2003This week's parshah, Tazria, deals with various infections and diseases that may result in tzara'at. This term is often translated as "leprosy," though our Rabbis are quick to note that it is a spiritual disease that leaves one tameh or spiritually impure, and not a medical ailment. Tzara'at may infect a person's body, clothing or home. Someone who is infected with tzara'at must leave the camp and remove all of his or her infected clothing. They must remain outside of the camp until the infection is healed, at which point they have to offer a sacrifice. Our parsha deals with how to determine whether an infection is tzara'at on not.
The Lesson of Tzara'at
The Torah goes through a number of cases of possible cases of tzara'at and describes how to determine if it is tzara'at and how to treat it. The following verses are the introductory verses to this section of the Torah and are similar in structure and content to the other cases that the Torah discusses:
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is tzara'at; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. But if it is a white discoloration on the skin of his body which does not appear to be deeper than the skin and the hair in it has not turned white, the priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him, and if the affection has remained unchanged in color and the disease has not spread on the skin, the priest shall isolate him for another seven days. On the seventh day the priest shall examine him again: if the affection has faded and has not spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean. It is a rash; he shall wash his clothes and he shall be clean. But if the rash should spread on the skin after he has presented himself to the priest and been pronounced clean, he shall present himself again to the priest. And if the priest sees that the rash has spread on the skin, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is leprosy.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why must the priest declare whether the infection is tzara'at, especially if the Torah tells us how to determine if it is tzara'at?
2. Why do doubtful cases have to be isolated for one or two weeks?
3. Is there any reason given for why one would be infected with tzara'at?
4. Generally, the Torah's commandments are divided into two categories: those relating to humans' relationship God and those relating to humans' relationship with other humans. Under which category does tzara'at fall?
In cases of skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you. Take care to do as I have commanded them.
Your Torah Navigator Again
1. Why does the Torah stress to be most careful concerning this commandment? It does not make similar statements about all of the commandments?
2. Why does the Torah stress the role of the priests in cases of tzara'at?
The most common understanding of tzara'at is that it results from speaking lashon hara, or speaking maliciously about someone. This stems from the fact that in the Book of Numbers Miriam is punished with tzara'at after speaking maliciously about her brother Moses. However, the Talmud lists seven reasons why one may get tzara'at.
Babylonian Talmud, Arachin, 16a
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani taught in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: There are seven reasons why infections [of the skin] come: For speaking maliciously about someone, bloodshed, taking a false oath, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, thievery, and narrow-eyedness [or narrow vision].
Your Talmud Navigator
1. Why do each of these things result in tzara'at?
2. How are each of these things connected?
3. According to the Talmud would tzara'at be a mitzvah concerning humans' relationship with God or a mitzvah focusing on humans' interaction with other humans?
Tzara'at is a confusing subject in the Torah, and even harder for us to relate to. The fact that we do not have a good understanding of what it is, or how it occurs may be exactly why the Torah places such a strong emphasis on followings its laws - whatever tzara'at is, it is clearly a punishment for a wrong-doing. The ambivalence over its categorization as a mitzvah relating to God and humans or a mitzvah relating to humans and humans emphasizes the point that really ultimately all mitzvot relate to God. Judaism is concerned with all areas of our lives. This may also explain why the priests play such a prominent role - to remind the infected person that he or she has committed a religious sin and must atone for that sin. Perhaps the time that the person infected with tzara'at must leave the camp and be isolated from the rest of the nation is meant to reflect on his/her sin and repent for it.
While the laws of tzara'at are no longer in place today, they teach us the importance of reflecting on all of our actions and being sure that we have not sinned against our fellow humans or against God.
Prepared by Elliot Kaplowitz, Iyyun Fellow, Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Tazria at MyJewishLearning.com.