Contemporary Tzaraat?

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by Efraim Vaynman

Is it Possible to Become a Metzora1 Nowadays?2

The Shulchan Aruch does not contain a discussion of the halachot of tzaraat, implying that the halachot of tzaraat are not relevant nowadays. However, elsewhere the Shulchan Aruch does discuss tzaraat as it relates to other mitzvot. The Shulchan Aruch rules that a metzora is forbidden from laying tefillin3 and that a milah is performed even if there is tzaraat on the foreskin.4 How does Shulchan Aruch rule? Can one get tzaraat nowadays or not?The halachot of tzaraat are not found in most of the halachic works that preceded the Shulchan Aruch as well. Raavya explains why he did not include the halachot of tzaraat in his work:

I did not find it necessary to include the halachot of a metzora because we do not ever see it (tzaraat), nor are we learned enough to recognize it, and we are not accustomed to keep any of the laws of metzora nowadays. However we do distance ourselves from them because of the danger5 (tzaraat is contagious).6

The earliest sources noting that the halachot of metzora are not practiced are found in the respona from the Geonim.7 The Geonim say that ever since the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed a metzora does not become impure.

Ever since the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed those afflicted [with tzaraat] do not become impure. Nowadays, if G-d forbid a student or sage will become a metzora we do not oust them from the synagogue nor from the house of study, because now there is no longer [a law of] “your camp shall be holy”.8

In the 11th century Midrash Lekach Tov a similar statement is attributed to the amora Rabbi Yochanan:

Rabbi Yochanan said from the day the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed there is no purification from a dead body and no polluting from a metzora but there is [still] impurity because we do not have the ashes from the red heifer to sprinkle. But there is no impurity from a metzora at all because we do not have a [capable] judge.9

Rambam characteristically includes even halachot that are not practiced nowadays. However, in his discussion of tzaraat he writes explicitly that the laws apply “both in the land [of Israel] and diaspora, when the Temple is existent and when it is not”.10 Rambam’s source is the Sifra11 which states that the purification ritual of the metzora is also done “nowadays”. In fact, the Sifra continues to recount that Rabbi Tarfon was once in the diaspora where he performed the purification ritual on three metzoraim.12 Rambam cites this story in his commentary on the Mishna13 to prove that even though the metzora cannot become fully pure without bringing the korbanot of the metzora, a kohen still performs the purification rituals. This is true even though the ritual calls for the shaving of the head, which a man is normally forbidden to do.

Although Rambam does not mention in Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat anything about the halachot of a metzora not being actually practiced, elsewhere he does hint at this. In Hilchot Terumah14 Rambam says that a metzora is forbidden to eat terumah. Rambam however qualifies this law with the stipulation that a metzora can only become impure if the kohen who determined him to be impure was a kohen meyuchas, a priest with pure lineage that was traceable to an ancestor who had served in the Temple.15 Radbaz comments16 that the reason why the halachot of a tzaraat are not practiced nowadays is that we no longer have any kohanim meyuchasim. Without a kohen who is able to pronounce the one afflicted as impure, none of the halachot of metzora apply.17

The question why we don’t observe the laws of metzora has troubled many Torah scholars. In his introduction to his Tiferet Yisrael commentary on Mishnah Nega’im, R. Yisrael Lipschitz recalls that in his youth he asked the great R. Akiva Eiger this question. He responded that he himself was wondering the same thing for a long time and does not have a good answer.18 R. Lipschitz himself answers along the lines of Rambam. Whereas Rambam stressed the need for a kohen meyuchas in determining a metzora to be impure, R. Lipschitz claimed it was essential for the purification process. Because the purification process included shaving the head, it could only be done if the metzora was really impure and had now been cured. But since a metzora can only become impure by the pronouncement of a real kohen, if it turned out the kohen was not a valid kohen, the shaving of the head would be a Torah violation.19

In his introduction to Mishnayot Kodshim, R. Lipschitz suggests that a kohen who is not meyuchas may not purify a metzora for other reasons, as well. Since the kohen is required to wear the special priestly vestments while performing the purification ritual, and since the belt contains shaatnez which is otherwise forbidden to be worn, only a real kohen is allowed to don them. Additionally, since the identity of techelet, which was contained in the priestly belt, is not known, even a kohen meyuchas would not be allowed to wear it, because without it the belt is invalid.20 Similarly, Ohr Sameiach suggests that since the identity of tolaat shani used in the purification ritual is not known, it is impossible to perform the purification ritual.21In the middle of the 19th century, R. Zvi Hirsch Kalischer ignited a controversy that would involve many Torah scholars in Europe. In his book Drishat Tzion, he proposed returning to Israel and reestablishing the sacrifices on the Temple Mount. He debated his position with the greatest Torah scholars of the time and later published this correspondence in an addendum to his book called Rishon LeTzion. In them, he deals with the many halachic complications involved with restoring the sacrificial service. R. Kalischer won notable backers such as R. Yisroel Yehoshua of Kutna who agreed to the restoration of sacrifices, and many others who agreed with some of his arguments.

The very reasons cited above for not keeping the halachot of tzaraat also pose problems for the restoration of the sacrifices. R. Kalischer argued that the requirement of kohanim meyuchasim is only a stringency that was enacted in the Temple when it was possible, but the letter of the law did not require it; an argument to which the Chatam Sofer agreed.22 He also argued that the halacha is in accord with the opinion that the belt of a regular kohen does not contain shaatnez. Even if did contain kilayim, he argued that the blue colored wool need not necessarily come from the chilazon, because for the priestly vestments the color was all that mattered.23 According to those who agree with R. Kalischer, why are the laws of metzora not practiced nowadays?

There are several other answers given. R. Yaakov Emden argues that a metzora who is clearly afflicted with tzaraat is impure even without a kohen having declared him so.24 The purification process is not practiced because impurity is simply irrelevant nowadays when we no longer have the ashes of the parah adumah25 and there is impurity on all land outside Israel. Since a metzora  is allowed to dwell even inside the city nowadays even while impure26 there is no reason for the kohen to pronounce somebody afflicted as impure or for one who is impure to undergo the purification process.27

R. Emden’s good friend, R. Moshe Hagiz, suggested that we don’t have kohanim who are learned enough to declare anyone a metzora.28 This explanation is already found in Hilchot Eretz Yisrael attributed to the Tur.

And nowadays a metzora does not need to be sent out of Yerushalayim except from the camp of holiness and the camp of the Levites. And because we do not have a kohen who is an expert in those afflicted with tzaraat and in their names (of tzaraat), we should not separate them nor attend to them, but rather (we should) treat them like other sick people and we should pray for them.29

Along the same lines, R. Menachem Mendel Kasher30 suggested that the problem with kohanim in our times is not that they are not learned enough but that they lack a mesorah. He brings proof to this position from the Sifra which teaches that a kohen “is not allowed to see skin afflictions until his teacher has shown him”.31 The Raavad comments that a similar statement is found in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Rav said, a person does not have permission to say anything about a tzaraat affliction unless he saw or served (his rabbi in such a situation). How is this done? In the beginning his teacher opens with the first part of verses and he (the student) finishes them.32

Raavad continues:

We learn from here that even though he is a senior student, and he knows and understands all on his own, he is still not allowed to take any action except when his teacher starts him off.33

Finallly, R. Meir Dan Plotzky suggests based on Ramban that the obligation for one afflicted with tzaraat to go to a kohen is only when Jews are leaving in Israel and dwell in the divine presence. He explains that only then did the Torah warn us “to be very careful with the tzaraat affliction” because when living in G-d’s presence tzaraat is more than just a bodily malady. If we try to remove it or hide it from the kohen we are denying G-d’s personal calling to us. During the times of the Beit HaMikdash tzaraat was a divine punishment. But now that the Temple has been destroyed and G-d’s holiness does not dwell among us tzaraat is just another ailment. Therefore we are no longer obligated to bring the tzaraat to the kohen to see, and that is why the laws of metzora are not practiced.34
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  1. There have been various attempts to identify the symptoms of tzaraat as given in the Torah with modern medical skin conditions. Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, p. 817), summing up the research epigrammatically writes, “If the non identification of tzaraat with leprosy is certain, one can say with equal assurance that the identification of tzaraat is uncertain.”  Rather Milgrom says that tzaraat should be translated as “scale disease,” referring to variety of non-related skin ailments (p. 819). The odd relationship between the various forms of tzaraat, especially the relationship between the skin disease and the disease that afflicts both clothes and houses, was already noted by the rishonim. Ramban (Lev 13:47) notes that it is “not in the natural order of things, nor does it ever happen in the world” but is rather “miraculous.” Even Rambam (Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat 16:10) the rationalist remarks that “Tzaraat is a shared name that includes many things that are not similar one to another…and this is not the natural order of the world, but rather they are a sign and wonder amidst Israel to exhort them from saying lashon hara” (Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat 16:10). Despite this miraculous nature, both Rambam and Ramban seem to indicate that  tzaraat existed in their times (see Ramban, Lev. 12:4 and Rambam’s commentary to the Mishnah, Ketubot 7:10 where he identifies the muka shechin with tzaraat). 

  2. The question is if one can become a metzora and not if the halachot of tzaraat apply nowadays; the difference is that the prohibition of cutting something that appears like tzaraat applies even if one is not a metzora. For cutting something that appears like tzaraat nowadays, see Sefer haChinuch 584 who says that it applicable. Minchat Chinuch (584:7) notes that this is despite the fact that practically one cannot become a metzora nowadays. See also 584:2, where Minchat Chinuch discusses the opinion of Rashi that this prohibition applies even to a mareh that is tahor. In Toldot Adam (pp. 165), it is recounted that once R. Zelmel’e Volozhiner went to the doctor for a skin disease on his leg. When the doctor suggested that the best course of action was to cut off the infected skin, R. Zelmel’e protested that it was forbidden. He explained that he is of the opinion that the prohibition to cut tzaraat applies nowadays as well; since the diseased skin appears similar to tzaraat it is forbidden to cut it. 

  3. Orach Chaim 38:13. See R. Chaim Algazi, Bnei Chayai, ad loc., who asks why this was codified if tzaraat is not an issue nowadays. See also R. Yehoshua Tzvi Michel Shapira, Tzitz HaKodesh, 27. 

  4. Yoreh Deah 266:1. See R. Aryeh Yehuda Leib Teomim, Shu”t Gur Aryeh Yehuda, Y”D 87, who asks why this was codified if tzaraat is not an issue nowadays. 

  5. See Ramban, Lev. 12:4 who writes that “his smell and breath are damaging”. See also Beit Yosef to EH 39 who says it is contagious. 

  6. Moed Katan 840 

  7. Responsa Geonica Cambridge Collection, S. Assaf, Jerusalem 1942, pp. 123 lines 10-11 

  8. Teshuvot haGeonim Shaarei Teshuva 176 pp. 18 

  9. Midrash Lekach Tov, Tazriah 35b. The statement is not found anywhere in the Talmud or early midrashim. R. Kasher points out that it contradicts what Rabbi Yochanan says in Berachot 5b where he implies that tzaraat existed in his times, Torah Shleima vol. 9 Shemot, Miluim 18, pp. 257. Prof. Levi Ginsburg claims that the author of Midrash Lekach Tov drew on an unreliable source. See his comments in Ginzei Schechter vol. 1 pp. 71 

  10. Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat 11:6 

  11. Metzora 1:1 

  12. idem 1:13 

  13. Negaim 14:13 

  14. 7:9 

  15. See Hilchot Issurei Biah ch. 20. Tzophnat Paneiach says that this requirement is the result of the rule safek negaim lehakel, see Tzaphnat Paneiach, Arachin, ch. 8, p. 106. Cf. his comments in Issurei Biah p. 147. See also Shut Yad Chanoch 49. 

  16. ad loc. 

  17. This is possibly also the intention of the of the student of R. Yechiel of Paris who writes that the halachot do not apply nowadays because it takes a kohen to make a metzora impure, see Shitah Al Masechet Mo’ed Katan LeTalmid Rabbeinu Yechiel MiParis, p. 15a. Interestingly, even the Karaites who kept many of the purity laws did not observe the laws of tzaraat because they said they did not have a kohen meyuchas, see Aderet Eliyahu of Eliyahu Beshitzi, Tuma vTahara 24 p. 75a. Sefer HaChinuch (169) says that it appears from Rambam that the kohen must be an expert and seems to imply that this is the reason the halachot are no longer practiced. In 173 he claims that this is also evident from the Sifra. 

  18. Introduction to Nega’im called Mareh Kohen 39. In Shut Beit David vol. 2 64, the author is surprised that they had not seen those who already addressed the question. However, as noted below, R. Eiger did not believe the requirement of a kohen meyuchas to be essential. 

  19. This approach is adopted by many achronim, see: Otzar Nechmad (commentary on Kuzari) 3:49; Sheilat Yaavetz vol. 1 136;  Toldot Adam ch. 6 23 p. 96; Ha’amek She’eila, Metzora 88:1; Shut Beit Yitzchak YD vol. 2 113; Daat Torah 5:8; Shut Maharsham vol. 3 20; Minchat Chinuch 169:13; Yad Chanoch, ibid.; Torah Temima, Vayikra 14:2 note 3.  Both Toldot Adam and Otzar Nechmad add that since the purification ritual cannot be done, it is not appropriate for the kohen to declare the afflicted impure. As for women who are not forbidden from shaving their head, they answer that since there is no practical issur that will apply to them, they too are not declared impure. However this is difficult, because though it is true that a metzoraat is exempt from pria ufrima and is not forbidden from engaging in marital relations, she is still forbidden in she’eilat shalom, washing clothes, and haircutting. (Rambam, Hilchot Tumat Tzaraat 10:8) Also, many argue that it is forbidden to for a metzora to go into Yeushalayim even after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Sheilat Yaavetz, ibid.). 

  20. Chomer baKodesh 4:26 note 8 

  21. Tumat Tzaraat 11:6. Both of these colors have arguably been positively identified in recent years. See R. Menachem Boornstein, haTechelet and Dr. Zohar Amar, b’Ikvut Tolaat haShani haEretz Yisraelit

  22. YD 236 

  23. It seems that R. Kalischer would agree that the tolaat shani for the metzora needs to the authentic type. The Tosefta in Menachot (9:16) says that both techelet and tolaat shani need to be authentic. R. Kalischer argued that for bigdei kehunah this was not a crucial detail, and it was other things like metzora and parah adumah that the Tosefta was speaking of.  However some claim to have identified tolaat shani, as cited in the footnote above, and, if so, this would no longer be a compelling argument not to keep the halachot of metzora. See also R. Yekel Saaveh, Karnot haMizbeiach

  24. Sheilat Yaavetz vol. 1 138. See Otzar Nechmad ibid. who considers this possibility. All other authorities outright dismiss this as wrong. In particular see R. David Pardo who refutes all of R. Emden’s proofs, Sifrei Dibei Rav, Behaalotcha psikta 105 p. 414. I think R. Emden himself does not really believe it and he introduces his exposition as something “he wrote in his sharp (young) years”. His arguments are full of pilpul, something he later held in disdain. See J.J. Schacter’s dissertation Rabbi Jacob Emden: Life and Major Works p. 51. 

  25. R. Shmuel David Levine, Taharat haKodesh, argues that it is practical to make a parah adumah even nowadays. 

  26. Tosafot Berachot 5b 

  27. Sheilat Yaavetz ibid. 136. An early midrash Genizah fragment seemingly also refers to those who are impure but are allowed to stay within the city. It reads: “so as long as Jews were on their land they would send [away] from them zavim and metzoraim…Once they were exiled from their land and the divine presence left [the people] of Israel, they [became] exempt from sending [away] those who were impure. Rather [now] they must separate themselves from them and not touch them.” It is found in Ginzei Schechter vol. 1 pp. 78. R. Shlomo ben haYasom (Moed Katan 14 p. 70) also refers to “the laws of tzaraat being observed when the Temple was existent and tuma and taharah was [still] amongst Israel.” He seems to be saying that the laws are irrelevant now that purity laws are not kept. 

  28. Eileh haMitzvot 174. See also Shut Mor vAhalot, Ohel Brachot vHodaot 19, p. 22b; Sefer haChinuch ibid.; Aruch haShulchan haAtid, Nega’im 93:12; Tiferet Yaakov to Chomer baKodesh cited above.  

  29. Hilchot Eretz Yisroel 3. This is also possibly the intention of the Raavya and Lekach Tov quoted above. 

  30. Torah Shleima vol. 9 Shemot, Miluim 18, pp. 255-261. See Shut Chavalim b’Ne’imim vol. 4 34 pp. 55-56 who disagrees with him. 

  31. Nega’im 5:27 

  32. Yerushalmi Chagiga 2:1 8b. In the printed version instead of “about a tzaraat affliction” it says “against one’s teacher”, however the Lieden manuscript has the version quoted by Raavad. See haYerushalmi Kefshuto pp. 17-18 

  33. Raavad ad loc 

  34. Klei Chemda, Tazria 87-89. See Pardes Yosef, Tazria pp. 152-153 who argues with him. The Chafetz Chaim (Shmirat haLashon, Shaar haZechira 6) explains why tzaraat does not occur anymore. He explains that G-d could only afflict people with tzaraat when there was a Beit haMikdash and therefore an opportunity to repent and become clean and pure. Without a Beit haMikdash it would be unfair and unbeneficial because the person will remain forever impure. However, these comments are difficult. It is almost unanimously agreed that the purification ritual can be performed even after the destruction of the Beit haMikdash. Further he is the only one I have found who has claimed that tzaraat does not occur, whereas in the course of this essay I have shown many sources that say it does. 

About Efraim Vaynman

Efraim Vaynman is an Editorial Intern at Torah Musings. He is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary while concurrently pursuing an MA in Talmud at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Previously, Efraim studied in yeshivot Brisk and Beth Medrash Gevoha.

2 comments

  1. But the Rambam also writes in his closing to Hilkhos Tum’as Tzara’as (16:10, paraphrased in fn. 1) that the word “tzara’as” in this context refers to a supernatural illness that was in Israel to warn them of lashon hara, “צרעת בשותפות השם אינו ממנהגו של עולם אלא אות ופלא היה בישראל כדי להזהירן מלשון הרע”.

    I would conclude that the Rambam believes that the halakhah exists in principle today, but that it’s more than our kohanim lacking the expertise to diagnose it, but that we aren’t on a level to get that warning. As per Moreh 3:18, where he writes that Divine involvement in our lives is proportional to our knowledge of G-d.

    • Efraim Vaynman

      There are a number of issues here.


      1) The full text reads וזה השינוי האמור בבגדים ובבתים שקראה אותו תורה צרעת בשותפות השם–אינו ממנהגו של עולם, אלא אות ופלא היה בישראל כדי להזהירן מלשון הרע. Rambam is discussing tzaraas of clothes and houses. This is significant, because what he possibly means is that nowadays these 2 types of tzaraas do not occur. Rambam specifically wrote these 2 types are miraculous and was not discussing the tzaraas of skin which is the topic of this discussion. See Minchas Chinuch 177:16 who is unsure if Rambam even agrees that there is tzaraas habatim nowadays. See also Klei Chemda who thinks Ramban holds that tzaraas habegged is also taluy b’bias haretz. However Rambam does write that “it was to warn them from lashon hara” which is only said to cause tzaraas of the skin but perhaps he held it was lav davka.

      2) I think you might be reading too much into the tense of his words. For the same price I have a much more explicit passage which indicates the opposite. At the end of Nega’im Rambam writes ואני נבוך מאד בתגלחת שניה לפי שאנו עוברים בה על מצות לא תעשה שהיא גלוח כל הראש והזקן, ולא תושג לנו בכך תכלית לפי שאי אפשר בזמנינו זה להביא כפרה כדי שיטהר מטומאת צרעת הטהרה השלמה אשר בגללה מגלח תגלחת שניה”. Of course Rambam wrote this in Arabic but in all of the translations the text is pretty much the same.


      3) I wrote in the very footnote you quote that Rambam elsewhere indicates tzarras does exist. Beis Yosef (EH 39) most definitely understands Rambam this way (however see opinion cited Shu”t Chavalim b’Ne’imim who disagrees with Beis Yosef). However looking at the modern translations I realized that Rambam in fact never wrote that tzaraas is the same a muka shchin. R. Qafah points out this was a mistake of the translater who mistakingly thought that the disease which Rambam mentions, which symptoms included limbs that fall off, was called tzaraas (interestingly this seems to be the first Jew to express the idea that tzaraas was Hansen’s disease).

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