A Mysterious Affliction

Vayikra 13-14 speaks at length about the various forms of tzara'at, the impurity caused by it, and the process by which the afflicted person 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 body, clothing, and house relate to each other?  Are they all part of the same condition, or is one name given to a variety of distinct afflictions?
  • Impurity – Finally, what about the condition causes its accompanying impurity?  Does tzara'at have anything in common with any of the other conditions (such as a corpse, bodily discharges, or child bearing) which cause impurity?

Biblical Cases of Tzara'at

There are several narratives in Tanakh which speak of someone who is plagued by tzara'at.  Examining these cases can help shed light on the nature of the ailment:

  • Shemot 4 – When, at the Burning Bush, Moshe expresses concern that the nation will not believe that Hashem had appeared to him, Hashem gives him a sign in the form of his hand being stricken with tzara'at.
  • Bemidbar 12 – After Miryam speaks against Moshe, Hashem punishes her with tzara'at.
  • Shemuel II 3 – Following Yoav's extra-judicial dispatching of Avner without David's approval, David curses him that he should be plagued with tzara'at.
  • Melakhim II 5 – Na'aman, the Aramean general, is cured from his tzara'at by bathing seven times in the Jordan, as per Elisha's instructions.
  • Melakhim II 5 – After Geichazi speaks in Elisha's name without authorization, he is cursed that he will be afflicted with Na'aman's tzara'at.
  • Melakhim II 7 – Four metzoraim living outside the city of Shomeron are the first to discover that the enemy army has fled and left behind enough food to save the Israelites from famine.
  • Divrei HaYamim II 26 – After King Uzziyahu oversteps his bounds by bringing an incense offering, he is stricken with tzara'at.

In some of these cases, it is explicit that the malady arrives as a Divine punishment, but in others, the cause in unknown, and potentially a natural occurrence.  What do these stories teach us about the malady and why someone might be plagued by it?

Diagnosis and Ramifications

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 designated.  In addition to the many difficulties involved in understanding some of the technical details, 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 afflicted individual, house, or clothing. Is this role a solely religious one, related to issues of purity, or does the priest play a 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?
  • Who is impure – Is there any logic to the symptoms that designate the impure state?  For instance, why would a person who is completely covered by tzara'at be rendered pure (Vayikra 13:13), while smaller spots render him impure?
  • "בְּגָדָיו יִהְיוּ פְרֻמִים וְרֹאשׁוֹ יִהְיֶה פָרוּעַ וְעַל שָׂפָם יַעְטֶה" – What is the purpose of these actions? The torn coat and unkempt hair are classically signs of mourning, but why should mourning be mandated?  Moreover, why should the upper lip of the metzora be covered?
  • Isolation – Why is the impure individual expelled from the camp 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 Purification Process

The details of the purification rituals are similarly difficult to comprehend:

  • "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?  This 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 this 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 shorn off at the end of the process?
  • Sin offerings – Finally, why must the cured individual bring sin-offerings?  Does this imply that he had sinned?