Parshat Tazria: Causes of Tzara’at

“If a person has upon his skin a white blotch, discoloration or spot and it is suspected of being a mark of the tzara’at affliction upon his skin, he shall be brought to Ahron the Kohen or one of his children the Kohanim.” (VaYikra 13:2)

This pasuk introduces the Torah’s discussion of tzara’at. Tzara’at is an affliction often translated as leprosy. In appearance there may be similarities between tzara’at and leprosy. However, these two afflictions are very different. Leprosy is caused by biological factors. Tzara’at is caused by spiritual factors. It is a punishment, from Hashem, for misconduct. A person suffering from tzara’at cannot be cured through medical treatment. Instead a process of seclusion, proscribed by the Torah, is required. This process is supervised by the Kohen. During the period of seclusion, the afflicted individual is required to examine his or her behavior. Only through repentance can the individual be cured from the tzara’at. The Kohen periodically examines the afflicted person and determines the status of the affliction. Upon the pronouncement of the Kohen, the afflicted individual is regarded as cured. At this point, the individual can begin a process of reentering the community.

Our Sages discuss at length the spiritual shortcomings that cause tzara’at. One prominent cause is tale-bearing and defamation of others. The phenomenon of tzara’at reinforces the sinfulness of such behaviors. Sefer HaChinuch, in his discussion of tzara’at, does not dwell upon the specific sins that cause the affliction. Instead, he explains a different lesson to be derived from these laws.

Our behaviors affect the condition of our soul. Righteous behavior brings us closer to our Creator. His influence over our lives increases as we improve our character and behaviors. Conversely, evil actions have a degenerative effect upon our souls. Such behaviors create a barrier between the individual and Hashem. This barrier reduces the providential influence in our lives or result in punishment.

The results of righteousness or iniquity are real. However, they are not concrete or detectable by the senses. This allows us to falsely believe that our moral or religious behaviors do not really make a difference. Tzara’at helps counter this impression. Through tzara’at iniquity results in a physical effect. Divine reward and punishment become readily visible.

This lesson is reinforced in a second way. Tzara’at can only be treated though repentance. Spiritual improvement is the cure. Again, this teaches us that our moral and religious behaviors determine the nature of our relationship to Hashem. The person suffering from tzara’at learns an essential lesson. These behaviors have a real effect.

“And the Kohen shall see. And the tzara’at has covered all of his skin, then he shall declare the afflicted person clean. As long as he has turned completely white, he is clean.” (VaYikra 13:13)

A person whose skin is generally healthy but a small portion is afflicted with tzara’at is unclean. However, a person completely covered by the affliction is considered clean. This seems somewhat odd. A small blotch of tzara’at is adequate to render a generally, healthy person unclean. Yet, a person covered with the affliction from head to toe is clean!

This paradox can be explained through an analysis of the definition of tzara’at. Tzara’at is an affliction of the skin. It must exist in contrast to healthy skin. This contrast is essential to the definition of tzara’at. Without the contrast, tzara’at does not exist. Therefore, a person completely covered with the affliction is not deemed unclean. There is no contrast. The criteria for tzara’at have not been met.

The issues can also be viewed at a deeper level. Let us begin by considering another issue. A person afflicted with the discoloration of tzara’at is immediately brought to the Kohen. After examination, the Kohen must determine the status of the individual. This decision has various ramifications that are discussed in the parasha. It is sufficient to note that advanced tzara’at is far more serious than the preliminary form of the affliction.

Tzara’at of the skin is evaluated on the basis of three symptoms. Any one of these symptoms indicates that the tzara’at is advanced. One of the symptoms is a discoloration of the hair in the affected area. This discoloration is a change from the natural color to white. The presence of white hair is an indication of advanced tzara’at.

Imagine a person finds a white blotch upon the skin. The person sees that white hair is present. May the person remove the white hair before consulting the Kohen? This is prohibited.[1] Nonetheless, if the law is violated and the hair is removed, the intervention is effective. The Kohen must evaluate the person as he or she appears.[2] At the time the person appears before the Kohen, the white hair is not present.

This might seem a little odd. The Torah is creating a tremendous temptation. The metzora has the opportunity to remove the hair before appearing before the Kohen. The intervention is effective. Yet, the metzora is expected to refrain from taking this step!

In order to respond to these issues, we need to understand the function of this affliction. Tzara’at is a Divine punishment. It is attributed to lashon hara – tale bearing and gossip.[3] The affliction is a warning designed to encourage repentance. The tzara’at cannot be treated medically. Only spiritual improvement cures the disease.

The affliction cannot be relieved until the person is declared unclean and begins the process of repentance and spiritual cleansing. This is adequate motivation to prevent a person from removing the signs of tzara’at. Little will be gained through the intervention. Much will be lost. True, the intervention will influence the declaration of the Kohen. However, the affliction will continue unabated. The person can only begin the process of purification after the declaration of the Kohen. In other words, one must first accept the status of being unclean. Then one may begin the process of purification.

This provides a possible deeper understanding of the law governing the person completely covered with the affliction. The person is not declared unclean. This is not a leniency. Until the person is declared unclean, the process of purification cannot begin. The affliction will continue. Only after a healthy portion of skin appears, can the person be identified as a metzora. With this declaration, the process of repentance and purification can begin.

“All the days that he is afflicted with the disease he shall be unclean. He is unclean. He shall dwell alone. Outside of the camp shall be his dwelling.” (VaYikra 13:46)

A person declared to be a metzora is segregated from the community. Rashi explains the reason for this law. Tzara’at is a Divine punishment for lashon hara. These activities create division and strife. The segregation of the metzora is a fitting punishment. He has caused division within the community. It is appropriate that his punishment should include exclusion from the community.[4]

Daat Zekaynim offers another explanation for this law. The affliction of tzara’at is a Divine punishment. However, the disease is a physical ailment and contagious. The metzora is quarantined in order to prevent the spread of the disease.[5]

The explanation of Daat Zekaynim presents an interesting problem. The disease of tzara’at can be communicated through contact with the metzora. Yet, halacha treats the metzora as guilty of a crime. This treatment implies that the ailment was not contracted by natural means! How can this assertion be made? The possibility of natural transmission does exist!

Maimonides explains that the laws of the Torah are designed to encourage physical, as well as spiritual well-being. In discussing the laws regulating our eating, he elaborates on this theme. He explains that the foods prohibited by the Torah are generally unhealthy.[6] It must be noted that Maimonides is not asserting that the reason for these laws is simply to ensure good health. He explains that the Torah regulates our behavior in order to encourage temperance and moderation.[7] However, these prohibitions, which encourage temperance, are not arbitrary. They offer the secondary benefit of encouraging good health.

Modern medical science may differ with some of Maimonides’ theories regarding proper diet. Yet, his basic assumption is reasonable. The Torah is a guide for the proper life. It is appropriate to assume that the various laws encourage physical well-being.

Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo answers our question based upon Maimonides’ thesis. He explains that it is possible for tzara’at to be transmitted naturally. However, confronted with an individual suffering from the disease, we do not assume that a natural transmission took place. We assume that the ailment represents a Divine punishment. What is the basis for this assumption? The Torah regulates our consumption and hygiene. Through these regulations, the physical causes for the disease are controlled. Therefore, halacha assumes that the contraction of the disease is not a result of natural transmission.[8]

Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo explains another mystery regarding tzara’at based upon this same approach. The Torah outlines various forms of tzara’at. If tzara’at is a Divine punishment, why are all of these forms needed? He explains that although the disease is a spiritual punishment, it is a natural phenomenon. In other words, the Almighty causes the person to contract a natural ailment. A physical ailment will take slightly different forms in various people. A single disease has different symptoms in different people. Therefore, tzara’at will appear in varying forms.[9]

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at 10:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at, 10:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Tzara’at, 16:10.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 13:46.

[5] Daat Zekaynim Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 13:46

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 3, chapter 48.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction to Avot, chapter 5.

[8] Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo, Toldot Yitzchak, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra 12:2-5.

[9] Rabbaynu Yitzchak Karo, Toldot Yitzchak, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 13:9-13.