Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
The leprosy disease which appears in our parasha may slightly mislead the
Many of the biblical scholars who looked at this parasha from the
perspective of the world of terminology in which they lived understood that the
Torah is proposing a way of dealing with a contagious disease (such as Hansen’s
disease) by isolating the afflicted and making sure he is not near other people
so they do not catch his illness.
However, preeminent commentators
concluded from perusing the Jewish laws pertaining to leprosy that this
interpretation is not possible. Without getting into their evidence, we will
note that Halacha states that a man who was discovered to have leprosy during
the mass pilgrimage to Jerusalem during the Jewish holidays had his quarantine
postponed until after the holidays, despite the fact that in those days many
people crowding into Jerusalem could have caught the illness. Another Halacha,
which limits the laws of leprosy to Jews only, versus a person who is not part
of the Jewish nation and is not sent to isolation even if he shows signs of
leprosy, shows that we must not be discussing a contagious disease as we know
What, therefore, is this biblical leprosy, and what is the meaning
behind the manner of dealing with it that the Torah proposes – by isolating the
leper for a week or two? Currently, there is much research being done on the
interplay between the soul of a person and his body. For example, the use of
medical clowns has been more and more common lately in the process of recovery
from serious illnesses.
This is because a person’s healthy spirit
influences and benefits his body, while a person in a depressed emotional state
has poorer chances of recovery.
Biblical leprosy refers to an extreme
case of a person lacking in interpersonal relationships, which causes the
appearance of the skin disease and the special way of dealing with
The disease of leprosy, the Torah teaches us, appears in direct
connection with the sin of lashon hara. As opposed to what many think, slander
is not necessarily a false rumor spread about a specific person. Even if a true
and founded rumor is included in the slander, it is forbidden to be said if it
is not for a beneficial purpose.
So the question here is: Why? If a
person indeed behaved inappropriately, why not say so? Since it is the truth! A
wellknown story is brought in the Talmud of a man who came before one of the
great sages, Hillel, with an odd request: “I am interested in joining the Jewish
nation and converting.
But I will do so on condition that you, Hillel,
teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” No less! Hillel did not
respond that this was impossible since Torah was a wide subject requiring many
years of study. He agreed to the condition and told him a short statement that
epitomizes the moral approach of the Torah, “That which you hate – do not do to
your friend.” This is the central principle of the Torah as defined by
Based on this basic statement, we can understand the reason why
it is forbidden to say lashon hara even when the story is true. Every person has
occasions when he behaves in a way which does not fit with the moral principles
he believes in. Sometimes one fails in telling the truth, another fails in
another sin, and there could be someone who behaves inappropriately to his
family. And here, everyone should stop and think: Would I want people to know
about my behavior? Would I want it to become public knowledge that I
occasionally fail? Obviously, the answer would be no.
And is it
appropriate for me to do to another what I am so not interested in having done
to me?! A proper society is one in which people are not busy judging each other,
but are looking into themselves in an attempt to improve their own
Dealing in gossip is cheap. It destroys the person when he is
busy with the sins of others instead of with attempts to fix himself. Society
then loses the reliability and solidarity so necessary for the creation of a
good society in which it is pleasant to live.
The biblical leper is a
person whose main occupation is judging others and speaking of their drawbacks.
Such a person whose soul is so damaged causes his body to break out in the
“leprosy” that comes as a result of the interplay between body and soul. This
disease appears as a result of his internal illness and is evidence of the moral
and spiritual corruption of a man who has nothing in his life other than dealing
in gossip and slander, and therefore his body gets sick.
The Torah deals
with it exactly on this plane – isolation.
The man who has leprosy appear
on his body is sent to isolation of a week or two. During this time, when he
misses the human society to which he is accustomed, he has the opportunity to
look at the spiritual needs of a man in a proper society. During these days, he
will learn how a man feels when society has turned its back on him and he is
socially isolated as a result of stories of slander publicized about
After this short isolation, the leper returns to society full of
moral insights, and will join the effort to build a proper and healthy society
in which gossip is not accepted as a legitimate phenomenon, and every person in
society is busy in improving his own moral state and not in snooping through the
sins of his friends.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall
and Holy Sites.