This week we start learning Masechet Moed Katan, which deals with the status of Chol Hamoed – the intermediate days of festivals. Chol Hamoed Pesach is a very appropriate time to be learning this Masechet!
Chol Hamoed has a unique status – melachah is prohibited so that these days should not be like ordinary days, however not every form of melachah is forbidden like on Yom Tov (Rambam, Hilchot Yom Tov7:1).
There are two basic views as to the status of the prohibition against melachah on Chol Hamoed. According to one view (the Rambam and the Rosh) it is an issur d’Rabbanan. According to the other view (Rashi and the Rif) it is an issur d’Oraita. However, even according to the latter view, the Torah gave authority to Chazal to determine what types of melachah are forbidden and what types are permitted.
Masechet Moed Katandiscusses what work is permitted on Chol Hamoed. One area that is discussed is whether Kohanim may examine negaim on Chol Hamoed.
In general, if a person had a suspected nega (skin affliction), a Kohen would need to inspect it to determine whether they had Tzaraat. If the victim was found to have Tzaraat they were declared Tameh and must leave the community until they recover. However, such inspections were not carried out on certain days. The Mishnah (1:5) discusses whether inspections were carried out on Chol Hamoed.
R’ Meir holds that inspections were carried out on Chol Hamoed but that the Kohanim were limited to rendering a positive judgement or remaining silent. The Rabbanan hold that the Kohanim were not permitted to examine the nega at all until after the festival was over. The Halacha follows the Rabbanan, but both opinions seek to prevent an individual from being banished from the community during the festival.
This may seem surprising. Generally, if a person was found to be tameh with Tzaraat, they must take great care not to spread their tumah to other people and items. They would immediately leave the community and warn other people not to get too close to them. During the chagim, people are more likely to be surrounded by their family and friends. So it might be assumed that the Kohanim would want to diagnose Tzaraat as quickly as possible during these times so as to minimise the spread of tumah.
This anomaly can be explained by examining the true meaning of Tzaraat. Tzaraat is often mistranslated as leprosy (a contagious bacterial infection). However this translation cannot be correct. Rather, Tzaraat is a spiritual disease. A person only becomes Tameh with Tzaraat once the Kohen declares them to be impure. They are not considered ‘contagious’ unless and until this declaration is made. This contrasts with the quarantine placed on someone with a physically contagious disease.
This Halacha teaches us some important insights.
Firstly, it emphasises the power of words. Before the Kohen declares the victim of the nega to be impure, they are tahor. Only once the Kohen renders his judgement and makes his declaration, the victim’s life is essentially turned upside down. One of the sins for which a person is stricken with Tzaraat is lashon hara– negative speech about another. A person may justify lashon haraon the basis that it is ‘just words’ which cannot really harm. However this Halacha demonstrates the real power that words can have.
This Halacha also demonstrates the importance of mercy. Even though the victim is guilty of a serious sin, such as lashon hara, mercy is still employed in that the Kohanim postpone the punishment in order to avoid spoiling their festive time.
Thirdly, it is significant that only a Kohen can render judgement as to whether a person has Tzaraat. Even the greatest Talmid Chacham is not qualified to diagnose Tzaraat if they are not a Kohen. The Kohanim are descendents of Aaron, about whom it is said ‘loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah’ (Pirkei Avot1:12). The Kohanim love their fellow Jews and would be reluctant to declare someone Tameh. This attribute of loving kindness inherent in a Kohen can be used as an example to teach the victim to guard their tongue before hurting another.
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