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The Holy Hyssop

Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12-15 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


After delineating kosher and non kosher animals at the end of last week's parsha, the Torah continues by focusing on the physiology of humans, addressing different bodily functions and ailments. Just as slight nuances can be the difference between kosher and non-kosher animals, regarding the human condition, subtle changes can make the difference between spiritual purity and impurity.

We should not fail to notice the sequence: The discussion of the human species follows that of the animals, as in the order of their creation. In the first chapter of Bereishit, the entire animal kingdom was created and only afterward did humans appear.1 This sequence creates a frame of reference for humankind as physiological beings, and is typified and summarized by the recurring use in our parsha of the term "adam" when referring to man, and not the more familiar "ish". 2

When viewed from this physical perspective, humans are a vulnerable species: pain, illness, disease and death are part of a heritage shared with every other living creature. It is only our spiritual identity which has a touch of the Divine, and therefore may be eternal. This is the element which distinguishes man from animal.

Although the maladies discussed in this week's parsha are within the realm of the physiological, the Torah diagnoses these maladies and their significance, and legislates their treatment and the processes for healing them from a spiritual perspective. For example, one of the afflictions mentioned is tzara'at (often translated as leprosy). The Torah instructs the Kohen to inspect the "patient" and diagnose the affliction. The presence of the Kohen, rather than a doctor, should be our first indication that the source of the problem is spiritual, not physical.


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Let us look more closely at his ailment. Tzara'at is associated spiritually with misuse of speech.

R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: Five times is the word law (torah) used with reference to leprosy, viz. 'This is the law of the plague of leprosy' (Vayikra 13:59); 'This shall be the law of the leper (ib. 14:2); 'This is the law of him in whom is the plague of leprosy' (ib. 32); 'This is the law for all manner of plague of leprosy' (ib. 54); 'This is the law of leprosy '(ib. 57). [Since, as we have seen], THIS SHALL BE THE LAW OF THE LEPER (METZORA) means,... of him that utters evil reports,' it [i.e. the five-fold repetition of Torah in this matter] is intended to teach you that if one indulges in calumny, it is as if he transgresses the Five Books of the Torah. For this reason did Moses warn Israel, THIS SHALL BE THE LAW OF THE LEPER. (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 16:6)

This association can be seen in a number of places in biblical narrative: Tzara'at is a quid pro quo for misuse of speech. The first action taken against this affliction is to quarantine the stricken person in seclusion for seven days; apparently, their misuse of speech renders them unsuitable to share human company. Their improper use of speech has turned them into a persona non grata, and they must withdraw from society.

And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, When a man (ADAM) shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab, or bright spot, and it is on the skin of his flesh like the disease of leprosy; then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons the priests; and the priest shall look on the disease in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague has turned white, and the disease looks deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a disease of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. If the bright spot is white in the skin of his flesh, and it looks not deeper than the skin, and the hair on it has not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him who has the disease for seven days. (Vayikra 13:1-4)

We know of other instances in which the connection between improper speech and leprosy is unmistakable: When Miriam speaks about Moshe she is stricken with tzara'at, and Moshe is instructed to have her sent from the community for seven days, in accordance with the law in our current parsha:

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman.... And the cloud departed from off the Tent; and, behold, Miriam had become leprous, white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.... And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days; and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again. And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran. (Bamidbar 12:1,10,15,16)

Other less explicit examples of this cause and effect may be found even before the laws of the Book of Vayikra are transmitted: When Moshe misspeaks about the children of Israel, and says that they will not believe that God has sent him, he suffers from tzara'at:

And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor listen to my voice; for they will say, God has not appeared to you.... And God said furthermore to him, Put now your hand into your bosom. And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was diseased, white as snow. (Shmot 4:1,6)

The very first time speech was misused was by the seductive serpent in Eden. His misuse of speech had several effects: he lost his legs, and was covered in the slimy, scaly, shedding skin which today we recognize as snakeskin.

AND THE LORD SAID FURTHERMORE UNTO HIM: PUT NOW THY HAND INTO THY BOSOM (Shmot 4:6). He said unto him: "Because the serpent slandered Me, I smote him with leprosy," as it says: "Cursed (arur) art thou from among all beasts" (Bereishit 3:14), and also "The plague is a malignant (mamereth) leprosy" (Vayikra 13:51). R. Eliezer also said: Those scales on the serpent are leprosy, (Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 3:13)

Misuse of speech is a severe offence, for speech is the singularly human gift, that which distinguishes man from the animals. Thus, in the second chapter of Bereishit, when the story of creation is retold from a spiritual perspective, man makes his appearance before the animals. It is in this account that we are told of the creation of man's spiritual side, the soul - in Hebrew, neshama - literally, the breath of God:

And the Almighty God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Bereishit 2:7)

The Targum Onkelos translates "living soul" as "speaking soul," a creature endowed with the unique ability to speak. This is the manifestation of the Divine soul within man.3 When we abuse this power, when we misuse the gift of speech, we lose a bit of that divine spark. We are ourselves are diminished in terms of our own Divine soul, and we diminish the perceived value of another human being; we turn a blind eye to the Divine spark within them, and darken that same spark within ourselves. The Image of God which is possessed by every human being is trampled upon by negative speech.


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There is another offence which is prohibited because of the presence of the Divine image - murder:

Whoever sheds man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God he made man. (Bereishit 9:6)

The Torah does not simply state that murder is ethically wrong, morally reprehensible; it provides a rationale: Murder is prohibited because man is created in the Image of God.

Misuse of speech, which soils the Divine soul within, and murder, which extinguishes the Image of God within man, are connected. This may explain the Talmudic axiom that a person afflicted with tzara'at is considered dead;4 because he misused his power of speech5 he banished a bit of his own Divine Image, hence he must be banished, exiled, as is someone who committed murder.6


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It should therefore come as no surprise that the ritual prescribed for the sufferer of tzara'at bears certain similarity to that prescribed for someone who suffers from a different type of impurity - contact with the dead. Regarding a person afflicted with tzara'at, the Torah instructs the use of cedar, blood, and hyssop:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, This shall be the Torah of the leper in the day of his cleansing; He shall be brought to the Kohen; and the Kohen shall go out of the camp; and the Kohen shall look, and, behold, if the disease of leprosy is healed in the leper; then shall the Kohen command to take for him who is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop; and the Kohen shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen utensil over running water; as for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water. (Vayikra 14:1-6)

Similarly, a home stricken with tzara'at is treated with the same elements:

And he shall take to cleanse the house two birds, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop; and he shall kill one of the birds in an earthen utensil over running water; and he shall take the cedar wood, and the hyssop, and the scarlet, and the living bird, and dip them in the blood of the slain bird, and in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times; and he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedar wood, and with the hyssop, and with the scarlet. But he shall let go the living bird out of the city into the open fields, and make an atonement for the house; and it shall be clean. (Vayikra 14:49-53)

Regarding the person who came in contact with the dead the Torah states:

And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; its skin, and its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall he burn; and the Kohen shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. (Bamidbar 19:5-6)

The connection between coming in contact with the dead and tzara'at becomes even more clear when we note the similar procedure for purification. Ibn Ezra (Vayikra 14:4) notes the connection - and adds a third instance in which these same elements are used: in the Exodus from Egypt.

The cedar is among the tallest of faunae, its imposing height was used to build the Beit Hamikdash. Conversely, the hyssop is among the smallest and meekest plants. Rashi understands the usage of these two opposite ends of the spectrum to represent the metamorphosis of one guilty of misspeech: Such a person is full of imagined importance; he wants to feel strong as a cedar, and inflates his own ego at the expense of his fellow. For this, the Torah prescribes the remedy of the lowly hyssop and a spilt blood.

A cedar - because the affliction (of tzara'at) is due to arrogance.
Scarlet and hyssop - what is the method of fixing and healing? He should lower himself like a worm7 and like a hyssop.

The human experience of mortality works upon man's ego in a similar way: Contact with death causes proud man to recognize and accept his lowly origin and modest destiny. Death awaits every living creature; it is an inescapable conclusion for the strong and the weak, the healthy and the frail.

The insight of the Ibn Ezra is based upon the Midrash which draws the parallel:

There are many other things which appear lowly, yet with which God commanded many mitzvot to be performed. The hyssop, for instance, appears to man to be of no worth, yet its power is great in the eyes of God, who put it on a level with cedar in numerous cases - in the purification of the leper, and the burning of the Red Heifer; and in Egypt too He commanded a mitzva to be performed with hyssop, as it says: AND YE SHALL TAKE A BUNCH OF HYSSOP. Of Solomon, also, does it say: And he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springs out of the wall (I Kings 5:13) - to teach you that the small and the great are equal in the sight of God. He performs miracles with the smallest things, and through the hyssop which is the most lowly of trees, did He redeem Israel. Hence is He 'like an apple-tree among the trees of the wood.'

The connection between death and slander is relatively straightforward; what is the relationship with leaving Egypt? 8

In Egypt the Jews were commanded to take blood and sprinkle it on the doorposts. The blood was sprinkled with the hyssop.

Then Moshe called for all the Elders of Israel, and said to them, 'Draw out and take a lamb according to your families, and kill the Passover sacrifice. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out from the door of his house until the morning. For God will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, God will pass over the door, and will not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you. (Shmot 12:21-23)

This is one of the elements of the Exodus not replicated in the yearly seder which incorporates so many elements of the night the Jews left Egypt. As on that first Passover Eve, each year Matzah is eaten, bitter herbs are eaten; when the Temple still stood, the Passover offering was brought in precisely the same manner and according to the same timetable as in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus. Painting the doorposts with the blood of the Paschal lamb was done only one time - in Egypt. Apparently this element was vital as part of the process of the Exodus, but its replication was not necessary. It is also interesting that the cedar is missing9: apparently, the Jews in Egypt felt no arrogance, and were not in need of the symbolic contrast between the great cedar and the humble hyssop; years of slavery had already taught them that important lesson.10

There is, however, one common element between our three cases - the element of death. The blood was designed to separate between who would live and who would die when the plague came. The Meshech Chachma11 points out another aspect of this theme: The Jews in Egypt were, in a sense, already dead: They had sunk to a spiritual abyss, and were devoid of merit.12 Their belief system had been corrupted by the Egyptians, and they were practically dead spiritually.13 As slaves, their self-esteem had been devastated; their self - appraisal was polluted by the value assigned by their masters. Not unlike the victim of slander, or even the victim of murder, their divine spark was not appreciated. It lay dormant; silent and still, it went without notice.

The Midrashic description is stark, horrific:

THAT THE KING OF EGYPT DIED. He became a leper, who is deemed as one dead, as it is said: Let her not, I pray, be as one dead (Bamidbar 12:12), and it says: In the year that King Uzziah died (Isa. 6:1).AND THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL SIGHED. Why did they sigh? Because the magicians of Egypt said to Pharaoh: 'There is no cure for you unless we slay a hundred and fifty Hebrew children in the evening and a hundred and fifty in the morning and you bathe in their blood twice daily.' When the Israelites heard this terrible decree, they began to sigh and lament; for the words AND THEY CRIED always mean lament. (Midrash Rabbah Shmot 1:34)

Pharaoh himself was a leper; his magicians prescribed Jewish blood as a salve which would heal him. He perceived the Jewish slaves as devoid of humanity, certainly devoid of any Divine spark.

The message God sends to Pharaoh, through Moshe, is this: Not only are the Jews human, they are God's children - His firstborn. If Pharaoh does not set them free, Pharaoh's own firstborn, and the firstborn of all of Egypt, will die.

And you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus said God, Israel is My son, My firstborn; and I say to you, Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn. (Shmot 4:22-23)

When the Jews leave Egypt, the circle is completed: The firstborn of Egypt are struck as the Jews place the blood on their doorposts to separate themselves from death. The hyssop is used as a tool to rid the Jews of the impurity of Egypt, and to help set them free.

The Serpent's slander resulted in exile from Eden. Every slander results in quasi exile - separation from the community. As the Jewish exile in Egypt came to an end, the hyssop was used, not to separate us from the community but to create a community. The cedar, lacking in the Passover service, would be utilized to build the Beit Hamikdah, where the Passover service would be practiced yearly.14

The Exodus from Egypt was the rebirth of a nation that had been subdued, whose humanity had been questioned, whose divinity had been ignored. In order to leave Egypt, the Jewish People had to undergo a metamorphosis, a change effectuated by the hyssop. Small, frail and pliable, the hyssop can be bent but not broken - just like the Jewish People.15



1. See the comments of Rashi Vayikra 12:2.

2. See Vayikra 13:2.

3. Targum Onkelos, Bereishit 2:7.

4. See Talmud Bavli Nedarim 64b: And it was taught: Four are accounted as dead: A poor man, a leper, a blind person, and one who is childless… A leper, as it is written, [And Aaron looked upon Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses ...] let her not be as dead.

5. See Pri Ha'aretz (Rav Menachem Mendel M'Vitebsk 1730-1788) Parshat Tazria.

6. See Talmud Bavli Arachim 15b, 16a: The School of R. Ishmael taught: Whoever speaks slander increases his sins even up to [the degree of] the three [cardinal] sins: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood. It is said here: 'The tongue that speaks great things, and it is written in connection with idolatry: Oh, this people have sinned a great sin. Regarding incest Scripture said: How then can I do this great wickedness? And in connection with the shedding of blood it is written: My punishment is greater than I can bear. Perhaps "great things" refers to two [sins of the three]? Which of them would you exclude? In the West [Palestine] they say: The talk about third [persons] kills three persons: him who tells [the slander], him who accepts it, and him about whom it is told. R. Hama b. Hanina said: What is the meaning of: Death and life are in the hand [power] of the tongue? Has the tongue a hand? It tells you that just as the hand can kill, so can the tongue. One might say that just as the hand can kill only one near it, thus also the tongue can kill only one near it, therefore the text states: "Their tongue is a sharpened arrow." Then one might assume that just as an arrow kills only within forty or fifty cubits, thus also the tongue kills only up to forty or fifty cubits, therefore the text states: "They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walks through the earth." But since it is written already: "They set their mouth against the heavens," why was it necessary to state also, "Their tongue is a sharpened arrow?" This is what we are informed: That [the tongue] kills as an arrow. But once it is written: Their tongue is a sharpened arrow, why was it necessary to state: Death and life are in the hand of the tongue? It is in accord with Raba; for Raba said: He who wants to live [can find life] through the tongue; he who wants to die [can find death] through the tongue.
(Talmud Bavli Arachim 16a) But R. Simon said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi: For two things we do not find any atonement through sacrifices, but we do find atonement for them through something else, [viz.,] bloodshed and slander. Bloodshed through the heifer whose neck is to be broken, and slander through incense. For R. Hanina taught: We have learnt that the incense procures atonement, as it is written: And he put oil the incense and mode atonement for the people. And the School of R. Ishmael taught: For what does incense procure atonement? For slander. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Let that which is [offered] in secret [come and] procure atonement for what was done in secret.

7. The word tola'at can mean dyed wool, which is the straightforward meaning of the verse, or worm. See Shmot 16:20.

8. Remarkably the Rambam in the Guide section 3 chapter 47 does not see any connection between the leper, red heifer and the Exodus: "Leprosy is besides a contagious disease, and people almost naturally abhor it, and keep away from it. The purification was effected by cedar-wood, hyssop, scarlet thread, and two birds (Lev. 14:4); their reason is stated in various Midrashic sayings, but the explanation does not agree with our theory. I do not know at present the reason of any of these things; nor why cedar-wood, hyssop, and scarlet were used in the sacrifice of the red heifer (Num. 19:6); nor why a bundle of hyssop was commanded for the sprinkling of the blood of the Passover-lamb (Exod. 12:22). I cannot find any principle upon which to found an explanation why these particular things have been chosen."

9. This point can be found in Shem Mishmuel Parshat Tazria-Hachodesh 5673.

10. The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Shmot 3:13)compares the Egyptian slavery with being in contact with leper, meaning the Egyptians were impure like leprosy: AND HE SAID: PUT THY HAND BACK INTO THY BOSOM (Shmot 4:7). What was the sign for Israel in this? Go and say unto them: Just as a leper defiles, so do the Egyptians defile you; and just as he becomes clean, so God will one day declare Israel clean, as it is written [elsewhere].

11. See Meshech Chachma Shmot 12:22.

12. See comments of Degel Machane Efraim B'shalach sv chamushim.

13. See the comments of the Shem Mishmuel Parshat Tazria-Hachodesh 5673.

14. See comments of Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan Shmot 19:4 - which states that the Jews were transported on "wings of eagles" and DID bring the Passover offering in Jerusalem.

15. See Midrash Rabbah Shmot 17:3. Another interpretation of AND YE SHALL TAKE A BUNCH OF (AGUDATH) HYSSOP: that is to say: I will make you into a brotherhood (agudah) devoted to Me, though you are as lowly as the hyssop, as it says: And ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples (Shmot 19:5).


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