A Rough Guide to Tzaraat


To merit punishment, one first must sin, and as a child born to Jewish parents is a child born without sin—a thing must be done, or not done, an action or lapse. According to the Talmud (we should repeat that phrase many times in a discussion of the subject), there are seven sins that merit the specific punishment of tzaraat: behaving miserly; theft; excessive pride or the Greek hubris; forbidden sexual intercourse such as homosexuality or with a sheep; a vain oath; murder; and lastly—loshon hora, literally “an evil tongue,” or gossip.

What is tzaraat, though? It is primarily an affliction of the skin, commonly translated from the Hebrew as “leprosy,” but this is not correct. Here are two exemplary paragraphs from the Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901 and 1906, and lately made available on the Internet:

The probabilities are that “ara’at” comprised a number of diseases of the skin, which, owing to the undeveloped state of medical science at that period, were not distinguished. The white spots, upon which so much diagnostic stress was laid, were in all likelihood those of vitiligo, a disease quite common in tropical countries, and characterized by bright white spots, the hairs on which also become white. Vitiligo begins as small patches, which slowly spread, often involving ultimately large areas of the body’s surface. The disease is harmless, but most disfiguring in those of swarthy complexion.

In the Septuagint “
ara’at” is translated by “lepra.” It is reasonable to assume that the Hebrews attached the same meaning to “ara’at” that the Greeks did to “lepra,” which is derived from “lepros” (= “rough” or “scaly”). According to the medical writings of Ægineta, Ætius, Actuarius, Oribasus, and others, lepra was uniformly regarded as a circular, superficial, scaly eruption of the skin; in other words, their lepra was the psoriasis of modern times. There is absolutely nothing in the Greek description of lepra that suggests even in a remote manner the modern leprosy. The Greeks, in speaking of true leprosy, did not use the term “lepra,” but “elephantiasis.” It is evident, therefore, that they meant by “lepra” an affection distinct and apart from the disease of leprosy as now known. The confusion and obscurity that have enveloped this subject for centuries have resulted from the use of different terms in successive ages to designate the same disease, and from the total change in the meaning and application of the word “lepra.”

Who was afflicted with tzaraat and why? Miriam was, because she spoke harshly of her brother Moses. As was Joab and his family and their generations, in punishment for the murder of Abner. Gehazi was, for being covetous. And Uzziah was smitten with tzaraat for assuming the priestly duties, as retribution for improperly burning incense on the Temple’s gold altar. The sufferer of tzaraat, splotched over with an albescent fungus, was to be separated from the community, as lepers once were. The Talmud identifies four types of this leprotic white: one case of tzaraat is the white color of snow; another white is the whiteness of lime; the third degree is the white of an egg; and the fourth, the white of white wool. Most of the facts of tzaraat can be found in the Talmud’s tractate known as Nega’im, a plural indicating an expression of a leprous condition: a tubercle, ulceration, raised sore or wound.

How to cure tzaraat? In a word, repent.

Alternatively, Leviticus 14:

Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop: And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen vessel over running water: As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water.

Once that living bird would be released, and the tzaraat sufferer has shaved off his hair (even his eyebrows), and then bathed himself and his clothes in water—only then would he be considered pure.

Other cures involve abandoning one’s home for a period of time, and offering the complete battery of sacrifices: a burnt offering (meaning the whole animal is consumed in flame); a sin offering (for the atonement of an unintentional sin, which sacrifice involves a confession); and a guilt offering (a type of compensatory oblation, to atone for the cause of tzaraat, and involving the restitution or remuneration of the injured party with the value of the animal sacrificed).

Such vague sins as rumormongering, famicide, or hubris are fitting for the vagaries of tzaraat’s punishment. Just as one could argue forever, and the Talmud nearly does, over what constitutes gossip versus what constitutes necessary information; just as one could disagree, and the Talmudists almost always do, about what constitutes legitimate claim or confidence and what constitutes braggartism, or an excess of ego—tzaraat is an illness ill defined, a sickness of the lexicon. Its identity has been lost to history’s moldy mists, and to a mystifying array of Latin naming: those nomina trivialia of Linneaus that give us Genus, species but end up trivializing in a rash of science an utterly otherworldly, or theological, revenge.

One white memory: When I attended the old brick Hebrew Academy, we read in Leviticus that tzaraat afflicted not only a person, but that person’s clothing, animals and possessions. One of the Rabbis (Weiss or Spiegel, I do not remember), told us that every object in a household affected by tzaraat would itch, and that the householder afflicted would be compelled—it would become necessary—to scratch them; to scratch one’s doors and one’s windows, compulsively, at one’s clocks, computers, dogs and goldfish, bookshelves and books. I’ve searched the Talmud and elsewhere for textual confirmation of this but have found none. Could this have been the invention of such an unimaginative rabbi, whichever it was? And such a strangely beautiful invention that he had to pass it off, in front of a prepubescent class, as another’s?