A Mysterious Affliction
Vayikra 13-14 speaks at length about the various forms of tzara'at, the impurity caused thereby, and the process by which the afflicted is purified. Despite the many details, however, the malady remains very much in the realm of the unknown:
- Nature of the condition – What is tzara'at? Why does a person get afflicted? Is it a natural disease that anyone can contract, or is it a Divinely sent, supernatural phenomenon?
- Forms of tzara'at – How do tzara'at of the house, clothing and body relate to each other? Do they all stem from the same condition, or is one name given to a variety of distinct afflictions?
- Impurity – Finally, what about the condition makes it defile? What does it share with other conditions which cause impurity such as contact with the dead, bodily discharges or child bearing?
Biblical Cases of Tzara'at
Several narratives in Tanakh speak of someone who is afflicted by tzara'at and might shed light on the nature of the affliction:
- Shemot 4 – When Moshe complains at the Burning Bush that the nation won't believe that Hashem had appeared to him, Hashem gives him a sign in the form of his hand being struck with tzara'at.
- Bemidbar 12 – After Miriam speaks against Moshe, Hashem punishes her with tzara'at.
- Shemuel II 3 – After Yoav kills Avner without David's approval, David curses him that he should be plagued with tzara'at.
- Melakhim II 5 – Naaman, the Aramean general, is cured from his tzara'at by bathing seven times in the Jordan, as commanded by Elisha.
- Melakhim II 5 – Elisha curses Gechazi with the malady for speaking in his name against his wishes.
- Melakhim II 7 – Four metzoarim sitting outside the city are the first to discover that the enemy army has fled and left behind enough food to save the Israelites from the famine caused by their siege.
- Divrei HaYamim II 26 – After overstepping his bounds in bringing an incense offering King Uziyahu is struck with tzara'at.
Diagnosis of Impurity
Much of Vayikra 13 is devoted to a discussion of how to determine if the afflicted person is in fact impure, and how he should be treated once he is so labelled. In addition to the many difficulties involved in understanding the technical details mentioned, several other aspects of the process raise questions as well:
- Role of the priest – The priest is assigned the task of determining the status of the plagued individual, house, or clothing. Is this role solely a spiritual one, related to issues of purity, or does the priest play some medical role as well, actually diagnosing the disease?
- Seven day intervals – In several instances, there are seven day waiting periods in between inspections of the plague. What is the purpose of these intervals? Are they meant to help determine the progression of the disease or is there some spiritual component to the process?
- Who is impure – Is there any logic to the symptoms that designate the impure state? For instance, why would a person who is totally covered in tzara'at be rendered pure, while smaller spots might render him impure?
- "בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ וְעַל שָׂפָם יַעְטֶה" – What is the purpose of these actions? The torn coat and loose hair are classically signs of mourning, but why should such mourning be mandated? Moreover, why should the upper lip be covered?
- Isolation – Why is the impure individual expelled and forced into isolation? Though all forms of impurity require a distancing from the Mikdash, this is the only state which requires leaving the Israelite camp. Is this a precaution against contagion or a punishment for sin?
The Process of PurificationThe purification rituals are similarly difficult to understand:
- "עֵץ אֶרֶז וּשְׁנִי תוֹלַעַת וְאֵזֹב" – What is the significance of the cedar, hyssop branch and scarlet thread?
- "שְׁתֵּי צִפֳּרִים" – How is the ritual of the two birds, one of which is killed and the other let free, to be understood? The rite is reminiscent of the lottery on Yom HaKippurim which sets one goat to be slaughtered for God and one to be sent to the wilderness.1 What might be learned from the comparison?
- מַיִם חַיִּים/ הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה – What is the import of the repeated emphasis on the "live" bird and "living" waters?
- Shaving – Why is all of the individual's hair shaved at the end of the process?
- Sin offerings – Finally, why must the cured individual bring sin-offerings? Does this imply that he had done something wrong?