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Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Disease or Divine Reckoning?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


The bulk of the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora deal with a description of the dramatic effects of tzara’at, often defined (for want of a better term) as biblical leprosy.

The Torah delineates in fine detail the specifics of this mysterious affliction – which affects individuals, clothes and dwellings – and the steps to be taken under the guidance of the Kohanim towards its diagnosis and treatment.


What exactly is tzara’at, biblical leprosy? Is this affliction a natural, physical illness or a supernatural phenomenon?

Given the myriad diseases that affect humankind, why does the Torah devote so much text to a description of this specific malady, its diagnosis and treatment?


The mystery of tzara’at gives rise to a wide-ranging series of observations among the commentaries.


At one end of the spectrum lie those scholars who view tzara’at as a contagious physical illness with dangerous potential for spread to the entire population.

The Abravanel, for example, explains the Torah’s concern for “afflicted” clothing in distinctly natural terms. Unlike strong materials such as metal, clothing will readily absorb bodily decay upon close personal contact. The Torah is, therefore, concerned that tzara’at will spread from a metzora (an individual afflicted with tzara’at) to his garments. To prevent further contagion, therefore, all suspicious stains and growths on clothing must be examined by a Kohen.
For his part, the Ralbag interprets the puzzling phenomena of clothing and dwelling afflictions according to scientific theory of his day. Foreign moisture or heat entering an item, he claims, causes an imbalance in that item’s natural stasis and leads to the item’s disintegration. This destructive process is evidenced at an early stage through the appearance of red or green growth (colors associated in the text with tzara’at).

Although the Meshech Chochma initially categorizes the theme of tzara’at as one of the “secrets of the Torah,” he then avers: “Nonetheless, one can say that these afflictions are contagious diseases.” The treatment of the illness itself, this scholar maintains, is ample evidence of its communicable nature. The metzora experiences enforced isolation and is required to actively alert others to his condition. Any physical interaction with infected individuals is extremely dangerous. The Torah, therefore, assigns the task of such interaction (the diagnosis and treatment of the ill) to the sons of Aharon who, in their role as Kohanim, are separate from the rest of the people and are granted extraordinary divine protection.

Finally, Rabbeinu Bachya discerns concern for communicable disease in the Torah’s mandate that the metzora, at the end of his period of isolation, let loose a bird offering “on the face of the field.” The release of the bird into a place absent of human habitation, he maintains, represents an implicit prayer that the metzora’s erstwhile contagion should not spread to others.


At the opposite end of the spectrum are those commentaries who eschew any natural explanation for the tzara’at afflictions discussed in the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora.

These scholars point to a number of details of tzara’at outlined in the Written and Oral Law that are clearly inconsistent with the characteristics of communicable diseases, including:

1. The Kohen diagnoses tzara’at based only on examination of those parts of the body which he can readily see. No careful examination is required in the folds of the body.

2. When tzara’at is suspected in a dwelling, the Torah orders the Kohen to remove everything from the house before conducting his examination. If tzara’at is a communicable disease, such a procedure would expose the public to potentially infected material.

3. Examinations of potential tzara’at are not performed by the Kohanim on Shabbat, holidays, or upon a bridegroom during the seven days of celebration following his wedding.

4. The laws of tzara’at only apply to dwellings in the Land of Israel and only after the land has been divided into individual holdings. These laws do not apply to homes owned by non-Jews or to dwellings of any ownership in the city of Yerushalayim.

5. The laws of tzara’at do not apply to non-Jews. A lesion contracted by a convert before his conversion to Judaism is of no consequence.

6. Under certain circumstances, if lesions cover an individual’s entire body he is not considered contaminated.

7. After the nation’s entry into the land, a metzora is only to be excluded from walled cities (as determined by the city’s status at the time of the conquest of the land). He is to be allowed to remain in unwalled cities and to roam freely through the rest of the countryside. According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, these and other details “show the absolute folly” of any attempt to interpret Torah laws as rules and regulations created for health or sanitary purposes.


If the afflictions described in the parshiot of Tazria and Metzora, however, are not natural diseases, what exactly are they? What message is God sending the people through the visitation of these frightening supernatural phenomena? What crimes perpetrated by individuals within the nation could possibly trigger such severe divine reckoning?


The Talmud lists, in the name of Rabbi Yonatan, seven sins that cause the affliction of tzara’at: evil or damaging speech, murder, perjury, sexual immorality, arrogance, robbery and miserliness.

In similar (albeit more poetic) fashion the Midrash cites six phenomena, drawn from the book of Mishlei, that trigger the illness: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that spill innocent blood, a heart that ponders thoughts of violence, feet always ready to run for evil purpose, false testimony (that results in the spreading of lies) and the sowing of discord between brothers.

Of these associations between crime and punishment, however, only one seems to capture the rabbinic imagination completely. Over and over again, the rabbis link the punishment of tzara’at to the related crimes of motzi shem ra, slander (literally, the bringing out of a “bad name”), and lashon hara, evil or damaging speech. Within a halachic context, motzi shem ra refers to true slander, e.g., the spreading of false information about another individual, while lashon hara refers to the vocalization of any damaging information, even if true. Both of these actions are considered grave transgressions within Jewish law.

The rabbis find support for the link between these sins of speech and the affliction of tzara’at in a series of clues, including:

1. The term metzora itself can be broken down and linguistically connected to the expression motzi shem ra (slander).

2. Moshe is temporarily struck with tzara’at at the burning bush when he casts aspersions on the Israelites by doubting their willingness to respond to God’s call for the Exodus.

3. Miriam is punished with tzara’at when she maligns her brother, Moshe.

4. The practical response to tzara’at (seclusion from the community) results in a punishment that fits the crime. The metzora must distance himself through isolation from society because his words created distance between husband and wife, between a man and his friend.

5. The bird offerings brought by the metzora at the end of his period of seclusion mirror the nature of his sin. He injured others through the “chatter” of slander and gossip. His purification is, therefore, effectuated through the means of “chirping, twittering” birds.


A much deeper philosophical current, however, courses through the rabbinic assertion of a connection between sins of speech and the affliction of tzara’at. To the minds of the rabbis, few crimes are as damaging to both victim and perpetrator as the crimes of slander and damaging speech.

The foundation for this viewpoint is laid early on in a seemingly strange interpretation offered by the classical translator of biblical text, Onkelos. Commenting on the seminal phrase concerning the man’s creation, “And He breathed into his [man’s] nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being,” Onkelos translates, “…and man became a speaking spirit.”

Why does Onkelos cast the Torah’s overarching statement of man’s creation in such a seemingly narrow light? Why single out the power of speech as the one faculty that distinguishes the human being at the moment of his conception? Aren’t man’s true distinctions his soul, his intellect and his power of reasoned thought?

A brilliant insight into the approach of Onkelos is offered by Rabbi Yitzchak Arama in an extensive discussion on Parshat Metzora. While man’s intellect does set him apart from the beast, this scholar notes, his intellect is only fully revealed and actualized through verbal communication. Speech is the God-given tool through which an individual’s heart and mind are reflected to an outside world.

The fundamental connection between verbal communication and man’s inner being is underscored by King Shlomo in the book of Mishlei: “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue comes from the Lord.”

Because speech is so reflective of man’s unique character, the obligations associated with verbal communication carry great significance. An individual who misuses his power of speech degrades himself through the very skill meant to mirror his greatness. So foundational is this transgression, that the perpetrator can no longer lay claim to the majestic title of “a speaking spirit.” Improper speech, says Arama, can be compared to “using royal garments to clean the trash heap.”

From this perspective, the sins of motzi shem ra and lashon hara acquire another, devastating layer of significance. Much of the literature concerning these transgressions focuses upon the obvious victim, the target of the verbal attack. This focus is certainly understandable. The damage potentially caused to others by an individual’s unthinking and deliberately cruel speech cannot be overstated.

Arama, however, together with other scholars, directs our attention towards another victim of these grievous transgressions: the perpetrator himself.

Created in God’s image – granted reason, intellect and the ability to actualize that intellect positively in the surrounding world – the perpetrator diminishes his own stature and demeans his human essence. Far from the “speaking spirit” that God created him to be, he reveals himself as a meanspirited creature, oblivious to – or even relishing – the pain his words cause to others. God, therefore, specifically punishes sins committed through speech with the plague of tzara’at, an affliction that mirrors what the perpetrator has done to himself. Through his grave actions, the metzora has fallen from his place at the pinnacle of God’s creation. No longer a “living being,” no longer a “speaking spirit,” he suffers from an illness so severe that the rabbis claim, “A metzora is considered dead.”

Ostracized from society, he must experience an isolating period of spiritual repair before he can begin, through true repentance, to reclaim his greatness.

Our tradition hopes that, perhaps then, chastened and humbled, the metzora will realize the truth of the psalmist’s assertion: “Who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from [speaking] evil and your lips from uttering falsehood.”

Points to Ponder

The possible connection between sins of speech and the plague of tzara’at raises serious issues concerning the application of divine justice to our lives. Are we to view the misfortunes that confront us, from illness to accident, as heaven-sent retribution for our sins? Does God punish us today, as He did in biblical times, through the direct visitation of calamity?

The answer that emerges from sources in our tradition seems complex, if not contradictory.
On the one hand, the Torah repeatedly speaks of the calamities destined to befall the Jewish nation as a result of their transgressions. The second paragraph of the Shma Yisrael, recited twice daily by observant Jews, for example, clearly states that the granting of natural bounty in the Land of Israel is contingent upon the actions of the Jewish nation. So direct is the connection between pain and wrongdoing in this world that the rabbis declare: “There is no suffering without sin.”

On the other hand, the relationship between affliction and sin in our experience is deeply elusive. The issue of theodicy, divine justice, lies at the core of all Jewish questioning, from the time of Avraham to our day. Even Moshe, whose communion with God was more direct than that of any other individual in human history, is denied insight into the mystery of theodicy.

Anyone who has witnessed the suffering of an innocent child can eloquently testify to our inability to decipher God’s ways.

What, then, should our approach be when calamity strikes? Are we meant to view the misfortunes that confront us during our lifetimes as punishment for our sins or as seemingly arbitrary phenomena beyond our ken?

While a full analysis of the overarching philosophical issues emerging from this question are well beyond the scope of our discussion, a lesson emerging from the dawn of our history can be particularly instructive.

Avraham responds to two critical challenges in strikingly different ways.

Confronted with the divinely ordained destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Amora, the patriarch openly bargains with God in their defense. Challenged, on the other hand, with the Akeida (the God-commanded sacrifice of his son Yitzchak) Avraham emerges from the text as silent and totally compliant.

Where is the patriarch’s sense of justice in the face of his innocent son’s looming death? How can the man who argued so eloquently on behalf of Sodom and Amora remain silent when confronted with the Akeida and the apparent destruction of his own prophetic dreams of nationhood?

The key to Avraham’s behavior may well lie in the vast difference between the two events that confront him.

The fate of the cities of Sodom and Amora is firmly rooted in the realm of din, justice. God informs Avraham: The inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Amora are evil; therefore, they deserve to perish. When God relates to man in the sphere of din everything makes sense; there is a clear cause and effect. Within this realm, we are invited to argue and struggle with our Creator. Avraham can thus rise and confront God in defense of the cities.

The Akeida, on the other hand, takes place in the realm of nissayon, trial. When God brings us into the sphere of nissayon, arguments and struggle are futile. In this arena, there is no clear cause and effect. In contrast to God’s decree concerning Sodom and Amora, no clear reason is given for the Akeida. God is hidden from view and there is no readily perceived logic to His actions.

Man’s challenge within the realm of nissayon is solely to pass the trial, to respond to God’s will with dignity and constancy of faith. That is why Avraham is silent in the face of the Akeida. He realizes that he has entered the world of nissayon, and that his challenges have changed.

Through prophetic vision, Avraham was able to distinguish between the two realms of din and nissayon and react to each appropriately. We, however, are unable to make this distinction. We have no way of knowing, nor are we meant to know, whether a particular life challenge is a punishment, a trial, or a combination thereof. We therefore react on both levels at once. In times of crisis, we struggle, pray, plead and argue for justice. We allow difficult experience to catalyze our personal repentance and charge our spiritual growth. And, then, when all the prayers are exhausted, when our soul-searching has ended, we turn to God and accept His unfathomable will.