The popular translation that tzara’at is a dermatological skin disease known as leprosy is erroneous. For were it so, how could we explain the Torah law that if the malady covers the victims entire body he is no longer tamai — contaminated — but if his skin begins to heal he becomes tamai. Clearly, as the Sages (Arachin 15b) teach, tzara’at is not a bodily disease, but a physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise which cannot be diagnosed or healed by a medical specialist, but only by a Kohen.

As to the question of why it does not occur nowadays, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidut known as the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812) in his works Likkutei Torah (Vayikra p. 22b, see also Likkutei Sichot vol. 22, p. 72, fn. 36) explains as follows:

The superficial affliction of tzara’at is actually a miraculous sign from above. It indicates that the victim is in a healthy spiritual state internally and he has merely erred in a superficial manner. Hopefully he will mend his ways and retain his sublime status for years to come.

Consequently, nowadays, when we are not in a good spiritual state internally, we do not require a miraculous sign that something is wrong superficially since there are more serious internal problems that need to be addressed first.

Nevertheless, Torah is eternal and there are lessons to be learned from everything in it. The procedure for purifying the metzora was as follows: They would take two live birds, erez — a stick of cedarwood — sheni tola’at — a crimson (colored) thread — and eizov — hyssop. The bird would be slaughtered into an earthenware vessel containing spring water. Then they would tie together the cedar and the hyssop with the thread and dip them and the live bird into the blood in the vessel and sprinkle seven times upon the person being purified from tzara’at.

The cedar grows tall and strong and neither wind nor storm can bend it, reminding the sinner that he considered himself high and glorious. The crimson thread is dyed with a pigment made from a worm and represents humility. Likewise, the hyssop, a lowly soft pliable herb, symbolizes the idea of humility.

An obvious question is as follows: True the metzora’s sin was conceit, but now he was healed and is humble, so why is the tall and sturdy cedar a part of the purification process?

The Chassidic master, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (Rothenberg) Alter, the first Rebbe in the Ger dynasty, known as the Chidushei Harim (1798-1866), answered the following:

In reality, humility and conceit or firmness are potentially virtuous character traits. It depends how they are employed. This ritual was intended to impress the unclean person with the lesson that to attain taharah — the blessing of a clean and healthy life — the two qualities of character, weakness and strength, had to be properly cultivated. One must learn to be like erez; strong and unyielding and like eizov, soft and pliable.

When it comes to matters of Torah principles, one should be firm and resolute, uncompromising and tough. But in matters that concern only personal comfort and prestige, one should be humble, easy going and pliant as eizov — hyssop.

My dear Bar Mitzvah, from now on and throughout your entire life, you will need to deal with two rivals, the Yeitzer Tov and the Yeitzer Hara that will seek to gain your attention and win you over. When the Yeitzer Hara endeavors to allure you, be like a cedar: firm, resolute and unyielding. Be conceited and even arrogant and proudly tell him that you are a scion of a prominent Torah-observing and Chassidish family, and what audacity he has expecting you to act contrary to your status and that of your family. Follow the example of King Yehoshafat, of whom it says “Vayigbah libo bedarkei Hashem — “And his heart was lifted up in the ways of Hashem” (II Chronicles 17:6). Though he did not permit himself to be impressed by his own great wealth and honor, he was proud about the fact that he walked in the path of Hashem.

On the other hand, when the Yeitzer Tov calls you to learn Torah, recite prayers, and do mitzvot and good deeds, be like eizov — soft and easy going — and readily comply with what he wants of you.

The lesson learned from the metzora purification process is that one who has his character traits in proper order and uses them according to Torah directives will be a Jew who is tahor — clean and pure — all his life.

Hatzlachah Rabbah and Mazal Tov.


Parshat Metzora discusses the details of how to purify a person or a house that has become contaminated with the plague of tzara’at.

Regarding a plague that strikes a house, there is a fascinating Gemara (Sanhedrin 71a) that says, “never was there a tzara’at afflicted house, nor will there ever be one in the future.” (Evidentially, this is because it is extremely unlikely that an affliction meeting the Gemara’s exact specifications would ever appear.) If so, why then was this law written? D’rosh v’kabel sechar — Hashem says: expound it and receive reward for doing so.”

Since, nowadays, there is also no metzora (see Likkutei Torah 22b and Likkutei Sichot vol. 22, p. 65) the subject is not practical, and thus, the concept of d’rosh v’kabel sechar — expound it and receive reward applies.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakoehn z”l Kagan of Radin, Poland (1839-1933) known as the Chofetz Chaim, expounded a halachah pertaining to the metzora purification process in the following way:

For the metzora to be freed of his contamination, there is first a seven-day period during which a procedure involving two birds, cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread is used. On the eighth day, to become completely clean, the metzora brings three animal offerings and each one is accompanied by a meal-offering and oil.

Obviously, this is a costly undertaking, so Torah made provisions for ‘one who is poor and without sufficient means,’ (14:21) that he can attain his purity with a less expensive offering package.

The halachah is that if an ani — poor metzora — brought a korban ashir — an offering a rich man must bring — he is yotzei — he met his obligation, and it is praiseworthy. However, if an ashir — rich metzora — brought a poor man’s offering, he is not yotzei — he did not fulfill his obligation (Mishnah Nega’im 14-12).

My dear Bar Mitzvah, this halachah can be interpreted as an important lesson: Seemingly, the terms “ashir” and “ani” are defined as financially wealthy or indignant respectively. However, this is incorrect because financial status is temporal and something that fluctuates. The poor of today can be the rich of tomorrow, and the same is true concerning the rich of today.

Our sages (Nedarim 41a) have therefore given a profound definition": “Ein ani ela b’daat — “The true indigent is the one who lacks knowledge” and lacks the proper mental faculties to acquire it. Those with superior mental faculties who have acquired intelligence are the true wealthy.

Having known you for years and judging your performance today, there is no doubt that you are an ashir — according to the Gemara’s definition. You have been blessed, thank G‑d, with a good head, and fantastic mental qualities and capabilities. You are thus expected to do your utmost to acquire a maximum Torah knowledge. Any limiting of effort and diligence and performing in a way approved for an ani — indigent — is unacceptable for you. You are not yotzei with such an approach— you did not meet your obligation. Hopefully you will exercise your potential to the fullest measure, and may Hashem help you to succeed to go from strength to strength.