In last week’s Torah portion (Shemini), God commanded the kosher laws, identifying which animals were fit for consumption. It also discussed some of the laws of ritual purity, instructing the Israelites “to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Leviticus 10:10)
This week’s double portion of Scripture (Tazria-Metzora) continues with the laws of ritual purity (tahorah) and impurity (tumah).
The Purification of Tzaraat
“And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean [tameh, tameh]. All the days wherein the plague is in him he shall be unclean; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his dwelling be.’” (Leviticus 13:45–46)
Both Tazria and Metzora focus on the laws of leprosy, a spiritual condition that causes the afflicted to become impure.
These portions outline laws regarding how to handle the metzora, the one who is infected, as well as how he or she may be purified once healed.
The Hebrew word that is translated leprosy, tzaraat, does not actually correspond to the modern day affliction of leprosy. Its origin is spiritual, but it obviously has a physical manifestation. The condition is identified by a priest, not by a doctor.
In fact, tzaraat can afflict a person, house, or article of clothing.
How does the community of Israel deal with a person afflicted by tzaraat—a metzora?
Once it is confirmed through a series of tests that the condition is indeed tzaraat, the metzora is declared tameh (impure or unclean). The afflicted one is then isolated from the community in order to prevent defiling and infecting others through contact. The metzora must dwell alone outside the camp until completely healed.
It is the role of the priest to periodically check on the afflicted person to determine when he or she can return to the community, so it can once again be whole.
In terms of a house, however, if the tzaraat spreads after a week of quarantine, the infected stones are removed and thrown in an impure place. If the lesions reappear after the stones are replaced and the house is scraped and re-plastered, then the entire house is destroyed. Its stones, wood, and dust are carried away to an impure place.
“Behold, if the plague be spread in the house, it is a malignant leprosy in the house; it is unclean. And he shall break down the house, the stones of it, and the timber thereof, and all the mortar of the house; and he shall carry them forth out of the city into an unclean place.” (Leviticus 14:44–45)
Once a metzora is healed, he or she then goes through the purification process outlined in the Torah.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘This shall be the torah [instructions] for the leprous person [תּוֹרַת הַמְּצֹרָע] for the day of his cleansing.’” (Leviticus 14:1–2)
For the healing process to be complete, and the metzora reintegrated into the community, a complex series of offerings are made, beginning on the first day with two clean birds—one that is killed and one that is released.
Although the metzora may now return to the community, he must live outside his tent for seven days. On the seventh day, the metzora shaves off all hair, including the eyebrows, and bathes in water.
As part of the ceremony, on the eighth day of the purification process, the priest (Kohen) places some of the oil and blood of the guilt offering (male lamb) upon the tip of the right ear of the one being cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot. (Leviticus 14:10–14)
This represents atonement and cleansing of everything we hear, everything we do, and every path we take.
The Cause of Tzaraat
“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies.” (Psalm 34:12–13)
Judaism considers gossip and slander a type of “moral leprosy,” and the rabbis regard tzaraat as an affliction from God as punishment primarily for destructive communication such as slander or gossip, although pride and self-centeredness may be at the heart of this sin.
Gossip and slander might be caused by the speaker’s baseless hatred (sinat chinam, literally hatred of their grace, beauty, or charm). Moreover, evil communication leads others into hatred.
The account of Miriam’s leprosy is evidence of the connection between evil speech and tzaraat. After she and her brother Aaron dared to speak evil of their brother Moses and his Cushite wife, she was afflicted with tzaraat.
“Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ And the LORD heard this.” (Numbers 12:1–2)
God’s anger was kindled against Miriam, and He afflicted her with tzaraat, saying to her:
“Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?’ The anger of the LORD burned against [Miriam and Aaron], and He left them. When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous—it became as white as snow. Aaron turned towards her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease.” (Numbers 12:8–10)
This should be enough to give each of us a healthy fear of gossiping about or slandering anyone—especially those anointed of the Lord to serve Him in a position of public leadership or ministry.