• yehoshua steinberg

Tazriah: Of Lepers and Grasshoppers ~ Yehoshua Steinberg


Article Abstract:

The root גבח appears in all of Scripture only in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria, in connection with the “leprosy” called tzaraat. The word גבח describes characteristics of the disease which can affect the Halachic טומאה (contamination) status of the human sufferer or textile carrier. Aside from Tazria, however, the word appears only in the Talmud once, in the context of permissible and impermissible grasshoppers. The definition of גבח in each of these contexts is the subject of this week’s study.



The root גבח appears in all of Scripture only in Parashat Tazria, in Chap. 13 of Leviticus. It appears here in two different contexts, צרעת of Man, and צרעת which appears on clothing. Regarding צרעת of Man we find: Lev. 13:40-41 – If a man loses the hair on [the back of] his head, he is קרח (bald). He is clean. And if he loses his hair on the side toward his face, he is גבח (bald at the front). He is clean. Regarding that of clothing, Scripture states: Ibid. 47, 55 – [And as for] the garment that has the lesion of צרעת upon it… You shall burn it in fire. It is a penetrating lesion on the worn or new [article].

One might have supposed that, despite the different circumstances of the verses (Man, garment), the word גבח itself would maintain a single meaning. But Onkelus (reflected in the English translation quoted here), renders the word differently for each situation. Regarding צרעת of Man, the root גלש is used[1] (we will be examining the meaning of גלש below). But for that of an article of clothing, he uses the term חדתותיה (newness).

Regarding human צרעת, Rashi (13:41) stresses that the baldness of the head called גבח is located in the front incline of the head. In contrast, no allusion to “front” or “back” is mentioned concerning garments; only that קרח means a worn item and גבח denotes a new one. Rashi (13:55) explains the disparity: “Concerning the explanation and translation [of these terms], the simple meaning is that קרח means ‘old’ and גבח means ‘new.’ It is as though it were written, ‘[It is a lesion on] its end or its beginning,’ for קרח means ‘back’ [i.e., at the end of the garment’s life, when it is old], and גבח means ‘front’ [i.e., the beginning of its life, when it is new]. This is just as is written: ‘And if [he loses hair] at the front of his head, [he is bald at the front גבח]’ (verse 41). And קרח refers from the crown toward his back.”

In other words, the Torah used the words גבח and  קרחin the context of garment צרעת only as analogues of their primary meanings – back and front, as previously defined in the context of human צרעת.

Rashi (ibid.) adds the reason the Torah uses these terms specifically here (instead of simply stating “new” and “old”): “and because of the Midrashic explanation, that this language is necessary for a Halachic exposition here [גזירה שוה, a link between two seemingly unrelated passages through the occurrence of common terms, thereby linking the laws of one passage to the laws of the other, as follows]: Whence do we know that if a lesion on a garment spreads [throughout the entire garment], it is clean? Because [Scripture] states גבח and קרח in the context of [lesions that appear on] man (verse 42), and here, in the context of [lesions on] garments, [Scripture] also states גבח and קרח. Just as there [in the case of lesions on man], if it spread over the entire body, he is clean (verses 12, 13), so too, here, [in the case of lesion on garments,] if it spread over the entire garment, it is clean (San. 88a). For this reason, Scripture adopts the [unusual] terms גבחת and קרחת.”

Aside from these occurrences in Lev. 13, the root גבח is found only in the Talmud (Chullin 65b), in a discussion of the signs of kosher grasshoppers.[2] Rashi explains the word גבחת there in accordance with its meaning in Lev. 13, namely baldness. [3]In contrast, the Aruch maintains that the Talmudic usage denotes elevation, i.e. that it refers to a bulge on the insect’s back, analogous to a camel’s hump.[4] Some link גבחת in the context of garments to elevation as well, hinted to by the similarity of the root גבח to גבה (height). Namely, that the protruding fibers and filaments of a new garment “stand” more upright than a worn one.[5]

In analyzing this dispute between Rashi (baldness) and the Aruch (hump), we mention once more that since the root גבח appears only in Lev. 13 in all Scripture, it would stand to reason that the Talmudic usage should derive from the scriptural meaning there. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that the Talmudic meaning is based on צרעת of Man, since (as per Rashi cited above) the meanings of גבח and קרח in the context of garments are only analogues of the primary meanings – those relating to human צרעת. However, regarding human צרעת we find two essential attributes: 1. baldness and 2. the front / back “slope” of the skull. Why does Rashi in the Talmud omit the front / back aspect; and why does the Aruch omit the baldness characteristic?

A clue to Rashi’s reasoning may be found in his commentary on: Song of Songs 4:1 – your hair is like a flock of goats that streamed down [שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ] from Mount Gilead; Rashi – “שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ, that they became bald [שנקרחו]. גבח is rendered by the Targum as גלוש. When the animals descend from the mountain, the mountain becomes bald [נקרח] and bare [וממורט] of them.” Rashi employs no less than three synonyms in explaining the word גלשו, namely: קרח, גבח, מרט, unequivocally underscoring that the meaning is baldness (of hair, or in this case, of sheep) – all based on the Targum of גבח as גלוש in Lev. Chap. 13.

I would suggest that the dispute between Rashi and the Aruch arises from differing interpretations of the Midrash in this verse: Song Rabba 4:3 – your hair is like a flock of goats that streamed down from Mount Gilead [הַר גִּלְעָד]… this means, the mountain from which I tore away I made a standing witness [גַּלְעֵד] to the other nations. And what was this? The Red Sea.[6] R. Joshua of Siknin said in the name of R. Levi: it means: the mountain from which you streamed away. When a woman’s hair grows thick she makes גלשין גלשין in it. Etz Yosef explains that this means she makes קרחים, i.e., she shaves / cuts her hair. I suggest that this is the source of Rashi’s interpretation, that גלישה means thinning, shaving, leaving bare.

The Aruch, on the other hand, interprets this Midrash differently, explaining גלשין גלשין as meaning that she braids or ties her hair, the better to manage it. Now, in order to braid or tie hair, it must be gathered together – quite different from shaving and cutting. The Aruch therefore appears to understand גלישה regarding hair as analogous to gathering stones in order to create a mound or monument. And this is precisely the interpretation of the Targum found to this verse, cited by the Aruch elsewhere,[7] which homiletically interprets the verse as referring to the sons of Jacob[8] establishing a mound / monument. This would then explain the Aruch’s reading of גלישה as a mound / elevation, from which derives the interpretation of the grasshopper’s גבחת to mean an elevation on its back. Again, all connects back to Onkelus’ rendering of גבח as גלוש in Parashat Tazria.

One may further suggest that Rashi and the Aruch differ on the interpretation of the beginning of the above-cited Midrash as well: “goats that streamed down from Mount Gilead… this means, the mountain from which I tore away I made a standing witness [גַּלְעֵד] to the other nations. And what was this? The Red Sea.” According to the Aruch (mound), what would be the connection to the Red Sea? Perhaps for this reason Rashi interprets Rabbi Levi’s גל as an expression of [9]גילוי (baring, stripping) – i.e. the baring of the seabed of its water cover for the benefit of the Israelites represented a truly eternal testimony, a figurative monument to God’s power. The Aruch, on the other hand could counter that the common usage of גל (pile, mound) is very relevant in relation to the Red Sea as well, as Scripture states in that connection: And with the breath of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up; the running water stood erect like a wall (Ex. 15:8). The waves (גלים) were thus piled up, not unlike a mound of rocks!

The root גל seems a clear instance of “a thing and its opposite” united in the same root, which can mean both 1) a mound, and 2) a revelation / “baring” (גילוי). These meanings are similar to the two meanings that arise from the root סקל, which can mean stoning [the biblical punishment], in which stones are transported to their target[10]; but it can also mean removing stones [from a field].

As in all examples of one word with contradictory meanings, there is a common denominator. In the case of גל, a prime example is Jacob’s removing the stone that covered the well. After he removed the stone, it didn’t just disappear, rather it was relocated elsewhere. Meaning, the identical act that revealed the well [גילוי] caused the stone to become a “mound” somewhere else. So too concerning the root סקל: Stones that are hurled [לסקול] are inevitably removed [לסקל] from place A to place B – a single action leading to opposite results.

The two interpretations of גלישה may be understood in a like fashion. In Rabbi Yehoshua’s version of Rabbi Levi’s metaphor, in the course of the woman’s haircut the discarded hair inevitably will occupy space elsewhere, fitting with the Aruch’s interpretation (mound). On the other hand, just as someone getting a haircut is generally not interested in preserving the trimmings, [11] so too the essence of the event of the Red Sea is indisputably the resulting dry bed, not the incidental mounds of waves. And this would appear to explain Rashi’s position, namely that the “standing witness” of the event was metaphorically the bared (גלוי) seabed.[12]

Perhaps this also explains why Rashi emphasizes the aspect of baldness in the context of the גבחת of the grasshopper in Chullin, in contrast to those who underscore the element of an elevated mound. Since גלישה in Song of Songs means shaved / denuded / bared and גלוש is the Targum of גבח in Leviticus 13, perforce the Sages’ usage of the term in relation to the grasshopper must stem from its primary meaning, unrelated to the bulge in the body of the grasshopper, as elevation is not the main characteristic[13] of this feature.

Perhaps the opposing view (the Aruch et al) would claim that Rashi’s refraining from mentioning the element of elevation in גבחת is what forced him to explain that this word appears in conjunction with clothing only incidentally, in order to enable a גזרה שווה. But according to this,גבחת  refers to elevation in clothing as well, meaning the hairs of a new garment stand up on edge. Rashi could counter that this explanation works only for גבח, but not קרח, leaving Rashi with no choice but to explain that these words were used regarding clothing only for the גזרה שווה.

Whether the root גבח refers to elevation or baldness, though, perhaps our Sages subtly hinted to a moral lesson by applying this singular word to the grasshopper. Our Sages (Arachin 16a) teach us that צרעת strikes Man as a consequence seven evil traits, including evil speech / gossip and haughtiness. The grasshopper’s גבחת may be teaching us to counter both of these pernicious qualities by emulating the grasshopper. Namely, we counter self-importance by viewing ourselves as the quintessential lowly insect, as we find in Scripture: In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes (Num. 13:33).  And if we find ourselves in the company of idle gossipers, we must view our presence there as if we are faced with a mortal danger, and act as a grasshopper does in that situation: leap away to safety immediately.

My the Lord open (יגל) our eyes and bring us joy (גילה) by revealing the Messiah, and we will glide (נגלוש) to the open entrance Holy Mount and rejoice in the building of our Temple in the Temple Mount, speedily in our times.

[1]  וכן תרגם גם בפסוקים הבאים: ויקרא יג:מב – בַקָּרַחַת אוֹ בַגַּבַּחַת נֶגַע לָבָן אֲדַמְדָּם צָרַעַת פֹּרַחַת הִוא בְּקָרַחְתּוֹ אוֹ בְגַבַּחְתּוֹ; ת”א – בקרחותיה או בגלישותיה מכתש חיור סמוק סגירות סגיא היא בקרחותיה או בגלישותיה. פסוק מג – לְבָנָה אֲדַמְדֶּמֶת בְּקָרַחְתּוֹ אוֹ בְגַבַּחְתּוֹ; ת”א – חיור סמוק בקרחותיה או בגלישותיה.

[2] הגמרא מציינת את סימן הגבחת, אבל סימן זה מובא רק לצורך הבחנה בין מין למין, ולא שהוא מהווה סימן טהרה לעצמו, שהרי יש כשרים עם גבחת וכשרים בלי גבחת; כך פרש”י: חולין סה: – ואין לי אלא הבא ואין לו גבחת… אתה דן בנין אב משלשתן: לא ראי ארבה כראי חרגול; רש”י – הרי אתה דן כו’ לא ראי כו’ – שיש בזה מה שאין בזה ועל כרחך אין סימני הטהרה תלוי בזנב ובגבחת לא ביש לו ולא באין לו שהרי יש כאן אין לו וכשר, ויש לו וכשר.

[3] וכשיטתו פירשו גם: רבינו גרשום חולין סה: – מאי גבחת שממורט בפניו. מאירי (שם): כל שיש לו גבחת ר”ל שראשן מרוט.

[4] וכן: רבינו גרשום [“כתוב בגליון”] חולין סה: – פירוש גבחת גבהות בשדרה שלו כעין גמל. האשכול (סימני בהמה, ס‘ כג): וחגבים… בין יש לו גבחת כעין גמל ובין אין לו.

[5] אוצר טוב (מכ”י – תוס‘ רי”ד), דף 16: בקרחתו היינו בגד ישן… קרח בנפול שערו. ובגבחתו היינו גבהותו, שח’ וה’ מתחלפין, והוא בעת שמגביה שער ואז הוא חדש עדיין. ולכך הסכימו גם פרשנים אחרים: תוי”ט נגע’ יא:יא – וגבחתו אלו חדשים. שהמוכין עדיין גבוהים עליהם ויהי’ בגבחתו כאילו כתיב בגבהתו. קרבן אהרן (תזריע – פ’ נגע’ ה:טו) –  בגבחתו כאילו כתיב בגבהתו בה’, ירצה בגובהתו, שעדיין המוכין הגבוהים… בחדשים. מזרחי ויק‘ יג:נה – ו’בגבחתו’ משמע… חדש, שהמוכין גבוהין… כאלו אמר: בגבהתו, דח’ וה’ מתחלפין, זהו מה שפ’ קצת מפר’; וע’ מלבי”ם (תזריע ס’ קמה), מעשה רקח לרמב”ם טומאת צרעת יב:ט.

[6] The connection between a “mountain” and the Red Sea will be explained in the following paragraphs.

[7] ערוך (ערך ‘גבשוש‘ -ת”ד): תל קטן של עפר… שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ מֵהַר גִּלְעָד (שה”ש ד:א) תרגם: כבנוי דיעקב דלקטו אבנין ועבדו גבשושיתא ס”א גלשושיתא בטורא דגלעד.

[8] כך פרש”י: בר‘ לא:מו–מז – וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְאֶחָיו לִקְטוּ אֲבָנִים… וַיַּעֲשׂוּ גָל… וְיַעֲקֹב קָרָא לוֹ גַּלְעֵד. רש“י: אחיו – הם בניו.

[9] כדוגמת: גַּל עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה (תה’ קיט:יח).

[11] ומי שעיקר חפצו דווקא בשיער המתגלח יתדמה לכאורה לחופר בור ואינו צריך אלא לעפרה שהיא מלאכה שאינה צריכה לגופה ובכך פטור מדאורייתא בשבת.

[12]  שהרי אילו היה מתייבש לגמרי, או שהיו המים מתאדים כליל, לכאורה לא היתה בכך הפחתת הנס כלל.

[13]  שהגבחת היא סימן חמישי (בנוסף לד’ הנמנים במשנה (חולין ג:ו): חברותא חולין סה: – חגב הבא לפנינו ויש לו גבחת, שאינו דומה לארבה אלא בארבעת הסימנין המוזכרין במשנה, ואילו בסימן החמישי הוא שונה ממנו.


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