“The Cohen shall examine the affliction on the skin of his flesh”
Leviticus 13:3

A significant part of Parashat Tazria describes the laws relating to someone afflicted with the skin disease tzara’at. This affliction, regarded as a punishment from God for slander, demanded the careful examination by a Cohen (priest) who would determine whether the sufferer should be pronounced pure, be quarantined or be banished from the camp. As such, our rabbis state that only a Cohen can declare someone to be afflicted with tzara’at.

Clearly, anyone suspected of having tzara’at but subsequently given a clean bill of health would be relieved. Someone, however, who required isolation or, worse still, was sent out of the camp, would be upset. Nonetheless, the rabbis consider this a fitting punishment since, through the act of slander, husbands are separated from wives, and friends from one another.

The Mishnah (Moed Katan 1:5) considers how the process should be carried out if an examination was due during Chol Hamo’ed (the intermediate days of a festival), or for a bride and groom during their week-long wedding celebrations. According to Rabbi Meir, the Cohen should examine the affliction. If he concludes that the individual should be declared pure, he should do so. However, if they require isolation, the Cohen has the right to remain silent and thereby avoid causing distress during these festive days.

Despite sharing the same sensitivities, the sages argue that the Cohen does not have the right to remain silent. They believe that with knowledge comes responsibility, whatever the outcome. Instead, they suggest that in these two cases, it is preferable that the Cohen does not perform an examination that would require him “to declare it pure or to declare it impure” (Leviticus 13:59).

By following the opinion of the sages, Jewish law highlights the responsibilities of religious leaders — and emphasises that they are responsible not just for the knowledge they bear, but also to the people they serve.

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