Sex with a Leper

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Both this week’s Torah portion — Metzorah — and last week’s Torah portion of Tazriah address the diagnosis and treatment of an unusual and cryptic malady — commonly, if inaccurately, referred to as leprosy. This biblical form of leprosy would manifest itself as lesions or stains on cloth, leather, or houses, as well as skin and hair, causing ritual impurity. This leprosy is referred to as Tzara’at, and the leper, a Metzorah.

For purposes of this week’s Double Mitzvah, here are the key details that you need to know about Tzara’at:

  • Whereas most legal determinations in Jewish culture are made by the Jewish court of law — either the large courts (the Sanhedrin) or the smaller local court (the Beit Din) — diagnosing leprosy was left to Kohen, a member of the priesthood.
  • Declaring someone to have leprosy was not simply a diagnosis of an existing malady; because Tzara’at was of a spiritual nature and of spiritual origin, the Kohen’s declaration of Tzara’at is itself what caused the resulting ritual impurity; so long as no such declaration was made, the person was not considered to be ritually impure, and was not a Metzorah.
  • Once confirmed as having Tzara’at, the Metzorah would be required to leave all three of the Israelite camps — the priestly camp, the Levite camp, and the Israelite camp — to be quarantined outside of the Jewish community. He was required to sit alone, without company, and to announce his to all those who came near.[1]
  • One of the reasons for this solitude is that the condition of Tzara’at was seen as a consequence of negative gossip, lashon harah. Thus, as the speaker of lashon harah weakened the relationships and bonds among the community through gossip and slander, he is required to remove himself from that community.[2]

At some point, the Kohen, who would visit those with Tzara’at outside of the camp, would determine that the Metzorah had been healed of his leprosy. At that point, the Kohen would perform a detailed purification ritual, and the Metzorah would be required to shave all visible hair, wash his clothes, and immerse himself in water, at which point the he would be permitted to reenter the Israelite camp.

His ordeal did not end there, however. Even after all that, the Torah says that “he may enter the camp, but he shall remain outside his tent for seven days.”[3]

All of the commentaries agree, however, that the above verse did not require a Metzorah to actually sit out in front of his tent for a week. Rather, the Talmud teaches that “his tent” is actually a reference to his wife, and that “remaining outside his tent” is a euphemism for celibacy.
So [4], no sex throughout that week (even assuming that his wife would be sexually attracted to her hairless husband).

But this raises a question in the Talmud: If a Metzorah, as part of his purification process, is prohibited from sex for a week, how about during his state of impurity, when he is required to sit isolated outside the Israelite camp? Is sex forbidden to him then as well? A dispute in the Talmud ensues, with the conclusion being…

No. A Metzorah is required to separate from his wife only during his purification week; notwithstanding his quarantine, martial intimacy is permitted throughout the entire period that he is afflicted with Tzara’at.

Which raises another Talmudic issue.

There is a dispute in the Talmud as to whether a Kohen may see Tzara’at “patients” on the holidays, such as Passover, Sukkot, etc. The concern is that, if the Kohen confirms that a person does indeed have leprosy, then the Metzorah will become instantly ritually impure, and will need to immediately exit the Israelite camp, and thereby destroy the joy that we are commanded to have on the holidays. Thus, the ultimate halachic ruling is that a Kohen, indeed, may not view cases of Tzara’at on the holidays.

There was an opinion, however, that the Kohen should be able to view cases of Tzara’at on the holidays, but only when it would benefit the Metzorah, but not when it would have hurt him.

And, of course, there is a Talmudic debate about this too: When does the Kohen viewingTzara’at benefit the leper, and when does it hurt him? This Talmudic debate rests upon the answer to the following question:

What is more important to a male — being with his wife, or his community? Marital intimacy, or “hanging out with the boys”?

One opinion posits that community and social interaction is more important. Thus, a Kohen may not view potential Tzara’at cases on the holidays, because a declaration that a person does indeed have Tzara’at would immediately consign him to isolation, which would deprive him of his greater source of joy on the holiday. On the other hand, the Kohen would be permitted to make his rounds of the lepers already outside the camp on the holidays, because, if he determines that a Metzorah’s condition is unchanged, he will be no worse off, but if the Kohen determines that the Metzorah has been healed, he may immediately rejoin the community — even though he will now be prohibited from marital intimacy for the duration of the holiday.

The second opinion, however, is the reverse: marital intimacy is paramount to a man, with social interaction paling in comparison to companionship with one’s spouse. Thus, a Kohen would be permitted to see potential Tzara’at cases on the holidays, because even if he declares a man to be impure, and forced to leave the community, it is of little consequence, as he is not being separated from his wife. Conversely, the Kohen would not be permitted to see confirmed lepers outside of the camp on the holidays, because if he determines that a Metzorah has been healed of his Tzara’at, he may rejoin the community, but he would now be separated from his wife for the rest of the holiday; and this, more than anything else, would deprive him of his holiday joy.[5]

As I mentioned, the ultimate halachic ruling is that a Kohen does not view Tzara’at cases on the holidays at all, in an implicit acknowledgment that both community and spousal intimacy are key to our holiday joy, and that depriving us of either one of them would dampen our spirits.

Moreover — all sex aside — there is no question but that different men have different needs. There are some married guys that still get together regularly with their buddies. Many more, however, leave their male friends behind when they get married. Recent studies and literature simultaneously show that more married men tend to not have good friends outside of their marriage that they would turn to in the event of a crisis; yet rail against it as an unhealthy state of isolation.

What do you think?

Works Cited

[1] Leviticus, 13:46.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 16b.

[3] Leviticus, 14:8.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Moed Kattan 7b.

[5] Of course, this dilemma presumes that the Metzorah’s wife would be interested in having sex with her leprous (not lecherous) husband outside the camp — according to at lest one commentary (Da’at Z’kainim, Leviticus, 13:46), sexual intercourse with a leper is not ideal for the wife. It also appears that the Talmud is conflating marital sex and marital companionship, as it seems that a Metzorah undergoing to the purification process seems to be prohibited only from the former, and not from the latter; conversely, it is unclear whether the required isolation of the Metzorah outside the camp is such that it may only be interrupted by periodic conjugal visits, or if his wife may/does actually join him in his isolation, so that he is never deprived of her company.