Tzara’at versus Leprosy
Do we know the identity of the disease of tzara’at in the Torah (Leviticus 13-14)? Is it the identical disease when a person contracted it as when it appeared on a garment?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
Tzara’at is often translated as leprosy but it was not a physical disease at all (nor do its symptoms resemble true leprosy). The Talmud (Erchin 16a) states that it was an affliction meted out directly from God as a result of sin. The Talmud lists a number of serious sins which might cause a person to contract tzara’at, such as murder, theft and false oaths. The most well-known of these is gossiping (lashon hara) against our fellow.
People often mistake the procedure the Torah outlines for dealing with tzara’at as a form of quarantining a potentially contagious disease. Thus, a garment or house which has signs of it must be placed in isolation and possibly destroyed, and a person suffering from the disease would have to dwell outside the camp, away from everyone else.
But this was not the case, as tzara’at did not result from natural causes at all. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to the Torah, points out many indications of this. For example, if a person’s entire body is covered with tzara’at he is considered pure (13:13) – although a disease which has spread so fully is presumably at its worst.
If, however, we consider that white skin is a sign of sin, this is understandable. God afflicts us with tzara’at as an indication of our sinfulness. The process of leaving the camp brings us to reflection and to repentance. If, however, a person is totally white – i.e., sinful through and through – he is beyond repentance. God does not even prescribe a process of purification for him as it’s very unlikely to bring him to proper introspection. Only if he has some healthy flesh – i.e., some goodness and feelings of remorse within him – will God direct him to repent further (Bastion of Faith quoting R. Moshe Feinstein, pp. 120-121).
R. Hirsch brings a number of other proofs that that the Torah’s intent was hardly medical. Here are just a few of them:
- A person who has signs of tzara’at is sometimes allowed extra time before the Priest checks him if the timing is very inconvenient, such as the week of a festival or a groom during the week of his wedding – even though these are times when there is much more mingling between people than usual.
- Natural creases on the body, not visible to the outside observer, do not have to be checked.
- If a house has a potential signs of tzara’at, its contents are removed before the house is examined so they do not become unclean together with the house (14:26) – although they have already been exposed to the “disease”.
- The Torah prescribes no such procedure for any other diseases. (True leprosy is not even especially contagious.)
Thus, again, tzara’at was a spiritual and not a physical malady. Although almost whenever we suffer illness we should take it as sign from Heaven that we must mend our ways (see Talmud Brachot 5a), tzara’at was only a sign of sin and not a physical phenomenon at all.
(It is possible that tzara’at was a type of skin infection, but in the eyes of the Sages it was only brought as a Divine message and never via natural means.)