Wisdom in Upholding the Words of Chachamim

Negaim (9:3) | Yisrael Bankier | 11 years ago

Chapter nine discusses in greater depth tzara’at of shchin (boils of inflammations) and michva (burns). This type of tzara’at sighting is only significant if the nega appears when the shchin or michva has already began to heal and a thin layer of skin has formed over them. This form of tzara’at differs from a regular skin affliction in that there are only two indications that the person is a metzorah muchlat (confirmed metzorah); the nega has spread or two white hairs have appeared.

A fascinating question is asked of R’ Eliezer in the third Mishnah. What is the status of person if a shchin the size of a sela is found on the palm of a person’s hand, containing a nega the same size? The problem is that hairs do not grow on the palm of the hand. Furthermore, spreading is only an indication of tumah if it spreads within the shchin and not onto the skin. In this case the nega has nowhere to spread. Consequently neither of the indications of tumah can occur, so why should hesger (isolation) be required?

R’ Eliezer responds that it is possible that the nega might reduce in size (while greater than the minimum size of a gris). As the nega has not increase after the week of hesger the kohen will rule that he is tahor. The nega may then later spread again which would be an indication of tumah;56 therefore hesger is necessary.57 The Mishnah Achrona explains that those that asked knew of this possibility; they nonetheless wanted to know whether a double-doubt – that the nega would shrink then grow – still requires hesger.

This question was followed with an even more complex one. What if the shchin was originally the size of a gris and contained a nega of equal size? In this case, if the nega shrunk it would be smaller than the minimum size and if it later grew again it would be treated as a new nega. In such a case, spreading is not an indication of tumah, as the nega must undergo hesger first. To this question, R’ Eliezer responds, “I have not heard.”

The Bartenura explains that he had learnt from his teachers that in such a case the person must still undergo hesger, but R’ Eliezer had not heard the reason why. The Tifferet Yisrael importantly adds that R’ Eliezer never taught anything that he had not learnt explicitly from his teachers. It was possible that the rule was a gzeirat ha’katuv, a decree authorised by the Torah, without a readily available logic to explain it.58

After gaining permission to speak, R’ Yehuda offered a solution. He suggested that perhaps another shchin would develop next to the first and if the nega would spread to that one, then it would be an indication of tumah. R’ Eliezer responded to the suggestion, “You are wise, for you upheld the words of the Chachamim.”

There are two ways of understanding R’ Eliezer response, both of which appear in the Tosfot Yom Tov. The second explanation provided is that R’ Eliezer is stating that “You are exceedingly wise as you did not become overwhelmed or confused by the difficulties that stood to dismantle their words.” From here we see that upholding the Chachamim’s rule is the outcome, and the wisdom is the way R’ Yehuda achieved it.

The first explanation in the Tosfot Yom Tov however, is that “you are wiser than had you destroyed their words.” One can understand that R’ Yehuda ben Beteira’s wisdom is found in his entire approach. Faced with the difficulty, he was single-minded in find the way of building and not destroying. Finding the truth and not dismissing it. “You upheld the words of the Chachamim” was the source of his wisdom.


56 As spreading after p’tur is a sign of tumah.

57 As explained by the Bartenura.

58 Alternatively the Mishnah Achrona adds that perhaps his teachers ruled that hesger was required as they were doubtful that the reason provided by R’ Yehuda ben Beteira was reason for hesger. Therefore the ruling might be based on a doubt.

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