There’s an intriguing anomaly inherent in the laws of Tzara’at—the biblical skin disease that affected gossipers and slanderers in ancient times, rendering them ritually impure.

On the one hand, any sage well-versed in the laws of Tzara’at, including those who were not Kohanim (priests), could analyze a skin condition to determine whether or not it was in fact Tzara’at.1

On the other hand, only a Kohen could actually render impure a person afflicted by Tzara’at.2 That is to say, a person could be walking around with Tzara’at and even have their Tzara’at confirmed by an expert and yet not be ritually impure until a Kohen uttered the words, “You are impure.”

In other words, there were two phases to the process of impurification. The first was an abstract diagnosis; the second was a concrete ruling. The former could be made by any expert in the field; the latter, which actually brought on spiritual illness, could be made only by a Kohen.

What is highly unusual about this law is that the pronouncement of impurity by a Kohen could be made even by a Kohen who was a minor,3 and even by a Kohen who was mentally challenged, both of whom (for obvious reasons) are usually disqualified from participating in legal matters.

Also puzzling is the law that a Kohen who was totally ignorant of the laws and thus could not possibly verify the Tzara’at diagnosis, could also declare someone impure.

Clearly then, conferring this type of impurity on someone was an intrinsic power of the Kohen—one that stemmed from his essence rather than from his mental prowess or expertise.

And here’s the huge irony.

The Kohen is generally seen as the paragon of ritual purity. In Temple times, it was he who served as the facilitator of purification, helping the Jewish people achieve atonement and spiritual cleansing. Indeed, for this very reason Kohanim were governed by a set of strict regulations aimed at keeping them pure at all times!4

So if there is one thing in the world that is antithetical, even anathematic, to the character of the Kohen, it would be impurity. And yet, not only was the Kohen the only one who could initiate impurity, but this function of his was related to his very being!

Another curiosity is the fact that the law excluding all non-Kohanim from rendering impurity was limited only to the impurity of Tzara’at. There is something, then, specific to Tzara’at that must be activated by the Kohen.

Solitary Confinement

While any form of ritual impurity was deeply isolating for the person afflicted—as it called for their temporary separation from family, friends and community—the impurity of Tzara’at was especially isolating.

Not only was the Metzorah (the one with Tzara’at) removed from all three camps of Israel,5 he was separated even from those who shared his condition.6 He was an outcast among outcasts.

The pathos of his segregation is captured in the verse: “He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp…”7

And herein lays the first clue to solving the mystery of the Kohanic paradox.

Kohanic Empathy

While purity was vital to the Kohen, there was another facet of his character that was equally, if not more,8 essential to his identity.

In biblical and mystical literature9 the Kohen is referred to as “Ish HaChesed,the man of kindness.” This aspect of his moral fiber is expressed through his role as the Blesser of Israel, by means of the priestly blessings.

Amazing to note is the telling language employed in the blessing recited by Kohanim prior to the priestly blessings: “Blessed are You G‑d . . . Who has commanded us to bless your nation with love.10

Indeed, so essential are feelings of love and brotherhood to the Kohen and his blessings that, according to Jewish law, failure to infuse the priestly blessings with genuine affection can negatively affect the Kohen’s health, G‑d forbid!11

Clearly, heartfelt kindness—that is, feelings of love and not just acts of kindness—was central to the Kohen’s spiritual and even physical makeup.

And precisely because of the Kohen’s heightened sense of other were the keys to Tzara’at-impurity entrusted him. Who could possibly be more suited to utter the crushing verdict of “You are impure” than these men of compassion? Who better to administer a sentence of solitary confinement?

Consider the (unconscious) patient whose specialist doctor deems him in need of surgery, and yet, without the consent of his closest family member, he cannot be operated on.

There is a rationale governing the legal structure that accords superior authority to family over doctor, even though the doctor knows best. The doctor sees things objectively and in the abstract, basing his analysis and diagnosis on studies and statistics. At the end of the day if the procedure fails he could (theoretically) walk away unaffected. At worst, it’s just another day at the office, one more case-study, another statistic.

A close family member, however, feels things subjectively because they see their child, spouse, parent, or sibling as an extension of themselves. They are as petrified to have the knife wielded on their beloved ones as they would be to have it wielded on themselves—which often explains their hesitancy to consent to surgery. There can be no room for mistake.

The same is true of the Metzorah who cannot be rendered impure based only on the diagnosis of an expert on Tzara’at but requires the consent of the compassionate Kohen in order to set impurity and isolation into motion.

What’s in it for me?

In our capacity as parents, teachers, leaders or friends, many of us will inevitably find ourselves in situations that call on us to pass judgment on others, and sometimes even to take action based on our findings.

Sometimes creating distance between ourselves and the other will be called for, the result of which will be some degree of isolation. The same is true regarding constructive criticism and necessary rebuke, both of which potentially effect distance and isolation.

At those times, it is absolutely critical that, like the Kohen “Ish HaChesed,” we view the person in question from the perspective of an invested defense lawyer rather than an objective and impartial judge, as a family member and an extension of ourselves and not, G‑d forbid, as a stranger.

And perhaps we could add that just as in Temple times when no Kohen could be found, the individual considered “impure” based on the analysis of experts could nonetheless not be rendered so in practice, so too, if we aren’t able to “find” or access the Kohen within us, we are in no position to judge, isolate or criticize, no matter what the person in question may have done.

Based on Likutei Sichos volume 27, pp. 88-91.