Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nissan 5763 - April 9, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Sin of Loshon Hora

by R' Yerachmiel Kram

"And this shall be the law of the metzora on the day of his purification; and he shall be brought to the Kohen" (Vayikra 14:1).

The Lesion of Tzora'as Comes for the Sin of Loshon Hora

From the words of Chazal we learn that tzora'as is not a sickness that comes incidentally, but one that is a result of speaking loshon hora. "Said Reish Lokish: Why does it say, `This shall be the law of the metzora'? [To teach] That these are laws of the [acronym] motzi shem ra (one who slanders another's reputation)" (Erchin 15b). More precisely, metzora is a contracted form of motzi ra.

The gemora there goes on to say, "R' Yossi ben Zimra said: Whoever relates evil gossip is punished by lesions, as it is written, "Meloshni -- One who slanders his neighbor in secret, him shall I cut off." Elsewhere the same root (atzmis) is used to denote "forever" or "altogether" (litzmisus). The Maharsha explains that while Chazal note that tzora'as is a punishment for any of seven types of sins, yet it seems that the other six enumerated by them are atoned for by the confinement and isolation of the metzora, whereas the sin of the loshon hora is not atoned for in this way. In this case, he is quarantined forever, that is, until he repents before Hashem and the lesion disappears entirely from his body.

For this reason, the Admor R' Pinchos of Koritz used to say that the Torah begins the portion of the metzora with, "When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab, or bright spot, and it be (vehoyo) in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzora'as . . . " (Vayikra 13:2). The word "and it be" usually denotes joy in this conjugation, whereas the plague of tzora'as is a painful one since it must serve as an altar of atonement for a serious sin. But just as a person is meant to rejoice after Yom Kippur, so must he also rejoice if [he sinned and] he is being punished through tzora'as which will atone for his sin.

Lesions and Their Purification -- Measure for Measure

Tzora'as is a form of punishment that is meted out measure for measure to one who slandered a fellow man. It has very painful repercussions. "He shall sit alone; outside the camp shall be his place" (Vayikra 13:15). Through his gossip, the tale- bearer sought to cause dissension and strife between man and his fellow man. As a fitting punishment, he is isolated himself, by being forced to remain beyond the three camps, far from social contact, from friends and relatives (Erchin 16b).

When the leper (Note: We shall sometimes use "leper" as a synonym for metzora, even though they are not the same thing) is about to be purified, he must bring two birds. These creatures are always chattering away during their wakeful hours, a fact that is meant to remind the leper of his sin in speech; he spoke too much, he chattered unnecessarily (ibid.).

Aside from the birds, he must also bring some cedar (eitz erez), a scarlet thread and moss (eizove). The cedar alludes to haughtiness (Rashi, Vayikra 14:4). It was his sense of superiority over another that led to his diminishing the latter's stature by speaking bad of him. The scarlet and the moss come to indicate his way to repentance: "What are his means of amends to heal him? Let him lower himself from his haughtiness [to become] like the [worm which produces the] scarlet and like the lowly moss" (Rashi ibid.).

To Remove Tzora'as, Deal With Its Causes

One must regard tzora'as as a signal, a control light that turns on in order to warn that something is amiss and must be dealt with before it is too late. The example is of a person who was driving along when the red light began flashing on the dashboard. The driver duly pulled into a gas station, but instead of asking for service, he told the mechanic to disconnect the little flashing bulb. This was foolish, of course, since the light indicated that the fuel was running low. If he had any sense, he would have asked the mechanic to fill the tank and thus solve the problem since the light would have stopped blinking once the fuel supply had been replenished.

The mechanic did as he was bid and disconnected one of the wires and the light stopped flashing. The dashboard was now at peace. But not for long. After a short drive, the engine stalled; it stopped altogether.

What was the error? The bulb was only a symptom of the defect that was much more serious.

Deal with the Fuel and Not with the Warning Light

Gedolei Yisroel knew the secret of the red light. Whenever troubles visited them, they related to the symptom as a signal from Heaven to tackle the real problem. The gemora tells of R' Huna whose wine cellars suffered a terrible disaster: four hundred barrels of wine went sour. He was very upset and went to the beis midrash to tell his comrade amoraim about it.

How would we react if a neighbor of ours told us of such a setback?

We would surely advise him to inspect the quality of the grapes, the sugar, the barrels and perhaps even the temperature and climate of the cellar. But Rav Huna's colleagues advised him to inspect his deeds. When he justified himself and asked them with annoyance if they suspected him of any sin, they replied in like language, "And do you, then, suspect Hashem of not dealing justly with you?"

In the end, it turned out that for certain reasons, he had not paid a sharecropper of his the full sum that was due him. After Rav Huna resolved to right this wrong, the vinegar turned back into wine. According to another opinion, nothing happened to the vinegar, but its market price suddenly rose so that he did not lose out.

Jewish Sages had the perception to realize that one does not tamper with the control light or deal with the natural reasons that might cause wine to go sour. One must go straight to the true spiritual cause and remedy the failure. Correct the fault at its source and find out why Hashem chose to make the wine go sour.

This is what Yehoshua did when thirty-six men were killed in the war against Ai. He did not establish an investigating committee to examine the military shortcomings. Instead, he turned in prayer to Hashem until he learned that the reason for this military failure related to the violation of the cheirem by Ochon ben Karmi.

No wormy barrels nor the lack of bulletproof vests. Instead, they pointed directly to the root of the problem, the spiritual fault which had caused the damage. When a person is afflicted with leprosy, he must not seek natural ways to heal this condition, which, in any case, is not a natural affliction. Instead, he should inspect himself and remedy whatever caused it to erupt in the first place. He must not disconnect the warning red light, even if it makes him nervous, but must deal with the reason behind the warning control light.

The Various Lesions as a Series of Heavenly Warnings

Tzora'as does not attack the gossip mongerers immediately. At first, it invades the houses of the slanderer, then his clothing and finally, if he was not wise enough to heed the warnings, his own body. This is how the Rambam describes it at the end of the laws of tzora'as:

"Tzora'as is a collective term for many things that do not even resemble one another. For the whitened skin in man is called leprosy just as is the fallen edge of hair on the head or the beard. The change of appearance of a garment is also called tzora'as, as is the lesion upon a house.

"The changes one sees in clothing and in houses, which the Torah refers to as tzora'as, sharing the same name, is not something commonly seen in the world. Rather, it is a wondrous sign prevalent only among Jewry in order to warn them against loshon hora. One who spreads evil gossip is afflicted through the walls of his home. If he repents, the house is purified. If he persists in his wickedness even after the house is demolished, the vessels therein, those upon which he sits and lies, become afflicted. If he repents, they are purified but if he persists in his wickedness even after they are burned, his very skin is transformed and becomes leprous, forcing him to be isolated and socially quarantined for all to know, so that he stop his wicked speech, which is mockery and evil gossip.

"The Torah warns us against this and says: Guard yourself against the plague of tzora'as . . . Remember what Hashem your G-d did to Miriam along the way" (Rambam, Hilchos Tumas Hatzora'as, chap. 16:24).

It is apparent that the leper traverses a long road of stubbornness and rebelliousness until he finally reaches the state where the leprosy attacks his body and he is isolated from society beyond the camps.

In his famous work, Shemiras Haloshon, Rabbenu Yisroel Meir HaKohen adds that actually, the entire gamut of lesions and their manner of treatment is designed to rouse the sinner to repent wholeheartedly. For even if the plague attacked only his home, he is required to summon the Kohen, who will certainly rebuke and reproach him concerning the sin of his tongue.

If he does not heed the Kohen's words, his condition deteriorates further and further until he is forced to go into social quarantine, outside of the camps, and publicize his plague whenever he does go forth, to warn people away from him and so that they pray for him for Heavenly mercy. In such a condition, his heart will surely become subdued and he will certainly resolve never to revert to his evil habit. In this condition of remorse, he will surely become healed from his tzora'as and will follow the course of purification, as written in this portion.

It seems that even afterwards, when he returns to his home, he remains cognizant of the kindness which Hashem did with him after he was healed. He will surely continue to uphold all the resolutions he assumed upon himself while he was isolated. He will surely be most cautious in not speaking evil gossip, and will take steps to appease all those whom he slandered. In this way, he will have become completely purified, both from the actual lesion and from the sin which brought it about. His past will have been atoned for through his punishment and debasement, while in the future, he will surely be most careful not to succumb to this sin ever again (Shemiras Haloshon, Shaar Hazechira, chap. 6).

"When a Persons Sins and Repeats It"

The Torah commentators derived a marvelous lesson from the entire long process that begins with the lesions upon the house and ends with the plague upon his very body, from the text dealing with the plagues upon the houses.

The Torah states: "And the one who owns the house shall come and tell the Kohen, saying: Such a lesion appeared to me in my house" (Vayikra 14:35). On the other hand, when the Torah speaks about the lesion upon the body, it says: "If a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a swelling, a scab, or bright spot, and it be in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzora'as, then he shall be brought to Aharon HaKohen or to one of his sons, the kohanim" (Vayikra 13:2).

In the first instance, the person approaches the Kohen of his own initiative, while in the second, he is brought before the Kohen by others. When the plague afflicted his house alone, he was not yet fully immersed in his sin. Thus, when he noticed the plague spreading upon the walls of his home he went of his own volition to make amends and follow the process of repentance.

But if a person persisted in this very sin and wallowed in it to the point that he was punished upon his very corpus, he is no longer cognizant of the degree of his sin; he has become accustomed to indulging in forbidden talk to this point of affliction. And at this point, he sees nothing terrible in the sin; it has become part of his nature and habitual to the point that he feels no need for purification. At this low spiritual level, he sees no need to approach the Kohen for help. And if he does, it is only because of pressure put upon him by others who intervene and insist that he go. "And he is brought to the Kohen" (Shema Shlomo).

The Impurity is Dependent upon the Pronouncement of the Kohen

We find an most interesting aspect regarding the impurity of lesions which differs from other forms of impurity. In other forms, even if a halachic authority expresses his learned opinion, he is only stating what the Torah subscribes but in no way is he a partner in actually determining the onset of the impurity. This impurity is inherent according to the halachic status of the case. Not so with tzora'as, where the very onset of the impurity rests solely in the decision and pronouncement of the Kohen.

The Kohen does not serve as a mere halachic authority who studies the case and determines whether there is an indication to rule impure or not. Surely this is also true, but in addition to his being the halachic determinant and authority in the case, he also imposes the state of impurity by his very utterance!

In other words, even if the leper is himself a learned scholar of note who would not otherwise require approaching some other authority and clarifying whether the condition was impure or not, nonetheless his lesion does not become impure (or cause impurity through contact etc.) until the Kohen himself decides and determines that this is tzora'as.

"And the one who owns the house shall come and tell the Kohen, saying: Such a lesion appeared to me in my house, and the Kohen shall order that the house be cleared before the Kohen comes to see the lesion so that all that is in the house shall not become impure, and afterwards, the Kohen shall be brought to see the house" (Vayikra 14:35-36). Rashi explains: "Before the Kohen comes -- for so long as the Kohen has not made his pronouncement, there is no prevalent state of impurity."

"And all that is in the house shall not become impure -- because if he does not empty out the house and the Kohen comes to inspect the lesion, in the event that he does pronounce it impure, he will cause it to be quarantined, and all of its contents will become impure."

Why is this form of impurity so different from all others?

The Maggid of Dubnow explained it as follows:

The one who sinned with his tongue arrived at this state because he ruled a leniency for himself as if to say that he had not done anything wrong. "All I did was utter a few words!" He thinks this to himself and persists in gossip mongering. He is not willing to admit that with the mere utterances of his mouth he is capable of separating between man and wife, causing dissension between neighbors, bringing about the dismissal of a worker who may have to support a large family, or even bring about death and murder. A mere `innocent, harmless' sentence or two . . . But the results can bring disaster in their wake and even change the very face of history.

When the sinner internalizes in his heart the vast impact of speech and the destructive power inherent in the utterance of the tongue, he will find it easier to refrain from forbidden speech. When he understands that his tongue has the power of a double-edged [literally, a double-lipped] sword, he will guard it, just as he would guard a sharp knife in his hand against harming someone coming towards him. The leper receives this important message by means of the way in which he is declared impure: with a word or two, the Kohen pronounces his impurity and he has already entered the state. His entire fate depends upon the utterance issuing from the mouth of the Kohen. A word or two determines everything. In this manner, the metzora learns to what extend speech is important, how powerful it can be and what it can effect.

In this way, he will come to avoid future sins regarding forbidden speech.

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.