Red, White and Green
In Parshas Naso, the Torah requires the banishing of a metzora from the camp. Chazal understand this to mean that he is not permitted to be within any city that was walled from the time of Yehoshua (Keilim 1:7).
Question #1: Red
“I was told that some nega’im are red or pink. What color are they really, since pink is about the color of our usual Caucasian skin?”
Question #2: White
“I saw someone who had a discoloration on his arm that was white as snow. Is it possible that he could be a metzora, even though we do not yet have the Beis Hamikdash?”
Question #3: Green or Blue?
“Does the word yarok mean green, yellow or blue?”
Contrary to many Biblical translations, tzaraas is not leprosy. The symptoms described by the Torah do not fit Hansen’s disease, which is another term for the condition more commonly called leprosy (see Rav Hirsch’s Commentary, Vayikra 13:59). Tzaraas is a miraculous occurrence that strikes members of the Jewish people as a punishment, but more so, as a Divine admonition to improve our behavior. The root of the word nega means to be “touched” – in this instance, to be touched by Hashem and reminded of the need to improve and do teshuvah. It occurred when the Jewish people in Eretz Yisroel were on a high spiritual level. That it does not occur today is because we are not on the spiritual level to receive these kinds of direct messages from Hashem (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 169), just as we no longer experience prophecy or obvious miracles for the same reason. (However, see Tiferes Yisrael, Mar’ei Kohein introduction to Nega’im, #39). This may very well be the reason why only someone Jewish is susceptible to tzaraas, and cloth or houses are susceptible to tzaraas only when owned by someone Jewish.
All instances of tzaraas require that a kohein declare them tamei, and to become tahor afterwards also requires the declaration of a kohein. In other words, the symptoms do not make the person, cloth or house tamei — it is the declaration of the kohein that does.
Tzaraas blemishes must be a minimum size to be tamei, but I will not be focusing on these requirements, nor on others, such as that the entire blemish must be visible, the details of what lighting is used to view a nega, and how and when these nega’im are metamei everything in the same room as they are.
We should also note that there is no difference between a man and a woman regarding the laws of tzaraas: both can become tamei any time after they are born. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the person with nega symptoms in the masculine.
Difference between musgar and muchlat
To begin with, we need an overview of the basic rules of tzaraas. All types of tzaraas, whether they affect people, cloth or houses, are divided into two general categories: metzora musgar, literally a “closed” metzora, and metzora muchlat, literally, “decided” or “definite” metzora. In the case of a person, a metzora musgar can be tamei for up to two weeks (actually thirteen days, because the seventh day of the first week is also the first day of the second week), after which, if no new symptoms develop, the person immerses himself in a mikveh or spring and becomes completely tahor at the next nightfall. (All immersions germane to tzaraas may be either in a mikveh, which usually consists of rainwater, or in a spring. Throughout the article, I will refer to a mikveh, but in each of these instances, it could also be a spring.) However, someone with nega symptoms that are ruled tahor must remain vigilant that his nega not grow any larger in the future or develop any other tamei symptoms. Should this happen, he will become tamei as a metzora muchlat, which means that he could remain tamei forever, if his tamei symptoms do not go away.
It is a lo saaseh of the Torah for someone to remove the symptoms of a nega, even when he has already been ruled tahor (Tosefta, Nega’im 3:1; Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 10:1). The Torah forbids this in parshas Ki Seitzei, where it says Hishameir benega hatzaraas, “Be careful concerning a tzaraas affliction” (Devorim 24:8).
This lo saaseh is a bit unusual since it is not worded in the more common way of a lo saaseh with the words lo or al but, rather, with the word hishameir. The Gemara teaches that a lo saaseh can also be worded either with the word hishameir or the word pen, which means “lest” (Shabbos 132b; Eiruvin 96a; Makkos 13b).
In all instances of tzaraas, the tumah generated by a metzora musgar is the same as that of a metzora muchlat. Therefore, one could describe a musgar as someone who is temporarily tamei, and a muchlat as someone who remains tamei until the symptoms that made him tamei disappear. The procedure for becoming tahor after being muchlat are those described in the beginning of parshas Metzora and are far more expensive, more complicated and take longer to perform than for someone becoming tahor after being musgar.
Tzaraas on a person
At this point, we need to explain the basic categories of tzaraas. There are three types of tzaraas that can affect a person:
(1) Tzaraas on healthy skin
(2) Tzaraas on injured skin
(3) Tzaraas on the scalp or beard
In the case of tzaraas on healthy skin, a nega appears, meaning that someone finds on his skin a blemish that is of a color that is very white, at least as bright as the membrane of an egg. The Mishnah (Nega’im 1:1) explains that there are four shades of white that can make someone tamei as a metzora. In order of increasing intensity, they are:
– White as the membrane of an egg
– White as a whitewashed wall
– White as the cleaned, bleached wool of a newborn lamb (Shavuos 6b)
– White as fresh clean snow
By the way, there is an unusual shade of white, called bohak by the Torah, that is not a symptom of tumah. Simply explained, although it is a bright white, a blemish this shade is completely tahor, since it is duller than the color of the membrane of an egg, and certainly than the other nega’im colors (Vayikra 13:39).
In a few places, the Torah refers to nega’im that are reddish in color (13:19, 24, 43). The halacha is that all nega’im on people that are temei’im if they are white are also te’mei’im if they are reddish or pinkish, and that there are four shades of red, or more accurately, pink, that are tamei, just as there are four shades of white, as I mentioned above. However, the commentaries dispute exactly which four shades are temei’im, with a wide difference of opinion among them, ranging from a very light pink, to shades that are much redder (Ravad to Sifra 13:19; Kesef Mishneh, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 1:4; Eliyahu Rabbah and Tiferes Yisroel, Nega’im 1:2; Aruch Hashulchan He’asid 80:6-7) .
To the kohein
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no requirement that there be a Beis Hamikdash for someone to become tamei with tzaraas. In point of fact, should a kohein be knowledgeable about the laws of tzaraas and declare someone with a proper nega shade to be tamei, the person would become tamei (She’eilas Yavetz #136). However, this last scenario would be highly unlikely, since ruling someone tamei for tzaraas requires that an individual have extensive training in all the details of the laws of tzaraas, including personal experience in identifying the differences among the four white shades mentioned above (Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 1:3).
Any of the types of tzaraas, whether on a person, garment, or house, must be shown to a kohein, who rules on the status of the nega (Nega’im 3:1). If he rules that the color is tahor, the person is tahor, and no further steps are necessary. If the kohein rules that the nega is musgar, then in the case of a person, he is fully tamei for seven days, counting the day that the kohein ruled on it as the first day. Anything he touches becomes tamei, and, in addition, if he enters a room or building during this week, everything in the room capable of becoming tamei will become tamei. It will require being immersed in a mikveh and will become tahor the nightfall following.
On the seventh day, the metzora must go to the same kohein for him to rule on the nega again (Tosefta, Nega’im 1:12; Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 9:4; 11:6). If the kohein rules that the nega is muchlat, the metzora must go outside of the city (if it is a walled city) and live by himself until the symptoms that created the ruling that it is muchlat disappear.
A person can be tamei musgar for a total of two weeks, which is actually thirteen days, as I explained above. On the thirteenth day, the metzora shows the nega to the kohein. If no symptoms have appeared to make the nega tamei, the person becomes tahor, notwithstanding that he still has the nega symptoms (see below). He immerses in a mikveh and becomes completely tahor the nightfall after his immersion.
What makes a metzora muchlat?
There are three symptoms that can make a metzora muchlat:
(1) His tzaraas spreads.
(2) Two dark or other non-white hairs that are within the nega turn white.
(3) There is a healthy-looking area of skin with a certain minimal size inside of the white nega.
Obviously, the first time the kohein sees the nega, he can rule muchlat only because of either the second or third symptom; ruling a nega muchlat because it spread can be only for a person who has been seen previously by the kohein.
Injuries, scalps and beards
I mentioned above that there are two other types of nega’im that can affect a person, tzaraas on injured skin and tzaraas on the scalp or beard. Each of these categories has two subcategories.
The Torah mentions two types of nega’im on injured skin, one in which the injury was the result of a blow and the other in which it was the result of a burn or other heat. There is no difference in halacha between these two types of nega’im. Whether someone finds a nega on an injury received through a burn or on an injury received as a result of a blow, both have almost the same rules as regular nega’im on healthy skin, with two exceptions, both of them leniencies.
(1) A nega musgar on injured skin is tamei for only one week. If, on the seventh day, the nega has not changed, the kohein rules the nega to be tahor. The metzora then immerses himself in a mikveh and becomes tahor at the next nightfall.
(2) The second lenience is that healthy skin inside the nega is not a muchlat sign. In other words, a nega on injured skin that has healthy skin inside will either be musgar or tahor, depending on the size and shape of the nega.
Scalp and beard
There are three types of nega’im that can affect the scalp or beard areas. In two of these situations — karachas, baldness on the back of the head, and gabachas, baldness on the front and top of the head — the halacha is that once someone’s hair falls out to the extent that part of the scalp is completely bald, it is treated the same as other areas of the body germane to nega’im. In other words, when someone becomes bald, that area that once had hair and now does not has the same halacha for nega’im purposes as other parts of the body. There is one exception, again a leniency. In this instance, white hairs inside the nega are not symptoms of tumah.
The other type of nega on the scalp or beard areas is called nesek, which is described at length both in the Torah and the Mishnah. Unfortunately, nowhere in Tanach or Chazal is it clarified how this is halachically different from bald areas. As a result, the rishonim dispute exactly what is the difference (see Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 5:8-11, 8:1; Rash, Nega’im 10:10; Ramban, Vayikra 13:30). Since the halachic conclusion is unclear, I will not discuss this issue.
Nega’im on clothing and houses
In addition to tzaraas on a person, there can be tzaraas on cloth, thread, or leather, and also on houses. In this instance, the indication of tzaraas is not a white discoloration, but adamdom, which is deep red, or yerakrak (Vayikra 13:49; 14:37). The color yarok in Tanach and Chazal can mean blue, green, gold or yellow (Tosafos, Chullin 47b s.v. Ela; Sukkah 31b s.v. Hayarok; Niddah 19b s.v. Hayarok). In a Tosefta (Nega’im 1:3), we find a dispute between tana’im what color is yerakrak that renders a garment tamei:
According to Rabbi Elazar, it is a yellow shade — the color of wax, egg yolk, or a variety of yellow gourd (dependent on varying texts to the Tosefta). According to Sumchus, it is the color of the wing of a peacock or the leaf of a palm tree, both shades of deep green. The color is the indication that the nega is musgar. Nega’im on cloth and houses can never become muchlat the first time they are seen by a kohein.
How can so many different shades of color — blue, green, gold or yellow – all be called by the same word yarok? One answer is that the Torah’s descriptions refer to the various shades of the refracted light spectrum that is visible to humans, which range from violet to red (see Rav Hirsch, Collected Writings, Volume III, page 127). Yarok would refer to the middle of the spectrum, “techeiles” to the violet and blue-violet part, which are the shorter waves of light, and adom to the red, or longer waves. (According to this approach, the gold color here probably means a yellowish gold, rather than reddish.)
Differences between cloth and people
Aside from the differences in the color of the nega, there are several other distinctions between the laws of nega’im germane to garments and those germane to people.
In all types of nega’im, a nega that appears without any muchlat signs is musgar for the first week, and then examined by the kohein on the seventh day. A nega on cloth that appears the same after a week has passed is removed from the cloth, and the area of the cloth that became torn when the nega was excised is sewn closed. A similar halacha is true in the case of a nega on a house – the nega area and the stones on which it appears are removed to a tamei place, the area is replaced with stone and mortar and becomes musgar for a second week.
This halacha is the exact opposite from a nega on a person, in which case it is prohibited min haTorah to excise the nega, and the person continues in the state of musgar for another six days.
A person whose nega remains the same for two weeks becomes tahor. However, a garment whose nega remains the same for two weeks has the status of tamei muchlat. Another critical difference is what is done to the person or item that becomes muchlat. As explained before, a person who becomes muchlat remains tamei until the symptoms of his nega change. A garment that becomes muchlat is burnt.
There are other halachos that apply to a nega on cloth that do not apply to nega’im on people. A person whose nega is musgar is not banished from the city – this halacha is reserved for a person whose nega is muchlat. However, cloth that is tamei tzaraas must be removed from the city – even when it is only musgar. A related strict ruling that applies to a cloth nega (and does not apply to nega’im on people) is that a cloth that has tzaraas must be removed from any city – whether or not the city is walled, whereas a person who is muchlat is banished from a walled city (Keilim 1:7), but is not required to leave an unwalled city (Tosefta Nega’im, 7:14; Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 13:15).
Nega’im on houses
In addition to the laws of tzaraas on people and on cloth, the Torah presents the laws of nega’im on the inside of a house. Tzaraas applies only to a house built from wood, clay and earth (Nega’im 12:2) and only to a house in Eretz Yisroel. The color of the nega is, as the law of nega’im on cloth, adamdom, bright red, or yerakrak, as explained above.
There are several unique features about the laws of nega’im on houses. One is obvious: whereas the person with a nega or the owner of cloth with a nega goes to the kohein to show him the nega, in the case of a nega on a house, the kohein comes to the house to see the nega. Whereas other nega’im are always ruled on outdoors, in sunlight, nega’im on a house are ruled as the light can be seen through the windows and open doors of the house.
A nega on a house can have the status of musgar for up to three weeks, something not possible with any other nega (Nega’im 3:8, see also 13:1).
According to many authorities, nega’im on houses can render tamei even items inside the house that can never otherwise become tamei (Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 14:4; Rashi and Tosafos, Mo’eid Katan 8a s.v. Deha; Eliyahu Rabbah, Mishnah Acharonah and Tiferes Yisroel, Nega’im 12:5 in explanation of Rabbi Yehudah; however, cf. Bartenura who disagrees).
The Gemara mentions tzaraas as a punishment for many types of prohibited behavior, which all share a common thread that they are antisocial activities. In other words, they all violate both mitzvos bein adam lamakom and bein adam lachaveiro. To quote the Rambam, “Tzaraas is a generic term comprising many things that are not comparable to one another… These changes that the Torah collectively calls tzaraas are not within what normally happens in the world. They are miraculous things that happen to the Jews to warn them away from loshon hora. Someone who speaks loshon hora — the walls of his house change color. If he changes his actions, the house becomes tahor. If he persists in his evil actions, his house will be destroyed, and then the leather items in his house that he sits and lies upon change color. If he changes his actions, they become tahor. If he persists in his evil actions until they are burnt, then the clothes that he wears change color. If he changes his actions, they become tahor. If he persists in his evil actions, until they are burnt, then his skin changes color, and he himself becomes a metzora. Therefore, someone who wants to develop himself spiritually should distance himself from these types of people, not to be influenced by their foolishness” (Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 16:10).
Unfortunately, we no longer have these Divine reminders to keep us on the straight and narrow. Instead, we must try to inspire ourselves to grow in these areas.