Leviticus introduces the affliction of tzaraat. Commonly mistranslated as leprosy, tzaraat can afflict the body, a home, or even clothing.
Tzaraat only afflicts clothing made of three materials: wool, linen, or leather. Only sheep’s wool is susceptible to tzaraat, although an even mixture of sheep’s wool and another type of wool (camel’s wool, for example) can be afflicted. In a similar vein, a mixture of plant fibers containing linen is unsusceptible unless it is at least half linen. The fabric of wool or linen or leather article cannot be rendered impure by tzaraat if it is artificially dyed. If, however, the item is naturally colored (such as wool from a black sheep), it can be rendered impure.
The leather can be either unworked or finished leather. The leather referred to by the Torah does not include the hides of marine animals.
Clothing belonging to a gentile are insusceptible to tzaraat. The Mishna teaches that if clothing is purchased from a gentile and already has the appearance of tzaraat, then it is treated as if the affliction just appeared while in the property of the Jew.
Tzaraat appears in clothing as an intense green (ירקרק – yerakrak) or red (אדמדם – adamdam). When the color is discovered, the garment must be brought to the priest for inspection. The priest does not determine its status right away but the garment is confined for seven days. If, on the seventh day, the stain has spread, it is declared impure. Subsequent to a declaration of tzaraat, the garment, whether wool, linen or leather, is completely burnt. If the tzaraat was confined to the woof or warp, only that need be burnt.
If, however, after the first inspection the priest is unsure, the garment with the eruption must be washed and confined once more for seven days. If upon a second re-evaluation after the second seven days of confinement, the priest sees that the eruption did not dim and did not spread, the garment is declared impure and must be completely burnt.
If the second re-evaluation reveals a dimming of the eruption, the priest tears the area with the eruption from the garment and burns the torn out portion completely. The torn out area is patched to allow for a reinspection of the area for return of the affliction. If, the eruption returns to the patch, there is no confinement period instituted and the entire garment is completely burnt. If the tzaraat reappears on the garment but not on the patch, the garment must be burned but the patch can be saved.
If, however, upon the second re-evaluation, the tzaraat disappears, the garment must be immersed in a mikveh (מקוה, “ritual bath”) and is then pure.
The spiritual malady of tzaraat is a punishment for a number of different sins including slander, a vain oath, illicit sexual intercourse, pride, theft and miserly behavior. According to Rabbi Yonatan Horovitz, tzaraat on clothing is the mildest form of tzaraat and the easiest to deal with. After all, it is much easier to burn a piece of clothing than to self-isolate or rebuild a home. Therefore, it comes as a warning that not all is right when it comes to our relationships with others. Tzaraat on clothing is a warning to look at our interpersonal relationships and, if need be, make some important changes. If we do not heed the warning, however, tzaraat may then afflict our homes or our bodies, causing much greater upheaval.