Leprosy: Stringency and Leniency

How did God expect us to deal with uncertainty in the laws of the Torah itself?

Contact Editor
Michael Linetsky,

Michael Linetsky
Michael Linetsky

The Torah introduces the code of law that the Priest was to use in order to determine the ritual status of objects stricken with Leprosy, “to pronounce it pure, or to pronounce it impure” (Lev. 13:59).

Invariably, cases will arise where the simple reading of the Code of Law will not make it plain whether “to pronounce it pure, or to pronounce it impure”.  How was the Priest to deal with cases of uncertainty? How did God expect us to deal with uncertainty in the laws of the Torah itself?

This central and critical question as one can imagine was already a matter of dispute among the Sages. The Talmud of Eretz Yisrael teaches:

“Rabbi Eliezer said: Just as it is prohibited to pronounce pure that which is impure so too it is prohibited to pronounce impure that which is pure”. (Terumoth 5:3, 30b)

The Law is not merely a societal fail-safe, but a sacred and Divine prescription. Deviating from the Law or misapplying it even unintentionally is comparable to defying God and carries with it an inherent violation, be it for stringency or for leniency. When one is in doubt about the law one must always weigh the risk of prohibiting the permissible as much a permitting the prohibited.

Other Sages took a different stance. The [Jerusalem] Talmud of Eretz Yisrael teaches us further:

“Rabbi Aba the son of Yaakov in the name of R. Yochanan said: If a law about [the purity/impurity of Terumah] comes before you and you do not know whether to suspend or to burn [Terumah] always pursue burning over suspending for there is nothing (i.e. offering) in the Torah more beloved [to God] than ‘bulls that are burned’ and ‘he-goats that are burned’. And they in fact are burned!. “

The “bulls and he-goats that are burned” refer to the exceptional offerings whose blood was sprinkled inside of the Temple as opposed to other sacrifices whose blood was sprinkled in the courtyard outside of the Temple.

The meat of these special offerings as beloved and desirable to God as it may have been, was nevertheless burned, and by God’s own order!

Here the Torah sets the tone for handling cases of uncertainty. According to Rabbi Yaakov bar Aha, the Torah  itself reveals its mind on how cases of uncertainty should be handled. Destroying that which is sacred is not only permissible, but even desirable to God. Terumah, offerings, whose condition of purity is questionable should, accordingly be burned without weighing the risk of transgressing the prohibition of burning pure Terumah.

By analogy, in cases of doubt, “destroying” or disregarding a sacred law i.e. not weighing the risk of prohibiting the permissible is not in defiance of God and should be normative procedure.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Aba the son of Yaakov’s point of dissent is whether one must consider the risk of prohibiting the permissible and whether one is in defiance of God when automatically ruling stringently in cases of doubt.

In its closing passage, the [Jerusalem]Talmud of Eretz Yisrael teaches:

Rabbi Yose asked: Can we derive something whose performance is not in this manner (by burning) from something whose performance is in this manner?

Burning the flesh of the offerings is part of ritual prescription of offerings as opposed to burning Terumah which is done only when it is impure. Rabbi Yossi argues against Rabbi Aba the son of Yaakov and in favor of Rabbi Eliezer, that one may not make any deductions from sacrifices.

The Talmud of Eretz Yisrael, which closes with this argument and does not come to the defense of Rabbu Aba the son of Yaakov would seem to make its ruling.

Michael Linetsky is the director of the Torat Eretz Yisrael Institute whose mission is to bring the Teachings and Tradition of the Land of Israel to the broader audience. Please visit our complimentary  OU series entitled "Lessons from Eretz Yisrael" at ou.org ->machshava