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).

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).

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Tamar Fox

Tamar Fox is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. Her children's book, No Baths at Camp, was published in 2013 by Kar-Ben, and her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, the Jerusalem Post, Tablet Magazine, TheJewniverse.com, and many other publications.