Parshat Metzorah: Three Approaches to Nigei Batim

According to one opinion (Sanhedrin 71a), there never was a bayit hamenuga; the Torah wants us to expound upon this theoretical subject and receive a reward. These esoteric laws apparently include ideas that instruct and inspire irrespective of practical application. Indeed, darshanim have found much sermonic material in the biblical account of a blemished house. Before we proceed to the midrashic level, let us carefully read the biblical account and see what hints it offers.

Houses Are Different From People and Clothing

Several clues suggest that a house with zara’at differs from people or garments with the seemingly similar condition. The Torah isolates the case of nigei batim by first listing the laws of nigei adam and nigei begadim, then outlining the purification process for nigei adam, and only then discussing the laws of nigei batim. Secondly, the Torah presents nigei batim as a phenomenon that occurs only after the Jews enter Canaan (Vayikra 14:34), something it does not do regarding the other kinds of negaim. Finally, the Torah emphasizes divine involvement in the creation of these negaim. “When you come into the land of Canaan which I will give you as a possession, then I will place the plague of zara’at in a house of the land of your possession” (Vayikra 14:34).

One midrashic approach (Vayikra Rabba 17:6) sees nigei batim as radically different from the other two types of negaim. Neagim are usually punishments for sinful behavior but those found in a house actually reflect divine bounty. The Canaanite nations hid their valuables in the walls of their homes and God utilized negaim as a means of directing Am Yisrael to the hidden treasures. While it is difficult to claim that this interpretation reflects peshat, it does, in classic midrashic fashion, react to real issues in the Torah. This approach successfully explains why nigei batim are limited to the land of Israel and why the Torah isolates them from the other forms.

TzaraatAn opposing view (Vayikra Rabba 17:4, Rambam Hilkhot Tumat Zara’at 16:10) thinks that all three forms of zara’at are part of one continuum in which the impact of sin grows progressively closer to the sinner. The plague first affects the walls of his house, then his clothing, and finally his very body. These gradations provide the sinner with multiple opportunities to repent before suffering bodily affliction. According to this opinion, it becomes more difficult to account for the Torah’s placing nigei batim in a separate context.

A third rabbinic approach (Yoma 11b) roots nigei batim in a miserly attitude that refuses to ever share possessions. The home owner who consistently denied having any items to lend his neighbors finds himself removing personal items from the infected house, thereby revealing his dishonest stinginess. This understanding, though not overtly in the pesukim, also reflects a close reading. Note the double appearance of the word ahuzah in pasuk 34 and the phrase “asher lo habayit” in 35. This terminology stresses the concept of ownership. A home owner overly committed to asserting his exclusive rights to his possessions embarks on a selfish journey culminating in nigei batim.

According to the last two approaches, why would the Torah state that this last form of negaim only takes effect when they enter the Holy Land? Hizkuni offers a pragmatic answer. The Israelites simply did not have real houses in the desert; therefore, the laws of nigei batim did not commence until they entered Israel. Ibn Ezra offers a more essentialist answer. Only in the Holy Land, where divine providence is more acutely manifest, does this phenomenon exist. In that environment, Hashem intercedes to send a message to the selfish or the tale bearers.

Perhaps we can find another source of support for the last two of our three approaches. Physical blemishes can convey symbolic import. In the famous Kamza and Bar Kamza Talmudic tale, the blemished lips or eyes on the animal sent by the Caesar for sacrifice symbolize a negative social environment in which people speak negatively and look at others with a jaundiced eye (see Maharsha Gittin 56a). Zara’at on the walls signifies deep moral corruption in the home environment. A home closed off to hospitality and benevolence is indeed a blemished abode.

Yitzchak Blau
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: the Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada and an associate editor of Tradition.


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