an honest house

parshat tazria – metzora

When something bad happens, we look for a reason. Why did it happen to me? What did I do wrong? All the more so when the malady in question is of a public nature… why did it happen to her? What did she do? So it’s no surprise that when in (Numbers 12: 10), Miriam was smitten by tsaraat, a noticeable skin condition, the Bible links this ailment to Miriam’s speaking badly about her brother Moses.

You spread rumours behind someone’s back, you’ll be punished by not being able to show your face in public, or if you do, everyone will know your dirty little secret.

The laws of tsaraat (commonly, but incorrectly known as leprosy) are introduced in detail in Leviticus, the so-called Priestly Code. Just finished with the consecration of the Tabernacle, the initiation of the Sacrifices and the convocation of the Priests; the Bible addresses a diagnosis and treatment regiment for an impurity/ailment caused by a sin between man and his fellow man… not some ritual taboo. Moreover, this focus on repairing human relationships goes beyond dermatology, it extends into mildew and fungus infections in clothing and house. In short the Priestly Code assumes that any publically disfiguring condition must be caused by private sins against one’s fellow man… not an indiscretion in the ritual purity code. Sounds like the Priestly editor wasn’t such a ritually minded cleric after all.

Frankly, we have seen too many good people suffering from disease and too many not-so-good people living in good health to a ripe old age, to believe the Biblical and latter Rabbinic linkage between bad health and bad character. But we must be grateful nonetheless for the Priestly editor’s focus on the human/social as opposed to tabernacle/temple, after so many Leviticus chapters dealing with tabernacle, sacrifices and purity.

We cannot but be intrigued by the humanistic bend here and by the potential corollary: that personal health, a fashion sense and especially good home design might compliment, if not encourage a good disposition. Let’s read:

34 When ye are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of tsaraat in a house of the land of your possession;
35 then he that owneth the house shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘There seemeth to me to be as it were a plague in the house.’
36 And the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go in to see the plague, that all that is in the house be not made unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to see the house.
37 And he shall look on the plague, and, behold, if the plague be in the walls of the house with hollow streaks, greenish or reddish, and the appearance thereof be lower than the wall;
38 then the priest shall go out of the house to the door of the house, and shut up the house seven days. (Leviticus 14: 34-38)

We have become so accustomed to the priest going to the “door of the Ohel Moed [Tabernacle]” to make a public announcement, that we cannot miss this subtle transition to priest making a public statement at the “door of the house”… in verse 38.

49 And he shall take to cleanse the house two birds, and cedar-wood, and scarlet, and hyssop.
52 And he shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedar-wood, and with the hyssop, and with the scarlet.
53 But he shall let go the living bird out of the city into the open field; so shall he make atonement for the house; and it shall be clean.

Here too we have a parallel which is pregnant with meaning.  The Priest is performing a cleansing ritual, including a sacrificial rite at the door of the house.  It is strickingly similar to the rite carried out in the holy temple at the climax of the Yom Kippur Temple service in order to achieve purification for the Temple and the Nation… where the priest takes the two goats and sacrifices one and sends the other to the wilderness (see Azazel Leviticus 16:8-10.)

The transfer of focus from the Tabernacle/Temple to the Home/House is remarkable. This textual realignment of the focus from Temple to House foreshadows the strategic realignment after the destruction of the Temple in 70ce that insured the survival of Jewish identity where the Rabbis substituted the home for the Temple.

 Taking the blood of the bird and spreading it on the surface of the house also resonates a pre-Tabernacle period when the House was the center of Jewish ritual life at the moment of the Exodus:

7 And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it. (Exodus 12:7)

The message is clear… The Jewish house did not become important only after the destruction of the Temple. It predated the Temple and even made a strong showing while the Temple/Tabernacle was in service…. as is clear from the dedication ritual of a home infected with tsaraat.

In fact… the most popular biblical quotation found in Jewish houses of worship… and to be recited upon entering a Synagogue.. was hijacked from the Jewish home. When Balaam the Moabite prophet was divinely inspired he proclaimed: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5) he was referring to the Jewish Homes and their inhabitants who had not succumbed to a licentious assault launched by the Moabites. According to Rabbinic tradition he was impressed by the privacy afforded by the layout of the Jewish tents, who were oriented so that no tent door opened to another (see Rashi numbers 24:5). Clearly the Mishkanot referenced by Balaam were not tabernacles as in temples… but tabernacles as in the Jewish home…..

One could almost make an argument that it wasn’t Temple that was a precursor or model of the Jewish home… but to the contrary… the Temple was an institutional version of the home. While we might call our homes a Mikdash ma’at (a small temple) we call the hill upon which the Temple sits… Har HaBayit… the mount of the Home.

My grandmother who died at the ripe old age of 102 and precticed and preached health food before it was fashionable used to say.. we should treat our bodies as a temple. The Rabbis took this to heart when they referred to the tephilin; those little boxes we use to consecrate our bodies as batim, “houses”….

In fact, the word Bayit – house also refers to one’s spouse: “And when her father and mother had died, Mordechai adopted her as his daughter.” (Megilat Esther 2:7) The Gemara (Megillah 13a) says, “read not ‘lebat’ — ‘a daughter’ but ‘lebayit’ — ‘a wife,’ ” [lit. “a home”]… In other words, our spouse is our bayit; our temple.

There is an intriguing phrase or expression that was coined in the Bible and survives till today, which to my mind captures the centrality of the home to Judaism before, during and after the Temple. It is a blessing where we wish newlyweds till today.. that they should build themselves a bayit ne’eman amongst their people

38 And it shall be, if thou wilt hearken unto all that I command thee, and wilt walk in My ways, and do that which is right in Mine eyes, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as David My servant did, that I will be with thee, and will build thee a sure house (bayit ne’eman), as I built for David, and will give Israel unto thee. (1 Kings 11.38)

35 And I will raise Me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in My heart and in My mind; and I will build him a sure house (bayit ne’eman); and he shall walk before Mine anointed forever. (1 Samuel 2.35)

Baruch Schwartz, at the Department of Bible, Hebrew University of Jerusalem explains that the word ne’eman, today used to mean faithful, trustworthy, is used frequently in the Bible to mean “lasting, enduring” (in addition to its frequent use in the sense of “unfailing, reliable” which is quite similar. One can see that the modern meaning too is derived from this but is slightly different.) Not “faithful”, but enduring, abiding, stable, constant. That’s what we are wishing the newlyweds: that they establish a “house”, i.e. a line of descendants, that endures and continues to be a part of the “house” of Israel.


I am confident that the good professor is correct and agree that the concept of Bayit.. the house/home, is the source of survival, nay flourishing of our people and culture. But I also believe that there is another nuance to “ne’eman” .. not so much faithful … as in Emunah – Faith, but honest as in having integrity. (Ish ne-eman v’yasher is a trustworthy and reliable man)

I came across this insight from my interest in the Arts & Crafts Movement and in reading the writings of its founder and spokesman, Gustav Stickley who popularized the word “honest” in conjunction with the choice of materials, layout, placement and craftsmanship used in building one’s home and furniture.

At the turn of the 20th century Stickley came under the influence of William Morris and the British design reformers, who embraced a simple, “honest” and modest style. Stickley believed that Industrialization had led to poorly designed products made using shoddy mechanical production. Instead, he advocated a return to a simple, vernacular aesthetic that exploited the natural beauty of pure materials, and that depended on the skill and acuity of the craftsman.

Stickley’s pieces were made of unvarnished wood — mostly local oak, which was considered a sturdy and “honest” wood by the Arts & Crafts movement. There was typically no applied decoration other than hammered copper hinges and hardware, the form of the piece relating directly to its function. The construction of each piece was clearly articulated — joinery and fittings were always revealed, which the design reformers saw as an important part of honesty and soundness of design. Other characteristics of Stickley furniture include nailhead upholstery trim (again, combining form with function), the use of copper, leather and ceramic tile in addition to solid wood, and earthy colors like moss green, reddish-brown and mustard. [ed almost makes you think of the description of the materials used in the Tabernacle!)

Stickley, a pragmatist, strayed a bit from the Arts & Crafts orthodoxy, producing his designs in commercially competitive factories with the help of machines. But he retained a commitment to modest, honest wood furniture with a crafts-based approach, combined with his belief  in the rights and education of his workers.

So when I bless a newlywed couple… as I do this week on the occasion of the marriage of Ilana Schachter and John Feuerstein, I bless them that they build a Bayit Ne’eman BeYisrael.

Sure… I bless their marriage with longevity but more…. I wish that they build a house that has honesty and an integrity and diversity of materials, construction that is sound and whose fittings and joinery are always revealed, which honors labor and the laborer and is built with sustainable materials and doesn’t suffer idle gossip. A house which has a mezuzah on the door, well used Judaica and well worn sefarim on display and a dining room table well worn by family, friends and guests enjoying Jewish Festive and Shabbat meals. In short, I wish that they build the one institution which lies at the heart of our people’s vitality… an honest house.


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

6 responses to “an honest house

  1. Henry Feuerstein

    What a beautiful sentiment! If mimicry is the highest form of flattery, you will indeed be so pleased, as I plan to incorporate your insights on bayit ne’eman into some of my message to my children this weekend.
    Kol ha’kavod to you for giving John and Ilana (and the rest of us) the benefit of your knowledge.
    Now, let’s party on!!

  2. Orna

    Reading your blog this week brings to mind another scholar who talks about loshon hara. The chafetz haim who tells us to not talk bad or gossip about people.
    The connection between our behavior and the correlation to the physical well being of a home we build is an important link and thus by following this advice we should all live happily ever after.

  3. Just realized that the connection between the spreading of the pigeon blood on a tsaraat affected house and the spreading of the blood on the Exodus House lintels both used Hyssop .. see: Exodus 12:21-23

  4. Since this blog conatined a gratuitous plug and shameless exploitation of the wedding of Ilana and John Feuerstein.. I think it only fitting that I post for posterity John’s historic D’var Torah at the Tish, offered moments before the vows, in which he compared tsaraat to marriage… for better or worse..

    “Several days ago, I sat down to prep for this tish, where you would all gather round to hear deep insight into the Torah from me, the chattan, the groom.

    I went right to the source of Parashats Tazria and Metzorah to look for enlightenement within. and what did I get back? leprosy, pimples, afterbirth, menstruation and semen. Basically, I managed to find “Torah 2 – The Secret of the Ooze.”

    What is there to be gleaned from this gross part of the Torah? Well, as the parsha describes, in many ways, tzara’at (apocryphally “leprosy”) has a lot in common with marriage. We learn from the Torah that tzara’at, like marriage, causes your hair to turn white, and your skin to become drawn.

    Both conditions can cause you to be cut off, quarantined if you will, from the rest of your community.

    Most tellingly, though, in both cases if you wish to be rid of your circumstances, you will be left with an empty house.

    Why then, should it be necessary to enumerate all of the foulness and all of the dirt, grit, grime and disease of the Jewish People?

    Perhaps here it is best to recognize that a people afflicted are still Am Yisrael, and still chosen by God. With their lesions and eruptions, emittances and contaminations, they are still counted among the community, still Jews and still holy.

    Here, then, maybe there is indeed a kernel of truth, something to connect this icky business to the beauty, purity and sanctity of marriage. As Ilana and I embark on our journey that begins under the chuppah, we would do well to remember that we are, despite our lesions and eruptions, despite our tzara’at and baheret, still two people who have chosen eachother.

    That decision is holy, and that decision is Good. Just as Am Yisrael treated and cured the afflicted rather than casting them out, it is my hope that Ilana and I will live lives of recognizing, caring for, and curing the tzara’at of misunderstandings, of disagreeements and of lovers’ quarrels. Of finding and eliminating what Rabbi Serge calls the “rust” of a relationship – the small things that, left untreated, threaten to grow and worsen to the point of breaking.”

  5. Daniel

    Nice work Pops. A little surprised you didn’t compare Miriam’s skin ailment to the book “The Scarlet Letter” which was later re-imagined in the horrible movie, “Easy A.”

    You can’t be mad at me anymore, I have commented.

Leave a Reply