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Ritual Purity Laws of Judaism, Table of Contents

 

 

Laws of Religion

Laws of Judaism

Concerning Ritual Purity and Cleanliness

 

4.  The Impurity of Leprosy

 

from the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

and the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

 

The Impurity of Leprosy

From the Biblical Books of Moses (Torah)

 

 (Editor’s note: While there are numerous laws concerning ritual purity in Judaism, only certain specific practices based on these laws are observed today, as explained in the Introduction to this section. Ritual purity laws whose procedures are still followed today are so noted in our summaries.)

 

A person with raw flesh due to leprosy, as determined by a priest, is impure.[1] A person who was impure because of leprosy was required to call out to others, “Impure, impure” and live alone outside the camp.[2] Once the spreading leprosy stopped, the leper was to be cleansed by a ritual that included killing a bird, dipping a live bird and certain other things into the blood of the killed bird, sprinkling the person with the blood of the dead bird and freeing the live bird. The person was to shave all the hair from his body, including his eyebrows, and wash his clothes and himself. He also was to make a sacrifice of lambs, flour and oil for the priest for atonement and thus become ritually pure again.[3]

 

A garment with greenish or reddish leprosy which was spreading or which did not fade upon washing was to be burned by a priest. If the leprosy faded upon washing, the affected part was to be cut out. If washing caused the leprosy to disappear, the garment was to be washed again and declared to be pure.[4]

 

A house containing streaks of greenish or reddish leprosy on its walls whose spreading could not be stopped by scraping and plastering was required to be destroyed.[5] Someone who enters a house with spreading leprosy is ritually impure until evening.[6] Lying down or eating in such a house required washing one's clothes.[7] If the leprosy was not spreading after the plastering was done, then the priest was to cleanse the house by a ritual that included killing a bird, dipping a live bird and certain other things into the blood of the killed bird and then sprinkling the house with the blood of the dead bird and freeing the live bird. Then the house was declared to be pure.[8]

 

(Editor’s note: The “leprosy” of a garment or house must refer to something else, perhaps mold, which was described by the same term as the skin infection.)

 

The Torah tells the story of how Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses, complained because Moses had married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman. They said that God had spoken with them also, not only with Moses. God became angry with them for speaking about Moses in this way and Miriam was afflicted with leprosy. Moses appealed to God not to punish her in this way. God said that Miriam should be put out of the camp for seven days and then she could return.[9]

 

 

The Impurity of Leprosy

Jewish Law (Halakha) from the Code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah)

 

Contents:

 

The reason leprosy occurs

 

Leprosy in a person

 

Leprosy in clothing

 

Leprosy of a house

 

 

The reason leprosy occurs.  Although, as discussed on this page above, the Torah texts use the same word to describe leprosy of people, clothing and houses, Maimonides says that leprosy in a person is something different from what the Torah calls "leprosy" in an article of clothing or a house. Leprosy is not a natural thing, but rather a divine sign and warning that a person was speaking slander. First the walls of the slanderer's house contract leprosy, which is cured if the person repents. However, if he continues to slander, his house will be demolished and the leather seats or couches or beds in his house will become affected, to be cured if he repents. But if he continues to slander, the affected things will be burned and then leprosy will infect his clothing. Finally, if he still fails to repent and the slander continues, his affected clothing will be burned and he will contract leprosy in his skin. Then he will be separated from other people and until his slander ceases. Maimonides refers to the story of Miriam's leprosy (Numbers 12:1-15, summarized on this page above) to support the link between leprosy and speaking against others.[10]

 

 

Leprosy in a person.  When a person has an area on the skin of sufficient whiteness,[11] which may be tinged with redness,[12] and this color appears to go deep into the skin,[13] with the spot being at least of the specified minimum size[14] and exhibiting one of the three necessary signs,[15] then the priest is to declare the person impure with leprosy. Only a priest can declare a person impure or pure due to leprosy.[16] Only a Jew can be ritually impure from leprosy.[17]

 

The three signs of leprosy are white hairs or raw flesh within the white spot or the spreading of the spot. If white hairs or raw flesh is not present, then the priest is to confine the person for seven days. If any of the three signs are then found, then the person is to be declared impure with leprosy. If none of the signs are found after seven days, the person is to be confined for another seven days and then either declared impure or released depending on whether any of the signs appear. If any of the three signs appear after a person is declared pure and released, the priest is to declare him impure with leprosy at that time.[18]

 

At least two white hairs[19] must appear in the white spot after it turns white for this to be a sign of leprosy impurity.[20] Raw flesh of sufficient area[21] appearing in the white spot may be any color other than that of the white spot itself in order to be a sign of leprosy.[22]

 

A burned area of skin or a lesion resulting from injury or sickness that has healed but appears different from the normal skin of the person can be leprosy if a white spot appears and white hair grows in it or the white spot is seen to spread.[23]

 

If hair has fallen out by the roots in an area the head or chin of sufficient size and not been replaced, and the area either spreads or has within it short yellow hairs, then the person is impure.[24] If there are at least two black hairs in the area, they negate the signs of impurity.[25]

 

If a person removes any of the signs of leprosy from his skin and is, as a result, declared pure rather than impure, he is to be punished for violating a negative commandment of the Torah (Deuteronomy 14:8; Leviticus 13:33) by being flogged. If the removal of the sign of leprosy does not benefit the person by resulting in a declaration of being pure, the person may still receive a flogging for disobedience.[26]

 

A person with leprosy is a Father of Impurity. Touching or carrying a leper makes a person impure.  Things that a leper sits or lies upon also become impure.  Even a person who is confined by a priest to determine whether he is impure with leprosy conveys impurity in these ways.[27] A person or a vessel that is in the same house as a leper becomes impure.[28]

 

A man who is declared impure due to leprosy must keep his head covered and not cut his hair. He must rend his clothing and not wash any of his garments. He is to cover his upper lip as a mourner does and call out to others that he is impure.[29] If the leper lives in a walled city of the Land of Israel, he is to be made to live alone, outside the town, as long as he remains impure.[30] A woman with leprosy is also required to call out that she is impure and, if in the Land of Israel, to live outside a walled town.  However, she may cut her hair and does not have to cover her lip.[31] A leper who entered Jerusalem, but not other walled cities, was to be subjected to flogging;[32] if he went on the Temple Mount the flogging was increased to 80 lashes.[33] A leper was forbidden from sending an offering for sacrifice in the Temple (in Jerusalem).[34]

 

The procedure for making a leper pure included killing a bird, dipping a live bird and certain other things into the blood of the killed bird, sprinkling the back of the leper’s hand with the blood of the dead bird and freeing the live bird. The priest then shaves shave all the visible hair from the leper’s body, including his eyebrows, armpits and pubic hair.  The leper then washes his clothes and immerses himself.[35]

 

Then, on the seventh day, the priest shaves the leper's body, as before, and the leper washes his clothes and immerses himself again and waits until sunset.[36] On the next day, he immerses himself again[37] and brings three lambs as his offering to the Temple (in Jerusalem).[38] The Temple priests smear the blood of the sacrificed lambs on the leper in the specified manner and perform additional appropriate rituals.[39]

 

Throughout this purification process, the degree of impurity of the leper is reduced in stages. After the first shaving, washing of clothes and immersion, he no longer will make a house or what he sits or lies on impure and he may enter a walled city,[40] including Jerusalem.[41] After the second shaving and washing of clothes and immersion, the leper no longer transfers impurity to others and he may eat second tithe. Then, after sunset, he may also eat heave offering. At the end of the whole process, after giving his sacrifices at the Temple, he is completely pure and may eat Hallowed Things.[42]

 

According to Maimonides, the rituals of purification of the leper are applicable at all times, both when the Temple in Jerusalem is standing and when it is not, and also in all places, both within and outside of the Land of Israel.[43] (Editor’s note: Maimonides does not explain how the ritual of purification of a leper, including sacrifice of lambs, can be accomplished outside the Land of Israel or performed now, when the Temple does not exist.)

 

 

Leprosy in clothing.  Leprosy in clothing is shown by a bright red or bright green color of the requisite minimum size. If the color spreads after one week, the garment is declared impure and burned. Otherwise it is to be washed and then, after one more week, if the color has faded, the garment is to be washed and then it is pure. If the color remains the same after two weeks, the garment is impure and must be burned. If the color changes, for example from red to green or from green to red, then the affected part is to be cut out and burned by the priest and the rest of the garment is patched, washed and immersed and declared pure. [44]

 

Only clothing owned by a Jew can be impure.[45] Selling an impure garment to a non-Jew makes it pure.[46]

 

An article of clothing that is impure with leprosy is a Father of Impurity. It renders impure a person who touches or carries it, a chair or couch that is under it and all within a house containing it, whether it be a person or a useful object susceptible to becoming impure.[47]

 

 

Leprosy of a house. Leprosy of a house is shown by a bright green or bright red color of the minimum required size[48] that is deep into the surface of a wall.[49]

 

Only the houses of Jews in the Land of Israel, but not in Jerusalem, can be ritually impure due to leprosy.[50] A house with leprosy is a Father of Impurity. A person who touches a leprous house[51] on the inside or the outside[52] or enters such a house[53] becomes impure.

 

A house with signs of leprosy is to be closed up by a priest for one week. If the color signaling leprosy fades, then the area of the color is scraped and the house is declared pure. If the color spreads, then the stones where the color is are to be removed and the whole house plastered. If the color returns after a week following the plastering, the house is to be declared impure and torn down. If, after plastering, the color does not reappear in a week, the house is purified with birds and it is pure.[54] The purification procedure for a house with birds is the same as that for an impure person with leprosy (discussed above) except that the sprinkling is done on the lintel of the house instead of the person's hand.[55]

 

________________

 

Laws of Religion is a project of the Religion Research Society.

 

Updated October 16, 2016

 

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Ritual Purity Laws of Judaism, Table of Contents

 

Abbreviations used in footnotes:

Gen: The Biblical book of Genesis.

Exod: The Biblical book of Exodus.

Lev: The Biblical book of Leviticus.

Num: The Biblical Book of Numbers.

Deut: The Biblical Book of Deuteronomy.

MT:  The Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Code of Maimonides). The names of the specific books and treatises within each book are given according to the Yale University Press translation and also the Moznaim/Touger Hebrew transliterations to facilitate locating the texts posted here.

F:  indicates page numbers in the Feldheim Publishers, Ltd., translation of Book 1 of the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Book of Knowledge.

M:  indicates page numbers in the relevant volume of the Moznaim Publishing Corporation’s Touger translation. (Some of the books of Mishneh Torah are published in several volumes by Moznaim, so the Moznaim volume numbers do not correspond to the Book numbers of Maimonides’ work.)

Y:  indicates page numbers in the translation of the Yale University Press Judaica Series.

●  The sources cited are described on the page Source Texts Used for Laws of Judaism.

 



[1] Lev 13:1-44

[2] Lev 13:45-46, Num 5:1-4

[3] Lev 14:1-32

[4] Lev 13:47-59

[5] Lev 14:33-45

[6] Lev 14:46

[7] Lev 14:47

[8] Lev 14:33-53

[9] Num 12:1-15

[10] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 16, sec 10 (pages 203-204Y)

[11] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 1, secs 1-3 (pages 150-151Y)

[12] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 1, secs 4-5 (page 151Y)

[13] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 1, sec 6 (pages 151-152Y)

[14] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 1, secs 7-8 (page 152Y)

[15] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 1, sec 10 (pages 152-153Y)

[16] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 9, sec 2 (page 176Y)

[17] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 9, sec 1 (page 176Y)

[18] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 1, sec 10 (pages 152-153Y)

[19] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 2, sec 1 (page 153Y)

[20] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 2, sec 6 (page 155Y)

[21] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 3, sec 1 (page 156Y)

[22] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 3, sec 2 (page 156Y)

[23] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 5, secs 1-4 (pages 162-163Y)

[24] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 8, secs 1-5 (pages 172-173Y)

[25] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 8, secs 6-8 (pages 173-174Y)

[26] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 10, sec 1 (page 180Y)

[27] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 10, sec 11 (pages 182-183Y)

[28] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 10, sec 12 (page 183Y)

[29] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 10, sec 6 (pages 181-182Y)

[30] MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah; Treatise 1 on the Temple, Beit Habechirah;  Chapter 7, sec 13 (pages 112M 32Y); MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 10, sec 7 (page 182Y)

[31] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 10, sec 8 (page 182Y)

[32] MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah; Treatise 3 on Entrance into the Sanctuary, Bi’at HaMikdash;  Chapter 3, sec 8 (pages 234M 93Y)

[33] MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah; Treatise 3 on Entrance into the Sanctuary, Bi’at HaMikdash;  Chapter 3, sec 9 (pages 234M 94Y)

[34] MT Book 8, The Book of Temple Service, Sefer Ha’Avodah; Treatise 3 on Entrance into the Sanctuary, Bi’at HaMikdash;  Chapter 2, sec 11 (pages 228-230M 91Y)

[35] MT Book 9, The Book of Offerings, Sefer HaKorbanot; Treatise 5 on Those Whose Atonement is Not Complete, Mechusrei Kapparah; Chapter 4, sec 1 (pages 324-326M 166Y)

[36] MT Book 9, The Book of Offerings, Sefer HaKorbanot; Treatise 5 on Those Whose Atonement is Not Complete, Mechusrei Kapparah; Chapter 4, sec 1 (pages 324-326M 166Y); MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 11, sec 2 (page 185Y)

[37] MT Book 9, The Book of Offerings, Sefer HaKorbanot; Treatise 5 on Those Whose Atonement is Not Complete, Mechusrei Kapparah;Chapter 4, sec 1 (pages 324-326M 166Y)

[38] MT Book 9, The Book of Offerings, Sefer HaKorbanot; Treatise 5 on Those Whose Atonement is Not Complete, Mechusrei Kapparah; Chapter 1, sec 3 (pages 304M 155-156Y)

[39] MT Book 9, The Book of Offerings, Sefer HaKorbanot; Treatise 5 on Those Whose Atonement is Not Complete, Mechusrei Kapparah; Chapter 4, sec 2 (pages 326-328M 166-168Y)

[40] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 11, sec 1 (pages 183-185Y)

[41] MT Book 9, The Book of Offerings, Sefer HaKorbanot; Treatise 5 on Those Whose Atonement is Not Complete, Mechusrei Kapparah; Chapter 4, sec 1 (pages 324-326M 166Y)

[42] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 11, sec 2 (page 185Y)

[43] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 11, sec 6 (page 186Y)

[44] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 12, sec 1 (pages 187-188Y)

[45] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 13, sec 2 (page 191Y)

[46] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 13, sec 11 (page 193Y)

[47] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 13, secs 13-14 (page 194Y)

[48] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 14, secs 1-2 (pages 194-195Y)

[49] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 14, sec 3 (page 195Y)

[50] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 14, sec 11 (page 197Y)

[51] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 16, sec 1 (page 200Y)

[52] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 16, sec 2 (pages 200-201Y)

[53] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 16, sec 6 (pages 201-202Y)

[54] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 15, sec 2 (pages 198-199Y)

[55] MT Book 10, The Book of Cleanness, Sefer Taharah; Treatise 3 on Leprosy, Chapter 15, sec 8 (page 200Y)