The afflicted house never existed and never shall exist.
Why was it written about?
Expound upon it and receive a reward."
The expression derosh vekabel sakhar - "Expound upon it and receive a reward" - occurs several times in various contexts within rabbinic literature. Bavli Sota 44a mentions it while treating Proverbs 24:27. There the Sages set out the correct progression for Torah study: one should first study Scripture, then Mishnah and Gemara and perform good deeds and later he can explicate and receive a reward." This drasha may intend to tell us that one should first build his cultural, spiritual, and social foundation before becoming able to be creative and make his own personal mark.
The Sages also use this expression in reference to items that have no contemporary halakhic application (death penalties, sacrifices) or that they claim "never existed and shall never exist," such as the rebellious son [ben sorer umoreh] and the ir hanidahat - the condemned town.
Nega'ei ha'bayit [the "afflictions" of houses] have caught the interest of Bible commentators ever since the Sages wondered about the phenomenon's strangeness. Rashi chose to interpret the matter midrashically, and understood the nega'ei habayit as constituting a kind of blessing. He wrote:
And I inflict an eruptive affliction - This was an announcement to them that these plagues would come upon them, because the Amorites concealed treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during the whole 40 years the Israelites were in the wilderness, and in consequence of the nega they would pull down the house and discover them [the treasures]. (Based on Silberman translation)
Hizkuni cites the words of the Tosafot which claim that the nega'ei ha'bayit marked the houses in which idols had been worshipped, so that the Israelites would know which buildings had to be destroyed.
Sanhedrin 71a offers the most radical interpretation of nega'ei habayit. This appears in the context of a discussion of those commandments which appear in the Torah, but which lack practical application - commandments meant to serve as objects of purely theoretical interest to be "studied in order to receive a reward [from heaven]." Regarding the nega'ei ha'bayit the Talmud there states:
There never was and never will be an afflicted house. And why is it written? Expound upon [it] and receive a reward.
Indeed, the Gemara does present us with other interpretations and even testimony supporting the existence of afflicted houses, but the author of the discussion grants ample space to those who hold that the ben sorer umoreh [disobedient child], the ir ha'nidahat [city which turned to idolatry], and the afflicted house all "never existed nor will ever exist in the future" and were mentioned in the Torah only in order to afford people the opportunity to "expound upon [them] and receive a reward."
What, then, is there to be expounded upon in this matter? We find two apparently contradictory approaches regarding the possibility of houses in Jerusalem being afflicted:
The Gemara in Yoma 12a says that Jerusalem - and certainly the area of the Temple - cannot suffer afflictions, since they are not included in the category of your possessions, in accordance with the view holding that "Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes." Contrastingly, in Vayikra Rabbah 17:7, we read:
And I shall inflict an eruptive affliction upon a house in the land you possess - This refers to the Temple, for it is said, I am going to desecrate My Sanctuary, your pride and glory (Ezekiel 24:21).
Of course, it is possible to reconcile the two statements by pointing out that the quote from Yoma is halakhic, while that from Vayikra Rabbah is a midrash aggadah meant to express a theological idea. The midrash even continues along the metaphorical thread that it had begun:
The owner of the house shall come (Vayikra 14:35) - That is the Holy One Blessed be He, for it is said, because of My House which lies in ruins (Haggai 1:9)
And tell the priest (Vayikra, loc cit) - That is Jeremiah, for it is said [that he was one] of the priests that are in Anatot (Jeremiah 1:1).
Something like an affliction has appeared upon my house (Vayikra, loc cit) - That is the filth of idolatry. Some say: That is Menashe's idol.
It seems to me, however, that both the midrash and the Talmudic statement may be read in a different way since, in any event, this halakhah has no practical application, and halakhah may also be interpreted on the philosophical level.
In his comments on the verse from Vayikra, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that on the one hand, the afflictions only occur in the Land of Israel, while, on the other hand, they only occur in the land you possess, i.e., in houses belonging to known individuals. Thus, at the ideal level, Jerusalem and the Temple "cannot be made impure with afflictions."
The affliction is, therefore, a social affliction connected with the consequences of the acquisitiveness that can arise from private ownership.
If so, there is an essential contradiction between ownership and holiness. The holy is set apart and cannot be included in any kind of real estate holding or sovereignty. There is also an opinion (Yoma 12a) that Jerusalem was not apportioned to the tribes, and a beraita is cited stating that, "Houses are not rented in Jerusalem, because they do not belong to them." These dicta strengthen the philosophical view that finds ownership and holiness to be mutually incompatible. Therefore, the afflictions can damage the Temple when the attitude towards it is acquisitive - an acquisitive attitude necessarily defiles the holy.
This affliction is remedied by emptying the house, placing it under quarantine, removing of the affected stones (idolatry), dispersing them to an unclean place, and replacing them with other stones.
I do not think there is need to write at length in order to make understood the meaning of these ideas for today. The creation of the State of Israel sets before us many important challenges. We can be able, if we so wish, to build in our hearts and in our society a place for the Temple, where our lives will be sanctified and our society built upon a solid foundation of justice. No material stones are needed, but rather the construction of a society that seeks peace, cares for the stranger, for the orphan and for the widow. It may be that in order to achieve this we will have to substitute afflicted stones with other stones, but in order to preserve the house's future, we must expound upon the laws of nega'ei habayit, and find a way to apply them.
Zion shall be redeemed with justice and those returning to her with righteousness.
Pinchas Leiser, the editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist.