Bald Spots on Clothing: A(n Un)Missable, Ancient Scribal Error
Parashat Tazria contains two main themes: birth (ch. 12) and tzara’at (צרעת; ch. 13). The latter theme is discussed at much greater length and can itself be subdivided into two main subthemes: tzara’at on a person’s body (vv. 1-46) and tzara’at on clothing (vv. 47-59).
Verse 55, in the section on tzara’at of clothing, seems inexplicable in the Hebrew:
וְרָאָ֨ה הַכֹּהֵ֜ן אַחֲרֵ֣י׀ הֻכַּבֵּ֣ס אֶת־הַנֶּ֗גַע וְ֠הִנֵּה לֹֽא־הָפַ֨ךְ הַנֶּ֤גַע אֶת־עֵינוֹ֙ וְהַנֶּ֣גַע לֹֽא־פָשָׂ֔ה טָמֵ֣א ה֔וּא בָּאֵ֖שׁ תִּשְׂרְפֶ֑נּוּ פְּחֶ֣תֶת הִ֔וא בְּקָרַחְתּ֖וֹ א֥וֹ בְגַבַּחְתּֽוֹ:
And if, after the affected article has been washed, the priest sees that the affection has not changed color and that it has not spread, it is unclean. It shall be consumed in fire; it is an erosion, whether on (קרחתו) its back bald spot or (גבחתו) its front bald spot.
Clothing doesn’t have bald spots; people do. What can this phrase possibly mean?
The problem with this phrase was noticed by many of the traditional commentators.
Borrowed or Derivative Language (Abarbanel quoting “others”)
Putting the problem in a helpful context, Don Isaac Abarbanel notes that all of the language used for the tzara’at of clothing is metaphorical language. Clothes don’t get leprosy or scale disease, they get moldy. Thus, he notes, the terms קרחת and גבחת are also borrowed terms.Admittedly, there is little choice but to take this route if one is to make sense of the phrase as is, but still, what does it mean in context?
Old or New Clothing (Onkelos)
As a translator of Torah, Onkelos had no choice but to offer some interpretation of phrase. He translates the phrase to mean “whether it is his old clothing or his new clothing (בשחיקותיה או בחדתותיה).” Ostensibly, Onkelos is associating the physical concepts of back and front of head with time concepts; back=old, front=new. Rashi endorses Onkelos’ translation.
The Front or Back of the Cloth (Pseudo-Jonathan and Abarbanel)
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan also translates the terms in a non-literal manner, “in the back/inside or in the front/outside (בְּרַדַדֵיהּ אוֹ בְּלַבַּדֵיהּ).” This translation is less of a stretch than Onkelos, in that he keeps the new application as spatial instead of temporal. According to Pseudo-Jonathan, the Torah is telling the reader that the same rule applies whether the tzara’at appears in the front/outside, i.e. the visible portion of the garment, or on the back/inside portion of the garment, which touches the person’s body but which nobody sees. Abarbanel offers the same reading.
A גזרה שוה to Tzara’at of People
Rashi mentions that in addition to the “peshat” explanation that he offered, the midrash suggests a halachic derasha that can be deduced from the strange usage of the term. According to the midrash, the usage of these uniquely “human” terms for clothing connects the clothing tzara’at laws to the human tzara’at laws with regard to the rule of what happens if it spreads on the entire cloth. (The derasha is a גזרה שוה; i.e., a comparison of two laws based on their usage of the same word, in this case קרחת and גבחת.) Just as the rule is that tzara’at that spreads over a person’s entire body is considered “pure” so too tzara’at that spreads over an entire cloth is considered pure.
Text Critical Approach – Copyist Error
Despite the creative solutions offered by the traditional commentators, all of these explanations seem forced to the modern reader. The metaphorical usage of the terms never appears anywhere else in the Bible and their meaning is far from straightforward. This has led modern critical scholars to suggest that the words are not original to the verse but were added mistakenly by a copyist. The preceding verses help clarify how this scribal error occurred.
What Was Supposed to be There
The previous verses, in discussing tzara’at of clothing, refer to the tzara’at being “in the warp or the woof (בשתי או בערב).” The phrase occurs nine times in this section and has a similar construction (“this or that” in a closed set) to the phrase about the two bald spots. Could this have been the original ending of v. 55? It would make sense in context.
How Did the Scribe Come to Include the Bald Spots?
As mentioned above, chapter 13 begins with a discussion of human tzara’at and only then goes on to discuss tzara’at of clothing. One of the cases discussed in the first section has to do with tzara’at occurring on a person’s bald spot (v. 42).
וְכִֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בַקָּרַ֙חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַגַּבַּ֔חַת נֶ֖גַע לָבָ֣ן אֲדַמְדָּ֑ם צָרַ֤עַת פֹּרַ֙חַת֙ הִ֔וא בְּקָרַחְתּ֖וֹ א֥וֹ בְגַבַּחְתּֽוֹ:
If upon the bald part in the back or at the front of the head there appears a white affliction with some redness, it is tzara’at spreading over the back bald spot or the front bald spot of the head.
A number things stand out when looking at this verse.
- The exact phrase that is problematic in v. 55 also occurs here at the end of the verse. Here, it makes perfect sense and seems to be in place.
- The placement of the phrase is the same in both verses. They declares the affliction to be “spreading tzara’at” and thus, impure, and do so with the construct היא.
- The Hebrew word פרחת, “spreading,” looks very much like the term פחתת, “erosion.”
Noting the above, it seems likely that the peculiar phrase in our verse is a consequence of a scribe’s eye jumping from פחתת היא to פרחת היא and accidentally copying the wrong phrase.
The LXX Text
The Septuagint (LXX) supports this reconstructed scenario. Unlike the Masoretic text (and the Samaritan Pentateuch), the LXX reads: “it is fixed in the garment, in the warp, or in the woof.” In other words, the Hebrew Vorlage from which this translator was working had: פחתת היא בשתי או בערב. This was probably the original reading, before an ancient scribe’s eye jumped and created the incoherent text that forms the basis for the Jewish (MT) and Samaritan (SP) versions of the Torah.
I first noticed this problem a few years ago when I was learning שנים מקרא ואחד תרגום with the LXX as my preferred translation. I was oblivious to the problem with the MT, but noticed the fact that the Greek was unlike the Hebrew. It was only when I compared the two, it struck me that the Hebrew made no sense.
I must have read the parasha over 100 times, and certainly had read Onkelos and Rashi, both of whom creatively translate the phrase… and yet, it never clicked. That Shabbat I turned to the person sitting behind me (an Israeli and amateur Bible scholar) and asked him what he thinks the verse means. He looked at it, thought for a moment, and said, this makes no sense. I then told him what the LXX said and he smiled and said: “So it’s a typo.”
Last week, having just moved to Zikhron Yaakov, I was sitting next to a professor of Jewish Studies and I asked him the same question. He looked at it for a while, then laughed and said: “this makes no sense!” Three Jewish studies/Bible scholars of various expertise, fluent in Hebrew, who read this passage every year, and none of us noticed this on our own.
I believe this goes to the heart of the problem many of us have when reading the Torah: we are so used to it we are almost numb to it. Only by learning to read more carefully and paying attention to the words will we really understand the Torah we “read” week in and week out throughout our lives.
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April 22, 2015
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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