Maybe We’re Really Not Talking About Skin Diseases

M'tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33

D'Var Torah By: Robert Tornberg

M'tzora, the name of this week's parashah, refers to a person or a house afflicted with a skin condition called tzaraat. Often mistranslated as "leprosy," tzaraat is something totally different than what we, today, call leprosy. Most years, M'tzora is read as a double portion, combining last week's very difficult concepts with this week's equally challenging ideas.

M'tzora can be divided into three distinct, but related sections:

  • Part 1 (Leviticus 14:1-32) picks up from the previous parashah, Tazria, which discusses the rituals surrounding those found to have various skin ailments. Someone afflicted with tzaraat was considered tamei1, ritually "impure," and was temporarily banished from the community (Leviticus 13:46). M'tzora outlines the rituals of purification for a person who is found by a priest to be free from tzaraat. We are told in detail about the process and the rituals by which the person may again become part of the general population once he or she is considered tahor 2, ritually "pure."
  • Part 2 (Leviticus 14:33-57) discusses in similar detail what happens when a house develops a scaly outbreak on its walls or elsewhere. As with a person, there is quarantine process. No one may enter the house, and specific rituals are outlined for declaring the house tahor once the scaly growth has been permanently removed. In the case of a home that cannot be rid of the outbreak, the entire structure is destroyed.
  • Part 3 (Leviticus 15:1-33) tells us that genital discharges (from men and women), abnormal discharges, "normal" seminal emissions, and menstruation also make one tamei. The laws concerning the ways in which people with discharges or emissions can return to a tahor state are also specified.

If, when reading this parashah you find it difficult to relate, you are not alone. Our greatest commentators also found it complicated and wandered far from the p'shat, the "plain meaning" of the text, to make these ideas somewhat comprehensible.

While some biblical scholars have seen the treatment of tzaraat by the priests as a medical issue, it was clear to the overwhelming majority of Jewish commentators that the laws and rituals concerning this malady cannot be explained as being concerned with health or sanitation. According to Nehama Leibowitz, one of the twentieth century's greatest Bible commentators, "The Torah does not adopt a medical approach but regards the disease as a symptom of spiritual imbalance."3

This view is in keeping with the many discussions of the Rabbis of the Talmudic period. The most well-known explanation for tzaraat comes from the Babylonian Talmud (Arachin 15b) when Resh Lakish states: "This shall be the law of the m'tzora (the person with this skin disease) – this shall be the law of he who spreads evil talk (motzi-shem-ra)."4 Rashi, the most well-known of the medieval commentators, explains that the reason the m'tzora must bring "two live pure birds" as offerings once he or she is free of the scaly outbreak is because birds "continually chatter and chirp" – a metaphor for idle, evil talk or gossip (Rashi on Leviticus 14:4-7).

But, when I accepted the assignment to be the darshan, "interpreter," for Leviticus, I promised myself that when I got to "skin diseases" I would not focus on the topic of lashon hara, "evil speech" or "loose lips." I have heard this d'rash, this "interpretation," from too many bar- or bat-mitzvah celebrants over the years who were unlucky enough to draw this parashah. There must be something else we can learn from these texts!

I discovered this "something else" while reading a d'var Torah that wasn't even written for this Torah portion – it was written for K'doshim, a much easier portion to discuss. And it helped me put this week's difficult ideas in a new context.

In explaining the laws about the kinds of clothing we can and cannot wear, A. J. Jacobs5 writes a fictitious memo from the Archangel Michael to God, in which Michael sends a first draft of Leviticus to God. After suggesting that God needs to include some explanation of the strange rituals included, Michael recommends the following text be written into the Torah:

I make this command because rituals can be fulfilling, even if these rituals seem strange from the outside, as with the candles on a birthday cake, which is a bizarre custom if ever there was one. I make this command because there is something inherently good and beautiful about following rules, as they give structure to your very lives.

Michael goes on to argue, "Otherwise, I fear this commandment might just seem kind of, well, crazy."

The memo shows this suggestion crossed out in red with the following note from God also written in red in the margin:

They can figure it out.

Too bad for us!

Fiction or not, I do wonder if this bit of tongue-in-cheek creativity can help us put Tazria and M'tzora (and much of the rest of Levitcus) in perspective. It rings true to me that humans do need structure and rules and, yes, rituals. Is it possible that the content of M'tzora, (and so on) is not really so important and that the real message – the meta-message – is that we can live happier lives if we have outside guidance about how to live? After all, isn't that the actual description of Torah?

  1. Tamei is often translated as "unclean." The word actually has nothing to do with cleanliness. Instead it refers to one who is not in a condition to come in contact with the holy objects of the sacrificial cult. A person who is tamei can "infect" others with this problem if they touch them or if they touch something that is then touched by them. That is the reason for the need to separate the afflicted person from the community.
  2. Tahor is the opposite of tamei. A person who is tahor is in a state of ritual purity and may come in contact with holy objects, and, thus, may also come in contact with the rest of the community.
  3. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra: Leviticus, (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), p. 128
  4. This play on words takes the word m'tzora and turns it into an acronym that stands for motzi-shem-ra, which means "spreading a bad reputation." A synonym for this term is lashon hara, often translated as "gossip."
  5. A. J. Jacobs, "G-d's Original Edits on Leviticus 19:19," in Roger. Bennett, ed., Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah (New York: Workman Publishing, 2013)

Robert Tornberg, RJE , is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.

There's More to It than Just Following the Rules

Daver Acher By: Ben Zeidman

I agree that without utilizing the traditional connection of tzaraat with lashon hara, this parashah can be a challenge. Torah lives and breathes through our peoples' continual dialogue and struggle with it.

The Riziner Rebbe may have similarly been challenged by our parashah this week. One can imagine him (perhaps because we may wonder the same thing) asking how in the midst of these rules of tzaraat and ritual purity we might be reminded not to get lost in the details. How might we remember that even as rules and regulations get detailed, there is something greater than simple fulfillment of rules taking place? That intention is vital to the process? He is quoted as having said: "The Torah (Lev 15:13) bids us when we become unclean to immerse ourselves in water and thereby be purified. But if the water is frozen, can we immerse ourselves in it? A frozen heart cannot purify an unclean life" (Louis I. Newman, Hasidic Anthology, [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1963], p. 90).

It isn't enough that we do holy deeds because we are told we must. We aren't "'off-the-hook"' if we simply follow the instructions. The reason and dedication of the heart is important. Body and soul both must be committed in our devotion to the Holy One.

Rabbi Ben Zeidman is assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York in New York, NY.

Reference Materials

M’tzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 839-854; Revised Edition, pp. 750-764; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 657-678

Originally published: