Tzaraat of the Home: A Punishment and a Blessing

Apr 4, 2022

כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם לַאֲחֻזָּה וְנָתַתִּי נֶגַע צָרַעַת בְּבֵית אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזַּתְכֶם׃

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess,

KEE ta-VO-u el E-retz k'-NA-an a-SHER a-NEE no-TAYN la-KHEM la-a-khu-ZAH v'-na-ta-TEE NE-ga tza-RA-at b'-VAYT E-retz a-khu-zat-KHEM

Leviticus 14:34

After dealing with tzaraat, a spiritual affliction similar in presentation to leprosy, that appears on the body and clothing, the Torah goes on to describe the tzaraat that afflicts houses. If the walls became discolored with streaks of red or green and tzaraat was suspected, the owner was to tell the priest, who ordered the house cleared and then examined it. If the plague in the walls was greenish or reddish streaks deep in the wall, the priest was to close the house for seven days. If, after seven days, the plague had spread, the priest was to order the stones with the plague to be pulled out and cast outside the city. The house was then to be scraped, the stones replaced, and the house re-plastered. If the plague again broke out, the house was to be torn down. If the plague did not break out again, the priest was to pronounce the house clean. In order to purge the house, the priest was to take two birds, cedarwood, crimson stuff, and hyssop, slaughter one bird over freshwater, sprinkle on the house seven times with the bird’s blood, and then let the live bird go free.

The Midrash teaches that since God placed the affliction on the house as a blessing. Vayikra Rabba (17:6) relates that when the Canaanites heard that the Jews were coming to conquer the land, they hid their wealth inside their houses and in their fields. God said, “I promised their fathers’ that I would bring their children into a land filled with every good thing,” as the verse states (Deuteronomy 6:11) ‘And houses filled with every good thing.’ Therefore, continues the Midrash, what does God do? He brings leprous marks on the house. When the Israelites removed the afflicted stones from their homes, they discovered the treasures that the Canaanites had hidden within the walls.

Ruins overlooking the Dead Sea. Homes like this could be afflicted with tzaraat during Biblical times. [Photo: Wiki Commons]

Tzaraat of the home is, nonetheless, also a punishment. The Talmud teaches us that tzaraat of the home is a punishment for certain sins: for those who don’t want to lend objects in their homes (Yoma 11b) and those who steal or are miserly (Arachin 16a). 

In this case, the punishment is especially fitting and is part of the cure. If a person refuses to lend objects to their neighbors with the excuse that they do not own such an object, their lie is revealed after they are forced to remove all their belongings and arrange them outside after the arrival of the priest. If they have stolen or refrained from returning a borrowed object, this will also be revealed in the same manner.

The Rambam teaches that tzaraat of the home is the first step in a chain of gradually intensifying punishments for speaking slander. 

This affliction coming as a result of sin is hinted at by the Prophet Habakkuk:

You have plotted shame for your own house, And guilt for yourself; For a stone shall cry out from the wall, And a rafter shall answer it from the woodwork. Ah, you who have built a town with crime, And established a city with infamy, Habakkuk 2:10-12

Tzaraat is a malady that only afflicts homes in the Land of Israel and only homes built of stone and wood. Though tzaraat of the body did afflict Jews in the desert, tzaraat of the home did not apply to the Jews in the desert as they lived in tents.

The commentators explain that homes outside the Land of Israel are devoid of the special sanctity imparted to houses in the Land of Israel as a result of God’s presence which is manifest in the Temple. Therefore, such matters of holiness and purity do not apply outside the Land.

This idea of the Land of Israel having a special sanctity and therefore therefore a higher standard is reflected in Rashi’s commentary on the verse:

So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you. Leviticus 18:28

Rashi wrote, “This is comparable to a prince … So, too, Eretz Yisrael does not tolerate sinners.” 

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