Tzaraat--A Biblical Affliction

Commonly mistranslated as leprosy, this ailment described in the Bible cannot be healed by doctors.

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Rabbinic Interpretations

Traditional Jewish thinkers have understood tzaraat in a variety of ways. The Talmud lists seven reasons one might be afflicted with the disease: Gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, theft, and envy (Arakhin 16a). The midrash focuses on gossip, as have many more modern and contemporary commentators, connecting the word metzora, a person afflicted with the condition, to motzi shem ra, a person guilty of slander or libel.

Nahmanides
viewed tzaraat as a withdrawal of godliness from the world. This explained why it could manifest itself in the walls of one's home. If someone sinned, and then began noticing green or red streaks on the wall of his house, this was an indication that as a result of his sin, God's presence was removing itself from his home.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh pointed out that because tzaraat was treated by priests, rather than doctors, it shouldn't be interpreted as a medical problem at all, but rather as an exclusively spiritual ailment.

Medical Interpretations

Though tzaraat in the Torah is a combination of the physical and the spiritual, many scientists and doctors have made attempts to connect tzaraat to medical conditions. Maimonides, who was a physician himself, recognized that tzaraat was probably comprised of a few different skin diseases that were all malignant and destructive. Seforno understood some forms of tzaraat to be skin cancer, and others to be punishment for sin.

Modern medical scholars have identified the white spots described as symptoms of tzaraat as vitiligo, a disfiguring but otherwise harmless disease, or as psoriasis, a disease that results in thick silvery scales and itchy, dry, red patches on the skin.

Thought tzaraat is most often translated as leprosy, it has almost nothing in common with the disease we know by that name today. The translation came about because in the Septuagint tzaraat was translated as lepra, which in Greek meant rough or scaly. Later English translations made the connection from lepra to leprosy. But in ancient Greece, what we now call leprosy was known as elephantiasis.

Understanding Tzaraat Today

The Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Tosefta all expend a great deal of effort detailing the laws of tzaraat, but by the time the laws were written, they may have been moot. There are hardly any references to actual cases of tzaraat in the tannaitic period. The Tosefta includes the house infected by tzaraat in its list of laws that were never carried out, and whose purpose was to teach an idea, rather than command an action.

Today, even if we could positively identify someone as having tzaraat, the sacrifices and rituals needed to purify the person are no longer possible, since there are no Jewish priests and no Temple.

As a result, most contemporary communities use tzaraat as a way to think about our behavior and its consequences. How would we act differently if we knew that our sins could come back to us in the form of a rash on our skin, or mold growing in our homes? The Torah prescribes that a person with tzaraat needs to go outside the camp of Israel before he or she can be healed. What can this teach us about isolating ourselves or others when we see destructive behavior?

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Tamar Fox

Tamar Fox is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Vanderbilt University, and a BA from the University of Iowa. She has worked as the editor of the religion blog at Jewcy.com. She spent a summer as a fellow at Yeshivat Hadar, and was a Senior Apprentice Artist for four years at Gallery 37 in Chicago.