Tzoraas and the Kohen; Examining the Metzora

Tzoraas and the Kohen

אָדָם כִּי יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר בְּשָׂרוֹ... לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת וְהוּבָא אֶל אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אוֹ אֶל אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים

If a person will on the skin of his flesh… an affliction of tzoraas, he shall be brought to Aharon the Kohen, or to one of his sons the kohanim. (13:2)

Why is the treatment of tzoraas, a matter that is ostensibly medical in nature, entrusted to the kohanim?

The straightforward answer, says Meshech Chochmah, is that since the condition of tzoraas and the recovery therefrom involves bringing the person from a state of tumah to taharah (purity and impurity), it lies in the domain of the Kohen. Indeed, the Gemara[1] associates tzoraas in this regard with the procedure of parah adumah (red heifer), which is also entrusted to the Kohen, even though it is technically not a korban, nor are its procedures done in the Beis Hamikdash. Nevertheless, since the parah adumah is instrumental in allowing a person to go from a state of tumah to taharah, it is performed by the Kohen. The same is true for tzoraas.

On a deeper level, the Meshech Chochmah explains that although tzoraas befalls a person on account of his wrongdoings, it is nonetheless also a contagious disease. Thus, we find that the sages of the Talmud would take care to avoid enclaves where people with tzoraas were situated.[2] Indeed, on a basic level, this is what is behind the Torah’s instruction that the metzora announce that he is tamei as he is leaving the city,[3] in order to warn people to keep their distance so that they not catch his tzoraas.

In light of this, we will appreciate that whoever treats the metzora is effectively exposing himself to danger of contracting tzoraas, and will thus be in need of special protection to avoid this occurring. It is for this reason the Torah places the metzora’s treatment in the domain of the kohanim, for, having been separated from the rest of the people to enter Hashem’s domain,[4] they are subject to a higher level of Divine supervision, and will thus be vouchsafed from harm in their interaction with the metzora.


Examining the Metzora

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע... וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן

The Kohen shall look at the affliction… the Kohen shall look at it… (13:2-3)

The idea of the Kohen seeing the tzoraas affliction is mentioned twice in our pasuk. Why the repetition?[5]

The Meshech Chochmah explains that these two phrases actually refer to the kohen looking at two different things:

  • The first phrase refers to examining the afflicted area to see if the symptoms are such that will render the person tamei.
  • The second phrase, “וראהו הכהן,” should be translated not “the Kohen shall look at it,” but “the Kohen shall look at him,” referring to the person brought to the Kohen!

The meaning of this second element is that in addition to examining the affliction, the Kohen needs to consider the situation of the person himself before pronouncing him tamei. This idea is reflected in the halachah which states that the Kohen does not examine a potential metzora either during one of the three Regalim festivals, or during the week in which the person got married.[6] It is not considered appropriate to mar his joy during those times by him being certified as a metzora, therefore, the appointment is postponed. The Meshech Chochmah comments that this is an application of the concept of “Deracheha Darchei Noam – the Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness,”[7] which can find expression even in a case where a person is met with retribution for wrongdoing, nevertheless, the Torah treats him with a certain measure of consideration. Here, too, the person’s situation is met with understanding, and his meeting with the Kohen which could result in him becoming tamei is deferred.[8]

Parallel Teachings

Interestingly, the Gemara which discusses the idea that the meeting with the Kohen can sometimes be postponed due to inopportune timing quotes a different pasuk as the source for this ruling. Pasuk 14 of our perek states “וּבְיוֹם הֵרָאוֹת בּוֹ – And on the day that… appears within it,” which the Gemara expounds to mean: “There are [certain] days when you examine and there are [other] days when you do not examine.”[9] This leads us to a basic question:

  • Since the Gemara has already established a source for this halachah, what place does the Meshech Chochmah’s “parallel source” in our pasuk have?

The Meshech Chochmah himself addresses this point, and explains that our pasuk states only generally that the Kohen must also consider the metzora and determine whether he should be examined. However, what qualifies as grounds for non-examination? Seemingly, there could be numerous factors which could mitigate against examination, such as that this person’s emotional constitution requires that he around people and not be quarantined as a metzora. Therefore, the pasuk quoted by the Gemara is necessary in order to establish that the criteria for whether or not the Kohen meets the potential metzora are specifically time-based, i.e. whether this is an appropriate day (or week) to examine him or whether the meeting should be postponed.

However, having established why the pasuk quoted by the Gemara is necessary, let us proceed to ask the converse: why is the Meshech Chochmah’s source necessary? The Gemara’s source seems to have given us the entire picture, i.e., the idea plus its parameters!

Apparently, the Meshech Chochmah is suggesting that the Gemara’s derashah on the word “וביום” is in fact based on our pasuk. In full, pasuk 14 reads, “וּבְיוֹם הֵרָאוֹת בּוֹ בָּשָׂר חַי יִטְמָא,” and is simply stating that on the day healthy flesh appears in the afflicted patch of skin the person will become tamei. The notion that the word “וביום” can also be denoting the idea that there are certain days when the Kohen does not meet a potential metzora is derived from our pasuk which states that the Kohen must consider the person as well as the affliction. Having established the principle that there are considerations which can mitigate against the kohen meeting the metzora, we can then seek to clarify what factors would influence whether or not the meeting takes place. At this point, we can find the answer in the word “וביום,” i.e., that the broader question of whether to meet is influenced by considerations of timing alone.

In other words, while the derashah mentioned by the Gemara (“וביום”) expresses the practical considerations of this halachah, the basis for the principle itself is to be found in the repetition of “וראהו” in our pasuk!

[1] Zevachim 14b.

[2] See Kesuvos 77b and Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 16:3.

[3] See pasuk 45.

[4] As the pasuk states (Divrei Hayamim I, 23:13) “ויבדל אהרן להקדישו קודש קדשים – He (Hashem) separated Aharon to sanctify him as holy of holies.”

[5] The Meshech Chochmah notes that this repetition has been commented on by the Toras Kohanim in our parsha (Chap. 2, sec. 8), which explains it to mean that the affliction must be entirely visible to the Kohen at the same time. Therefore, if it was on two sides of his nose or finger, he is not tamei.

[6] Moed Katan 7b.

[7] Mishlei 3:17.

[8] One may ask: The halachah, as quoted by the Meshech Chochmah, stipulates that if the timing is not conducive to the person being pronounced tamei, his meeting with the Kohen is deferred. If so, why does the pasuk say “וראהו הכהן” – referring to considering the person’s circumstances after it states “וראה הכהן את הנגע” – referring to his examination of the tzoraas itself, given that the person’s circumstances are considered first in order to determine whether or not the Kohen should examine the affliction?

[9] Moed Katan loc. cit.