Tzaraat–A Biblical Affliction

Commonly mistranslated as leprosy, this ailment described in the Bible cannot be healed by doctors.

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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.
tzaraat skin disease
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).

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Tamar Fox is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Vanderbilt University, and a BA from the University of Iowa. She has worked as the editor of the religion blog at Jewcy.com, and is on the Editorial Board at The Jew and the Carrot. She spent a summer as a fellow at Yeshivat Hadar, and was a Senior Apprentice Artist for four years at Gallery 37 in Chicago.

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