This week’s double parsha is about how the Hebrews were to treat people who had a skin disease called tzara’at

The treatment was twofold.  First, after being inspected by a Priest, the suffering person was sent to live outside the camp.  The person’s clothing was burnt up, or scrubbed if it wasn’t too badly infected.  (After all, clothing in those days was handmade, so it was expensive.)   

We can understand how hard that must have been for the person with tzara’at because today, we’re all isolated from each other because of COVID.  As Rabbi Dvora Weisberg puts it:

Imagine the reaction of…the afflicted person …They walk alone…They are forced into isolation, kept apart from family and friends during what must be the most…frightening time of their life.

Now, there were two parts to the process.  When the sick person was better and passed inspection by the Priest, he or she had to bring a lamb and two birds to the High Priests to sacrifice.  Notice, this was after the person got a clean bill of health.  So the sacrifice wasn’t a healing ceremony; it was a reentry ceremony.

Modern medical people believe that tzara’at was actually a group of skin diseases.  That’s what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says.  Maimonides, a great Jewish scholar who was also a doctor, figured that out in the 12th century – pretty smart, wasn’t he?

Here’s something interesting:  Tzara’at was translated as leprosy in the King James version of the Bible. That’s because in the Greek version of the Bible, the Hebrew word tzara’at was translated as lepra, and lepra, in Greek meant rough or scaly.  Medical people nowadays thinks the disease was leprosy.  The symptoms don’t fit.

Some Rabbis saw tzara’at as a disease of the spirit.  They saw the physical symptoms as a punishment from God for sin.  Rashi, a famous scholar of the Middle Ages, saw the real disease as lashon hara — evil tongue – meaning gossiping, or saying cruel things about a person.   After all, spiteful gossip can cause a lot of damage.

Food for Thought

The Talmud lists seven possible sins for which tsara’at was God’s punishment.  Is separation a fitting way to handle sin?  Is it fitting if tzara’at is a physical, not a spiritual disease?

Some rabbis believed skin disease was caused by gossiping
Some ancient rabbis believed skin disease was caused by gossiping