Faith

This Week's Torah Portion: The Terrible Sin of 'Leshon Hara'

Parashath Ki Thazria‘-Mëtzora‘ (Leviticus XII, 1-XV, 33)

This week’s parasha discusses tzora‘ath, often mistranslated as “leprosy.”

That tzora‘ath is no ordinary disease is demonstrated by the fact that not only people are afflicted with it but also, as the parasha informs us, items of clothing and houses. The Rabbis, indeed, understand these as stages in a graded progression:

The Master of Mercy does not afflict living beings first … afflictions which come upon a person come first on his house; [if] he repents, [his house] is in need of removal [of the afflicted stones from its walls], and if not, it is in need of demolition. [Then] they come upon his clothes; [if] he repents, [his clothing] is in need of washing. And if not, it is in need of burning. [Then] they come upon his body; [if] he repents, he is purified; and if not, he is alone. (VaYiqra’ Rabba XVII, 4; cf. also Ruth Rabba X, 2).

 Indeed, the Rambam codifies this progression into halacha:

And this change which has been mentioned concerning clothes and houses which the Torah calls tzora‘ath … was a sign and a wonder in Israel to warn them against lëshon hara‘, for one who narrates lëshon hara‘, the walls of his house change. (Hilchoth Tum’ath Tzora‘ath, XVI, 10).

In light of the Rambam’s ruling above and many statements scattered throughout the Talmud and midrashim, the “Jewish street” only considers tzora‘ath in terms of punishment for lëshon hara‘. It may therefore come as a surprise that the Talmud (‘Arachin 16b) informs us that lëshon hara‘ is only one of the transgressions which incur tzora‘ath. The others are shëfichuth damim (“bloodshed”), shëvu‘ath shav’ (“taking an oath in vain”), gilluy ‘arayoth (“sexual impropriety”), gassuth ruach (“arrogance”), gezel (“robbery”), and tzaruth ‘ayin (“selfishness, envy”).

At first blush, this assemblage seems rather eclectic: there are surely great differences in the magnitude of bloodshed and robbery, crimes whose consequences are enumerated in the written Torah and are dealt with in courts, and such things as gassuth ruach or tzaruth ‘ayin, which are not directly punishable. What do these offenses have in common that they should all incur the same repercussion, i.e., Divine imposition of tzora‘ath? Why does the Rambam cite only lëshon hara‘ as a cause for tzora‘ath?

An answer is provided by the great sage of 17th century Poland, Rabbi Shëmu’él Eidels, known affectionately as the Maharsha. The Maharsha notes that the passage from ‘Arachin cited above begins with the words: ‘Al shiv‘a dëvairm nëga‘im ba’im (“Afflictions come because of seven things”) and comments that it is not accidental that the Rabbis use the plural nëga‘im in referring to the various manifestations of tzora‘ath which are described in our parasha rather than the singular, generic term tzora‘ath. He explains that there are seven basic categories of nëga‘im described in our parasha, and that each of these offenses results in a specific nega‘.

Thus, the Rabbis explain the connection between shëfichuth damim and tzora‘ath as based on II Samuel III, 29, in which King David curses Yo’av and his family for assassinating King Sha’ul’s army chief Avnér, proclaiming al yichroth mibéyth Yo’av zav umëtzora‘ (“may zav [one who has a discharge] and mëtzora‘ never cease from the house of Yo’av.”) The Maharsha notes that the verse begins yachulu ‘al rosh Yo’av (“May [these deeds] fall upon Yo’av’s head”) and concludes that the nega‘ of netheq (Leviticus XIII, 37), an affliction of the head, applies to this case.

Shëvu‘ath shav’ is connected to tzora‘ath through the story of Na‘aman, the Syrian general who sought relief from the condition from the prophet Elisha‘, and who declared to Elisha’s assistant, Geichazi, Ho’él qach kikkarayim (II Kings V, 23), which Rashi explains to mean: “Swear that you’ve come from Elisha‘ and take two talents [of silver].” When Elisha‘ found out that Geichazi had requested this money from Na‘aman, he cursed him with Na‘aman’s tzora‘ath (ibid., 27). The Maharsha notes that Geichazi’s real offense must not have been about the money, since his body was afflicted and not his property (vide infra), and so decides that the offense was the unnecessary oath. As v. 27 concludes: Vayétzé’ millëfanav mëtzora‘ kashaleg (“And [Geichazi] left from before [Elisha‘] afflicted like the snow”); the Maharsha deduces that the nega‘ associated with this offense is bahereth (“brightness”; cf. Leviticus. Ibid., 2-8).

Gilluy ‘arayoth is derived from Pharaoh’s fate in trying to take Sara away from Avraham. Vayënagga‘ Ha-Shem eth Par‘o nëga‘im gëdolim (“And Ha-Shem afflicted Pharaoh with great afflictions,” Genesis XII, 17). The plural nëga‘im gëdolim leads the Maharsha to conclude that the associated nega‘ is së’éth (“rising”, hence gadol), which has several variants (e.g. sappachath; Leviticus ibid., 2-17).

Gassuth ruach is derived from an incident involving King ‘Uzziyahu, in which, as a result of a dispute with the kohanim, uchëchezqatho gavah libbo ‘ad lëhashchith vayim‘al ba-Shem Elo-hav vayavo’ el heichal Ha-Shem lëhaqtir ‘al mizbach haqëtoreth (“And when he was strong his heart was raised to [self-]destruction and he offended against Ha-Shem his G-d and came to Ha-Shem’s temple to burn incense on the incense altar,” II Chronicles XXVI, 16), an illegitimate arrogation of a function of the kohanim. Since, as a result, vëhatzora‘ath zarëcha bëmitzcho (“and the tzora‘ath shined from his forehead,” ibid., 19) the Maharsha defines the nega‘ as gabbachath/qarachath, which afflict the forehead and the head (Leviticus XIII, 40-44).

Gezel is derived from the verse vëtzivva hakohén ufinna eth habayith (“and the kohén commands and they evacuate the house,” ibid., XIV, 36) which is written concerning a house with tzora‘ath. The Talmud continues: “He brings into his house money which is not his, so the kohén will come and scatter his wealth.” The Maharsha expands on this, explaining that since his clothes are either stolen goods themselves or were purchased with ill-gotten gain, zora‘ath of the clothes or the house (if it was purchased with stolen funds) is appropriate.

Tzaruth ‘ayin is derived from the verse which precedes the above. Uva’ asher lo habayith (“And the one whose house it is will come”), which the Rabbis interpret to mean, “one whose house is intended only for him.” Rashi explains this means that he is selfish and refuses to lend his belongings to others. In Yoma 11b we find that, since he is always claiming not to have anything people seek to borrow from him, he is made to evacuate his home and reveal to everyone what he really has. The maharsha offers another explanation: that such a person does not give hospitality to poor people, and so is forced out of his house. For all of these reasons, tzora‘ath of the house is the appropriate nega‘.

 The common point between these disparate offenses is that each of them is uniquely destructive of the fabric of human society. Certainly this is obvious in the case of shëfichtuh damim; any organized society in which murder becomes commonplace will quickly cease to be such and degenerate into the war of all against all. Gezel is a similar proposition: if one must live in constant fear that somebody stronger or more cunning will take all one owns, no one will trust anyone, and society breaks down.

Gilluy ‘arayoth, which encompasses various incestuous relationships as well as adultery, strikes at the integrity of the family, the basic unit of any human society. Gassuth ruach, by leading people to arrogate to themselves positions and functions for which they are unfit because of the pursuit of unearned or undeserved honor, similarly strikes at the organization of society, Finally, tzaruth ‘ayin brings about unnecessary hard feelings and social friction. How appropriate that any of these activities should be countered by inflicting a condition which marks and isolates the perpetrator from others.

The Talmud derives lëshon hara‘ from Psalms CI, 5: Mëlashni baséther ré‘éhu, otho atzmith (“Who slanders his fellow in secret, him will I destroy.”) The Rabbis then go on to connect the word atzmith to litzmithuth (“completely, permanently,” cf. Leviticus XXV, 23) to show that it is lëshon hara‘ which results in one becoming a mëtzora‘ muchlat (“decided” or “complete” mëtzora’) in need of the full panoply of purifications when he has learned his lesson. The Maharsha considers this an indication that lëshon hara‘ is the most serious of all these transgressions.

Why?

In my humble opinion, the reason why lëshon hara‘ is the most serious of these offenses, worse even than bloodshed, is because it contains the seeds of all of them.

Certainly a few ill-chosen words have resulted in bloodshed: Maveth vëchayyim bëyad halashon, said King Shëlomo, “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue” (Proverbs XVIII, 2), and Rabbi Chama bar Chanina (‘Arachin 15b) notes on this basis that just as one can kill with a hand, one can kill with the tongue. The Talmud (ibid., 16b) points out that the chief effect of lëshon hara‘ is anti-social in nature: “He came between a man and his wife, between a man and his fellow; therefore, the Torah says, ‘He shall dwell alone’.” Indeed, the midrash (VaYiqra’ Rabba XVI, 6) suggests that the word Torah is written five times in connection with lëshon hara‘ in our parasha to show that it can potentially lead to violating everything in the five books of the written Torah!

The nëga‘im are no longer with us, not because of our great enlightenment and righteousness, of course, but because most of us would be mëtzorë‘im if they were, and the educative effect of the affliction would thus be nullified. Still, study of our parasha reveals the seriousness of the offenses that once led to tzora‘ath, and should sensitize us to them and lead us to curb our worst excesses, and avoid their practitioners.

Which, after all, was the point of tzora‘ath.