Alicorns and Amulets

From the NetHack Wiki:

A unicorn horn (or unihorn) is an important tool for curing your adventurer. …

For medical application

Cures from uncursed and blessed application

An uncursed or blessed unicorn horn can cure:

  • blindness except from cream pies and venom
  • confusion
  • hallucination
  • stun
  • sickness
  • nausea (from eating tripe/eggs)
  • lost attribute points.

Sickness is normally fatal, and the unicorn horn is the easiest way to cure sickness (you might not have the right potion or spell, and you might not be able to safely pray). The other ailments, such as blindness and confusion, normally time out, but a unicorn horn removes them faster. Repeatedly apply the horn until you are completely cured.
Applying an uncursed unicorn horn will fix between 0 and (2d2 – 1) ailments, whilst a blessed one can heal between 0 and (2d4 -1) ailments. …

What it can not cure

A unicorn horn cannot cure:

  • stoning
  • sliming
  • lycanthropy
  • wounded legs

It also cannot:

  • restore health
  • restore magic power
  • undo amnesia
  • fix fainting.

A question posed to Maran:

שאלה ראובן תבע משמעון שהשאיל לאשתו כוס אחד של עצם אליקירנו להשקות בו את בתו שהוכה ממגפה ואמרו שהיה מסוגל אותו הכוס לרפואת החולי והוא בשתית מים בו … יורינו רבינו מה יהיה משפט הפרעון של הכוס הזה … ועוד שהוא טוען שהיה שוה זה הכוס ממון רב שהיה מסוגל ושמעון טוען שלא היה שוה אלא מעט שכמה בני אדם שתו בו ומתו ושלחו בית דין לדעת שיווי זה הכוס והעיד אדם אחד שאומרים שהוא בקי ורופא שלא הכוס הנזכר מעצם אליקורנו כי אם עצם דג מהים ושראה כאלה רבות …1

Loose translation:

Query: Reuven sued Shimon, that he had lent his wife a cup of “alicorn bone” for his daughter, who was stricken with the plague, to drink from, for they say that that cup had the magical ability to cure disease, via the drinking of water from it. [The daughter died, the cup was lost, and the litigants were arguing over its value.] [Reuven] claims that this cup was worth a great sum, due to its magical property, and Shimon claims that it was only worth a little, for many men had drunk from it and [nevertheless] died. The court investigated the question of the cup’s value, and a certain man, who was reputed to be an expert and physician, testified that the aforementioned cup was not “alicorn bone”, but rather “the bone of a fish of the sea”, and that he had seen many such …

“Alicorn bone” is unicorn horn, to which legend ascribed marvelous curative powers (in addition to mere existence); the “bone of a fish of the sea” is narwhal tusk, a main source of counterfeit alicorn. The Alicorn page on the “Unicorns” site has a wonderful survey of the topic:

“Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease (epilepsy). Indeed, they are immune to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from their beakers.”
— Ctesias. Greek physician and historian, Indica (c. 400 BC)

It has been recorded throughout history that six mysterious natural substances have been coveted by ancient rulers above all others. …
Of these six treasures, the horn of the unicorn or alicorn, was the most valuable and sought after. Sheer value and mystique made them sought after gifts among rulers, and they were used extensively to win friends, influence fellow monarchs or protect a poison-prone prince. (Considering the reputation of Catherine de’ Medici, a lady both lovely and lethal, it was most thoughtful of her uncle, Pope Clement VII, to give her fiancé, the dauphin of France, a gold-mounted alicorn as a wedding present!)

And the wonder-working horn existed. Alicorns were owned by monarchs and popes throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The horn became an emblem of imperial power: The sceptre of Russia’s czars and the sceptre of Austria’s Hapsburg emperors were both made of unicorn horn. Two alicorns are among the treasures of Japan’s imperial palace. Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, settled what in today’s terms would be a multi-million-dollar debt by giving the Margrave of Bayreuth two alicorns. King Edward I of England owned a unicorn horn which was stolen. In 1550 Pope Clement purchased an alicorn said to be “the most beautiful unicorn’s horn ever seen.” It was elaborately mounted in silver and gold before being presented to King Francoise of France.

Mary, Queen of Scots, owned one, as did Francis I. Frederick III of Denmark had a throne made almost entirely out of alicorn. The Sultan of Turkey, the wealthiest ruler of his time, sent 12 alicorns to His Most Catholic Majesty King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). At that time each of them was worth from 10 to 20 times its weight in gold.

A typical alicorn was up to 9 feet long, had a basal girth of 8-9 inches and weighed 18-20 lbs. Even the Swiss scientist Konrad von Gesner (the father of zoology), who had his doubts about unicorns, concluded in 1551 that “the animal must exist on earth, or else its horn would not exist.”

The Church also owned alicorns, which were put on public display at various times. The most famous of these belonged to the Church of St. Denis near Paris, where it was kept in a vault. One end was placed in a font and the water dispensed to the sick and infirm.

Allegedly it cured a wide range of illnesses after causing an initial fever. Unfortunately, this alicorn disappeared during the French Revolution. St. Mark’s in Venice possessed three famous alicorns, as did Milan Cathedral, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey in London and several others. Chester Cathedral in England still boasts an alicorn among its treasures.

Probably the most famous alicorn of all — known as the ‘Horn of Windsor’ — belonged to Elizabeth I of England. The horn was listed among Elizabeth’s crown jewels and valued at 10,000 pounds (more than 10,000,000 pounds at today’s prices), a sum which at that time would have been enough to buy a large estate plus castle.

This horn was given to the queen as a gift from the man who found it — Martin Frobisher. A captain in the British Navy, he had been trying to discover a northwest passage to India for some time. During his first attempt in 1576, rough winds and cold weather forced him to turn back. But the trip was not a total failure as some of his men had found some “black earth” and the rumor quickly spread that it was gold.

This made it much easier for him to find backers for future journeys and he was able to set out again the very next year. Once more inclement weather interfered with his explorations. And, after several ships were wrecked by a storm, Captain Frobisher had to end his journey. He had sailed as far as the inlet now known as Frobisher’s Bay in Baffin Island, Canada. His men, who spent most of their time there collecting ore, found “a great dead fish” with a hollow spiralling tusk almost two yards long.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, many people believed that for each animal of the land there was an equivalent animal of the ocean. Captain Frobisher and his men probably believed this animal was a sea unicorn. The sailors even tested the horn by placing poisonous spiders in the inner cavity.

As men, to try the precious unicorn’s horn,
Make of the powder a preservative circle,
And in it put a spider.
~ John Webster, The White Devil

When the spiders died it was considered adequate proof that the horn must belong to the unicorn of the sea. Frobisher returned to England and delivered the horn to Queen Elizabeth. He was later knighted for his valor against the Spanish Armada. …

The belief in the alicorn’s ability to cure a wide range of maladies and protect against poison was nearly universal. Unfortunately, it was only available to the wealthy as its price was prohibitively high. Poor people had to make do with small quantities of horn such as a single band worked into a metal cup, or shavings ground up and used as powders.

Its effectiveness was such that the smallest amount was greatly treasured. It was used to protect people against plague, fever, rabies, colic and cramps. Boiled in wine, it whitened teeth. Mixed with amber, ivory, gold, coral, raisins and cinnamon, it helped cure epilepsy. It’s no wonder that the Apothecaries Society of London, founded in 1617, chose a pair of unicorns to support its coat of arms—the symbol was easily understood.

This horn is useful and beneficial against epilepsy, pestilential fever, rabies, proliferation and infection of other animals and vermin, and against worms within the body from which children faint. Ancient physicians used their Alicorn remedies against such ailments by making drinking mugs from the horn and letting their patients drink from them. Nowadays such drinking vessels are unobtainable and the horn itself must be administered [as a powder] either alone or mixed with some other drug…Genuine Alicorn is good against all poison; especially, so some say, the quality coming from the Ocean Isles. Experience proves that anyone having taken poison and becoming distended thereby, recovered good health on immediately taking a little Unicorn horn.

The page proceeds with a discussion of the problem raised by our responsum: how to distinguish the genuine article from counterfeit:

Trade in alicorns was fairly widespread during the Middle Ages and numerous noble houses listed one of the horns among its treasures. The fact that alicorns were both so valuable and so rare (some legends say there is never more than one unicorn on earth at any one time) provided great temptation and opportunities for fraud. Merchants anxious to make a profit often sold the horns of other animals as alicorn.

With so much fraudulent alicorn being sold, it became necessary to devise some way of testing alicorns to determine which were real. Some of these tests included:

  • Drawing a ring on the floor with the alicorn. A spider placed inside the ring would not be able to cross the line and would starve to death trapped inside the circle.
  • Placing the horn in water, causing the water to bubble as if it were boiling, even though it remained cold.
  • Placing a piece of silk on a burning coal, then laying the horn on top of the fabric. If it was a true alicorn, the silk would not burn.
  • Bringing the horn near a poisonous plant or animal, which would burst and die in reaction.
  • Inverting a beaker carved of alicorn over two scorpions. If it was truly unicorn horn, the scorpions would die.

Not even kings were exempt from being defrauded. King James I of England purchased an alicorn at great expense (reportedly for about 10,000 pounds). He felt it was important to test its authenticity, even though he had no doubt it was genuine. He summoned a favorite servant and told him to drink a draught of poison to which powdered horn was added. The servant drank the mixture and promptly died. James could not have been more unpleasantly surprised—he had been deceived.

Times and values certainly do change! James I immediately believed his fake alicorn to be almost worthless. Yet in 1994 a fake alicorn was auctioned at Christie’s in London—and sold for nearly half a million pounds! This in spite of the fact that it was known to be a 12th Century fake. It’s been speculated that this alicorn may have once belonged to Hereford Cathedral. It was purchased in the 1950’s for next to nothing as part of a bundle of walking sticks cleared from a property in the cathedral close. …

The unicorn horns still in palaces and royal treasuries (e.g., the Schatzkammer in Vienna or the Kremlin Armory in Moscow) and in museums and private collections have one thing in common: They are in fact all narwhal tusks, the enormously elongated and spiraled single tooth of a 13-to-15-foot High Arctic whale.

The narwhal swims in small groups in the remote Artic and is a mammal, not a fish. Its chief value to humans is the male narwhal’s tooth, which juts out through its lips and grows in a spiral motion as long as eight feet. The tooth is ivory and exactly what most people picture when they think of an alicorn. In some ways, it is the alicorn.

It’s believed narwhal horns first made their appearance around the 12th Century. The tusks of the male whales were traded to the wealthy courts of Asia and Europe by Scandinavian fishermen who had discovered the narwhal off the coast of Greenland.

The narwhal-unicorn connection was probably the best and longest kept secret of all time and, perhaps, one of history’s most cunning marketing strategies. It was a trade carried on in utter secrecy; the middlemen, most often Vikings and Arabs, made millions and kept quiet. They were able to preserve their lucrative secret for more than 400 years because the narwhal seldom swam south.

The bubble burst in the 17th Century and the truth emerged as a result of growing trade between Greenland and North America. While alicorn continued to be listed as a scientifically approved medicine until well into the 18th Century, the price plummeted dramatically. One complete horn belonging to King Charles I dropped in value from 8,000 pounds in 1630 to only 600 pounds by 1649.

An article by William Jackson, in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Pharmaceutical Journal:

The unicorn is a mythical beast that has been associated with medicine and pharmacy for hundreds of years. …

The price of the horn

The sums quoted for the price of unicorn horn vary considerably, and the problem of estimating its value is compounded by the differing dates and by the varying currencies that are quoted. However, there can be no doubt that, although the price varied from time to time, it was never cheap. In 1609, Thomas Decker speaks of the horn of a unicorn as being worth “half a city” and a Florentine physician observed that it was sold by the apothecaries for £24 per ounce. In 1553, one belonging to the King of France was valued at £20,000 and the value of one specimen in Dresden in the same century was estimated at 75,000 thalers.

Obviously, unicorn horn was not something that was normally owned or used by poor people. It was its alexipharmic properties that were thought to be of particular use, and the fact that rich and powerful people were in the greatest danger of being poisoned ensured that there were always sufficient customers with enough money to maintain its high price. Considerable amounts would also be paid by collectors of curiosities for particularly fine specimens.

Medicinal virtues

The first mention of the therapeutic properties of unicorn’s horn is thought to have been by Ctesias, a Greek physician from Cnidus, who flourished in the fifth century BC. He believed the unicorn was an Indian wild ass that had a horn growing from its forehead. Drinking cups made from this horn could neutralise poison and afford protection against convulsions and epilepsy. In the middle ages it was used to cure plague, fevers and bites from serpents and mad dogs. It was even said that poisoned wounds could be cured merely by holding a piece of the horn close to them. Surely we cannot fail to be impressed when we read in ‘Doctors and Doctors’ by Graham Everitt that the unicorn was: “ … perfectly conscious of the sanitary virtues which resided in its nasal protruberance, and would dip its horn in the water to purify and sweeten it ere it would drink.”

Mary Stuart (1542–87), Queen of Scots was the widow of Francis II of France. Later she married Lord Darnley and, in 1565, gave birth to a son who became James VI of Scotland. She had brought a piece of unicorn’s horn from France and used it to test her food for poison. Unfortunately it did not prevent her developing rheumatic gout and dropsy later in life, nor did it protect her from the executioner’s axe when she was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587.

In a letter written to Monsieur Belin in October 1631 Guy Patin, the Parisian physician, observed that he did not believe that unicorn’s horn was of any use as protection against the pestilential disease that was prevalent in the city at that time, nor did it possess any of the occult properties attributed to it.

Unicorn horn was also an ingredient in a remedy for the bite of a mad dog that was published in 1656: “Take a handful of Box, and stamp it, and strain it with a draught of milk, put into it a pretty quantity of Lobsters shell beaten to a powder, and some Unicorns horn, if you can get it, and drink thereof and wash the wound therewith.” The scarcity of unicorn’s horn is indicated by the phrase “if you can get it”. …

William Salmon’s ‘Pharmacopoeia Londinensis or the New London Dispensatory’ of 1678 said that although many were dubious about the existence of the unicorn, their doubts could have no foundation because it was mentioned in the “holy writings”. However, the country of its origin was dubious and Salmon mentioned a number of authorities that quoted widely differing places, including the West Indies, Ethiopia, Asia and the East Indies, though he reached no conclusion about the validity of any of these claims. Ludovicus Vartoman had described two beasts that had been presented to the “Great Turk” by the King of Aethiopia. Both had yellowish horns in the middle of their foreheads, a deer’s head and cloven hooves. Finally, he observed that the horn was the only part that was used medicinally being “alexipharmick” (counteracting poisons) “sudorifick” (causing sweating) “cardiack” (a cordial restorative) “antifebritick” (reducing fevers) and “cephalick” (counteracting disorders of the head). He added: “It potently resists Plague, Pestilence, and Poyson, expels the Measles and Small-Pox, and cures the Falling-Sickness in Children.” The dose to be used was 10 grains to a drachm (60 grains) or more.

In 1695, Nicholas Culpeper observed: “Uni-corns horn resists Poyson and the Pestilence, provokes Urine, restores lost strength, brings forth both Birth and Afterbirth.” Obviously Culpeper had no doubts about the medicinal value of unicorn’s horn although suspicions about its efficacy as well as its origin had been growing for some time. The phrase “restores lost strength” is a reference to its supposed value as an aphrodisiac.

At the end of the 18th century the French physician, Pierre Pomet, dealt with the subject at some length. He observed that the truth about unicorns was still unknown, but described and illustrated several beasts from which the tales about it could have been derived. The camphur was a wild ass found in Arabia that had a horn used to cure several diseases, especially venomous or contagious ones. The Arabs who lived near the Red Sea knew of the pirassoupi, a hairy animal about the size of a mule that had two long, straight, spiral horns. These were infused in water for six to eight hours and the resulting liquid was drunk to cure wounds or venomous bites. This beast was probably included despite its possessing two horns because of the recorded use of them as an alexipharmic.

Pomet illustrated three unicorns described by Johnston in his ‘Historia naturalis’.1 He observed, inaccurately, that there were five beasts with a single horn and that one must be the true unicorn. These were the “Orix, or one-horn’d wild goat”, the “one-horn’d Ox”, the “Hart with one Horn”, the “one horned Hog” and the “one horned Ass”. He mentioned that the people of India made drinking vessels from the horn of the latter, and that they freed anyone drinking from them from any sort of deadly poison or infection. It would seem that Pomet believed that unicorns did exist, though he stated categorically: “I shall only say, that what we sell under the Name of Unicorn’s Horn is the Horn of a certain Fish, by the Islanders called Narwal, or the Sea Unicorn.” He said that authors had ascribed almost incredible things to it, chiefly as a remedy for poisons, plague and fevers, and the bites of serpents or mad dogs. It was used as a cordial or restorative, shavings of it being boiled up in a broth and coloured with a little cochineal and saffron to make a jelly.

Pomet also noted that the narwhal, also known as the rhoar or sea unicorn, a large fish that some reckoned to be a sort of whale, was found in the northern seas especially along the coast of Greenland. It carried a spiral horn at the end of its nose that could be seen in some cabinets of curiosities. Pieces of this horn were sold in Paris as true Unicorn’s horn that was said to have many virtues, but he could neither authorise nor contradict these reports because he had not sufficient experience of its use. He also wrote of another “fish” called the sea unicorn that had been stranded on a beach on an island near Santo Domingo. It was about 18 feet long and had a spirally twisted horn (or tusk) that became smoother as it diminished in circumference. This measured nine and a half feet in length. A feature of this creature that is shown in an illustration is that on its head there was “a Kind of Crown rais’d above the rest of the Skin, two inches or thereabout, made in an oval Form, and ending in a Point”. It seems highly probable that the drawing was made from a description rather than being taken from life.

Pomet also quoted Nicolas Lemery, a doctor of medicine, as saying that the narwhal carried a spiral horn, five or six feet in length, with which it would attack the largest whales. This horn yielded a great deal of volatile salt and oil that was cordial, sudorific and useful to resist infections and cure epilepsy. The dose was from 10 to 40 grains. In addition, people wore it in amulets hung round the neck to resist infection. …

See also Odell Shepard’s Lore of the Unicorn.

Returning to Maran, he argues that although it is uncertain whether the cup in question was genuine alicorn or narwhal counterfeit, the preponderance of evidence (including the expert testimony) points to the latter: “[I]n our case, if it is made of alicorn, it is worth a great sum, but if it is of the bone of a fish, it is worth very little, and the physician witness supports this, so the straight path is to broker a compromise between them …” [It is unclear whether Maran is uncertain about the very existence of magical unicorn horns, or merely whether the cup in question was genuine or counterfeit.]:

ולענין שיווי פרעון דמי הכוס לכאורה נראה דהיינו ההיא דירושלמי בפרק הכונס חד אמר זיגין הוא מלא וחד אמר מטקסין הוא מלא … ואמר ר’ אמי הרי זה נשבע ונוטל אבל כי דייקת ביה לא דמי דשאני הכא דאומדן דעתא הוא שאין אדם עשוי להשאיל כוס שוה ממון רב בלא עדים ובלא משכון ולהניחו ביד השואל זמן רב ועוד שהעיד עד אחד בקי ורופא שלא היה אלא מעצם דג וזה מסייע לאומדן דעתא …
עוד שבנדון זה אם הוא של אליקורנו שוה ממון רב ואם הוא של עצם דג שוה דבר מועט מאד ואומדן דעתא שאינו שוה אלא דבר מועט והעד הרופא מסייע ליה לכן הדרך הישרה לפשר ביניהם …

I recently encountered this responsum of Maran cited by Rav Meir Arik as contradicting the remarkable, strongly held position of Rav Shlomo Kluger (Maharshak) that an amulet whose value derives from its magical powers is considered אין גופו ממון, and a borrower who loses it is therefore not liable for the loss:

רב שלמה קלוגר

ראובן שהשאיל לחברו קמעות לרפואה ונאבדו וטוען המשאיל שהיו שוין הרבה שהוציא עליהן עשרים ר”כ …
ואף אם היה יודע שהוציא עליהן הרבה אין בזה חיוב ממון דאין גופו ממון. וזה דומה לשטרות דאין בו דין שמירה דאין גופו ממון ואף שיכול לפעול הרבה בהם מכל מקום אין גופן ממון כן ה”נ בזה
עיין ביו”ד סימן של”ו דאפילו פסקו לו הרבה בעד סממנין לרפואה מכל מקום אין לו אלא דמיהן ומכל שכן בלא פסקה לו ומה גם ברפואה שאינו בדרך הטבע ודאי דאין גופו ממון.
ועיין כעין חילוק זה בין רפואה בטבע או דרך סגולה בפירוש המשניות להרמב”ם בפרק א’ דיומא ובתוספות יום טוב שם גבי מי שנשכו כלב שוטה דאין מאכילין אותו מחצר הכבד שלו. עיי”ש והוא הדין בזה וזה פשוט וברור לדינא:2

רב מאיר אריק

ראיתי בהגהות חכמת שלמה … ולענ”ד מדברי רבינו הבית יוסף זצ”ל בתשובות אבקת רוכל … נראה להדיא דיש בזה דין שומרים לשלם מה ששוה הכוס הנ”ל לפי ערך סגולתו יעו”ש3

The remainder of Rav Meir Arik’s discussion concerns an amulet that has been custom made for the victim and cannot be used by anyone else; he analyzes the question of whether a bailee or tortfeasor is liable for damage to property whose value is specific to its owner, but worthless to anyone else, a topic we have previously discussed here and here:

מיהו בקמיע שעשוי רק לאדם זה והפקידו ביד אחר יש לומר קצת דל”מ דחיוב שומרים לא שייך בזה רק גם בשורפו בידים פטור כיון דאינו שוה רק לו ולא יוכל למוכרו לאחר הוי דבר הגורם לממון דלאו כממון דמי כתוספות כתובות ל”ד.
מיהו בש”ך לקמן סימן שפ”ו ס”ק א’ השיג על תוספות הנ”ל וכתב דגם בכה”ג שייך דינא דגרמי רק דאפילו הכי בשורף חמץ שעבר עליו הפסח פטור אף דשוה לדידיה לפטור עצמו מהנגזל משום דלא שכיח וגם אין ראוי לקנוס השורף דהא בשריפתו עשה טובה לנגזל יעו”ש אם כן בשורף קמיע אף שאינו שוה רק לבעלים חייב על כל פנים מדר”ג [אולי צ”ל מדד”ג] דלא שייך הנהו טעמי דש”ך הנ”ל
ואפשר דגם דין שומרים שייך בזה ואף להתוספות בבא קמא וכתובות ל”ד הנ”ל יש לומר דה”ד בחמץ שעבר עליו הפסח דלדידיה גם כן אינו שוה כלום רק לפטור את עצמו מן הנגזל מה שאין כן קמיע דהוי גופו ממון לדידיה אין נפקא מינא במה שאין שוה לאחריני.
ושוב ראיתי סברא זו בתשובת השיב משה סוף סימן ק”ח יעו”ש
ועיין בתשובת בית יצחק … ולהנ”ל יש לומר כיון דעל כל פנים אצלו הוא שוה וצריך לו לגופו אף שאינו שוה לאחר הוי ממון גמור ולא דמי לחמץ שעבר עליו הפסח דגם אצלו אינו שוה כלום רק לפטור עצמו מן הנגזל וצ”ע עוד בזה:

I recently gave two presentations, both discussing these two themes of value deriving from an item’s magical powers (as well as related analysis of the category of אין גופו ממון and its extension to other types of property such as (not yet executed) bills of divorce, antiques and collectibles) and value specific to the particular owner of the property; they are available, with accompanying notes and sources, from the Internet Archive here and here.

  1. שו”ת אבקת רוכל סימן ק”ס, ועיין עוד שו”ת מביט א:קפב []
  2. חכמת שלמה חו”מ ריש סימן ש”מ []
  3. מנחת פתים שם, ועיין עוד אבני החושן שם []

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!


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


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


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


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, (accessed June 18, 2013). []
  8. Wikipedia contributors, “History of leprosy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 18, 2013). []