Biblical Leprosy and the Power of Words

April 13, 2024

The portion of the Bible, Tazria deals primarily with the ritual impurity of one who is afflicted with tzaraat, the Biblical skin ailment usually translated as “leprosy.” This leprosy is not the same as the condition known today as leprosy. Tzaraat is a physical affliction that has a spiritual source. The one afflicted with tzaraat is ritually impure and must undergo a unique purification program.

All forms of impurity are accompanied by some restrictions. Most impurities prohibit one only from entering the Temple. The impurity of a person with tzaraat is quite severe. This person is called a metzora and the impurity of a metzora is the only impurity that requires the one who is impure to leave the city limits and live alone outside the camp. When the metzora has been cured and found not to have tzaraat anymore, he then gradually re-enters the life of the community. At the end of this process, he must bring an offering in the Temple.

This offering is called a “guilt offering.” Many sins, but not all, require the sinner to bring an offering. The standard guilt offerings and sin offerings that would be brought for other sins would never include the placing of blood on the ear, thumb, and toe of the person bringing the offering. This feature is unique to the offering of the metzora.

Although this is the only offering that calls for blood to be placed on an ear, thumb, and toe, there is one other instance in the Torah where we see this practice. During the opening ceremonies of the Tabernacle, Aaron, and his sons were initiated as priests. One part of the ceremony was as follows:

Another unique characteristic of the tzaraat purification guilt-offering is the following:

The term “before God” refers to the curtain of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred spot in the Sanctuary. The oil would be sprinkled at the curtain by the temple priest. This feature – like the placing of blood on the ear, thumb, and toe – is peculiar. This is not part of a standard sin offering or of any other offering brought by an individual. The blood of a standard sin offering is sprinkled on the altar, not the curtain of the Holy of Holies.

The altar was located in the courtyard of the Temple. The Holy of Holies is the Temple’s innermost chamber. Aside from this offering of the metzora, there are only two other situations which call for sprinkling on this curtain. One is when an offering was brought to atone for a sin committed by the High Priest himself. The other situation is an offering brought to atone for a sin committed by the entire community of Israel.

These two situations are similar. The High Priest is a public figure. He represents the entire nation in his service before God. His own sins can never be considered private. 

All of this only serves to underscore our questions. Why is the guilt offering of the metzora singled out in this way, requiring features otherwise reserved for sins committed by the entire community or by the High Priest? Why does the purification process of the metzora share a feature with the inauguration ceremony of Aaron and his sons? Why is tzaraat impurity so severe that it requires removal from the camp of Israel?

According to Jewish tradition, tzaraat afflicts a person directly from the sin of tale-bearing, gossiping, and speaking ill of others. This tradition originates with the story of Miriam, Moses’ and Aaron’s sister. In Numbers 12 we read of her being afflicted with leprosy as a response from God for speaking ill of Moses. 

By banishing the metzora from the camp, the Torah teaches us that the sin of speaking ill of others is so impure that the metzora must be exiled from the community. The punishment fits the crime. Speaking ill of others is malicious and anti-social. Often, the goal of the talebearer is the exclusion or “cancelling” of the person about whom the tale is being told. The result of this punishment is that the talebearer, rather than the subject of the tale is deemed unfit for social interaction and must leave the camp.

As long as the blemish of tzaraat is present, the metzora cannot re-enter the community. Theoretically, if the talebearer afflicted with tzaraat were never to repent and thus never to heal, the excommunication would be permanent. Effectively, such a person would cease to be a member of the community of Israel.

As mentioned above, no other form of impurity requires complete removal from the community. The process of purification and repentance is unique because we are not dealing with a normal sin or usual impurity. A recovering metzora is not merely becoming purified. He is recovering his status as a member of the community of Israel.

In their inauguration to become Temple priests, Aaron and his sons underwent an elevation in status from normal Israelites to priests. This new status gave them access to places non-priests can not go. It entitled them to special gifts and privileges. It also brought restrictions that do not apply to the rest of the community. Their status was elevated. Let me put it this way, prior to the inauguration ceremony, Aaron and his sons were regular members of the nation of Israel. After the ceremony, they had a unique and higher spiritual status.

Similarly, the metzora must undergo a change in status from a metzora who must be removed from the camp, to being restored to the regular status of a full member of the community of Israel. The metzora’s exile sends the message that he is no longer a full member of the people of Israel. Upon re-entry to the community, he must dedicate himself to a more elevated life than he led before.  Just as the sons of Aaron rose in status from regular Israelite to priest, the recovered metzora rises in status from excommunicated metzora to full member of the community. The priests’ initiation ceremony and the metzora’s purification accomplish the same goal. The elevation of status from a lower level to a higher one. This is expressed by the shared procedure involving the ear, thumb, and toe. (a full treatment of the meaning of this particular procedure is beyond the scope of this article.)

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933), a leading rabbi in pre-war Europe, explained the requirement of a metzora to sprinkle oil on the curtain of the Holy of Holies, similar to the atonement for a sin of the High Priest or of the entire community. The impact of a sin by the High Priest is greater than the sin of an ordinary citizen. This makes sense. When spiritual leaders of great influence sin, the impact is far greater the sins committed by the rest of us. In a sense, there is no private sin when it comes to people of great spiritual influence. In this way, the sin of a High Priest is similar to a sin by the entire community. It is a public matter. Both such sins speak to the deterioration of communal morality and ethics.

Rabbi Kagan goes on to explain that this is why a sin by a private citizen is atoned for on the altar, in the courtyard of the Temple. Still, a sin by the High Priest – or the entire community – must be atoned for in the most sacred of places, the curtain of the Holy of Holies. The message Rabbi Kagan explains is that speaking ill of other people is not a private sin. Stories are repeated and shared. Slander and gossip destroy relationships and communities. 

The Torah teaches us a powerful lesson by linking the purification process of the metzora to the inauguration of the priests, the sins of the High Priest, and the sine of the community. The sin of talebearing—of spreading negative information with the intent of damaging others—is not a private matter. God granted human beings, and only human beings, the power of speech. We must be careful to use this unique ability only for the good.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

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Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Executive Director of Israel365 Action and the author of Verses for Zion and Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David's Psalms of Praise. He is a frequent guest on Erick Stakelbeck's The Watchman and a regular contributor to Israel365news.com and The Jerusalem Post.

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