tzaraas. So he calls in a priest. The priest must give the official diagnosis, but more likely than not, was not himself expert in diagnosing the condition, so he would call in an expert. The expert would say "Yup, looks like Tzaraas", at which point the homeowner would immediately take out all their furniture and clothes and utensils, because the moment the priest pronounced the infection to be Tzaraas, everything in the house had to be regarded as infected as well, and would have to be processed to remove the taint of ritual unfitness. This includes burning the cloth items - hence everything was brought outside before the official proclamation, to save them from having to be burnt. The priest then proclaims the lesion to be tzaraas.

The affected person then has to wait until the lesion goes away, and is certified cured by the priest and his diagnostician. The priest, in pronouncing the cure, performs a ritual with two birds, a hyssop twig, and some scarlet thread, killing one bird over fresh water, using the live bird to sprinkle the dead bird's blood on the victim, and releasing the live bird. A week later, the victiim goes to the ritual bath, immerses, and can return to normal life.

This huge process, with potential for big material loss, would seem to be a sufficient deterrent for gossip, but the Evil Urge is strong, and it didn't work. So, rather than afflict everyone in Israel with this, the Chinuch claims, the Sages voluntarily gave up their expertise in diagnosing Tzaraas. They didn't teach it to the next generation. Without the proper diagnosis, the priests couldn't pronounce anyone to have Tzaraas. So the reason we don't do it any more is because our ancestors willingly gave up the ability to process Tzaraas, because its utility was at an end.

Some might see this as a precedent for changing Biblical laws which seem outdated. But this is not a universal precedent. Rather, it's an example of "shev v'al taaseh" - sit and don't do it. If you don't do something, it won't get done. But it can't remove a negative command - you can't passively sit and not keep kashruth, you actively eat food that is not kosher. It can only remove a positive command - by not doing it. And there has to be rabbinic as well as communal consensus that the time for, and utility of, this law has passed. I don't see that applying to anything nowadays, but others might differ.


Garnel Ironheart said...

Nice post.

"Why don't we have tzaraas today?"


Another thought: to diagnose tzaraas, one needs to go to a proper kohein. Today most kohanim are all safeq. Secondly, even if one diagnosed the condition, there's no practical change in a person's life. We don't live in communities where tumah/tahara matter. The metzora could walk into your home and touch everything. So what? Doesn't matter right now.
Finally, there's no way for the metzora to purify himself nowadays in the absence of a Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt after May 8) so why would God send someone a punishment meant to motivate him to repent when there's no way to properly repent?

thanbo said...

The problem underlying all your issues is timing. Tzaraas ceased to be a tzuris for us 2300+ years ago, during the Second Temple period.

So antibiotics (a 20th-century development) isn't an answer (even if that was a joke), any more than lack of certified kohanim or lack of a Temple, because those only became a problem 3-4 centuries or more AFTER the end of Tzaraas.

The Chinuch's point is that you don't need the Temple to accomplish the tahara ritual for the metzora. Sure, he'd have to offer some korbonos, but those are in abeyance until he can do them, just like every woman who gives birth today, or every person who converts. We don't stop having children, or accepting converts, because of a lack of Beis haMikdash.

The korbonos for the Metzora are IN ADDITION to the purification rite with the birds and the twig. Once the rite is done, the person is Tahor, so in theory it could be done today, except that Chazal willfully gave up their knowledge of how to diagnose the condition.

micha said...

A different way of looking at what I believe to be essentially the same thesis is to look at it from a causal perspective.

In order for a murderer to develop psychosomatic symtpoms (ulcers, high blood pressure, tremors, etc...) he haas to feel guilty enough about killing for his psyche to revolt.

Similarly, if lashon hara becomes acceptable, no one's soul is going to be in enough of an uproar to induce spiritosomatic symptoms in the body.

(Whether you say "G-d did it" or you say "the causality stopped working", you are really saying the same thing. Who set up the cause and effect, after all?)