According to the King James translation of the Bible, both Moses and Miriam suffered from leprosy at some point in their lives. But the Hebrew word often translated as leprosy, tzaraat, is not the same as the disease we call leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) today.
In the Bible, tzaraat is a skin disease that can take many different forms, and in particularly bad cases can manifest itself on one’s clothing, belongings, and house, in addition to the skin. According to the rabbis, tzaraat is caused by sin. This makes it a disease like no others; part medical condition, part spiritual pathology.
Two chapters of the Book of Leviticus are devoted to the laws of dealing with someone who is afflicted with tzaraat. Symptoms described include swelling, and whitish-red spots on the torso. According to the Torah, when a person saw that he may be coming down with tzaraat he consulted with a priest, or kohen, who examined him. Diagnosis was somewhat counterintuitive. A person who had spots covering his whole body was not considered infected, and someone who was infected could be granted a grace period if they were about to get married.
These rules, which were detailed and expanded by the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, imply that tzaraat did not operate in the same way as the infectious diseases we’re familiar with today. On the other hand, part of the treatment for tzaraat was isolation from the community, so there was concern about the disease spreading from person to person.
If tzaraat was confirmed, three separate ceremonies were required on three different days. The ceremonies were focused on sacrifices, and cultic rituals. The infected person had to offer a guilt offering and a sin offering, and the rabbis added requirements for repentance as well.
Cases of Tzaraat in the Bible
Aside from the chapters dealing with the laws of tzaraat (Leviticus 13-14), the disease comes up in narrative parts of the Torah twice. After encountering the burning bush, Moses worries that the elders of Israel won’t believe him. God gives Moses two signs: turning his staff into a snake and then back into a staff, and turning his hand white with tzaraat, and then back to normal again (Exodus 4:1-8).
Miriam, Moses’ sister, is afflicted with tzaraat after she and Aaron criticize Moses’ choice of a Cushite wife (Numbers 12). Though Moses and Aaron plead for her to be healed immediately, she has to be isolated from the camp for seven days.
Other later biblical characters who suffered from tzaraat are Naaman, a commander of the Aramean army (Kings II 5:1), and after interacting with him, Gehazi, a servant of the prophet Elisha, comes down with tzaraat as well. Four men with tzaraat pillage the Aramean camp after it has been abandoned (Kings II 7:3-10). King Jeroboam of Israel suffered from tzaraat (Kings II 15:5), as did King Uziah (Chronicles II 16:20-23).
Traditional Jewish thinkers have understood tzaraat in a variety of ways. The Talmud lists seven reasons one might be afflicted with the disease: Gossip, murder, perjury, forbidden sexual relationships, arrogance, theft, and envy (Arakhin 16a). The midrash focuses on gossip, as have many more modern and contemporary commentators, connecting the word metzora, a person afflicted with the condition, to motzi shem ra, a person guilty of slander or libel.
Nahmanides viewed tzaraat as a withdrawal of godliness from the world. This explained why it could manifest itself in the walls of one’s home. If someone sinned, and then began noticing green or red streaks on the wall of his house, this was an indication that as a result of his sin, God’s presence was removing itself from his home.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh pointed out that because tzaraat was treated by priests, rather than doctors, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a medical problem at all, but rather as an exclusively spiritual ailment.
Though tzaraat in the Torah is a combination of the physical and the spiritual, many scientists and doctors have made attempts to connect tzaraat to medical conditions. Maimonides, who was a physician himself, recognized that tzaraat was probably comprised of a few different skin diseases that were all malignant and destructive. Seforno understood some forms of tzaraat to be skin cancer, and others to be punishment for sin.
Modern medical scholars have identified the white spots described as symptoms of tzaraat as vitiligo, a disfiguring but otherwise harmless disease, or as psoriasis, a disease that results in thick silvery scales and itchy, dry, red patches on the skin.
Thought tzaraat is most often translated as leprosy, it has almost nothing in common with the disease we know by that name today. The translation came about because in the Septuagint tzaraat was translated as lepra, which in Greek meant rough or scaly. Later English translations made the connection from lepra to leprosy. But in ancient Greece, what we now call leprosy was known as elephantiasis.
Understanding Tzaraat Today
The Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Tosefta all expend a great deal of effort detailing the laws of tzaraat, but by the time the laws were written, they may have been moot. There are hardly any references to actual cases of tzaraat in the tannaitic period. The Tosefta includes the house infected by tzaraat in its list of laws that were never carried out, and whose purpose was to teach an idea, rather than command an action.
Today, even if we could positively identify someone as having tzaraat, the sacrifices and rituals needed to purify the person are no longer possible, since there are no Jewish priests and no Temple.
As a result, most contemporary communities use tzaraat as a way to think about our behavior and its consequences. How would we act differently if we knew that our sins could come back to us in the form of a rash on our skin, or mold growing in our homes? The Torah prescribes that a person with tzaraat needs to go outside the camp of Israel before he or she can be healed. What can this teach us about isolating ourselves or others when we see destructive behavior?
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.