The Subtleties Of One Letter
We can learn numerous lessons from the statement of the owner of a house that appears to be afflicted with spiritual defilement.
Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.
The first signs of tzaraat [a disease often translated as leprosy] must be examined carefully. Tzara’atis the collective name for afflictions that attack the body, clothing or house; the usual translation of “leprosy” is inaccurate. Tzara’at is a source of tum’ah (a hard word to translate as well; the best we might say is “spiritual defilement” determined by physical conditions), and requires purification (taharah).
The rabbis teach that Hashemincurstzara’at on one whose character is flawed by, for example, speaking ill of others or selfishness (Tractate Arachin 15-16). At first his house is affected, then his clothing, and only after these manifestations is his body afflicted. Tzara’atis a “good pain,” punishing him at a stage when these faults can still be rectified.
First comes house-tzaraat:
When you will come to the land of Canaan which I give to you for a possession, and I will put the plague of tzara’at in a house of the land of your possession. And he to whom the house belongs shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘Something like a plague has appeared to me in the house.’ Then the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest comes to view the plague, so that all that is in the house be not made tamei (spiritually defiled); then afterwards the priest shall come to view the house (Vayikra 14:34-36).
Rashi refers to the Mishnah (Nega’im 12:5): Even if the owner of the house who notices the signs is a scholar, and is able to determine with certainty that this is tzara’at, he may not state categorically “nega”--“A plague has appeared to me in the house,” but rather “k’nega”--“Something like a plague has appeared to me in the house.” The Rambam codifies this in the Laws of the Uncleanness of Tzara’at (14:4).
Why dilute the truth? As the Siftei Chachamim (Shabbetai Bass, 1641-1718) points out, at first the Torah says, “and I will put the plague of tzara’at,” which indicates certainty. So, why should the Torah now insist on the words ofuncertainty, “Something like a plague?”
However, even if the owner of the housewere to make a definitive statement, it would have no effect, because, as the Mishnah teaches (Nega’im 3:1), “Uncleanness and cleanness are in the power of the Kohen (priest):” the Kohen tells him whether to declare “tamei,” and only then does the house become tamei. The Kohen’s proclamation is intrinsic to the creation of reality. All the owner does is provide the basis for creating that reality.
This leads to the question asked by R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (c.1450-1526): Why must the owner say “k’nega?” After all, prior to the Kohen’s proclamation there is no tum’ah. So, what harm would there be in the owner saying “nega?” Whatever he says will not change the situation anyway!
A comprehensive summaryof the major points of view in this question is presented by R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654) in his commentary Tosefot Yom Tov on the Mishnah. He discusses five opinions: