One strand of opinion among our ancient rabbis says that these phenomena “never were and never will be.” (Tosefta) Other rabbis pointed to two buildings, one in the Galilee and one in Gaza, that were rumored to be infected, but there was no eyewitness confirmation for either. Modern commentators have suggested dry rot, fungus, lichens or mold.
Without a clear understanding of this red or green tzara`at, the rabbis resorted to word play. Some might be surprised at this, but it happens quite frequently in traditional commentary. The great translator Hillel Halkin thinks of this as “pouring new wine into old Scriptural bottles.”
Take the word tzara`at, reassign a vowel, extract a letter and name it — and the result is the expression tzarut ayin. Literally, this means “narrow eye,” but it is an idiom meaning avarice.
So the plague that can affect a house is avarice. This is not mere greed. It is an insatiable “desire to gain and hoard wealth,” according to one dictionary. Even a greedy person might share, but an avaricious person — never.
The procedure prescribed in the Torah for a suspected case of house-plague is an inspection of all the walls of a house after the entire contents of the house have been removed. In our interpretation, this becomes a punishment for avarice. The hoarder is made to render all that he owns available for public inspection.
The Chomat Anakh takes this a step further. The beginning of our paragraph is phrased in the plural, speaking of a plagued house “in the land that you possess.” But the very next verse shifts to the singular, referring to “the owner of the house.” This commentary explains that the owner “joins his house to his self. He would not give others pleasure from it. God gave him a house full of every good thing so that he would also do good to others.” Because God gave the land to the Israelites as a group, “there is no place for avarice to say, ‘My own power and the strength of my own hand made this wealth.’ (Deuteronomy 8:17) [God inflicts] a plague in the place where you ascribe possession to yourselves.”
Now avarice is joined to ingratitude, and the ungrateful hoarder is turned out of his house with nowhere to store his publicly revealed possessions.
The opposite of the narrow eye is the open hand. Our tradition neither bans wealth nor exalts poverty. Rather, it demands that every Jew, rich or poor or in-between, share with the community. Gratitude toward God involves being conscious that we might not have been as comfortable as we are. Therefore we have responsibilities not only toward those who have less, but to all those among whom we live.
Many plagued houses lead to a rotten community. Sharing some of what we have strengthens our community and protects us as individuals.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)