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rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.

One of the hottest topics in the news recently has been the concern of an Ebola epidemic breaking out here in America. States are taking a variety of precautions to prevent people coming from Ebola-infected areas who may have contracted the disease from passing it on. First and foremost among these precautions has been quarantine, a procedure which has an ancient biblical source, albeit for a decidedly different purpose. By acknowledging the biblical source of quarantine in its original context, Rabbi Benjamin Blech suggests that we can perhaps draw an important lesson from our present fixation with the threat of Ebola.

Rabbi Blech writes: Historians tell us that the practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect European coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This procedure, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which mean 40 days.

But its source is much older. In fact it comes from the book of Leviticus. Long before the world knew anything of germs nor understood the concept of sickness being transmitted from person to person, the Torah established rules for the separation of the healthy from the infected. Those afflicted with what the biblical text called metzora were to be sent outside of the camp, isolated from human contact, until diagnosed well enough to return.

Of course the quarantine of the metzora had nothing to do with preventing the spread of physical contamination. Jewish commentators are agreed that the word metzora, almost always incorrectly translated as “leprous,” was used to designate an entirely different disease – not a physical failing but an ethical corrosion, a disease not of the body but one of the spirit.

A metzora was literally a motzi ra – someone who put forth evil: a slanderer, a gossiper, a spreader of malicious rumors and accusations. His sin was social; that is why his punishment was to be removed from society. His speech caused harm to innocents; that is why he needed to be isolated. His words caused lasting wounds; that is why the Kohen (priest), in his role as spiritual doctor, removed him from the opportunity to cause further harm to others by sending him outside of the camp and separating him from all those he could ethically contaminate.

It was an amazing concept that took the idea of infection far beyond the province of modern medicine. In the very first instance of the Torah giving warning of disease transmission, it chose to stress the pollution of the soul above the plagues of the body. Yet in spite of its different focus it opened the gate to the consideration of isolation as a means of protecting the pure from the impure, the healthy from the ailing, and the potential victims from the “carriers” of the tainted.

Perhaps we can draw an important lesson from our present fixation with the threat of Ebola. Ebola is indeed deadly. It requires the utmost effort on our part to eliminate it. It justifies quarantine and isolation to prevent its spread. Yet long before the Torah dealt with the fears for our physical health it demanded we be concerned with isolating and quarantining the deadly contagion caused by the cruelty of words coming from our mouths and evil talk given voice by our lips.

Indeed how much more relevant has this become in our day of the internet, the tweet and the twitter, Facebook and the smart phones that have turned gossip and slander into the most voraciously consumed texts of our time.

For our age there is no greater wisdom than the Talmudic proverb that “Slander slays three persons: the speaker, the spoken to, and the one spoken of.”