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Parashas Tazria/Metzora – Exposing the Misconception of Tzaraas

Written by Daniel Sandground

Parashas Tazria/Metzora – Exposing the Misconception of Tzaraas

This week we have a double header with Parashas Tazria and Metzora being read. Parashas Tazria deals with the laws regarding human contamination with majority of the sedra focusing on the laws of tzaraas, a disease which we will discuss in more detail later on. Parashas Metzora gives over the stages and procedures with which the sufferer of tzaraas must purify themselves and concludes with a chapter which deals with the kinds of discharges from the human body that are contaminated to various degrees, and which may require offerings as part of the person’s purification process.

The theme of human contamination flows on from Parashas Shemini in which we concluded with the laws regarding tumah (spiritual contamination) that results from dead animals. The Torah now turns to tumah that emanates from human beings. Before the Torah discusses the main tumah which is that of tzaraas, it begins with childbirth stating that… “when a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be contaminated for a seven-day period…” [12:2]. According to the Ibn Ezra, the reason we start the laws of tumah with that of a woman giving birth is because it is the beginning of life and therefore the start of the tumah process. The bringing of life into the world is perhaps the most beautiful process that exists for humans as they become partners in creation with Hashem by physically producing another human being, yet we learn that this new life will begin with tumah (spiritual impurity), so one must ask, why is this so? Why does life need to start with contamination?… The mefarshim bring down that this is to teach us that the mere fact of life is not enough and we are therefore brought into this world with the stark reminder that we must dedicate our lives to the service of Hashem, otherwise it will be merely mundane and worthless.

After this period of contamination which lasts for seven days for a son and two weeks for a daughter the process of cleansing begins for the mother of the child. The reason that the period of time is only seven days for a son is because the Torah removed the contamination after only this short period of time so that the she would be purified before the bris milah celebration of her new son. At the completion of the ‘cleansing process’ the Torah teaches us that… “she shall bring a sheep within its first year for an elevation-offering and a young dove or a turtle dove for a sin-offering…” [12:6]. We generally associate offerings with atonement so for what reason is the mother having to brings these two offerings following the birth? The Ibn Ezra explains that there are two types of sins which need to be atoned for here; the elevation-offering atones for resentful thoughts she may have had against her husband of even Hashem during her labour pains (women do have to blame someone!) and the sin-offering atones for the possibility that in her agony she committed the sin of making a false oath as I imagine most women swear to never get pregnant again when they are going for this painful process. The elevation-offering is mentioned first even though the sin-offering is the one which is actually brought first because it symbolises the goal which was being achieved… closeness to Hashem.

The rest of sedra Tazria deals with the laws of tzaraas and majority of our second parasha is dedicated to the purification process which needs to be undertaken to remove the tzaraas. The common conception for hundreds of years and still today, is that tzaraas is the disease leprosy and this is why the person who is contaminated with it must go into isolation and become a ‘leper’. This is utterly false however and is one of those misconceptions which even fooled a great mind like myself for so many years. Probably the most vocal amongst those who speak up against this heinous mistranslation is that of Rabbi Hirsch who demonstrates at length and conclusively that both of this notion is completely erroneous. By using both medical information and the Torah he shows that the symptoms of tzaraas are far different from those of leprosy. Some of the most obvious flaws in this mismatch are outlined below;

1.Someone with tzaraas must go to a Kohen to be diagnosed… problem is the Kohen’s are not doctors and did not study medicine so if this tzaraas was a wholly physical disease then why would you go to a Kohen about it?
2.According to the laws surrounding tzaraas, a Kohen does not check in any non-visible areas of skin (for example folds or under rolls of fat), nor is he able to check on holidays… if this was a physical life threatening skin disorder then surely this lax set of laws would be ludicrous.
3.Leprosy is a highly contagious disease… if tzaraas had this same attribute then surely immediate checking and diagnosis would be paramount. Some of the laws regarding this confinement also make little sense if you were talking about an infectious skin disease such as leprosy, for example… if the malady covers the victim’s entire body then he is not tamei, but if the skin begins to heal then he becomes tamei [13:13]. In the most telling example, the Talmud teaches that if the symptoms of tzaraas appear on a newly-wed or during a festival season, the Kohen does not examine the affliction and it is therefore not declared as tamei, in order to not interfere with the celebration, but if the purpose of these laws is to prevent the spread of disease, it would be absolutely imperative to enforce the laws at times when people are going to mingle and when there is going to be Jews and free food = overcrowding.

Rabbi Hirsch and I rest our case. So why was this misconception created? In my opinion it is very similar to the case of those who try and put the ten plagues down to natural coincidence, it is an attempt to try and remove G-d from the equation. What we learn from our Sages, however, is that clearly tzaraas is not a bodily disease, but the physical manifestation of a spiritual error. It is a punishment designed to show the person that he must mend his ways. We are taught that the primary cause of tzaraas is lashon horra and this implied in the word used to describe someone who carries tzaraas, a מצרע/metzora, which is a contraction of מוציא רע/motzei r’o which means ‘one who spreads slander’. We therefore learn that although one might think that he can speak lashon horra in private and no one is listening, he is wrong… the big boss above is listening and tzaraas was an incredible proof of this, by showing a physical reaction to the spiritual damage one had caused through his evil speech. From this we learn that tzaraas was not just a physical disease as our heretics try to claim, rather it was a sign of Hashem’s dominance and personal influence in everything we do. He is afterall watching everything and listening in on all our conversations, this incredible phenomena was a very evident proof of this.

So what is the logic behind this form of punishment? As we all know Hashem does everything for our own good and therefore tzaraas would not have been merely a slap on the wrist, it was a process by which we were able to elevate ourselves from the sin into a better person. The first obvious consequence of walking around with this weird skin discolouration was that of shame, as people would have known exactly what you have been up to… speaking in an improper manner. This shame in itself would be a first step towards moving one to do teshuvah as no one likes to be the bad person, especially when it is clear for all to see. The next consequence was that of isolation which is ‘מדה כנגד מדה/mida kaneged mida’ (measure-for-measure) retribution for the offender’s failure to feel the needs and share the hurt of others. According to Rashi, slander causes husbands to separate from their wives and friends from one another and therefore it is a fitting punishment that he be punished through isolation from society. So G-d therefore rebukes this anti-social behaviour by separating him from society, so that he can experience the pain he has imposed on others, and hopefully heal himself through repentance. Rabbi Kaplan brings down a very interesting reason as to why the offender is struck on the body for his lashon horra… he explains that speaking lashon horra is usually concerned with ones physical existence and people use this activity to try and elevate themselves through making others appear inferior compared to them… for example, in society you usually find that is is the most self conscious people who slander others as a way to hide their own insecurities behind apparent deficiencies in their fellow men. Due to this over concern with one’s own physical existence, Hashem uses a punishment that fits the crime and therefore strikes them on the body… and in particular the image they were trying to promote.

Today we do not have this supernatural tzaraas for the simple fact that we do not have Kohanim, offerings or the foundations in place to rectify it if we were duped with it. Reading over the laws concerning this very nasty disease, we must be aware of how serious the consequences for lashon horra are and try our hardest to cut it out. So although we don’t have this physical reminder any more, we do however still experience suffering in our lives, and although this can occur for a wide range of reasons, we must always be analysing our own actions and rectifying them as you never why you are being inflicted with pain… that annoying cut on your lip which won’t go away might just be a punishment for lashon horra!!

I wish everyone a good Shabbas and Chodesh Tov, full of success in everything you do!

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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