PUBLIC HEALTH

Our Torah is the book of life, guiding us by the mitzvah: "and you shall choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19).  The preservation of our physical health is, therefore, also a mitzvah.  It goes as far as commanding us: "You shall not make a cut in your flesh for the dead, and you shall not tattoo upon you" (Leviticus 19:28).  Yes, tattooing is forbidden.


We usually think about the Kohanim (priests) as those who are charged with running the affairs of the
Temple and conduct the sacrifices.  One of the important, but relatively less discussed, roles of the Kohanim, (see Leviticus, chapters 13-15) is the review of contagious diseases and protection of public health.  "The Kohen shall inspect the affliction on the skin ... and declare him contaminated.  ... and if it is not deeper than the skin -- the Kohen shall quarantine the affliction for seven days" (Leviticus 13:3-4).  If necessary, a second seven day quarantine may be imposed for further review.   The priests were taught how to inspect visible contamination and make decisions about the risk to others and the measures which are needed to protect the public from spreading the disease.  In addition to a temporary quarantine, which is used only for an additional week of observations, the Kohen can also declare the affliction either dangerous: "when raw flesh appears in him -- he shall be unclean", or safe: "if the raw flesh turn again and be changed to white ... -- the priest shall announce him clean" (Leviticus 13:14-17).  The unclean "shall dwell in isolation, outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:46).  To determine if the contamination has passed, the priest shall go out of the camp, to the place of isolation, to see if the affliction is healed.  In that case, a seven day cleaning process starts, including washing the body and the clothes and shaving the hair to the skin (Leviticus 14:1-9).


Thus, the priests, in addition to their responsibilities inside the
Temple, are the ones who are commanded to go out, interact with the sick, who may be carrying contagious diseases, and risk their own health for the public good.  One may compare them to physicians, but with one major difference:  the Kohen is born into this responsibility without a choice.

-- Judah Ari-Gur

 

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