Through the end of the Second Temple period, most forms of ritual impurity were part of the rhythm of life, more or less disruptive, but not catastrophic.
A notable exception was tzara’at, a skin malady (note that it is not leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, although it is sometimes translated that way) that could be inflicted in response to various sins. When a person received a conclusive diagnosis, becoming a metzora (or tzaru’a), life ground to a halt. The metzora tore his garments, let his hair grow, partially covered his face, and dwelt alone outside the camp.
And the tzaru’a in whom the blight is found: his clothing shall be ripped and his hair unshorn, and he shall cloak himself over the lip, and he shall call out “Impure! Impure!” All the days in which the blight in him is impure, he shall be impure, alone shall he sit, his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46)
The words “he shall cloak himself over the lip” are particularly striking for us this year, when many of us have been wearing masks.
Why did the metzora cover his face? There are several possible interpretations.
Rashi, following Torat Kohanim and Onkelos, explains that covering the face was a mourning custom. Tanach alludes to this with Yechezkel, who must abrogate the usual practices of mourning: “and you shall not cloak yourself over the lip” (Yechezkel 24:17), and with Haman, described as “mourning and with his head covered” (Esther 6:12).
The mourner would draw his head-covering down over the upper portion of his face, reaching to his lips (Mo’ed Katan 24a). Like a torn garment and an unshorn head, covering the face conveys deliberate neglect of personal appearance as an expression of sorrow. This custom is no longer practiced (Rema, Yoreh Deah 386), although there are those who pull their hats a bit farther down over their foreheads during shivah (Penei Baruch 17:1).
It is hard not to relate to this impulse, as we absorb the enormity of the pandemic and its cost in lives lost.
Ibn Ezra offers a different explanation: “So that he should not cause harm through the breath of his mouth.” Chizkuni elaborates: “To block the bad smell that comes out of his mouth, so as not to harm people.”
These commentators seem to understand tzara’at as potentially infectious. They also interpret the “over the lip” to mean covering the lower portion of the face up over the lip, rather than the upper portion down to the lip. This is, of course, strikingly similar in both form and purpose to the masks we wear today. In fact, Beit Yosef argues that the mourner covered his face from the top down, and not from the bottom up, precisely because covering the lower portion of the face could easily be mistaken as being for health reasons rather than as an expression of mourning (Yoreh Deah 386).
The Talmud suggests an alternative reading of the verse: “That his lips should adhere to each other, that he should be like one who is shunned or like a mourner, and forbidden to offer greeting” (Mo’ed Katan 15a). The metzora’s lips are sealed from ordinary social pleasantries.
Ha’amek Davar notes that covering one’s face, in itself, causes a person to speak less with others.
Face masks and social distancing measures tend to silence us, to cut off the greetings and conversations that normally bind us to society.
Scroll up to the top of this blog, or almost any other blog here, and you will see a picture of the author’s face. Why? Because the face is the basic visual representation of identity, and the first building block of social interaction.
To see another person “face to face” is to know them – casually, or intimately, or even, as with Moses and God, mystically and allegorically:
And God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow… (Exodus 33:11)
And no prophet arose again in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face. (Deuteronomy 34:10)
Covering our faces can be disorienting. Do casual acquaintances recognize us? Can neighbors tell when we smile at them in greeting? Who are we in public, without our faces?
When our faces are obscured, we risk losing the connections a face-to-face encounter can create.
The mitzvot of face-covering and isolation challenge the metzora’s sense of identity. Submitting to these restrictions may impel him to reflect on and repent of the sins that might have led to his tzara’at, and to merit recovery and reintegration.
In contrast to the metzora, though, our challenge these days is to overcome face-covering and isolation, to work to maintain social connections, even as we carefully observe the rules of social distancing. We must continue to speak with each other, even if only by phone, and to see each other’s faces, even if only online.
May this new month bring health and healing.