God knows all about disease. He knows its what causes it, what prevents it, and what heals it. Therefore, if his instructions regarding a disease make no scientific sense to you or me, then our understanding is deficient, not his. We misunderstand his instructions or the disease.
This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-Metsora, spends a lot of ink on something called tsaraat. Although that word has been historically translated as “leprosy,” Tazria and Metsora do not appear to be addressing the disease we know as Leprosy (aka Hansen’s Disease) today.
Characteristics of Hansen’s Disease
- Not highly contagious.
- Does not heal spontaneously.
- Causes numbness.
- Can cause the loss of fingers, toes, and sight.
- Infects only people and armadillos.
- Skin lesions and hair loss.
Characteristics of Tsaraat
- Contagious enough to warrant solitary quarantine (no leper colonies allowed!)
- Can heal spontaneously.
- Infects people, cloth, leather, and stone.
- Skin lesions and hair loss.
There is a superficial similarity to the symptoms, but it is apparent that tsaraat does not equal Hansen’s Disease. More likely, Hansen’s is a subset of a larger category of conditions comprehended in biblical leprosy, which must include a variety of bacterial and fungal infections.
The rabbinic understanding is that tsaraat is caused by lashon hara or an evil tongue. In other words, gossiping, back-biting, libel, slander, and “sharing” can all be manifested in a physical condition. In such a case, it is not so much the physical condition that requires solitary confinement, but that of the heart, “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” Compare two other biblical passages that involve symptoms of tzaraat:
Numbers 12:1,10 And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: for he had married an Ethiopian woman….And the cloud departed from off the tabernacle; and, behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous.
Isaiah 3:16-17,24 Moreover the LORD saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: (17) Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their secret parts….And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty.
I am not completely convinced that lashon hara specifically causes tzaraat, but it certainly seems that some spiritual condition can trigger it, perhaps lashon hara or pride. In either case, the cure is humble obedience to God’s commands.
Update April 17, 2010: Tony Robinson says that tzaraat is caused by disrespecting the authority of God’s prophets and priests. I think he is on the right track, but I will go further and say that, based on Isaiah 3, it might be disrespect toward all divinely appointed authority.