The first three mishnayot of the fourth perek of Masechet Negaim compare and contrast the three signs (simanim) of skin blemishes (נגעי עור הבשר) which constitute tzara’at. Skin blemishes exist with the appearance of either two white hairs in the blemish; live skin in the blemish; or spreading of the blemish. The Torah states that this blemish must be white, and the beginning of the masechet lists four shades of white that would render the blemish tzara’at.
The Torah also articulates a procedure to be undertaken by a kohen in assessing whether the blemish is indeed tzara’at.51 Upon initial viewing, a kohen may immediately determine that the blemish is tzara’at if there are two white hairs or live skin inside the blemish. If neither of these symptoms exists, the kohen exiles the potential tzarua and returns after a week. If either of the aforementioned symptoms has manifested, the kohen deems the blemish tzara’at. Alternatively, if the blemish has increased in size or become whiter, it is deemed tzara’at. If it appears exactly the same as the week before, the kohen leaves the person in exile for a further week, at the conclusion of which the same procedure is followed. The only difference at the end of week two is that if none of the three signs have manifested, the person is considered tahor and allowed back into society.
If the person is in fact a tzarua (someone afflicted with tzara’at), he must wait until the symptoms pass before he can bring the necessary korbanot and become pure. The only exception to this rule with regard to these three signs is when the blemish spreads over the entire body of the person. In this case, the tzarua is declared tahor.52 The Mishnayot in Negaim (4:1-2) explicitly qualify this as a characteristic of the ‘spreading’ siman of tzara’at, as distinct from the other two. That is, for example, if someone had white hairs all over their body, they would not be considered tahor.
Why does this siman tahara only apply to the ‘spreading’ siman? The answer would seem intuitive. The two white hairs that cause tzara’at must grow specifically from the blemish. Therefore, it follows that the only way the entire body could be covered with ‘tzara’at hair’ would be if the whole body is afflicted with the blemish. Were this to be the case, the very fact that the blemish envelops the entire skin would suffice to make the tzarua tahor anyway.53 In the case of the siman of live skin in the blemish, the very presence of live skin means that the body could not be completely covered in a blemish, which is the basis of the tahara.
On a philosophical level we may ask why when a tzarua is completely covered by tzara’at he is deemed tahor, whilst when he is partially covered he is tameh. R’ Bachya explains that this is indeed unintuitive, and is an example of a chok – a mitzvah unintelligible to the limited human psyche.
Rav Hirsch posits that the Torah has lost hope for this tzarua. Tzara’at is an affliction caused by a spiritual shortcoming, lashon hara. When there is only partial tzara’at, the person is isolated and left to reflect on the actions which have caused this malady. It is assumed that the tzara’at will be a wakeup call for him to change his ways. But once the person is completely covered, the Torah purifies the person and sends him back into society, as it is evident that this individual is utterly indifferent to his moral pitfalls, and no amount of segregation will coerce him into changing.
In diametric opposition, the Chafetz Chaim suggests that partial tzara’at may lead the tzarua to think that he incidentally spoke lashon hara and he has no fundamental problem to set right. Therefore, the Torah sends him into isolation to notify him that indeed he must improve his ways. However, the engulfed tzarua recognises on his own accord that he has serious issues to remedy, and will naturally do teshuva.
Ibn Ezra seems to go one step further. It is not that the full covering of tzara’at will spur the tzarua to mend his ways, but rather that he has already undertaken serious cheshbon nefesh during his time in exile,54 and this has allowed him to completely ‘sweat out’ the ‘virus’ (i.e. lashon hara) which has caused the tzara’at. The spiritually defective lashon hara pent up in his soul has transformed itself into a physical manifestation, tzara’at, thereby cleansing the soul of the tzarua and making him tahor.55
51 The procedure for determination of the status of the blemish differs between tzara’at of a house, clothing and human. See Vayikra 13, 14.
52 Vayikra 13:12-13.
53 If these were white hairs that did not sprout from a blemish, then in any case they would not cause tzara’at.
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