Metzora and the Observer-Dependent Reality

Hiding between the seemingly dry—and to the modern ear, somewhat esoteric—laws of Parashat Metzora is a fascinating insight into the nature of reality and human knowledge.

But let’s back up a bit…. In the last week’s parashah, we learned that a person afflicted by tzara’at may not enter a holy place until he or she has been healed, purified by washing, and has offered the proper sacrifices.

But what exactly is tzara’at. The word is often translated as “leprosy”, but it is clear that the condition described in the Torah has little in common with the disease known as leprosy these days. In Talmudic times, tzara’at could be any disease that produces sores or eruptions on the skin, but it was also interpreted as being more a spiritual malady than a medical one.

Schrödinger’s House

Whatever tzara’at is, it turns out that even houses can come down with it! And here, an interesting new twist comes into our text. A human being is described as simply “having a rash”, but in the case of a house, there is a definitive culprit: “When…I place a lesion of tzara’at upon a house…” God here takes responsibility for the affliction.

In such a case, the homeowner is told to summon a kohen to come and inspect the house. But oddly, he is to do this in a particularly circumspect manner, saying “Something like a lesion has appeared to me in my house”. Not “a lesion has appeared”, but “something like a lesion…” Why the odd dancing around the topic?

We get a hint of what’s at stake later on, when we’re told that a house afflicted by a persistent plague of tzara’at must be torn down and even the building materials discarded. Clearly, tzara’at in a house isn’t something to be desired!

Still, dancing around the topic isn’t going to help; either the affliction is tzara’at or it isn’t!

Or is it?

We get a glimpse that things aren’t so black-and-white when we are told:

The priest shall order the house cleared before the priest enters to examine the plague, so that nothing in the house may become ritually impure; after that the priest shall enter to examine the house.

This isn’t just a matter of getting the furniture out to safeguard it, or to make the priest’s job easier. It’s done so that, should the priest declare the house fatally infected, nothing will be in the house at the time. But how can this help? After all, the stuff was there at the time the homeowner first saw the “infection”. And if the affliction is declared to be tzara’at, then it didn’t just magically go from non-tzara’at to tzara’at when the priest saw it!

Except that it did! The furniture and belongings are removed from the house because something that the priest hasn’t seen can’t be declared tammeh, ritually impure. So long as the belongings aren’t there when they priest makes the declaration, it’s as if they were never there to begin with!

The implications of all this are astonishing. Even when God Himself infects a house, such that it should be considered tammeh, the condition of impurity does not set in until the priest has examined the house, quarantined it for the required time, and then declared it infected. It is the priest’s declaration that determines the condition of the house.

Put differently, there is no objective “reality”, until a designated observer declares it to be so. Between the time the homeowner first saw “something like a lesion” and the declaration of the house as pure or impure, the house is in a state of uncertainty.

Learning to live with uncertainty

Nor is this the only case where observation defines reality. Take the case of the man who has a seminal emission, also described in our parasha. A man who saw two emissions on two consecutive days is ritually impure, and all of the stringencies of a zav apply to him. If he sees a third emission, he is liable to bring an offering as part of his purification ritual. But what if he saw one or both of the emissions during the period of twilight—Bein haShmashot—the time between one day and another? Does one emission count for two, because bein hashmot belongs to both days? And if he sees another emission, does he bring the sacrifice or not? The Talmud (Shabbat 34b) poses just this conundrum:

אמר מר מטילין אותו לחומר שני ימים למאי הלכתא אמר רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע לענין טומאה כדתנן ראה שני ימים בין השמשות ספק לטומאה ולקרבן ראה יום אחד בין השמשות ספק לטומאה

The Master said: we impose the stringencies of both days on [twilight]. With regard to what halakhah? Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, said: [with regard] to the mater of ritual impurity, as we learned: [A zav who] saw [an emission for] two [consecutive] days during twilight has uncertain status with regard to both ritual impurity and to sacrifice. If he saw an emission one day during twilight, he has uncertain status with regard to ritual impurity [as it may be considered two days].

In order to understand the dilemma here, we need to delve into that mysterious time period called Bein haShmashot. The discussion revolves around the fact that Bein haShmashot  is used as a demarcation between one day and the next, and sometimes between one spiritual state and the next. Bein haShmashot is all about the blurring of boundaries. When exactly is it? When does it start and when does it end.

Our Sages taught: As to twilight [period] it is uncertain whether it is partly day and partly night, or the whole of it [belongs to the] day, or the whole of it night: [therefore] we impose on it the stringencies of both days. And what is twilight? From sunset as long as the face of the east has a reddish glow: when the lower [horizon] is pale but not the upper, it is twilight; [but] when the upper [horizon] is pale and the same as the lower, it is night: this is the opinion of R’ Judah. R’ Nehemiah says: For as long as it takes a man to walk half a mil after sunset. R’ Jose said: Twilight is as the blink of an eye, one entering and the other departing, and it is impossible to calculate it.

These three opinions represent very different ways of looking at the world. Rabbi Yehuda relies on objective phenomenon, passively observed. We look at the sky. Is the horizon the same color as the zenith? If yes, then night has fallen. If not, then we are still bein hashashot.

R’ Nehemia’s definition is a matter of human measurement. We determine the length of Bein haShmashot  based on a human scale—the length of the human stride.

But according to R’ Yossi, the matter is truly cosmic. It has nothing to do with us. No observation, whether of objective phenomena or of subjective determination, can tell us the exact moment when day passes into night. R’ Yossi’s observation, that the passage from day to night is indeterminable in principle resonates with our modern appreciation of relativistic and quantum effects. The world at its most basic is unknowable. In this realm, chance is the pseudonym of God when He prefers not to sign.

Tolerance for ambiguity

There really are things that we can’t measure, and these aren’t trivial things, but even the most basic things, upon which we base our daily lives. But not in every case do we handle uncertainty with greater stringency.

Rava said: If two people said to one person, “Go and place an eruv (joining of courtyards) for us”, and he placed an eruv for one while it is yet day, and for the other he made the eruv at twilight, and the eruv of him for whom he placed it by day was eaten at twilight, and the eruv of the one for whom he placed it at twilight was eaten after nightfall, both acquire [their] eruv. What will you? if twilight is day, the second should acquire, but not the first; while if twilight is night, the first should acquire, but not the second? Twilight is uncertain, and uncertainty in respect to a Rabbinic ordinance is ruled leniently. (Bavli, Shabbat 34a)

This is a very important principle: Uncertainty is a condition of human life (of all life, actually, in the sense that no life could arise in the absence of uncertainty). The fact that we tend toward leniency in cases of doubt has probably shaped Halakhah and Jewish thought more than any other legal principle—it is an admission of—perhaps even an acceptance off—the limitation of human knowledge. It guards us from fanaticism—the certainty of knowledge—because we are constantly having to weigh alternatives, and thus must admit that alternatives exist and are important.

In an era of increasing polarization and hardening of opinions, such an appreciation of our limits is sorely needed!

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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