Monday, April 28, 2008

Another trip, Another blog

Shalom y'all!

When I went to Alaska, I ended up writing an inspiring Shavuot Shlomo's Drash .
I got more than a few pieces out of the Galapagos Islands.
In 1995, when studying abroad in Rome, my final exam was a journal of my experiences.
In 1996 when I went back to Rome as a graduation present, I did the journal thing again.

It's 2008, or 5768 depending on how you look at it.

Shlomo's starts his first trip to Israel this week.

But instead of slowing good Ol' Shlomo down in his writing I'm planning to to write even more.
It's part travel log, part lesson in Jewish studies, part photo journal and maybe even a little bit of art. It's my personal journey too with my impressions and opinions of all this.

It's Shlomo's Israel, my blog of my first trip to Israel. I didn't want it interrupting the flow of Shlomo's Drash So I decided to do something different.

If you want to adventure along. I'll be over at

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Passover 5768: The Quest for the Hillel Sandwich

During the Passover Seder, the Hillel sandwich is one of the last rituals before dinner begins. Even when I was very young, when my family celebrated Passover at my grandparents or at home, this was always the good part. This was when you got to eat the haroset for the first time. In our family, it is our tradition to make the Hillel sandwich out of haroset and matzah. But as I began to really explore the Haggadah, I found something out - its not matzah and haroset, but matzah and maror, which my family did as the step before when we eat the maror open-faced. The maror you were supposed to dip into the haroset, which really bothered me: how do you dip ground horseradish into the ground haroset? During the Passover seder, the second son asks, "what is this service to you?" In modernity, it often could be reworded "why are you doing these antiquated customs?" As the story of the Hillel sandwich will show they aren't static or antiquated, but show how dynamic Judaism really is.

In the early part of the first century CE, there lived a great Rabbi named Hillel. His most famous story is about the jokester who went to both Hillel and his rival Shammai and asked to be taught all Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai beat him with a T-square, and Hillel taught him the golden rule. The judgments, discussions, and stories of these two, their contemporaries and their students, were eventually written down and became the Mishnah, the foundation of the Talmud. But not all of what they did was written down in the Mishnah either. Some was orally transmitted for hundreds of years from student to teacher in what is known as a Baraita.

One finds a Baraita in the second part of the Talmud, the Gemara. The Gemara is again the discussions, judgments and stories of the later generations of rabbis, based on what was said in the Mishnah. These Rabbis lived after the destruction of the second temple. On page115a of the Talmud tractate Pesachim, the Hillel sandwich gets discussed, opening in a surprising way: "Said Hillel in the name of a tradition: A person should not wrap matzah and maror and eat." Hillel is saying not to eat a Hillel sandwich? What is going on? It turns out we have two different Hillels here, the Hillel speaking is Hillel II, a fourth century CE rabbi. His reasoning for no Hillel sandwich is that by his time, there's a missing ingredient. The Torah states in Exodus 12:8 "and they shall eat meat in that night, roast with fire, and Matzah; and with maror they shall eat it." In Numbers 9:11, we read "they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." with the destruction of the temple, there are no more sacrifices, and thus no usable meat. This creates a second dilemma. Outside of this sacrificial use, which we cannot do, maror becomes a rabbinical precept, not one from the Torah. All we read about maror and bitterness in our Haggadah is actually written in the Mishnah. And if a rabbinic precept and Torah precept are together, Hillel II maintains the Rabbinical nullifies the Torah's precept. So by eating them together, you kill the Torah based mitzvot of eating matzah, which is obviously a bad thing. Hillel II points Hillel the elder did put them together substantiated by Numbers 9:11. Hillel believed "it" is in the singular, so therefore the foods must be put together in one package. But, Hillel's companions disagree; it must be eaten with the Passover sacrifice separately, once with Matzah and once with maror.

Another Rabbi, Hillel II contemporary R. Ashi objected, that the real issues, isn't annulment of one mitzvah or another, but eating one sandwich may not fulfill all obligations for matzah and maror, nor may eating them separately, given the sacrifice situation. So he comes up with a compromise by changing from sacrifice to blessing. Now the obligation comes from the blessings and not the Passover sacrifice. The way to set up this procedure is to first bless the matzah and eat that, then bless the maror, and eat that. Each then has separate obligation. Finally take lettuce, wrap the matzah in it and without a blessing eat that, to remember Hillel, the temple and our missing third ingredient. This is why on many seder plates there are a space for both maror and lettuce.

So it would seem that R. Ashi has solved the problem. Today's Haggadah does use R. Ashi's procedure. First we eat matzah, then maror with haroset together, and finally matzah and maror. But this brings me back to my original question: why does my family use a different sequence: Matzah, Maror on matzah, and Haroset on matzah. I think a lot of it has to do with what we use for maror. Maror today can be one of three things: Lettuce, endive, or horseradish. We always use grated horseradish, as do many people. But the other two type of maror, lettuce and endive, are not eaten that way, but as whole leaves. In the agriculturally rich areas of the Mediterranean, it was probably rather easy to get these by spring. If that were so, then dipping endive into haroset or wrapping a piece of lettuce around a piece of matzah makes sense.

I'm guessing here, but in the Ukraine and Russia, fresh endive or lettuce in late March to early April were probably near impossible to get, or very expensive. The only viable alternative for the poor Jewish household was horseradish, and that was grated so a small piece went a long way. So traditions in eastern Europe arose once again on a people's best way to handle the current situation. When my great-grandfather came to this country, he probably had one tradition from the old country*, grated horseradish, which could only be dispensed easily on matzah. Similarly, to make sure the haroset was eaten, Hillel sandwiches were made with haroset and matzah. These traditions were passed down to my grandfather and my father. Of course, even if the books say otherwise, my Hillel sandwiches will be made with haroset too.

What excites me about this journey, is that we have a desire to perform a mitzvah, and when we cannot, we find a way regardless, even if we have to tweak a rule. We no longer have a Temple, so sacrifices are difficult to come by, but we change the rules so a matter of Torah, eating matzah and maror, can be performed. When living in a place where those rules cannot be followed, because no one can afford the maror necessary to do the mitzvah, those rules once again change.

At Passover we celebrate freedom, that there is no Pharaoh over us, no theocracy, no king. There is only God. Our tradition tells us that God gave us every rule at Sinai, and while the framework was written down as Torah, much of it then, and still today, we are unable to understand until the need is there- and its up to us to find it once the need arises. Even though the words never change, the Torah is not a Pharaoh, and ideas can change and adapt as we need to. We are not stuck doing exactly what they did in Egypt that first Passover, or at Sinai, or in the time of Solomon, because it's impossible for us to do so. Judaism is never antiquated as long as we are willing to take the time to adapt past Halakah to new situations. As I eat my Haroset and matzah this Passover, while remembering the temple in the name of Hillel, I will remember our beautiful dynamism as well.

(*) There is also a possible theory that the grated horseradish tradition actually creeped into my family in this country, via the Gold's horseradish company and bottled grated horseradish. If that is so, it probably started in my Grandfathers generation. However, how the traditions adapted still hold.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shabbat Ha Gadol:The World History of Haroset

The Passover Seder is full of tradition and mitzvot. According to the NJPS 2001 demographic survey, it is one of the most observed holidays out of all of the Jewish calendar, with two thirds of all Jews attending a Seder. Only lighting Hanukkah candles comes close. Sociologists believe that much of this has to do with home traditions. Home traditions have a deep link to history, especially family history and tradition, often remembered in the kitchen.

One of the most beloved parts of most Passover Seders is eating haroset, the sweet combination of fruits, wine nuts and spices. Everyone has their own recipe, handed down through generations. Many people come for the Seder just to have this sweet condiment. Most know about the symbolism of haroset as the clay of the bricks, which the Israelite slaves made for the Egyptian building projects. But what is the real history of this part of the Passover Seder? Where did it come from and why is it really there? It is a commandment or something else? And why are there so many different recipes and customs about how to eat this?

There are no references to haroset in all the biblical text. The Torah never mentions eating it. Its first mention is in the Mishnah, the early part of the Talmud, where it instructs dipping the maror into it, but the rabbis argue whether it is a mitzvah or not:

Mishnah. They then set [the Passover foods] before him. He dips the lettuce before yet he has reached the aftercourse of the bread. They set before him matzah, lettuce [bitter herbs], and haroset and two dishes, though the haroset is not a mitzvah. R. Eleazar son of R. Zadok said: it is a mitzvah. [Pes. 114a]

In the later Gemara, the rabbis puzzle over this debate. If it isn't a religious requirement why do it? One answer by R. Ammi is to remove something else known as kappa. There are ways to remove kappa, which the rabbis list:

R. Assi said: The kappa of lettuce [is counteracted by] radishes; the kappa of radishes, [by] leeks; the kappa of leeks, [by] hot water; the kappa of all these, [by] hot water. And in the meanwhile let him say thus: ‘Kappa kappa, I remember you and your seven daughters and your eight daughters-in-law.’[Pes. 116a]

The Talmudic rabbis don't tell us what Kappa is, but the 12th century commentator Rashi tells us that it is Aris. This is a loan word from the Greek word which is also is the root of our contemporary word Virus. Aris is something that makes you sick. One of the ways The Rabbis state one way to get rid of kappa is to recite an incantation. Incantations in the Babylonia of Talmudic times were a common method for dealing with demons, and several such incantations can be found in the Talmud. There is a tradition among to name demons in the opposite of is function so as to avoid invoking the demon. Kappa in Aramaic means to congeal, which does describe the process of making bricks. However, its opposite would therefore be to make liquid. If this were true then kappa could have been a case of diarrhea. As the Rabbis do mention sour liquids and in association with haroset, it may be bacteria which die under Hot water or under acidic conditions. There is one, Clostridium perfringens that would fit this bill, commonly found in vegetables grown close to the ground. The Haroset's original function was to fulfill the mitzvah of eating maror without getting ill.

Other rabbis thought differently. Some believed it was a mitzvah, as it was a commemoration of the Exodus, but there was disagreement about what was being commemorated:

R. Levi said: In memory of the fruit-tree; R. Johanan said: In memory of the clay. Abaye observed: Therefore one must make it acrid and thicken it: make it acrid, in memory of the fruit-tree; and thicken it, in memory of the clay. It was taught in accordance with R. Johanan: The spices are in memory of the straw; the haroset is a reminder of the clay. [Pes. 116a]

R. Levi thought it had to do with the memory of a fruit tree, a reference to the Song of Songs 8:5.

5. Who is this that comes up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I awakened you up under the tapuach tree; there your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor.

The rabbis tell a story that the Israelite women, to avoid the intercession by Egyptian authorities, would bear their children under fruit trees. (Gen. R. I:12, B. Sotah 11b) R. Johanan believed it had to do with the memory of the clay used for building by the slaves. R. Johanan's idea came from the root word for haroset, heres, which means clay. Much later, Abaye combined the ideas and includes both as ingredients in the finished condiment. Following the lead of R. Johanan's clay idea, it was later taught that the spices used were a reminder of the straw which the Israelites were denied by the Egyptians and had to find themselves in order to makes bricks out of mud.

7. You shall no more give the people straw to make bricks, as till now; let them go and gather straw for themselves. [Exodus 5:7]

But there was one more train of thought as to why we have Haroset on the table. We are commanded by the Mishnah to ask

Why is this night different from all other nights? For on all other nights we dip once, while on this night we dip twice.

In order to beg the question, the rabbis had this curious custom included so that we do dip twice, in the salt water with the karpas, and later the haroset with the bitter herbs. This was one of many tricks to keep the kids involved with the Seder.

By the middle ages there were several interpretations of this debate in the Talmud. Two commentators from two different parts of the word give differing perspective. Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, better known as Rashi, lived in late 11th to early 12th century France, whose views would parallel the regional view of northern and eastern Europe, what would eventually become the Ashkenazic world. In the Mediterranean, including Spain and much of the Southern Mediterranean, in essence what we know as Sephardic world there was Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (1135-1204 CE) best known as either Maimonides or the Rambam. The Rambam, born in Spain, traveled throughout most of the Sephardic world, spending the end of his life in Alexandria. Both of these giants of the middle ages, Rambam and Rashi, agree that the Haroset is in accordance with Johanan's idea commemorating clay.

While Rashi and Rambam agree on the symbol, their respective parts of the world didn't agree on the ingredients of haroset. They knew where to get the ingredient list: The Song of Songs, since it was mentioned in the Halakah. R. Levi's ingredients based on the Song of Songs however gets lost in translation. The word for fruit tree is tapuach. Most who know Modern Hebrew will recognize this as apple. This comes from the northern and eastern European translations of this word. Rashi, the French and eastern European Jews used apples, assuming this was a tapuach. On the other hand, the Mediterranean basin, where the Rambam lived, apples are rather uncommon, as they are not a native species. The Tapuach of the Song of Songs some have speculated may have been a Chinese import to the Persian courts: peaches and apricots. In Egypt, Spain and most of the Islamic controlled Mediterranean, apples were near impossible to come by, so Tapuach was interpreted to mean Dates. Sephardic haroset is usually Dates and other dried fruits and nuts.

Throughout the word there are amazing regional differences in the recipes for haroset. The traditional Ashkenazic variety is a variation of apples, chopped almonds, cinnamon, red wine, and matzah meal. Sephardic traditions have ingredients available in ancient Israel: grapes, matzah meal, dates, figs, olives, apricots, pomegranates, and almonds. Yemenite Jews will add julienne Chili peppers to resemble the straw, and also add ginger and sesame seeds. North African Jews will add Eggs pines nuts and ginger to the Sephardic recipe. One Italian recipe even included chestnuts. Iraqi and Indian Jews will make date syrup and add nuts. While the mitzvah of Haroset continues, its implementation is indeed all over the map.

As I look at the myriad of observances and opinions about some little condiment, eaten on a few consecutive days a year, I am in awe. What started as a folk food safety practice for eating certain kinds of vegetables has evolved through two millennia as a point of deep spiritual meaning for many Jews today. What was probably just a sweetened dish of vinegar has inspired hundreds of recipes, and inspired traditions to be handed down for close to two thousand years. But what awes me the most is the dynamic nature of the practice of eating Haroset. While the commandment hasn't changed, the observance and ingredients varied widely. As I went through the Talmud, Maimonides, Rashi, and the Shulchan Aruch about haroset, I am reminded how dynamic, flexible and resilient Judaism can be.

For those looking for a good resource for recipes, check out this website:

For those interested in the original texts in English translation, and some selected recipes from a variety of sources, check out the handout I wrote for a Haroset workshop at Beth Emet in Evanston IL a few years ago.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Metzora 5768: Social Diseases

This week, in the second half of the double portion, God explains how to clean someone of Tzarat. We then get the explanation of the Tzarat of the house, and its remediation. Finally we have a discussion of the Zab, and the necessary actions for a person so afflicted. We read of Zab:

2. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When any man has a discharge out of his flesh, because of his discharge he is unclean. 3. And this shall be his uncleanness in his discharge; whether his flesh runs with his discharge, or his flesh is stopped from his discharge, it is his uncleanness. [Leviticus 15:2-3]

Since a regular ejaculation is mentioned further down the text, we know is that this is an unnatural discharge. Unlike the problem indentifying Tzarat from last week, this is clearly Gonorrhea. The symptoms also are different for women:

25. And if a woman has a bloody discharge many days not during the time of her menstruation, or if it runs beyond the time of her menstruation; all the days of the discharge of her uncleanness shall be as the days of her menstruation; she shall be unclean.[Leviticus 15:25]

For all cases, ejaculation or a non-normal discharge in men or women, the rules are pretty much the same:

4. Every bed, on which he, who has the discharge, lies, is unclean; and everything, on which he sits, shall be unclean. 5. And whoever touches his bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 6. And he who sits on any thing on which he, who has the discharge, sat, shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 7. And he who touches the flesh of him who has the discharge shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 8. And if he who has the discharge spits upon him who is clean; then he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 9. And whatever saddle he, who has the discharge, rides upon, shall be unclean. 10. And whoever touches any thing that was under him shall be unclean until the evening; and he who carries any of those things shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 11. And whoever he, who has the discharge, touches, and has not rinsed his hands in water, he shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening. 12. And the utensil of earth, that he, who has the discharge, touches, shall be broken; and every utensil of wood shall be rinsed in water. [Leviticus 15:4-12]

While there is less quarantine than Tzarat, there is a lot of infection control. Here we see the concept very clearly of contamination and cross contamination. Not only can one be contaminated by direct contact but also contact of surfaces the Zab touches. Interestingly, most of the surfaces mentioned, including the Zab’s hands, often have direct contact with the genitals. To counteract the contamination, one washes the contaminated bed, chair, saddle, utensils. Then one must avoid using them for a full day. Some things, like earthenware containers cannot be cleaned, and thus must be destroyed.

These are of course all good ways of preventing disease transmission where one has an STD or has just handled a dead animal of any kind. Cleaning and preventing contact in the first place from surfaces that might be contaminated is a good way to prevent disease.

But is there spiritual lesson in all this? In order to answer that question I think we first have to remember one of the first lessons from the Perkei Avot:

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. The latter used to say three things: be patient in [the administration of] justice, rear many disciples and make a fence round the Torah. [Avot 1:1]

This statement is the basis of the Oral Torah. There was law transmitted orally from generation to generation that was not written down in the five books of Moses. Fundamental to the Oral Law is the concept of the preventative measure: the fence or hedge around the Torah. The idea is simple: have a rule that makes sure you don’t break another, written rule. For example, Do not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk has so many preventative measures wrapped around it that one should not eat a cheeseburger, or even a chicken sandwich with soy cheese, just so we don’t break that original rule.

The question I then ask is: If the Oral Law contains fences around the Written Law, Could the Written Law put a fence around itself? Here we have a case of that exactly happening. While Zaba, the female equivalent, might be a bit more complicated into the cause and may include other diseases beside gonorrhea, it clear that the Zab has an STD and that of course requires sexual transmission. While it possible to have sex while both partners are standing, it’s a lot easier if at least one partner is sitting or lying down. If no one can really touch a Zab or anything a Zab sits or lies on without becoming contaminated, then it become very difficult to have sex with a Zab, and truly transmit the disease. Interestingly, the Talmud notes this in terms of the one loophole in the law: a zab must not dine together with a zabah, lest it lead to sin! [Shabbat 11a, 13b] If both are afflicted, then there is seemingly no danger of transmitting disease, and another fence needs to put into place to prevent otherwise prohibited sex should the two try to seduce each other at the dinner table.

Midrash tells us that the name of our portion Metzora, the word for someone with tzarat can be broken into two words Mozi (bring out, utter) ra (evil) [Leviticus Rabbah XVI: 1, 2] They go on to say that both Tzarat and Zab are punishments for evil speech and other detestable social actions. In English there is a related word play: Intercourse may mean sexual contact or conversation. I believe this is not accidental. Both good conversation and good sex requires the active participation of all involved. On the other hand bad conversation can be as destructive as bad sex. The direct English translation of lashon ha-ra is the bad tongue. While usually involving tale bearing, spreading rumors, lying, and the like, it really covers the whole gamut of bad conversations.

The ancient rabbis, in linking STD’s and lashon hara may have seen this connection And while most, but certainly not all STD’s and usually occur from direct contact, there is the possibility of cross contamination of many organisms from contact with other surfaces, which spread the disease unintentionally to others. So too with Lashon Hara – and ideas can spread to others, and cause harm far beyond two people talking.

Sex and talk also have another commonality: it is a way of creating connection between people, and we have a deep core need for connection. The problem of Lashon hara often occurs when we so want connection that we connect badly. Instead of a deep constructive connection, we take other routes. Instead of building bridges to another through revealing ourselves we connect through destructive statements about some famous person for example. Sometime it is not even about a third party. Anger, crankiness and criticism directed at someone trying to connect with you is all too often the case. Similarly one night stands purely for the sensation and not for any deeper relationship with a person accomplishes nothing and may even spread a disease.

I think there is another verse in the Perkei Avot which describes this well:

R. Hananiah b. Teradion said: When two sit together and there are no words of Torah between them, then this is a session of scorners, as it is said: Nor sat he in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1); But [when] two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: then they that feared the lord spoke one with another(Mal 3:16).[Avot 3:2]

If, however we build a strong constructive relationship, things are very different. In stead of temporary relationships longer lasting bonds are made. For those bonds our need for connections is filled, and we even gain the ability to create instead of destroy. In conversation new ideas can be generated. The conversation itself becomes a holy sacred connection.

Yet more often than not this does not seem to happen. It is one of the paradoxes of the last two parshiot that the disease which might start from a desperate need to connect leads to more isolation. One who gossips, slanders, or hurts people verbally becomes even more isolated for no one is around them. Yet, when we fear Lashon Hara, and put too many fences up against saying the wrong thing once again we isolate ourselves. All of this isolation can become a downward spiral as the person become more desperate, leading to even more destruction both of ourselves and of others. There is one place that the sexuality and conversation parallel does break down however. We should think in terms of universal precautions for STD’s. Prophylactics are definitely a good idea when it some to sexual contact. But in conversation we often take this to ridiculous extremes. We place so many fences around ourselves to prevent such destruction to our selves from the outside. All it does is isolate us even further.

How does one beat this pattern? I wish I knew. I’ve spent a lot of time, energy and money trying to beat it, and deeper connections are rare, close to non-existent. The answers I’ve found never completely, if at all, seem to work. I do not have Tzarat or Tav, yet the social disease of isolation is an unbearable weight, one compounded in the last few months with and even stronger physical isolation than before. I’m sure I’m not the only one, as the rock group Police wrote in their song Message in a bottle:

Walked out this morning, don't believe what I saw,

A hundred billion bottles, washed up on the shore.

Seems I'm not alone at being alone,

A hundred billion castaways, looking for a home.

I thought of a parable this weekend which, writing this and all those bottle washing ashore, I truly wonder if I’m seeing clearly. Last Sunday I heard a lecture by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman on a rather optimistic future of the American synagogue, a topic that was a big part of my graduate studies and what I had hoped my future plans. I sat in my car and cried afterwards. Why? A Parable. To what can this be compared to? To a boy on a schoolyard full of children playing. He sits on the side lines since no one will play with him. When a ball comes by, all he can do is throw it back, for no one wants him to join their game. So too do I feel my life right now. But I’m wrong. There’s no one in the playground, all the kids are on the sidelines waiting for some one to ask them to play, all too afraid to do the asking. The playground, to quote Simon and Garfunkel his time, only has the sounds of silence.

I think the point of Tzaria-Metzora was to avoid this isolation, particularly with the use of the very public sin offerings. Unfortunately, in rabbinic and modern translation, it all too easily ends up causing it.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Parshat Tzaria 5768: What is Tzarat?

Moving from all the death of animals for food and death of offspring in industrial accidents of last week, this week we move into part two of the three part theme on biblical public health. We start with the procedure for a mother after giving birth, then discuss some gynecological problems. We then move into the beginning of a rather long two portion discussion of the issue of what in that text is called tzarat and at a later time would be translated leprosy.

The rabbis were pretty clear on the causes of the disease called tzarat. For them it was a spiritual punishment:

(i) Haughty eyes, (ii) A Iying tongue, and (iii) Hands that shed innocent blood; (iv) A heart that divises wicked thoughts, (v) Feet that are swift in running to evil; (vi) A false witness that breathes out lies, and (vii) He that sows discord among brethren. R. Johanan said: All these are punished by leprosy. [Leviticus Rabbah XVI: 1]

For ten things [i.e. sins] does leprosy come upon the world: (i) idol-worship, (ii) gross unchastity, (iii) bloodshed, (iv) the profanation of the Divine Name, (v) blasphemy of the Divine Name, (vi) robbing the public, (vii) usurping [a dignity] to which one has no right, (viii) overweening pride, (ix) evil speech, and (x) an evil eye. [Leviticus Rabbah XVII: 3]

Certain types of bad behavior, much of it socipopathic, caused tzarat. Also they note it is progressive in nature.

First they come upon [the fabric of] his house. If he repents, it requires the pulling out [of affected stones]; if not, it requires pulling down [the house]. Then they [i.e. the plagues] come upon one's clothes. If he repents, they require washing; if not, they require burning. Then they [i.e. the plagues] come upon his body. If he repents, he undergoes purification; if not, HE SHALL DWELL ALONE (XIII, 46). [Leviticus Rabbah XVII: 3]

The rabbis and the biblical text saw this as s spiritual and social problem. If a person changes and repents, the problem goes away. Part of the biblical text however has remained around for quite a long time:

All the days when the disease shall be in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall his habitation be. [Leviticus 13:46]

In English translations, tzarat had been associated with leprosy for quite a long time. Part of tzarat is the quarantine of the individual. Such a commandment had led to the creation of leper colonies, places of isolation, often in the worst of conditions. But was tzarat really leprosy?

Leprosy, in modern nomenclature called Hansen’s disease is caused by a very interesting rod shaped bacteria Mycobacterium leprae. Mycobacteria have a very thick and strong cell wall made up of waxy configurations of fats and sugars, making them rather impervious to the most common ways of indentifying bacteria and some of the methods used to kill them. However, in 1873 Gerhard Hansen did isolate and indentify the causative organism. The disease affects the skin and nervous tissue, leading to a loss of feeling. It is a secondary effect of this loss of feeling that causes people to not notice other conditions and injuries which might cause loss of skin tissue, not the leprosy itself. The U.S. Centers of Disease control has as part of their case definition the following symptoms:

Tuberculoid: one or a few well-demarcated, hypopigmented [i.e. light colored], and anesthetic skin lesions, frequently with active, spreading edges and a clearing center; peripheral nerve swelling or thickening also may occur Lepromatous: a number of erythematous [i.e. reddish] papules and nodules or an infiltration of the face, hands, and feet with lesions in a bilateral and symmetrical distribution that progress to thickening of the skin Indeterminate: early lesions, usually hypopigmented macules, without developed tuberculoid or lepromatous features

In comparison to the CDC definition, Tzarat, unlike anything else in the biblical text has one of the most detailed, if not clinical descriptions:

3. And the priest shall look on the disease in the skin of the flesh; and if the hair in the plague has turned white, and the disease looks deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a disease of leprosy; and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. 4. If the bright spot is white in the skin of his flesh, and it looks not deeper than the skin, and the hair on it has not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him who has the disease for seven days; 5. And the priest shall look on him the seventh day; and, behold, if the disease appears to have stayed in place, and the disease has not spread over the skin; then the priest shall shut him up seven days more; 6. And the priest shall look on him again the seventh day; and, behold, if the disease is somewhat dark, and the disease did not spread in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is a scab; and he shall wash his clothes, and be clean. 7. But if the scab spreads out in the skin, after that he has been seen by the priest for his cleansing, he shall be seen by the priest again; 8. And if the priest sees that, behold, the scab spreads in the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a leprosy.

While a lot of these symptoms are similar, the CDC definition mentions nothing about hair, not does the Biblical one mention anything about losing feeling in the lesions or the papules (hard raised areas of skin). Indeed Leviticus notes the disease is going down into the flesh, not moving up.

Even more puzzling is that Tzarat does not just affect people, but also non living things, including completely inorganic things. First we have clothing (13:47-49) both of plant and animal materials, then in next week’s portion houses with tzarat growing in the bricks. (14:37) In both of these cases, the text mentions not white but red or green growths. This is not the behavior of bacteria, but something else: fungi.

To understand Tzarat as a mold is found in Leviticus 14. After a home owner reports the possibility of disease to a priest, the house is emptied of all its possessions, and then:

37. And he [i.e. the priest] shall look on the disease, and, behold, if the disease is in the walls of the house with depressions, greenish or reddish, which in look lower than the wall; 38. Then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days; 39. And the priest shall come again the seventh day, and shall look; and, behold, if the disease has spread over the walls of the house; 40. Then the priest shall command that they take away the stones in which the disease is, and they shall throw them into an unclean place outside the city; 41. And he shall cause the house to be scraped inside around, and they shall pour out the dust that they scraped outside the city into an unclean place; 42. And they shall take other stones, and put them in the place of those stones; and he shall take other mortar, and shall plaster the house. 43. And if the disease comes again, and break out in the house, after he has taken away the stones, and after he has scraped the house, and after it is plastered; 44. Then the priest shall come and look, and, behold, if the disease has spread in the house, it is a malignant leprosy in the house; it is unclean. 45. And he shall break down the house, its stones, and its timber, and all the mortar of the house; and he shall carry them out of the city into an unclean place. [Lev 14 37-45]

This is very close to the same guidelines the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has for the remediation of mold. Fungi can cause types of dermatitis which can be similar to the symptoms mentioned above, some can grow on inorganic substances like rock or plaster, not to mentions infect leather wool and linen equally.

The rabbinic pattern of Tzarat first showing in the house, then clothes then people may not be farfetched. As the rabbis of Midrash Rabbah were people living in the same region as their ancestors, they were exposed to the same building materials, clothes, and climatic conditions as their ancestors. In rainy seasons, the plaster used in building constriction may have gotten wet and wicked the moisture into the area between stone and plaster, where the mold began to grow. Form there other items, including clothing would be affected. At the same time as it was the rainy season, people stayed indoors more often. Transmission of skin contact or through moldy clothes is not outside the range of possibilities for mold which would cause symptoms similar to the ones described, including the loss of pigmentation not only in skin, but in the hair.

Under these circumstances, Isolation and proper disposal of contaminated materials is the proper approach to the problem. In Miriam’s bout with leprosy, God commands Moses to shut out Miriam from the camp seven days (Numbers 12:14), the same procedure for tzarat as mentioned in Leviticus. The isolation was outside the camp not just to prevent contamination of others, but also prevents the person from having further exposure to the original source of the problem. For similar reasons everything inside of the house needs to be removed to prevent re-infection of the house with exposed materials. As Leviticus 14:46-47 notes anyone entering a sick building needs to be considered exposed for the rest of the day, anyone eating or sleeping in a quarantined home needs to be washed down.

I’ve had problems with the health claims for kosher. Yet for tzarat I’m willing to make the health claim. Granted, there is a spiritual component, and as I wrote last year, the kind of psychopathic activities the Rabbis ascribe as Tzarat for a punishment provide us with a reason for isolating such individuals. As someone involved with environmental health, the procedures ands details in the mitzvot of tzarat point to a environmental health concern above all else. Sick building syndrome is a real threat. The slightest water damage can cause immense health damage. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, we saw this on a horrible scale, not only among residents but among relief workers. After the flood waters receded, mold was everywhere, and the effects of mold were well. The Centers for Disease Control found that 54% of New Orleans police officers and 49% of the city’s Firefighters working at the disaster responding to the poll reported skin rashes for example (MMWR 4/28/06). No study I found has yet looked at long term effects, but based on evidence of earlier smaller flooding situations, they too may be devastating.

While Mycobacterium leprae may very well go extinct as a public heath issue within a decade according to the World Health Organization, molds and their mycotoxins never will. Tzarat will be around for quite a while I believe. Yet the reason for this and next week’s readings to be primarily a public health text in a spiritual text, outside of the rabbi’s insistence on lashon hara as its cause is still a mystery. We’ll look at that more next week when we discuss the other public health problem these texts discuss.