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Parashat Metzora: Tzara'at of the home –an opportunity for a relationship with G-d in the Land of Israel

Parashat Metzora: Tzara'at of the home –an opportunity for a relationship with G-d in the Land of Israel

About the strangest type of tzara'at—the type that afflicts the inanimate house, and applies only to the Land of Israel. In other words: this mitzvah reflects the bond between the Jews and our Land.

Yoel Yakoby

"When you enter the land of Cana'an that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague (tzara'at) upon a house in the land you possess (Vayikra 14:34).

Mitzvah of the Land

At first glance, tzara'at, spiritual leprosy, doesn't seem linked associated with the mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel; rather to the laws of purity and perhaps with medicine and mystics. Yet about the strangest form of tzara'at that affects the inanimate stones of the home, the Torah states explicitly that it affects "a house in the land you possess"; that is, this mitzvah relates only to the Land of Israel. Moreover, for tzara'at of the home, selling the home to a gentile can solve the problem according to all halachic opinions, since "the homes of gentiles in the Land of Israel are not contaminated by afflictions [nega'im]" (Rambam, Hilchot Tumat Tzara'at 14:11). In other words, this mitzvah is tied to the bond between the Jews and their soil.

Why does this mitzvah apply in the Land of Israel alone? We can assume this is because here the mitzvah applies to the home and all areas of purity and impurity are linked to sanctity inherent in an object or person. Physical homes outside the Land of Israel are devoid of the special sanctity of the Land of Israel, so such matters would not apply. However, there is perhaps a deeper message here, linked to the unique status of the Land of Israel as the place under G-d's constant observation.

Tzara'at of the home: a punishment, not a prize

Many of us are familiar with the midrash (also mentioned in Rashi's commentary, ad loc.) from which we might understand that tzara'at of the home was actually a good thing, since tearing down the walls of the house revealed treasure hidden by the former Canaanite residents. However, we cannot sum up the whole reason for tzara'at of the home with this. Tzara'at is first and foremost a type of punishment. Even if there is some compensation that comes along with it, it is relatively marginal to the actual issue at hand. In other places in Talmudic literature, Chazal teach us that tzara'at 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). Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Tumat Tzara'at, views tzara'at of the home as the first step in a chain of gradually intensifying punishments for speaking slander. We see here that we need to find another basic, fundamental message that can explain the punishment.

A land that "soaks up its water from the rains of heaven"

To explain the matter of tza'arat of the home, we will first consider the climate. The great empires to the south (Egypt) and north (Mesopotamia: Acadia, Assyria, and Babylon) of the Land of Israel do not generally suffer water shortages; they sit along large rivers that account for their regular water supply (albeit, in recent years the water flow in the Nile has significantly decreased, presenting Egypt with a major problem). Truth be told, even most other countries closer to us, besides the small rivers they have also enjoy relatively regular precipitation. In contrast, the situation in the Land of Israel is completely different. Here the land "soaks up its water from the rains of heaven." We do not have any large rivers, and our rainfall is not at all regular.

The Land of Israel receives its rainfall mainly due to the barometric low pressure system called the Cyprus Lows, duly named since it originates from over Cyprus. From there it moves eastwards to the Mediterranean Sea, where it anchors. At this point, it has two options: it can either advance towards the center, in which case the Land of Israel will have rain; or it can move northwards, in which case Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey will have rain while Israel will remain thirsty for water. This is why this system is also called "the elusive lows."

When the Torah wants to inform us of the Land of Israel's virtues, it was that it is a Land constantly under G-d's observation. This quality is in stark contrast to where they just left: "For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come; there the grain you sowed would be watered by your feet, like a vegetable garden. But the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven" (Devarim 11:10-11). That is: in Egypt, there is always water—all you need to do is draw a trench (ye'or) in the soil with one's foot, and thus divert the water to the field. In the Land of Israel, it is another story altogether; there fields are watered only by rain, which, as we mentioned above, does not always fall. The verses above describe the dry facts about the precarious situation in the Land of Israel, in comparison to the land from which they left. However, behind this description is a deep faith-related message, presented by the Torah in the next verse (11:12): "It is a land which the L-rd your G-d looks after, on which the L-rd your G-d always keeps His eye, from year's beginning to year's end." The Land of Israel is under G-d's constant observation. How is this manifested? If the residents of the Land of Israel misbehave, with one Divine "foo," as it were, G-d moves the Cyprus lows northwards, leaving the Land of Israel high and dry.

Let's be clear: this situation is a huge Divine kindness, since it not only facilitates but compels us to constantly be connected to G-d. And with the slightest stumble, we receive a hint from above.

Tzara'at: the punishment that is also a kindness

The same is true with tzara'at: G-d wants to signal to us when we are misbehaving. The first step is tzara'at of the home. If the Jew doesn't get the message, then the Divine hints become closer to the individual: tzara'at of clothing. Only then, if he continues to close his eyes tightly, there is no recourse other than to afflict the person himself. He must leave his negative environment, go into solitude, and think deeply about his ways (based on the Rambam, ibid.).

Kilei Hakerem in Tzalmon

"Rabbi Yehuda said: There was an incident in Tzalmon, where one planted his vineyard sixteen cubits apart, and [one year] he turned the branches of two rows towards one side and sowed the [empty] plowed ground. The next year he turned the branches towards the other side and sowed the fallow ground, and the matter was brought before the Sages, and they permitted it" (Mishna Kila'im 4:9).

The definition of "vineyard" vis-à-vis kilei hakerem

The most severe form of kila'im, forbidden mixtures, is kilei hakerem: sowing grains, legumes, or vegetables together with a vineyard (a.k.a. interplanting). Unlike other forms of kilei zera'im, it is forbidden even to benefit from the grapes and interplanted produce; this is why the Sages even prohibited this outside the Land of Israel (while it is biblically permitted abroad). To avoid this prohibition there is a minimum distance one must put in place between the grapevine to the other seeds. If it is a single grapevine, six tefachim (or 1 ama; 48 cm) are sufficient; a vineyard requires additional distance: four amot (1.92 m). If one needs to maximize on space, it is preferable to plant the vines in a manner that won’t place them in a category of a vineyard by halacha. For instance: one row is never considered a vineyard (according to Beit Hillel, who we follow), no matter how many vines there are. Even if there is more than one row, there needs to be a certain distance between rows: for the two rows to be grouped together as a vineyard, they can't be too close or too far apart. Only in the case that these rows are considered a vineyard would it need to be considerably distanced from the other crops.

Rabbi Yehuda's opinion is that when there are at least 16 amot between rows (approx. 8 m), it is permitted to plant other crops only 6 tefachim away, following the rule for single vines. As a proof, he cites an incident that took place in Tzalmon, where someone planted a vineyard with 16 amot distance between the rows, and sowed one side in soil that was previously plowed, while the branches were facing the other side (since it is prohibited to plant underneath the branches of the vine); the following year he turned the branches to the other direction, and sowed the fallow ground—the soil that had not been sown the previous year. This intermittent sowing, every other year, was meant to enrich the soil.

The halacha, indeed, follows the opinion of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon, that a distance of at least 8 amot is sufficient between rows to avoid constituting a vineyard (Rambam Hilchot Kila'im 7:2).

The city of Tzalmon

Tzalmon may be familiar to some of us from the northern part of the Lower Galilee: Wadi Tzalmon, a largely toured stream  whose strong flow fueled several flour mills along its banks; the Tzalmon reservoir, one of the reservoirs of the National Water Carrier; or from a less positive context: the "white collar" prison with the breathtaking view above Wadi Tzalmon Overpass, between Golani Overpass (formerly Golani Junction) and Wadi Amud (Kadarim)Overpass, on Road 65. However, the most important site, the city of Tzalmon, was preserved thanks to the Kafr Salame, a Bedouin village, located close to what seems to be the ancient city, at the southern foot of the tallest mountain of the Lower Galilee range: Mt. Kamon (602 m above sea level). The ancient site itself, Hurvat Tzalmon (khirbet al-Salame, in Arabic) is situated approximately a kilometer southeast of the village, farther down the blue trail that follows Wadi Tzalmon, on the northeast rim of Sakhnin Valley.  

Ancient Tzalmon served as one of the Jewish strongholds that Josephus Flavius defended in the Great Rebellion, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. Perhaps it is from the times of the rebellion that a testimony was preserved in the Mishna, towards the end of Yevamot (16:6), which deals with permitting marriage: "Another incident happened in Tzalmon with an individual who said, 'I, so-and-so, the son of so-and-so was bitten by a snake and I am dying.' And they went [and found him] but they could not recognize him, and they allowed his wife to marry."

The Tzalmon spring and mei chatat

Not only did Tzalmon's status not suffer a blow after the Great Rebellion, it seems to have increased after its failure. Following Jerusalem's destruction, the priestly division left Judea, where it previously resided, and resettled in the Galilee. In the Caesarea Inscription of the 24 Priestly Courses, "Tzalmin/Tzalmon" is mentioned in the context of the division called Dela'ia Ganton. Benzion Segal connects between the settlement of this division in Tzalmon and the statement of Rabbi Yehuda in the Tosefta (Para 9:2): "The one descending from the Tzalmon is forbidden since it dries up in the time controversy." The reference to the one "descending from the Tzalmon" is a spring; perhaps the spring at the foot of Hurvat Tzalmon today. A spring whose waters are not regular is invalid, according to Rabbi Yehuda, for use for mei chatat. The mei chatat (called as such by the Sages) refers to waters mixed with ashes of the para aduma, the red hefer, in order to purify those who contracted impurity due to contact with the dead (tumat met). This was the type of spring at Tzalmon, which dried up (apparently temporarily) "at the time of controversy," during one of the punitive marches the Romans forced the Jews of the Land of Israel to undergo.

According to Segal, the fact that this spring is mentioned indicates that the kohanim who lived in Tzalmon continued to observe the laws of ritual purity even following the Temple's destruction, including tumat met, which they could be purified by through mei chatat (see Sefer HaTeruma, published by Torah VeHa'aretz Institute, pp. 28-30, on the continued use of mei chatat following the Temple's destruction). This was especially important for kohanim, since teruma could only be eaten by a ritually pure Kohen, and terumot from agricultural produce are supposed to be given to kohanim even today—notwithstanding the existence of the Beit HaMikdash. We should merit to see it rebuilt speedily and in our days.