The Power of Words

V’hayah b’or besaro l’nega tzaraas (Vayikra 13:2)

Parashas Tazria and Parashas Metzora primarily revolve around the subject of tzaraas — the different forms in which it can appear, the laws determining which afflictions are pure and which are impure and the purification process for one who is stricken with tzaraas. The Gemara (Arachin 16a) teaches that one of the primary causes of tzaraas is speaking negatively about others. The biographical introduction at the beginning of the sefer Kochvei Ohr by Harav Yitzchak Blazer, one of the chief disciples of Harav Yisrael Salanter, records a frightening story on this topic.

Harav Blazer left clear instructions that he should not be eulogized after his death. When he passed away in 1907, Harav Shmuel Salant, who was the Rav of Yerushalayim at the time, ruled that this request must be honored. However, Harav Chaim Berlin, who also lived in Yerushalayim and was a close friend of Harav Blazer dating back to the period when he was the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and Harav Blazer was the Rav of St. Petersburg, came under pressure to eulogize Harav Blazer. He noted that there was a precedent to disregard such instructions, as the Noda BiYehudah had done in eulogizing the Pnei Yehoshua in spite of the fact that the Pnei Yehoshua had explicitly requested not to be eulogized (Pischei Teshuvah Yoreh Deah 344:1).

Harav Berlin proceeded to give a public eulogy of Harav Blazer, which he suggested was a form of compromise. He explained his reasoning by pointing out that in recording Avraham’s response to the death of his wife Sarah, the Torah uses two different expressions, saying (Bereishis 23:2) that he came lispod l’Sarah v’livkosah — to eulogize her and to cry over her death. The nature of a eulogy is to praise the deceased, whereas crying emanates from the loss felt as a result of the death. In this case, Harav Berlin noted that Harav Blazer had only forbidden eulogizing him by discussing his accomplishments and greatness, but he in no way prohibited a gathering for the purpose of crying over and mourning his loss, which Harav Berlin proceeded to do.

In a letter quoted there, Harav Berlin writes that on the following Friday night, Harav Blazer appeared to him in a dream to thank him for honoring his request and refraining from publicly praising him. Harav Berlin decided to seize the opportunity and asked Harav Blazer to tell him about the judgment in the next world. Harav Blazer replied that Hashem’s Heavenly Court is incredibly strict and harsh and is beyond the comprehension of any human in this world. He added that the area in which the judgment is the most stringent is forbidden speech, and although Torah scholars have many merits, Hashem is exceedingly strict regarding sins that involve speech. Harav Berlin asked Harav Blazer how he had fared in his own personal judgment, to which he replied that the entire week he had not been permitted to appear to Harav Berlin to thank him, until he was finally granted a reprieve on Shabbos and allowed to come, at which point he disappeared.

This insight is even more powerful in light of the fact that it was conveyed by Harav Blazer, who was known to be exceptionally careful in his speech and maintained a taanis dibbur in which he completely refrained from speaking other than for Torah study and prayer every year for 40 consecutive days, from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur.

When Harav Eliyahu Lopian would repeat this story to the students in his yeshivah, he would conclude by emotionally repeating over and over “Cheit ha’lashon nora me’od — sins of speech are incredibly severe” — and there is nothing that can protect and come to the defense of somebody who sins in this area, a message which we should take to heart and remember the next time we are tempted to disparage another person or pass on a juicy piece of gossip.

Parashah Q & A

Q: A shoteh — insane person — is exempt from doing mitzvos. Which mitzvah may be performed even by a shoteh? (Rambam Hilchos Tumas Tzaraas 9:2)

Q: The Torah requires (13:45–46) a metzora to dwell outside the Jewish camp and to call out, “Tamei, tamei!” The Gemara in Moed Kattan (5a) explains that this is done so that people will pray on his behalf that he should be healed quickly. Why is the metzora required to request other people’s prayers more than any other person who is ill? (Midrash Yehonason Parashas Metzora)

A: The Rambam rules that if a Torah scholar examines a skin affliction on another person’s body and conveys its status as pure or impure to a Kohen who is a shoteh, the Kohen may “rule” on the affliction by repeating the evaluation of the wise man, and his ruling will legally take effect.

A: Harav Yonason Eibschutz answers by citing Rashi’s comment (Bereishis 21:17) that the prayer of a sick person is more effective than prayers offered by other people on his behalf. Therefore, other sick people don’t need to announce their illnesses so that other people will pray for them. If so, why is the situation of the metzora different? The Zohar Hakadosh explains that a metzora is referred to (e.g. 13:4) as musgar — literally, closed up — because the Heavens are closed to the prayers of the metzora. As a result, he has no choice but to publicize his situation so that others will pray for him.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his divrei Torah weekly, please email