Torah Portion of the Week: The Bible’s View of Leprosy

Parashat Metzora: Leprosy is not just a physical ailment; it is primarily a religious problem.

'Miriam Shut Out from the Camp,' watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot.
Wikimedia Commons

Unlike in the current Hebrew calendar year, which is a leap year, during other years, this week’s Torah reading, Metzora (Leviticus 14:1-15:33), would have been read together with last week’s portion, Tazria. The link between the two is strong, like that existing between the weekly portions in Genesis where Joseph’s story unfolds, although, for obvious reasons, Parashot Tazria and Metzora are less popular.

Parashat Tazria ends with the method by which the priest identifies whether someone is suffering from leprosy: “This is the law [torah] of the plague of leprosy in a garment of wool or linen, or in the warp, or in the woof, or in any thing of skin, to pronounce it clean, or to pronounce it unclean” (Leviticus 13:59). Metzora picks up from there: “This shall be the law [torah] of the leper in the day of his cleansing” (Lev. 14:2). That is, once we know how to identify leprosy, we can learn how to deal with it.

Later, we learn about another type of leprosy – the kind that attacks houses. Then there is a general summary: “This is the torah for all manner of plague of leprosy, and for a scall [a scab]; and for the leprosy of a garment, and for a house; and for a rising, and for a rash, and for a bright spot; to teach when it is unclean, and when it is clean; this is the torah of leprosy” (Lev. 14:54-57).

The word “torah” – translated above as “law” – has various other meanings as well. In priestly literature, including Leviticus, the term refers to a body of instructions concerning a specific topic: “the torah of purification-offering” (Lev. 6:18), “the torah of her that beareth” (Lev. 12.7), sin-offerings, women who have given birth, etc. The torah pertaining to leprosy consists of the “torah for all manner of plague of leprosy” and the “torah of the leper in the day of his cleansing” – the laws of both diagnosis and treatment.

The context here is the laws regarding ritual purity and impurity. Parashat Tazria opens with the subject of the impurity of new mothers – “This is the law for her that beareth” (Lev. 12:7) – while Parashat Metzora ends with mention of the impurity caused by secretions from sexual organs: “This is the law of him that hath a discharge, and of him from whom the flow of seed goeth out, so that he is unclean thereby; and of her who is in menstrual infirmity, and of anyone, male or female, that have a discharge, whether it be a man, or a woman; and of him that lieth with her that is unclean” (Lev. 15:32-33).

The rather unusual and bizarre nature of leprosy has led commentators to seek additional interpretations for it. The sages connected the disease with slander, in the wake of the narrative in Numbers 12:1-15. There Miriam and Aaron slander their brother Moses regarding the “Cushite woman whom he had married” (Num. 12:1), and because of the gap between the levels of his skills of prophecy and theirs. God appears, rebuking them; when God leaves them, Miriam is afflicted with leprosy.

Despite the apparent link there between slander and leprosy, elsewhere in the Bible it is difficult to detect such a connection. In Chapter 4 of Exodus, Moses himself is afflicted with momentary leprosy – a sign that God gives Moses to consolidate his authority in the Israelites’ eyes. The leprosy that Uzziah, King of Judah (2 Chronicles 26), is afflicted with is punishment for serving in the sanctuary, even though he is not a priest. In 2 Kings 5, the prophet Elisha cures Naaman, a captain in the king of Aram’s army, of leprosy, and passes the disorder on to his servant Gehazi. In none of these instances is the illness linked to slander, although we can argue the presence of that link if we assume such linkage exists.

Some experts identified leprosy as a malady known as Hansen’s disease, an infectious illness that attacks the skin and nervous system, and can cripple a person. Hansen House, situated in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbieh, once served as a hospital for local sufferers of this disease. However, biblical scholars and medical researchers today deny any link between leprosy as described in the Torah, and Hansen’s disease, which was apparently unknown in the biblical era.

Returning to this week’s portion, the above exegetical explanations (regarding the connection between slander and leprosy, and the connection between biblical leprosy and Hansen’s disease) do not apply to leprosy as described in the biblical text because of the principle underlying them – the sages’ belief that leprosy was a divine punishment for sin. Despite indications elsewhere in the text that this bore out this interpretation, Leviticus contains no such implications. “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy” (Lev. 13:2) gives no hint that leprosy is a divine message.

The outbreak of leprosy in a household is attributed to God, but not as punishment; instead, it follows on the description of the settlement of Canaan: “When ye are come into the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the plague of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession” (Lev. 14:34). In any case, there is no specific message here. According to this week’s reading, leprosy is not punishment for slander or for anything else.

Although leprosy is not portrayed in Parshat Metzora as a disease, it can be defined as such. Although the root resh-peh-alef (cure) appears in connection with leprosy, this is not the the work of the priest. What the priest generally does is to observe – to check the severity of the condition and declare whether the subject suspected of having leprosy is ritually pure or impure. The priest is responsible for ritual and holiness, not public health. The ritual process of purifying lepers begins only after the disappearance of the medical problem: “This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing: he shall be brought unto the priest… and the priest shall look, and, behold, if the plague of leprosy be healed in the leper” (Lev. 14:2-3). Curing the leper is a precondition for the ritual – not its purpose.

Additional evidence for the religious nature of the treatment of leprosy, as described in Leviticus, is found in the instructions to those whose home is afflicted with the disease: “Then he that owneth the house shall come and tell the priest, saying: ‘There seemeth to me to be as it were a plague in the house.’ And the priest shall command that they empty the house, before the priest go in to see the plague, that all that is in the house be not made unclean; and afterward the priest shall go in to see the house” (Lev. 14:35-36). A household is impure only after the priest declares it to be so; thus, removal of its contents before the priest’s arrival assures its non-contamination. The focus is not leprosy as a malady but its religious nature: as a source of ritual impurity.

What then is leprosy, according to Parashat Metzora? It is not just a physical ailment; it is primarily a religious problem. Nonetheless, it is not a form of divine punishment and its treatment is connected neither with atonement or performance of good deeds. Indeed, its treatment is embodied in the ritual conducted by the priest. Leprosy is a part of life, and there is a specific way to deal with it. Like all events in real life, it is a manifestation of God’s will, and every individual can find a specific moral message in it if he so desires.