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Parashat Tazria describes the period of impurity after child-birth. It also goes into great details about the ailment of tzara'at - a disorder which could affect skin or clothes.

Another voice

Tazria by Akiva Tor :: 5768

Akiva Tor is the Director of the Department for Jewish Communities at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His previous positions were as World Jewish Affairs Adviser to the President of Israel, as Director of the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei and as Deputy Director for Palestinian Affairs. He was a Wexner Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and has written and lectured extensively on Jewish values in the foreign policy of Israel.

Much of this week's portion deals with the disease of tzara'at, the method of its diagnosis by the Cohen [priest] and how it is meant to be treated. Perhaps the major interpretive issue which concerned commentators from the time of the Talmud until today, was whether tzara'at is a physical malady requiring quarantine and medical attention, or a spiritual disease requiring a healing of character as a prerequisite for the mending of physical flesh.

Oddly, it is Abarvanel - the commentator who rejected naturalistic explanations of the kashrut laws - who understands tzara'at as a physical ailment. In his understanding, the infected person must rid himself of his clothes and of the infected house in order to avoid recontamination. According to this view, the isolation of the infected person outside the camp is a form of quarantine meant to constrict the range of infection.

On the other hand, it is Maimonides, the rationalist who explains miracles in naturalistic terms, who understands tzara'at as a non-natural phenomenon, a sign from Heaven warning the afflicted against evil speech. This approach is supported by anomalies in the isolation laws - they do not apply to an afflicted groom, they do not apply during holidays, and they do not apply to one whose skin is entirely covered by the malady. But if the Torah meant to restrict a contagious disease, surely these exceptions are counterintuitive and would not apply. Likewise, why did the Torah fixate on this disease rather than others that were well-known in Biblical times, i.e. epilepsy, stroke and other diseases cited by name in Deuteronomy? This is, apparently, because unlike these others, tzara'at is an illness of the soul.

Even if we accept Abarvanel's contention that tzara'at is primarily a physical ailment, we can determine for certain that it was not the disease known today as leprosy, or Hansen's Disease. This common misassumption derives from the Septuagint translation of tzara'at as 'lepra'. While leprosy is a bacterial infection known to the ancient world even from Biblical times, it does not share many of the symptoms of the Biblical account. Firstly, leprosy cannot infect clothing or building walls. Secondly, the Bible, in describing the effects of tzara'at, makes no mention of facial disfigurement which is a distinctive symptom of leprosy. Rather than leprosy, tzara'at was probably a form of rot or fungal infection (physical but perhaps indicating spiritual malaise) which can, in fact, spread to clothing and building materials.

In the Middle Ages, leper colonies were run along monastic lines, and sufferers were often considered living dead who were going through purgatory in life. The plight of the lepers was communal and Europe was filled with thousands of hospital institutions for the afflicted.

In the Biblical regime however, tzara'at required a solitary cure. From the spiritual standpoint this can be understood as a kind of 'time out' from tale-bearing and evil tidings. The afflicted person sits alone for seven days and they converse with themselves about the ramifications of his or her actions. It suggests as well that the disease contains a psycho-somatic element in which internal ugliness becomes externalized, and for which quiet introspection may bring cure.


More by Akiva Tor

Another voice by Julie Apfel

Inside Out

Tazria's detailed description of the skin condition symptoms often mislabelled as leprosy/Hansen's Disease, (see Joseph Zias, Lust and Leprosy: Confusion or Correlation? and Julius Preuss, Biblical and Talmudic Medicine) may cause the squeamish to recoil as depicted by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part II:

Be woe for me, more wretched than he is. What, dost thou turn away and hide thy face? I am no loathsome leper; look on me.

Conversely, like a good community, from which the tamei in Tazria became excluded, healthy skin separates what is inside from what is outside, contains yet is permeable, encompasses the public and the private, facilitates pain and pleasure and is a homeostatic structure, strong yet flexible, sensitive yet resilient and fragile yet robust. In Tazria, the Torah focuses on that physical membrane in an unusually detailed way. Here CJ Stevens offers his close up perspective on the largest organ in the body and leads us to ponder beyond the porous:

Skin By CJ Stevens

You do hold us in with your blemishes and freckles and the funny way you zipper our scrapes and cuts. Even your method of draping blue-black curtains over our bruises catches amazement. So you weren't made to smooth old scars and wrinkles. On aches and itches we decorate you with salves and scratches. Belly deep in weight or close to the bone you follow us all on this ride. Up and down the slopes of our bodies, under our armpits, between our toes, we want your rind to surround us with a suede tough enough to live in.


More by Julie Apfel

Other Divrei Torah on Tazria

  • 5766 (Ellen Dreskin)
  • 5766 (Daniel Roth)
  • 5767 (Marc Soloway)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Gregg Drinkwater)
  • 5769 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5770 (Nina J Mizrachi)
  • 5770 (David Renton)
  • 5771 (Naomi Soetendorp)
  • 5771 (Gilad Amit)
  • 5772 (Yaffa Epstein)
  • 5772 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5773 (Alex Israel)
  • 5773 (Alicia Jo Rabins)
  • 5774 (Roni Tabick)
  • 5774 (Limmud On One Leg Team)
  • 5775 (Daniel Roth)
  • 5775 (Limmud On One Leg Team)