Yom Rishon, 23 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 7 March 2021
Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5775

Parashat Tazria-Metzora
17th April 2015 - Rabbi Anna Gerrard

“As for the person with Tzara’at, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, "Impure! Impure!" He shall be impure as long as the disease is on him. Being impure, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.(Leviticus 13:45-46)

At a first glance, the rather gruesome double parasha of Tazria-Metzora reads like a medical text book.  We can imagine the Priests holding surgery hours, during which they examined symptoms, diagnosed ailments and prescribed treatments.  But a closer look reveals that physiology is not at the heart of these instructions, but rather ritual impurity.  This is a spiritual category we know well from Jewish law and, in this case, seems to mark the difference between skin diseases that do not require a process of purification and those that do.

The most spoken-about of these skin diseases is Tzara’at, a scaly skin condition that is presumably contagious since it requires a period of quarantine and which renders the sufferer ritually impure.  On recovery from this condition, the Torah prescribes a ritual that requires certain items:

If the priest sees that the person with Tzara’at has been healed of his scaly affection, the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. (Leviticus 14:3-4)

The Medieval Rabbis were keen to emphasise the spiritual issues at stake rather than confuse the sacrificial cult with the curing of physical disease.  They considered that a person brought Tzara’at upon themselves by engaging in Lashon Hara – ‘evil tongue’ or slanderous gossip (BT Arachin 16b).  Rashi’s commentary on the Torah offers an explanation for the quarantine:

“His dwelling shall be outside the camp.(Leviticus 13:46) - meaning that other unclean people [not stricken with Tzara’at] shall not abide with him. Our Sages said: “Why is he different from other unclean people, that he must remain isolated?  Since, with his slander, he has caused a rift between man and wife or between man and his fellow – so he too shall be separated from society.”

The symbolism continues with each aspect of the purification ritual – Rashi draws together the teachings of Talmud and Midrash to descibe a symbolic quality for each object mentioned:

Two live clean birds – that chirp and chatter like gossipers.
Cedar Wood – the highest of trees to remind the gossiper not to be so haughty.
Crimson Stuff – the colour of the ‘evil tongue’.
Hyssop – the lowest of plants to remind the gossiper that he should practice humility.

And so what seemed like a medical treatment at a first glance and a sacrificial practice with a second look, now appears to be a folkloric ritual based in sympathetic magic.  The skins disease itself becomes secondary to the moral and ethical issue of engaging in slanderous gossip.

Tazria-Mtzora can seem like a gruesome and unnecessary parasha and it can feel like hard work to find the relevance in its words there is a strange twist of fate and history that makes me inclined to try - the common mistranslation of Tzara’at as leprosy.

The father of medicine, Hypocrates, used the Greek term Lepra(from the Greek word for ‘scaly’) to refer to all scaly skin diseases.  The Biblical word Tzara’at comes from the Hebrew root for ‘scaly’ and in the 9th Century the two words were compounded.  Everything that the Bible tells us about Tzara’at (a seemingly spiritual and moral condition) was applied to Leprosy and people with Leprosy were ostracised and mistreated by society for over a millennium.

If sacrifices, sympathetic magic and scaly skin diseases are no longer relevant then we can at least learn something from this story.  The misuse of a word and the spreading of slanderous information can cause great pain and suffering.  The Biblical condition of Tzara’at may have been metaphorical but the lasting effect of its ‘evil tongue’ was certainly not.  The danger of gossip and the importance of being careful with our words is the important message that lies deep beneath the layers of scales in this week’s parasha.