Shabbat Message: Searching with Light

April 12, 2019
By Beth Mordecai
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Shabbat Message: Searching with Light

Throughout the week I study each parsha and read various commentaries and explanations written by ancient and modern rabbis. This week I read the following explanation of the parsha, written by one of my teachers, Rabbi Joel Levy at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

I found the following piece thought provoking and extremely relevant. Please click here and share your thoughts with me.


The central section of Parashat Metzora deals with the outbreak of tzara’at (a leprosy-like growth) on plastered buildings. On discovering an outbreak the homeowner is instructed to report it to a priest who would then come and inspect the house to determine whether or not the outbreak constituted a true infestation that required full purification rituals. The symptoms of building tzara’at closely resemble tzara’at in human beings, as described in previous chapters in Vayikra. Indeed the parallels between tzara’at in buildings and in human beings are further emphasized by discussions in rabbinic literature.

In Vayikra 14:35 the homeowner states to the priest: “Something like a plague has appeared to me in my house.” In Hebrew: “k’nega nire li babayit.” The Sifra, a collection of halachic midrashim on Vayikra, focuses in on the word “li” – “to me”:”Since it says li (to me) rather than l’ori (to my light) from here they said that “Windows of a dark house may not be opened to examine its tzara’at.'”

The Sifra understands this verse as implying that in order for a house to be officially declared as infested, any infection had to be visible to the naked eye under the lighting conditions that normally prevail in that specific room. (This ruling from the midrash appears also in the Mishnah itself in Negaim 2:3.)

If you chose to, you were permitted to go grubbing around looking for infestations of tzara’at in your house; turning on all the lights, flinging open the windows and searching diligently with a magnifying glass. However, if while doing this, you did indeed discover what looked like an infestation, the house could not yet be declared officially infested. Despite the presence of what looked a lot like tzara’at, the house would not require any purification process.

We can understand why this is the case when we see how the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 92a) uses this ruling to illustrate a more far-reaching suggestion about how to lead one’s life: “R. Eleazar said: Always be obscure so that you can endure. R. Zera said: We have learned likewise: ‘The windows of a dark house may not be opened to examine its tzara’at.’ This proves it!” And Rashi explains: “It turns out that its very darkness is its salvation, for as long as the priest cannot see it – it isn’t infected with tzara’at.”

Drawing a parallel between a house and a person, this sugya uses the “saving” darkness of the house to teach us to impose a certain “darkness” or obscurity on our lives. Just as the dark house cannot be declared impure, so a life lived without absolute exposure is saved from being declared impure. In other words, a person should not expose all their inner workings to public scrutiny. We all contain a dark side, a core of impurity, skeletons in the cupboard, desires and instincts that would seem very ugly if we were to display them to the public.

Every home contains fungi and bacteria (not to mention dubious moral practices) if we look hard enough, and every soul contains elements which should be left in the private realm rather than being brought to broad public attention. What constitutes the “natural light” of one’s existence is something worth thinking about, but the principle seems to be clear – an absolutely transparent existence would be unendurable. The public sphere of existence should be played out on a macro-scale leaving the private realm to the magnifying glass and the microscope.

Contrast this with the process of searching for chametz on the night before Pesach. The ritualized search for chametz performed at night is conducted with a ner, a lamp or candle (Mishnah Pesachim 1:1). The Talmud (4a) suggests that the search must be at night because the whole family will be present and because “lamp light is good for searching!”

This second suggestion is perplexing; surely daylight would be better for spotting chametz? The Mishnah Berurah suggests that a night-time search by lamp or candle is not so good at lighting up easy to spot places but it is the only way of lighting up the usually dark inner recesses of cracks and holes. Natural light illuminates the superficial, but obscures the inner recesses; the search for chametz requires the type of unnatural light that penetrates into normally unseen places.

Category : Rabbi Rabbi's Journal Shabbat