Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 21 April 2018 / 6 Iyyar 5778

Parshat Tazria

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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A Social Health Danger

For centuries, people have erroneously associated tzara’at with leprosy. Clearly, this contention must have been held only by those not knowledgeable in the laws of tzara’at. The possibility of tzara’at being an infectious disease, requiring quarantine and treatment by the priestly “public health physicians,” is belied by nearly every detail of the laws.

For example, the kohen is commanded to have everything removed from the individual’s residence prior to examination, so that the contents of the house will not become impure. This law is intended to save the afflicted from monetary loss. But if the purpose was to disinfect his home, surely we would want to destroy the items. Instead, we go to great lengths to spare them. Furthermore, the kohen is supposed to examine liberally, a policy that is senseless if indeed meant to address a public health danger. Even more compelling is the fact that all examinations were suspended during the holidays, when masses of people would congregate in Jerusalem. Surely, a policy of treating and curbing infectious disease would not be held in abeyance during the time of greatest vulnerability and exposure! The list of laws undermining this notion is long. (See Commentary, Vayikra 13:59 in full).

The purpose of these laws was not to impose sanitary regulation, but rather to promote preservation of the dignity of man in the social sphere. The Torah instructs that tzara’at is to remind the one afflicted of the experience of Miriam, who was similarly afflicted after speaking slanderous words about Moshe. Her punishment was confinement, and is described as the equivalent of a father spitting in his daughter’s face — the confinement was meant to induce feelings of shame. From Miriam’s experience we learn that afflictions of tzara’at are regarded as punishment for social wrongdoing, and the required confinement is meant to instill in the afflicted an awareness of his unworthiness.

Tzara’at is a punishment not just for slander, but for other cardinal social sins, including haughtiness, deceit, bloodshed, rabble-rousing, perjury, sexual immorality, robbery and stinginess. (Arachin 16a; Vaykira Rabbah, Metzora) One who discovers a tzara’at mark (nega), understands that he has been “touched” by the finger of G-d (nega means touch). He understands that his social behavior provoked G-d’s anger. On account of his foul social behavior he is removed from the community. Because he incited unrest among his brethren he is separated from everyone. The Jewish law thus provides corrective measures even for those social sins — arrogance, falsehood, slander — that are beyond the jurisdiction of human tribunals.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 13:59

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