Halakhic Discussions

Trajectories of Tradition: King David on Skin Lesions and Tent Impurities

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AJ Berkovitz

Rabbi Akiva once suggested the almost heretical idea that the heavens contain two thrones upon which God sits, one for righteousness and the other for judgment.[1] He was chided to stop spinning lore and to start studying the topics of skin lesions (negaim) and tent impurities (ohalot), abstruse sections of the rabbinic laws of purity and impurity where Rabbi Akiva’s creativity could do no serious harm. Yet some ancient rabbis found the laws of skin lesions and tent impurities theologically profitable. According to Midrash Tehillim, an early medieval anthology of rabbinic Psalm commentary, King David asked God to let those who read and recite Psalms “receive reward as if [they studied the topics of] skin lesions and tent impurities.”[2] Sounds simple enough. Yet rabbis of the modern period of Jewish history would come to debate the exact meaning of these words—and, in doing so, lay bare the mechanics that push tradition to grow and change.

Our story begins with Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (ca. 1555-1630), better known as “Shelah”—an acronym based on Horowitz’s encyclopedic compilation of ritual, ethics, and mysticism called the Shnei Luhot Ha-Brit (Two Tablets of the Covenant). Shelah was a German rabbi and mystic whose work the founders of early Hasidism admired and mastered. They did so (for among many other reasons) because Horowitz championed popular piety as a valid and validating expression of religious life—a stream of thought that Hasidism would eventually transform into a torrent. In a comment on Yoma, Shelah brings David’s demand back into the active consciousness of Jewish discourse. The line is rarely quoted before his time, and it proliferates after. And it serves a particular purpose. It raises the religious status of reciting chapters and verses from the Psalms by equating pious psalmody with (and, in some sense, claiming that it combines the best of) other enduring and indisputable Jewish values: prayer and Torah study. In the words of Shelah, David assures that “one who chants Psalms—it is as if he prayed, and it is also as if he studied Torah.”[3]

Yet some rabbis demurred. Among them was Reb Hayyim of Volozhin (1749-1821), an ardent advocate for Torah study as Judaism’s apex value. In his magnum opus, Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, Reb Hayyim reshapes the idea of Torah Lishmah (engaging with the Torah for its own sake) into the pursuit of talmudic intellectualism that still reigns supreme in many Jewish circles.[4] Yet prior to his time, as Reb Hayyim admits, “Most of the world until now explained its meaning as attachment [to the divine (devekut)].” And they cited David’s dictum as proof. Reb Hayyim, in turn, rebuts. He acknowledges that those who recite Psalms every day attach themselves to God. But he also argues that “anyone who studies the laws of Talmud in depth and with toil, it is a thing greater and more loved before God than saying Psalms.” Attachment, the aim of Psalm piety, does not equal the deep study of Torah—the true essence of Torah Lishmah. To buttress this idea, Reb Hayyim acknowledges David’s words, but only to countermand them: “Who knows if God agreed to this [i.e., to David’s request], since we do not find in their words, of blessed memory, what answer God answered him for his request.” In the eyes of Reb Hayyim, the psalmist failed in his petition to equate Psalm piety with Torah study.

Reb Hayyim’s logic did not sit well with some of his readers. Rabbi Mordecai Rothstein—the late-nineteenth-century author of Sha’arei Parnassah Tovah (The Gates of Good Fortune), a hasidic Psalm commentary—critiques Reb Hayyim for shortchanging David.[5] God obviously answers when His pious psalmist prays. Read the Bible! Rothstein also raises the ante. Like his predecessors, he reads between the lines. He suggests that David “hid as a hint that [reciting] Psalms is considered like [studying] the entirety of the six orders of the Mishnah.” How so? The laws of skin lesions follow the laws of tent impurities in the canonical sequence of the Mishnah. Since David lists skin lesions first and tent impurities second, he is said to suggest that one receives reward as if one’s study began with skin lesions and concluded with tent impurities—the entire Mishnah. (Alas, some of the best manuscripts of Midrash Tehillim list tent impurities before lesions.[6])

But David’s request did more than act as a lock or key by which to close or open the gate between pious psalmody and Torah study, between lay spirituality and intellectual elitism. It also acted as a portal through which ideas from one intellectual domain moved into the other. For once tradition creates analogies, they often breed life of their own.

The relationship that David establishes between the Mishnah, the epitome of the Oral Torah, and the Psalms, a written biblical text, allowed features associated with the one to shape the other. A prohibition attributed to Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the great mystic of Safed, banned his followers from reading biblical passages during the nighttime. When Moses stood atop Mt. Sinai, God supposedly told him to write the Bible during the day and instructed him in Oral Torah at night. But what ought the mystic do about midnight vigils and other nighttime pious activities that included sections from the Psalms? Rabbi Abraham David Wahrman (1770-1840), in his halakhic compendium Eshel Avraham, cites David’s words to loosen the bonds of restriction and allow the sounds of psalmody to permeate the night.[7] He suggests that Psalms is in essence Oral Law since David equated psalmody with skin lesions and tent impurities.

But this very analogy also caused the knot to be retied elsewhere. After all, leniency and stringency are two sides of the same halakhic coin. Rabbinic law restricts the study of Torah to the saddest parts of Jewish literature on the Ninth of Av, the day during which Jews fast and memorialize the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples, among a host of other tragedies. An exception to this prohibition exists for anything regularly recited during the day. A cantor may rehearse the liturgical reading. And the congregation may say the Shema, as well as the mishnaic chapters on Temple sacrifices, that precedes the morning service. But may pious Jews recite Psalms, which often accompanied the mandatory prayers? Rabbi Yehudah ben Yisrael of Asozd (1794-1886, Hungary) argues no. In his collection of responsa, Yehudah Ya’aleh, he writes: “Those who recite Psalms every day—it is considered for them as if they are studying lesions and tent impurities, which is certainly not called something that is part of the regular order of the day, and thus it is prohibited even on the Ninth of Av.”[8]

Readers of David’s petition also imported into the act of piously reciting Psalms concerns that pertain to skin lesions and tent impurities. For a question lingered in the minds of many careful readers: Why did David compare the singing of Psalms to these two specific topics in Jewish law? In his book Rosh David (pub. 1776), Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) [Hida], a prolific author and mystic, suggests that the interpretive key lies with slanderous speech, the theological etiology of skin lesions. David cautions one to cling to God by reciting Psalms and be distanced from slander, and thus skin lesions.[9] Azulai develops his idea in his Seat of David (pub. 1794). He argues that slander caused the current exile and that studying Mishnah repairs the sin of slander. The talmudic rabbis, through David, link Psalms with the Mishnah so that the Psalter, David’s magnum opus, may atone for slander and effect redemption.[10]

Other creative interpretations suggest that David dwelled on skin lesions and tent impurities because of his own biography. Azulai, in his Rosh David, cites Isaac Luria, who claims that the study of the mishnaic order of Purity—to which lesions and tent impurities belongs—corrects for sins of sexual impropriety. Azulai draws on this idea and proposes that David singles out portions from the order of Taharot (purity) to secure penance for seducing Bathsheba, a married woman.[11] A similar approach appears in the writing of Rabbi Zadok of Lublin (1823-1900). In his view, the impurities associated with lesions and that connected with a corpse (a primary concern for tent impurity) correspond to the vices of jealousy and honor. David equated the singing of Psalms with the study of topics that counteract these specific negative traits since David often grappled with them when he faced his enemies and won his wars.[12]

So, what did the David of Midrash Tehillim really mean to convey? The historically correct answer is also, in my opinion, the least interesting. Some rabbis wanted to accord those who recite Psalms a similar status to those who study difficult sections of rabbinic literature. But the question itself also somewhat misses the point. What David’s words really provide is a microcosm of the way that tradition works—how a single, seemingly simple line of text can stimulate conversation, stir controversy, be turned over and over, and be analogized and explained in 49 ways. For ultimately, the life of tradition does not merely rest in single moments of exalted interpretation, but rather in its ability to retain its staying power while engendering further creativity and fostering change.

[1] Sanhedrin 38b (paralleled in Hagigah 14a).

[2] Midrash Tehillim 1:5.

[3] Shelah, Aseret Ha-Dibrot, Yoma, Ner Mitzvah 1:53. The initial context is the long-standing custom of reciting the entire Book of Psalms on the night of Yom Kippur. If one cannot complete the Psalms, Shelah recommends reciting the first four chapters, since they “ensure that one does not have a seminal emission … since they have 306 letters, and then [adding] four Psalms equals the number ק”רי)  310).” In some sense, Shelah views each person as their own Kohen Gadol.

[4] Nefesh Ha-Hayyim, gate 4, chapter 2.

[5] Mordecai Rothstein, Sefer Tehillim: Sha’arei Parnassah Tovah, 261a.

[6] https://schechter.ac.il/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/0108.pdf.

[7] Laws of Shema and Ma’ariv, 238.

[8] Yehudah Ya’aleh, vol. 1, Yoreh Deah, 268.

[9] Commentary on Parashat Hukat.

[10] Sermon 26 for Shabbat Kallah.

[11] Commentary on Parashat Hukat.

[12] Pri Tzadik, Commentary on Parashat Pekudei, 6.

AJ Berkovitz serves as an Assistant Professor at HUC-JIR in New York. He received his Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a B.A./M.A. in Jewish Studies/Hebrew Bible from Yeshiva University. He is the author of A Life of Psalms in Jewish Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2023). He is also the co-editor of Rethinking ‘Authority’ in Late Antiquity: Authorship, Law, and Transmission in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Routledge, 2018) and has published articles in both academic and popular venues. He was also a Starr Fellow at Harvard and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. His interests include: Bible, Liturgy, Midrash, and Ancient Jewish History.