Are All His Ways Judgment?

The 5 Towns Jewish Times reported a question recently posed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky regarding whether Jews in Miami should obey evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Irma, followed by his characteristically terse and rather oracular answer:

BREAKING VIDEO: Hagaon HaRav Chaim Kanievsky Tells Miami Residents To Leave Their Homes! ‘Sakanah!’

Hurricane Irma’s size and strength put the entire state of Florida on notice Tuesday, and residents and visitors prepared to leave in anticipation of catastrophic winds and floods that could reach the state by this weekend.

Throughout South Florida, officials readied evacuation orders and people raided store shelves, buying up water and other hurricane supplies. Long lines formed at gas stations and people pulled shutters out of storage and put up plywood to protect their homes and businesses.

Meanwhile, on Rechov Rashbam in Bnei Brak a question was posed as what residents of Miami should do. Should the residents stay or they should leave? Rav Chaim was explained about the recent storm in Texas, and the high number of deaths.

“There may be evacuation orders in Miami over Shabbos. Should they listen and leave, or should they stay?” – he was asked.

Rav Chaim responded with one word – “Sakanah!”

Watch the video below to see for yourself.

One might think that with such a brief (less than one minute) encounter, of which a video record is available, there would be little debate about what, exactly, was asked and answered, but one would be wrong. While the 5TJT describes R. Chaim’s response as “one word – “Sakanah!””, Matzav describes his answer as consisting of two words – “Chshash Sakana”:

“SAKANA”: R’ Chaim Kanievsky Asked About Evacuating Miami For Hurricane Irma (VIDEO)

Florida is hunkering down in preparation for Hurricane Irma, a record breaking Category 5 storm expected to make landfall in the next few days. Grocery shelves have been emptied, windows are being shuttered and emergency services are readying themselves for all possible scenarios.

In the Jewish community, another form of preparation is being taken into account. After Gov. Abbott of Texas was criticized for not calling for an evacuation before Hurricane Harvey, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has warned that an evacuation order may be declared for parts of Florida in the next few days.

The question arose about how to deal with an order to flee that is issued on Shabbos.

The shayla made its way across the Atlantic Ocean, landing in Bnei Brak to be answered by the Godol Hador, R’ Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a. After listening to the halachic query, R’ Chaim was unequivocal. “Chshash Sakana,” he declared, with all its halachic ramifications.

Watch the video below to see the question being posed to R’ Chaim followed by his succinct answer:

Even more significantly, the JTA’s version of the episode (picked up by The Times of Israel – and Breitbart) goes so far as to claim that R. Chaim ruled that the danger of the storm justified violation of the laws of Shabbas:

Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape Hurricane Irma, haredi rabbi says

An influential Ashkenazi rabbi in Israel said Jews may travel on Shabbat to escape Hurricane Irma, a Category 4 storm that is expected to hit Florida over the weekend.

But some Jews in flood-prone areas are determined to ride out the storm, another rabbi said.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who receives thousands of followers annually at his home in Bnei Brak from haredi Orthodox communities around the world, issued the call in an interview with a follower. One of his aides filmed and posted his response online Wednesday.

Kanievsky’s ruling came as people in parts of three Florida counties faced mandatory evacuation orders Thursday and officials in two other counties issued voluntary orders to leave in advance of Irma.

The storm could create one of the largest mass exoduses in U.S. history as additional evacuations are announced. Orthodox Jewish law permits the violation of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, only in life-threatening or otherwise severe emergencies. …

[See the debate in the comments to the Matzav article over whether R. Chaim actually endorsed evacuation on Shabbas.]

R. Natan Slifkin is skeptical of the meaningfulness of the exchange between R. Chaim and his interlocuters:

Rav Chaim Kanievsky is 89 years old. He has spent virtually his whole life insulated from the outside world. He is a selfless person who has dedicated his entire life to the study of Torah (apart from a very brief period during the War of Independence when he served on guard duty). Many people, following the contemporary charedi notion of Daas Torah (in which the less a person knows about the world, the purer is his wisdom), believe that this makes him uniquely suited to give guidance.

But it goes even further. People consider even a word of blessing from him to be guidance. …

Last week there was another example of this, and it’s on video for everyone to see. Someone went to Rav Chaim and told him that there is a deadly storm headed for Miami, of a kind that has killed many people. They asked: Should people flee? And he replied: Sakanah! (“There’s a danger!”). And that was the end of the conversation.

This brief interaction is viewed very differently by different people. Some people genuinely see it as a demonstration of Divine Daas Torah. “Rav Chaim Kanievsky has ordered people to evacuate Miami!” Others see it as a tragic example of nothingness. He was told that there is a life-threatening danger, so he said that it’s dangerous. You can get the same answer from a five-year-old. …

But whatever one may think of the value of this particular interaction, it should be noted that there is strong precedent for consulting דעת תורה about the religious legitimacy of fleeing from natural disasters – see our previous citation of two classic responsa by prominent fifteenth century Rabbinic leaders – Maharil and Rashbash – in response to queries about the propriety of fleeing from outbreaks of plague.

As noted there, both responsa adduce the following bizarre aggadic passage as proof that “sometimes the messenger errs” – in other words, the argument for passiveness and submission to the Divine will fails since not everything that occurs is actually in accordance with the Divine plan; some tragedies are basically just unfortunate bureaucratic errors!

רב יוסף כי מטי להאי קרא בכי (משלי יג) ויש נספה בלא משפט אמר מי איכא דאזיל בלא זמניה אין כי הא דרב ביבי בר אביי הוה שכיח גביה מלאך המות אמר ליה לשלוחיה זיל אייתי לי מרים מגדלא שיער נשייא אזל אייתי ליה מרים מגדלא דרדקי אמר ליה אנא מרים מגדלא שיער נשייא אמרי לך אמר ליה אי הכי אהדרה אמר ליה הואיל ואייתיתה ליהוי למניינא אלא היכי יכלת לה הות נקיטא מתארא בידה והות קא שגרא ומחריא תנורא שקלתא ואנחתא אגבה דכרעה קדחא ואיתרע מזלה ואייתיתה א”ל רב ביבי בר אביי אית לכו רשותא למיעבד הכי אמר ליה ולא כתיב ויש נספה בלא משפט א”ל והכתיב (קוהלת א) דור הולך ודור בא אמר דרעינא להו אנא עד דמלו להו לדרא והדר משלימנא ליה לדומה א”ל סוף סוף שניה מאי עבדת אמר אי איכא צורבא מרבנן דמעביר במיליה מוסיפנא להו ליה והויא חלופיה1

When Rav Yosef reached this verse, he cried: “But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23). He said: Is there one who goes before his time and dies for no reason? The Gemara answers: Yes, like this incident of Rav Beivai bar Abaye, who would be frequented by the company of the Angel of Death and would see how people died at the hands of this angel. The Angel of Death said to his agent: Go and bring me, i.e., kill, Miriam the raiser, i.e., braider, of women’s hair. He went, but instead brought him Miriam, the raiser of babies.

The Angel of Death said to him: I told you to bring Miriam, the raiser of women’s hair. His agent said to him: If so, return her to life. He said to him: Since you have already brought her, let her be counted toward the number of deceased people. Apparently, this woman died unintentionally.

Rav Beivai asked the agent: But as her time to die had not yet arrived, how were you able to kill her? The agent responded that he had the opportunity, as she was holding a shovel in her hand and with it she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She took the fire and set it on her foot; she was scalded and her luck suffered, which gave me the opportunity, and I brought her.

Rav Beivai bar Abaye said to the Angel of Death: Do you have the right to act in this manner, to take someone before his time? The Angel of Death said to him: And is it not written: “But there are those swept away without justice” (Proverbs 13:23)? Rav Beivai said to him: And isn’t it written: “One generation passes away, and another generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4), which indicates that there is a predetermined amount of time for the life of every generation.

He said to him: I shepherd them, not releasing them until the years of the generation are completed, and then I pass them on to the angel Duma who oversees the souls of the dead. Rav Beivai said to him: Ultimately, what do you do with his extra years, those taken away from this individual? The Angel of Death said to him: If there is a Torah scholar who disregards his personal matters, i.e., who overlooks the insults of those who wrong him, I add those years to him and he becomes the deceased’s replacement for that time.2

This possibility of erring messengers is invoked by halachic authorities in another context. As discussed below, there is considerable debate over the theological correctness of the liturgical phrase “לוקח נפשות במשפט”, and various aharonim grapple with the implication of the above aggadah that not all deaths are necessarily just:

חדושי אנשי שם

ק”ל דהא כתיב יש נספה בלא משפט וכעובדא דרב ביבי בפרק קמא דחגיגה ואנו אומרים אותו על המדה התמידית ומדאורייתא שהוא לוקח נפשות במשפט ואם לפעמים על המעט יש נספה בלא משפט אין ראוי מפני זה להמנע מלאומרו כי המקרה אינו תמידי ולא מדאורייתא:3

מכתם לדוד

ואיכא למידק דאמאי לא קאמר דטעמא הוי משום דאמרינן בפ”ק דחגיגה יש נספה בלא משפט וכו’ יעו”ש ולהכי לא מצינן למימר לוקח נפשות במשפט ואמאי אייתי מההיא דמסכת שבת דאינה מימרא מוסכמת וי”ל דמהתם אין ראיה כלל דמלאך המות הוא דעבד הכי ולאו שהקב”ה אמר לו להמיתו כמעשה הנזכר שם משא”כ ההיא דשבת משמע שהקב”ה מרשהו להמיתו הגם דאין בו חטא ואיך מצינן למימר לוקח נפשות במשפט והר”ר יונה והרא”ש ז”ל כתבו שאין למוחקו יעו”ש. ומרן ז”ל בשו”ע או”ח סי’ קפ”ט ויו”ד סי’ שע”ט נראה שלא הכריע לא כהרי”ף והרמב”ם ולא כהר”י והרא”ש אמנם רמ”א ז”ל התם סי’ שע”ט כתבו אמנם כתב ג”כ כי כל דרכיו משפט והוא טעם נכון ודוק. שוב ראיתי להרב פר”ח ז”ל שהביא ראיה מההיא דפ”ק דחגיגה ולענ”ד אין ראיה כמ”ש.4

משרת משה (עטייה)

ולענ”ד יש להביא עוד סעד לסברת בה”ג ודעמיה מדאמר בפ”ק דחגיגה בדף ד’ ע”ב ויש נספה בלא משפט ואייתו עובדא דמרים מגדלא שער נשייא וכו’ ופירש”י ז”ל דיש כלה ואין עון בידו ולא היה משפט לספות עיי”ש וא”כ אפוא כיון דאשכחן מקרא מלא דיבר הכתוב דיש נספה בלא משפט וזימנין שכיח דאזיל בלא זימניה ובלי עון ונקנה בחליפין א”כ היאך נאמר לוקח נפשות במשפט.
ואגב הוקשה לי בסוגייא דשבת דאמאי לא פריך על ר’ אמי דאמר אין מיתה בלא חטא מהאי קרא דיש נספה בלא משפט והאי עובדא דמרים שהיתה מזמן בית שני ומשו”ה סיפר לו לר’ ביבי מה שאירע כבר כמ”ש התוס’ בד”ה הוה שכיח גבי מלאך המות וכו’ עיי”ש והש”ס בהסכמה עלו ופירשו להאי קרא כי האי עובדא ואמרו אין כי הא דר’ ביבי וכו’ וא”כ במה כוחו דר’ אמי לומר אין מיתה בלא חטא. ואין לומר דס”ל לר’ אמי בפי’ האי קרא כמ”ש רש”י ז”ל בפי’ משלי בסי’ י”ד עיי”ש חדא דמה לנו בפי’ רש”י כיון דהש”ס פי’ איפכא ורש”י בתחילה פי’ הפשט ואח”כ איהו גופיה סיים דרבותינו פירשו במס’ חגיגה וכו’ עיי”ש. ובמ”ש אנן בעניותין בקונטרס זכות אבות בפ”ב משנה ח’ בס”ד. ועוד דאף את”ל דפליג עלה ומפרש האי קרא בגוונא אחריתי מה יתרץ בהאי עובדא דסוף סוף אשכחן דיש נספה בלא חטא ולא מטא זימניה וגם דאם איתא הו”ל למסדר הש”ס להודיענו האי פלוגתא בפי’ האי קרא ולימא דלפום שיטה זו אזלא לה לעלמא האי בכיה דר’ יוסף דהוה בכי כי מטי להאי קרא על דאיכא אינש דאזיל בלא זימניה אלא לאו דמוכח דהש”ס תפס במושלם בפי’ האי קרא הכי ורב יוסף מדקא בכי משמע שהבין הקרא הכי ואייתו עלה בש”ס לומר היכי דמי ור’ ביבי ג”כ כד בעי מיניה דמלאך המות אית לכו רשותא למיעבד הכי השיבו ולא כתיב ויש נספה בלא משפט וגם מן השמים יוכיחו מדשתקו ולא א”ל ולא מידי משמע דהסכימו להאי עובדא דמלאך המות והפסוק עצמו העיד דיכול להיות כהאי גונא והוא מוסכם והדרא עלן דאמאי לא פריך אליבא דר’ אמי מהאי מילתא ולכאורה צריך יישוב. …5

My weekly column for this past פרשת האזינו:

Parashas Haazinu (32:4) contains the declaration: “The Rock! – perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice; a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.”

This conviction of the universality of Hashem’s justice is expressed in (some versions of) the language added to the Blessing after Meals (birkas ha’mazon) in the home of a mourner. Our text of the Talmud (Berachos 46b) includes the phrases “[He] takes souls with justice … for all His paths are justice”. There is a Geonic-Sephardic tradition, however, that deletes these references to justice, since the Talmud elsewhere (Shabbas 55a-b) records a debate over the proposition that “there is no death without error [cheit] and there is no suffering without iniquity [avon]” and apparently concludes by endorsing the opposing view that “there is death without error and there is suffering without iniquity” (Halachos Gedolos cited by Tosafos Berachos ibid.; Rif and Rambam as understood by Beis Yosef OC end of siman 189; Beis Yosef himself). The Ashkenazic tradition, on the other hand, defends our text, arguing that despite the Talmudic conclusion that “there is death without error”, it nevertheless remains the case that “all His paths are justice”, “and He knows why He does so” (Rabbeinu Yonah to Berachos ibid.; Tosafos ibid.; Rema YD 379:1). Furthermore, the Meiri insists that despite the apparent conclusion of the Talmudic discussion, the theologically normative view is nevertheless that “there is no death without error and there is no suffering without iniquity” (and cf. Abudraham, Hilchos Berachos, Shaar 9).

An additional objection to the phrase “[He] takes souls with justice” is based on the text of Proverbs (13:23) “and some are consumed without justice”. The Talmud (Chagigah 4b-5a) understands this to mean that lives are sometimes ended unjustly. In support of this theologically provocative stance, the Talmud cites a remarkable anecdote of the underling of the Angel of Death confusing his master’s description of his target and taking the life of the wrong woman by mistake (cf. Mishras Moshe and Michtam Le’David to Rambam Hilchos Berachos 2:8)! Some explain that justice is the norm, and its absence a rare aberration, and we may therefore declare that “[He] takes souls with justice” since this is generally the case (Chidushei Anshei Shem, Berachos ibid.).

My weekly parashah lecture, on the same topic, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. חגיגה ד:-ה []
  2. The William Davidson Talmud ibid. []
  3. חדושי אנשי שם על הרי”ף ברכות לד: בדפי הרי”ף []
  4. מכתם לדוד ברכות ב:ח []
  5. משרת משה (עטייה) הלכות ברכות ב:ח []

There Is That Is Destroyed Unjustly

For S.B., who is blameless and has not yet tasted sin.

A provocative Talmudic agadah asserts that some deaths are unjust, citing as an example the bizarre tale of a minion of the Angel of Death whose misinterpretation of his instructions resulted in the termination of the wrong woman:

רב יוסף כי מטי להאי קרא בכי (משלי יג) ויש נספה בלא משפט אמר מי איכא דאזיל בלא זמניה אין כי הא דרב ביבי בר אביי הוה שכיח גביה מלאך המות אמר ליה לשלוחיה זיל אייתי לי מרים מגדלא שיער נשייא אזל אייתי ליה מרים מגדלא דרדקי אמר ליה אנא מרים מגדלא שיער נשייא אמרי לך אמר ליה אי הכי אהדרה אמר ליה הואיל ואייתיתה ליהוי למניינא אלא היכי יכלת לה הות נקיטא מתארא בידה והות קא שגרא ומחריא תנורא שקלתא ואנחתא אגבה דכרעה קדחא ואיתרע מזלה ואייתיתה א”ל רב ביבי בר אביי אית לכו רשותא למיעבד הכי אמר ליה ולא כתיב ויש נספה בלא משפט א”ל והכתיב (קוהלת א) דור הולך ודור בא אמר דרעינא להו אנא עד דמלו להו לדרא והדר משלימנא ליה לדומה א”ל סוף סוף שניה מאי עבדת אמר אי איכא צורבא מרבנן דמעביר במיליה מוסיפנא להו ליה והויא חלופיה1

Remarkably, two fifteenth century scholars – the German Maharil and the Algerian Rashbash – both adduce this passage in support of the identical theological position: the propriety of fleeing an outbreak of the plague. They argue that such flight does not constitute a contravention of G-d’s will, for not all death is necessarily the will of G-d, as is evident from our anecdote!

מהרי”ל

מה דכתב מר דנראה שהוא איסורא לברוח כו’, פרק זה בורר אמרינן שב שני הוה מותנא ואיניש בלא זימנ’ לא שכיב, משמע קצת דאין לברוח. אמנם נראה דאינו אלא משל בעלמא דאמרי אינשי, דפרק קמא דחגיגה אמרינן דיש נספה בלא משפט כי הא דאמר ליה לשלוחי זיל אייתי לי מרים מגדלא נשיא כו’ כדאית’, אלמא דטעי שלוחי, כל שכן כהאי גוונא דאיתיהיב ליה רשותא ודרשינן מלא תצאו וגו’ כיון שניתן רשות למשחית כו’. ומהאי טעמא רגילין לברוח.
וכן מוכח בספר חסידים שיסד הרוקח דטוב לברוח, וטעמא רבה איכא דזימנין נגזר על עיר אחת או מדינה אחת. וזכר לדבר כתיב היוצא מן העיר והיתה לו נפשו לשלל, וכתיב [ו]על עיר אחת [לא] אמטיר וגו’. והוא הדין לשאר מיני פורעניות המתרגשות וגם משום ביעתותא, דמהאי טעמא נמצא בתשובה שאין צריך להתאבל בעידן ריתחא, וכן נוהגים בארץ לומברדי”א. ואמרינן נמי אל יעמוד אדם במקום סכנה כו’, ואמרינן נמי ג’ דברים מזכירין עוונותיו של אדם קיר נטוי וכו’. מכל הני מורה דאין טוב לעמוד במקום סכנה כו’. וכן ראיתי גדולים שהלכו למקום אחר.
והא דאמרינן פרק הכונס כנוס רגלך ויליף מקראי טובא, שמעתי מפי מה”ר שלום שי’ דלאחר שהתחיל ונתחזק ואיתיהיב ליה רשותא למסגי להדיא יש לכנוס רגליו. ואמרינן נמי כל הדרכים בחזקת סכנה, אבל מתחלה טוב הוא לברוח. ובמסכת תענית [אמרינן] איכא מותא בי חוזאי גזרינן תעניתא אף על גב דמרחקי’ טובא דשכיח’ שיירת’. ואיתא נמי התם אמר ליה לשמואל איכא מותא בחזירי גזרינן תעניתא דדמייא מעייהו לבני אינשי. וכל זה מורה אהא דאמרינן אינו מבחין כו’, על כן נראה דאין כאן שום איסור.2

רשב”ש

שאלה. הניסה בימי דבר ממקום למקום אם תועיל לאדם או לא, שאם נכתב בראש השנה למיתה מה תועילנו הניסה, ואם נכתב לחיים לא תזיקנו העמידה.
תשובה. כל אדם יש לו קץ קצוב מספר ימי חייו, ודבר זה כתוב בתורה את מספר ימיך אמלא, שנוי בנביאים הנני מוסיף על ימיך, משולש בכתובים הודיעני ד’ קצי וכו’, ובדברי רבותינו ז”ל בפרק אין בין המודר כיון שהגיע קצו של אדם הכל מושלין בו וכו’. אם כן אחר שדבר זה כתוב בתורה שנוי בנביאים משולש בכתובים ובאה הקבלה האמתית עליו, וחכמי המחקר מודים בו ונותנים טעם בדבר, אם מפאת הגרמיים השמימיים אם מפאת ההרכבה, … והוא הדין קצוב לאדם שנתבאר בתורה בנביאים ובכתובים ובדברי רבותינו ז”ל ואין לספק בזה ולא לערער עליו. …
על כן אני אומר לפי קוצר שכלי, מי שאין בידו עבירה מחייבת מיתה וקוצר ימים מהעקר נשאר על הקץ הקצוב מספר ימי חייו, ובראש השנה אינו נדון לא בחיים ולא במות, אבל נשאר על הקץ הקצוב ובתום קצו ימות אם אין לו מצוה מחייבת אריכות ימיו, וזו היא מיתה בלא חטא. אף על פי שאמרו ז”ל בפרק במה בהמה אין מיתה בלא חטא, אינו מאמר מוסכם, וכמו שכתב הרמב”ן ז”ל בשער הגמול. ועל זה שלא נדון בראש השנה בחיים ובמות נאמר בתורה פן ימות במלחמה, שאם נכתב בראש השנה בחיים או במות אינו בחק האפשר אבל הוא בחק החיוב, שאם נכתב שימות בחרב אפילו בתוך ביתו או יסתר במסתרים ידקר בחרב, ואם נכתב בחיים אפילו יפול בעד השלח לא יבצע. …
ואשר לא נכתב ביום הדין בחיים ובמות נשאר בחק האפשר במיתת מגפה ובמיתת מלחמה ודומיהם או מיתה טבעית על ידי רוע הנהגה, וזהו שאמר עליו החכם ויש נספה בלא משפט, וכההוא עובדא דבפרק קמא דחגיגה בעובדא דמרים מגדלא נשיא ומרים מקריא דרדקי.3

דבר בעתו מה טוב; of particular interest is Rashbash’s remarkably lucid articulation of the position that not everyone has his fate decreed on Rosh Ha’Shanah, and that the fates of those who do not are determined by their natural lifespans and by accidental misfortunes such as war and disease, the latter of which they have the power to either avoid or bring upon themselves.

I recently delivered a couple of versions of a lecture discussing these and other related sources; the one that did not take place on shabbas, along with my notes, are available at the Internet Archive. See also here for our more extensive citation of Rashbash’s responsum, along with other (different) related sources, and this related post.

  1. חגיגה ד:-ה. – קשר []
  2. שו”ת מהרי”ל (מכון ירושלים תש”מ) סימן מ”א אות א’ עמודים מג-מד []
  3. שו”ת הרשב”ש סימן קצ”ה – קשר (ההעתקה כאן היא ממהדורת מכון ירושלים), ציינו רע”א בגליון הש”ס בבא קמא ס: []

Avoiding צרעת Like the Plague

Artscroll declares:

For hundreds of years, the popular translation of צרעת [tzaraas] has been “leprosy,” and it was commonly accepted that prevention of the disease’s spread was the reason for the quarantine of a suspected victim of tzaraas and the exclusion from the camp of a confirmed מצורע [metzora], the person smitten with the malady. R. Hirsch demonstrates at length and conclusively that both of these notions are completely erroneous. Very briefly, he shows that the symptoms of tzaraas, as outlined in our Sidrah, are far different from those of leprosy. Furthermore, if the reason for the metzora’s confinement is to prevent contagion, then some of the laws would be ludicrous. For example, if the malady covers the victim’s entire body (13:13), he is not tamei, but if his skin begins to heal, he becomes tamei. In the case of a house that is afflicted (14:26), the Torah prescribes that before the house is pronounced tamei, all its contents should be removed, because they would become contaminated if they were left inside at the time of the pronouncement. But if there were a danger of contagion, it would be irrational for the afflicted household items to be excluded from the quarantine! In perhaps the most telling example, the Talmud teaches us that if the symptoms of tzaraas appear on a newlywed or during a festival season, the Kohen does not examine the affliction or declare it to be tamei, in order not to interfere with the celebration. But if the purpose of these laws is to prevent the spread of disease, it would be absolutely imperative to enforce the laws at times of great overcrowding and mingling!

Clearly, as the Sages teach, tzaraas is not a bodily disease, but the physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise, a punishment designed to show the malefactor that he must mend his ways. The primary cause of tzaraas is the sin of slander. As the Sages say, the word מצורע is a contraction of מוציא שם רע, one who spreads slander (Arachin 15b). Similarly, the Sages teach (ibid. 16a and various Midrashim) that the affliction is a punishment for the sins of bloodshed, false oaths, sexual immorality, pride, robbery, and selfishness. The pattern that emerges is that it is a Divine retribution for the offender’s failure to feel the needs and share the hurt of others. G-d rebukes this anti-social behavior by isolating him from society, so that he can experience the pain he has imposed on others – and heal himself through repentance.1

To be fair to Artscroll, this is indeed an accurate synopsis of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch‘s treatment of the topic:

No part of G-d’s Torah can serve, as much as this chapter on נגעים, to show the absolute folly of the erroneous idea of “the tendency of the Laws of Moses to be rules and regulations to be enforced for health and sanitary purposes”. On the surface, there are certainly sufficient facts in this chapter to give rise to such an illusion. Clearly it deals with diseases, with a disease which had always been (until quite recent times at least. I.L.), been considered contagious; those affected have to be isolated; for what purpose if not to prevent contagion; this sufficed to fix the character of these laws of Negaim as being sanitary health regulations and to stamp the functioning priests who administered them as doctors. And if, out of the whole register of human pathological diseases just this illness, “leprosy”, alone was picked out for these “police” regulations evidently it must have been just this disease, the most horrible one, from which the Jews mostly suffered, and the fairy tale of Tacitus that it was because of their leprosy that the Jews were driven out of Egypt, can not be so entirely without foundation!

But let us just look at these laws in their most prominent details and see if it even possible to give them any sanitary character.

Already the fact that real leprosy, שחין, in itself is not מטמא at al, the “evil” leprosy, the “incurable Egyptian leprosy, שחין מצרים, שחין רע אשר לא תוכל להרפא, does not bring any state of טומאה, as it says in v. 18 of our chapter that the נגע טמא can only arise in שחין ונרפא, when the leprosy has already begun to heal and healthy skin has already formed over it; and the fact that the outbreak of the “leprosy” over the whole of the body, מראשו ועד רגליו, brings טהרה (v. 12 & 13) – which the “health theorists” take to be a sign that a violent acute attack which covers the whole body indicates a prompt immediate healing, and yet שחין מצרים, the very worst type of case, אשר לא תוכל להרפא, which has no cure is described as being מכף רגלך ועד קדקדך – even these simple facts must have made these theorists pause. Let us consider further: In verses 10, 15, 16 & 17, it repeatedly tells us that the appearance of מחיה, healthy flesh forming on the diseased spot, is a sign of טומאה, while its disappearance and the נגע breaking out in its place renders טהרה again; verse 12 tells us that no careful examination is required in the folds of the body, but only לכל מראה עיני הכהן, only in those parts of the body which are directly visible to the eye of the כהן, in Ch. XIV, 36, the priest is expressly ordered to remove everything out of the house before he makes his examination, as should he have to declare the house טמא, everything in it becomes likewise טמא, and if the purpose of the isolation is to prevent the spread of infection, it would be a very peculiar procedure to take out the suspectedly infected clothes, bedding, utensils, etc., out of consideration for the loss to the owner! Altogether the Halacha learns from this that these “sanitary officers” in priestly garb are to adopt a very conservative attitude in every way and always to give the benefit of every doubt, which in dealing with such a “dangerous”, “horrible” disease as “leprosy” would be perfectly senseless if their טמא declaration and the isolation which it entails were to be for the purpose of prevention of the spread of infection. When would such “police” activity and protective isolation be most demanded but where and when large masses of people gather and the unhindered mixing of the “leper” amongst the crowds would be a real danger of infection to whole families, even to the whole nation! And yet, just on such occasions, the inspection-functions of the priests were completely in abeyance. During the week of wedding gatherings, during the whole of the pilgrim festivals, when the whole nation streamed into Jerusalem, altogether on any Sabbath or Festival, no נגע was examined, (see note on v. 14). Just in Jerusalem, leprosy in houses was not considered of any consequence at all, (see note on CH. XIV, 34). We have already drawn attention (on v. 59) to the rule that כל ספק נגעים בתחלה טהור, which prescribes a more lenient ruling than is generally applied to איסורים of the Torah (where the reverse is the case. I.L.), whereas, if it were dealing with diseases and precautions against contracting them, according to the principle that חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא, (Chulin 10a), the rule would be just for נגעים to impose a stricter, more rigorous practice. We have seen above that even in a case where there is absolute certainty of the existence of a symptom showing the נגע to have character of טומאה, if there is any doubt to which of two נגע spots on the same person the symptom applies, the טומאה declaration is not to be made! Further, as quoted on v. 46, it is only out of such cities which were surrounded by a wall at the time the Land was taken into possession, even if they had lost these walls later on, that a מצורע had to be expelled! Throughout the whole open country and in open towns, or even in towns which had been enclosed by walls later on, the מצורע was allowed to move freely among the people, and no quarantine was imposed to protect the people from this alleged infection of leprosy; only leprosy in clothes, had to be expelled from all towns or inhabited places everywhere! Consider also that all these laws only apply to the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. No non-Jew became טמא by any נגע, his נגע was not examined, no expulsion or isolation was imposed on him, and even if he became a Jew, no נגע which he had contracted before his conversion was of any consequence (see on v. 2). Equally so, none of these laws apply to the appearance of any leprosy on the clothes or house of a non-Jew while these were in his possession (see on v. 47).

These, and similar considerations make it quite impossible to think that this chapter deals with sanitary or prophylactic measures against disease, or that we have to regard our כהנים – regarding whom, in any case, no trace of any reference to remedial measures can be found in the whole chapter – as functioning in the health or medical care of the people.

And, as a matter of fact, the symptoms described in our chapter have nothing at all in common with the diseases which are described in books of medical science on skin diseases under the heading of “Lepra”, leprosy. Whereas these, all start with an inflammatory swelling which makes the skin darker in colour, our נגעים consist solely of white patches, of greater or lesser bleaching of the skin, at which ת”כ expressly says there is no swelling or raising of the skin. Zipporno – who was a doctor, – in his commentary on the Torah remarks on the complete difference between these נגעים and the dreadful diseases which he found described under the name of leprosy in scientific medical writings. We had, accordingly, long been completely convinced that the sequestration and expulsion which the Torah prescribes for a מצורע is in no way meant to be a protection against any possible infection, when we read in the journal “Ausland” No. 14, 1868, that a commission had been appointed by the British Government to investigate the terrible increase in the number of cases of the quite common occurrence of leprosy in the colonies, and their report was reproduced in that Journal. The “Report on Leprosy by the Royal College of Physicians” stated that the investigation resulted in the finding that leprosy even in its most terrible form is not at all infectious. “The all-important question for the Government” the report continues, “is whether this disease is contagious or not. There can be no doubt that the Jews considered it to be so, and that the strictest quarantine was imposed upon those who contracted it. Nevertheless, it seems probable from several indications that the Jews of old classified all skin diseases as leprous, and accordingly people who were affected by the contagious disease of modern Europe, such as measels, scarlet fever or smallpox, were included in the laws of quarantine for leprosy. It is a remarkable fact, moreover, that present-day Jews seem to be less liable to the attacks of contagious illnesses than their European neighbours, which may be due to a trace which still remains from those ceremonious practices which exercised such great influence on the physical forces and energies of the ancient Jews. Be that as it may, the practically unanimous conviction of our investigating reporters from all parts of the world is: the disease is not infectious“.

We have seen that the widespread view that the biblical injunctions regarding sequestration are regulations to prevent infection rests entirely on a mistaken premise.

If then the understanding of the Negaim-laws as being sanitary-police regulations must definitely be relegated to the realm of fairy-tales, let us turn to the Torah itself, which in any case, leaves us in no possible doubt whatever as to in which light it wishes these laws to be regarded. In Deut. XXIV,8, in the midst of a list of laws referring entirely to social matters and all dealing with the respect due to human worth and benevolent consideration for the happiness and well-being of others, we come across this warning: השמר בנגע צרעת וגו’‏ , “Take heed in the plague of leprosy that thou observe diligently and do according to all that the priests, the Levites, shall teach you, as I have commanded them so shall ye observe to do. Remember what G-d, your G-d, did unto Miriam on the way when ye went out of Egypt”. By this, the meticulous observation of the laws given in our chapter here is made the conscientious duty of every single individual. From the term השמר is specially derived the prohibition of removal of the נגע by surgical or other means, although, or rather because, מן התורה thereby all טומאה and isolation ceases, (see v. 46, a fact which incidentally again excludes any precautionary health motives for the sequestration. For, if this were the case, the removal of the נגע would be most desirable as we are told that the necessity for sequestration ceases thereby) as well as the demand for the exact carrying out of all the positive commands given here. Both, the negative command, the prohibition, and the positive demand, are then supported by a reference to a certain incident in the life of Miriam, the Prophetess, which incident is to remain forever in national remembrance. This remembrance clearly refers to the incident recorded in Numb. XII. Miriam had spoken slander about Moses, and following this לשון הרע had become “leprous” and had been expelled from the camp for seven days, and there this leprosy and this expulsion had been explained as being a sign of, and for her to take to heart, G-d’s displeasure at her behaviour. “If her father”, so runs G-d’s reply to Moses’s prayer that his sister should be cured, “if her father had so spat out before her, would she not remain ashamed for seven days? Let her be secluded outside the camp for seven days, thereafter let her be received again”. ואביה ירק ירק בפניה, a sign of disgust, as a sign of a father’s displeasure mounting to contempt, G-d say, the צרעת he sends is to be taken. Now, this punishing stroke was sent as a result of a social sin, a sin, which, is is there shown, consisted of both slander and over-rating oneself, presumption, conceit. If then every נגע צרעת in the future that shows itself on any member of the Jewish Nation is to recall this experience of Miriam, every such נגע צרעת is to be taken as a punitive admonition for social misbehaviour; and the expulsions מחוץ למחנה, out of the national circle which has the Sanctuary of the Torah as its centre, has, – as it says with Miriam – no other purpose or reason than הכלם, than to let oneself be permeated with the consciousness of one’s complete unworthiness – (Whereas בוש means finding oneself deceived regarding something one had expected in the future, one’s expectations, החפיר regarding a misunderstood past, הכלם is the feeling brought about by becoming conscious of present loss of worthiness). The expulsion tells the מנוגע, the one who is affected by צרעת, literally the one who is touched (נגוע. I.L.), by the Finger of G-d, that he has forfeited the merit of remaining in the social circle of G-d’s Sanctuary.

And actually we find that the teaching of our חכמים always takes “Negaim” as being a punishment sent by G-d, primarily for sins of the tongue, לשון הרע, but then generally for the cardinal sins of social life, of which they enumerate seven. It says in Berachoth, 5b: כל מי שיש בו אחד מארבעה מראות נגעים הללו אינן אלא מזבח כפרה, “Being affected by one of these four appearances is nothing other than an altar for atonement”. And in Arachin 16b: מה נשתנה מצורע שאמרה תורה בדד ישב מחוץ למחנה מושבו הוא הבדיל בין איש לאשתו בין איש לרעהו לפיכך אמרה תורה בדד ישב וגו’‏ , “Why just for the מצורע is it ordained, ‘he shall dwell apart, outside the camp is his dwelling to be’? He caused separation between man and wife, between friend and friend, therefore is he, too, to be separated from everybody, let him remain alone, outside the camp”; מה נשתנה מצורע שאמרה תורה יביא שתי צפרים לטהרתו, אמר הקב”ה, הוא עשה מעשה פטיט, לפיכך יביא קרבן פטיט, “Why just for the מצורע is it ordained that in his offering to regain טהרה he is to represent his personality by two birds? He sinned by chattering, therefore is he to bring a twittering offering”. Similarly in ויקרא רבה: א”ר יהושע בן לוי, חמש תורות כתובות במצורע: זאת תורת נגע צרעת וגו’, זאת תהיה תורת “המצורע”, תורת “המוציא רע”, ללמדך שכל האומר לשון הרע עובר על חמשה חומשי תורה, where the play is made on the word מצורע as, phonetically, being able to be split up into מוציא רע, to give its meaning as slanderer. So also in Arachin 15b: זאת תהיה תורת המצורע, זאת תהיה תורתו של מוציא שם רע. Elsewhere, in Arachin 16a, seven social sins and bad habits are reckoned as a consequence of which Negaim are sent: על שבעה דברים נגעים באין על לשון הרע ועל שפיכת דמים ועל שבועת שוא ועל גלוי עריות ועל גסות הרוח ועל הגזל ועל צרות העין, as a result of the sins of slander, of spilling of blood, of perjury, of sexual immorality, of pride, of robbery and of unkind selfishness. In ויקרא רבה on פ’ מצורע, the following are reckoned: – עינים רמות, לשון שקר, וידים שופכות דם נקי, לב חורש מחשבות און, רגלים ממהרות לרוץ לרעה, יפיח כזבים, עד שקר and משלח מדנים בין אחים; a lying tongue, proud eyes, hands spilling innocent blood, a heart pondering on thoughts of violence, feet always ready to run for evil purposes, spreading lies about, and bringing about quarrels between brothers and giving false witness. These are the six and seven things which are described in Prov. VI,16 as being hated by G-d, and abominated by His Holy Nature: שש הנה שנא ד’ ושבע תועבות נפשו. And the division into six and seven is explained: שביעית קשה כנגד כולן ואי זה, זה משלח מדנים, that the seventh, bringing and causing discord, (i.e. לשון הרע), is designated as the one which is worse than all the others put together. And, as a matter of fact, spreading slander, which does bring about the spiritual death of respect and love between even brothers and sisters, does combine in its consequences all the other imperfections and sins. And inasmuch as these imperfections and sins are not mentioned in the abstract but referred to the various organs of the body which are misused in practising them, it does not say רום עינים etc., but עינים רמות etc., it is the eye, the mouth, the hand, the heart, the foot; in short, the whole person who, instead of using organs which are given to him for obtaining and practising modesty, truth, doing good, justice, spreading kindness, truth and peace, has made himself the bearer and spreader of the very opposite of all these and has shown himself as the object of hate and abomination of G-d, Who, accordingly, sends him the mark of His deep displeasure and thereby dismisses him from the social purlieus of the Sanctuary of His Torah until הכלם, until he comes to a sense of true self-judgment. When we are told of Miriam, that: ויחר אף ד’ בם וילך והענן סר מעל האהל והנה מרים מצורעת כשלג, everybody is told, everybody on whose self, on whose clothing or house, a נגע appears, that this נגע is a sign that his social behaviour has invoked G-d’s deepest displeasure and that G-d’s protecting and blessing-giving Presence no longer allows him to find a place in His circle.2

Rav Hirsch and Artscroll are, of course, entitled to their opinions; their arguments must certainly be addressed; and as they note, they are, after all, following a well known stance of Hazal, but the authoritative dismissal as “absolute folly” of the attempt to “give [the laws of צרעת] any sanitary character”, and the condescending “relegat[ion] to the realm of fairy-tales” of “the understanding of the Negaim-laws as being sanitary-police regulations” betrays a lack of either erudition or frankness, as this is actually the view of ויקרא רבה, Ramban (in no less than three distinct places in his Biblical commentary), and a number of the Tosafists!

ויקרא רבה

רבי יוחנן ור’ שמעון בן לקיש ר’ יוחנן אומר: אסור לילך במזרחו של מצורע ארבע אמות.
ור’ שמעון אמר: אפילו מאה אמה.
ולא פליגי, מאן דאמר ד’ אמות בשעה שאין הרוח יוצא.
ומאן דאמר ק’ אמה בשעה שהרוח יוצא.
רבי מאיר, לא אכיל ביעי מן מבואה דמצורע.
ר’ אמי ור’ אסי, לא הוו עיילי למבואות של מצורע.
ריש לקיש, כד הוה חמי חד מנהון במדינתא, מרגם להון באבניא.
אמר לו: פוק לאתרך לא תזהום ברייתא.
דתני ר’ חייא (ויקרא יג) בדד ישב לבדו.
ישב ר’ אלעזר ברבי שמעון, כד חמי חד מנהון, הוה מיטמר מיניה, על שום דכתיב: זאת תהיה תורת המצורע, המוציא שם רע:3

רבי יוסף בכור שור

בדד ישב. שזה החולי מתפשט על בני אדם הרגילים אצלו, ולכך יהיה בדד שלא ירגיל אדם אליו ואסור בתשמיש המטה שהתשמיש ממקמקו.

מחוץ למחנה. וגם זה מפני שלא יתקרב אצל בני אדם מפני החולי גם מפני הטומאה, שהוא מטמא בביאה כמת.4

רמב”ן

ועוד בו ענין [באיסור ההבטה לאחוריהם ללוט ומשפחתו בבריחתם מסדום], כי הראות באויר הדבר ובכל החליים הנדבקים, יזיק מאד וידביקם, וכן המחשבה בהם, ולכן יסגר האיש המצורע וישב בדד (ויקרא יג מו). וכן נשוכי חיות השוטות ככלב השוטה וזולתו, כאשר יראו המים וכל מראה יחזו בהם דמות המזיק וישתטו וימותו, כמו שאמרו במסכת יומא (פד א), והזכירוהו אנשי הטבע. ולכן הייתה אשתו של לוט נציב מלח, כי באתה המכה במחשבתה כאשר ראתה גפרית ומלח היורד עליהן מן השמים ודבקה בה:5

Additionally, the sixteenth-century rabbi and medical student R. Avraham Menahem Rapoport even suggests that at least one of the reasons for the Biblical injunction that the מצורע “shall put a covering upon his upper lip” is to shield others from the contamination of his breath:

ועל שפם יעטה. כדי שלא ידבר עוד לשון הרע כמקדם. ושלא יטמא אחרים בהבל פיו. וכן טמא טמא יקרא כדי שיתרחקו ממנו הבריות: …

בדד ישב. כי ריחו והבלו מזיקים. נכנס לבית הכנסת עושים לו מחיצה רחבה ד’ על ד’ אמות וגבוה ב’ נכנס ראשון ויוצא ראשון. וגם שאר מצורעים אינם יכולים להתחבר עמו כי אין כל הצרעיות שוים:6

Regarding Rav Hirsch’s assertion, in reliance on the “Report on Leprosy by the Royal College of Physicians”, that leprosy is not infectious, and that “the widespread view that the biblical injunctions regarding sequestration are regulations to prevent infection” therefore “rests entirely on a mistaken premise”: it is actually Rav Hirsch and the British investigators who are mistaken; to the best of modern scientific knowledge, leprosy is contagious, although the level of contagion is not nearly as severe as was once believed:

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease (HD), is a chronic infection caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. …

Although the mode of transmission of leprosy remains uncertain, many think that M. leprae is usually spread from person to person in nasal droplets. Studies have shown that leprosy can be transmitted to humans by armadillos. Leprosy is not known to be either sexually transmitted or highly infectious after treatment. Approximately 95% of people are naturally immune and sufferers are no longer infectious after as little as two weeks of treatment.

The mechanism of transmission of leprosy is prolonged close contact and transmission by nasal droplet. In addition to humans, leprosy has been observed in the nine-banded armadillo, (which, it has recently been confirmed, are among the primary sources of new cases of leprosy in Americans), and three species of primates. The bacterium can also be grown in the laboratory by injection into the footpads of mice. There is evidence that not all people who are infected with M. leprae develop leprosy, and genetic factors have long been thought to play a role, due to the observation of clustering of leprosy around certain families, and the failure to understand why certain individuals develop lepromatous leprosy while others develop other types of leprosy. It is estimated that due to genetic factors, only 5% of the population is susceptible to leprosy. This is mostly because the body is naturally immune to the bacteria, and those persons that do become infected experience severe allergic reactions to the disease. However, the role of genetic factors is not entirely clear in determining this clinical expression. In addition, malnutrition and prolonged exposure to infected persons may play a role in development of the overt disease.

The most widely held belief is that the disease is transmitted by contact between infected persons and healthy persons. In general, closeness of contact is related to the dose of infection, which in turn is related to the occurrence of disease. Of the various situations that promote close contact, contact within the household is the only one that is easily identified, although the incidence among contacts and the relative risk for them appear to vary considerably in different studies. In incidence studies, infection rates for contacts of lepromatous leprosy have varied from 6.2 per 1000 per year in Cebu, Philippines to 53 per 1000 per year in part of Western India to 55.8 per 1000 per year in a part of Southern India. …7

Remarkably:

The causative agent of leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, was discovered by G. H. Armauer Hansen in Norway in 1873, making it the first bacterium to be identified as causing disease in humans.8

I recently made a study of the tension in our tradition between the theological view of disease as punishment for sin, and the naturalistic one that assumes physical cause and effect; the focus was a survey of Halachic perspectives on the propriety and religious legitimacy of prudent precautions to avoid contagion. An audio lecture, a couple of versions of an article, and my notes are available, as always, from the Internet Archive.

Further reading:

  1. The Chumash – The Stone Edition (ArtScroll / Mesorah), Vayikra / Leviticus introduction to Chapter 13, pp. 609-10. []
  2. The Pentateuch, Translated & Explained by Samson Raphael Hirsch, Vol. III Leviticus (part I), rendered into English by Isaac Levy (London 1958), pp. 355-60. []
  3. ויקרא רבה מצורע פרשה ט”ז אות ג’ – קשר.‏ []
  4. פירושי רבי יוסף בכור שור על התורה (מוסד הרב קוק) ויקרא יג:מו עמוד קצט, הובא בקיצור בחזקוני (קשר) ובהדר זקנים (קשר) שם.‏ []
  5. פירוש הרמב”ן על התורה בראשית (וירא) יט:יז – קשר.‏ []
  6. מנחה בלולה סוף תזריע – קשר, הובא בחומש אוצר הראשונים שם.‏ []
  7. Wikipedia contributors, “Leprosy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Leprosy&oldid=559879146 (accessed June 18, 2013). []
  8. Wikipedia contributors, “History of leprosy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_leprosy&oldid=559777802 (accessed June 18, 2013). []