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|Ritual purity in Judaism|
Tzaraath (Hebrew צרעת [tsaˈʁaʕat], Romanized Tiberian Hebrew ṣāraʻaṯ and numerous variants of English transliteration, including saraath, tzaraas, tzaraat, tsaraas and tsaraat) describes disfigurative conditions of the skin, hair of the beard and head, clothing made of linen or wool, or stones of homes located in the land of Israel. All variations are mainly referred to in chapters 13–14 of Leviticus.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Translations
- 3 Torah
- 4 Mishnah
- 5 Purification
- 6 Affliction of clothing
- 7 Affliction of housing
- 8 Interpretations
- 9 Cause and treatment
- 10 Modern attempts at identification
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 External links
The noun form comes from the verb tzara (צָרַע) which means "to have a skin disease." The linguistic root of tzaraath may mean "smiting", in comparison with Arabic, in reference to a Talmudical explanation that it serves as a punishment for sin; it is quite possible that tzaraath was a general term for certain types of skin disease, rather than a particular condition, and the Talmud maintains a similar view, arguing that tzaraath referred generally to any disease that produces sores and eruptions on the skin.
The masoretic Torah text introduces three variations of tzaraath affecting the skin: שאת, ספחת ובהרת (Se'eth, Sapachath and Bahereth). The Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible originally used by Greek-speaking Jews and Gentile proselytes, translates the term tzaraath with Greek lepra (λέπρα), from which the cognate "leprosy" was traditionally used in English Bibles. The classical Greek term lepra stems from the noun lepis λεπίς (a scale (of a fish), which in turn stems from the verb lepó λέπω (to peel), hence leprosy (literally, morbid scaliness). The JPS Tanakh translates it as a "scaly affection" in Leviticus 13:2.
Tzaraath is sufficiently dissimilar from leprosy to be considered a different disease altogether, despite its coincidental translation in the Septuagint. For instance, tzaraath is not contagious between individuals, whereas leprosy is slightly contagious. The metzora (Hebrew term for one afflicted with tzaraath) is barred from entering Israel's encampment (in the desert) or the city of Jerusalem not because of contagiousness but because of ritual impurity. The New Testament describes instances of Jesus healing people with leprosy (Luke 5:10), although the precise relationship between this, tzaraath, and Hansen's disease is not established.
The Torah identifies three manifestations of tzaraath: as an affliction of human skin, (Leviticus 13:2) of garments (Leviticus 13:47) and of houses (Leviticus 14:34). The Torah also speaks of tzaraath on two other occasions, one in reference to Moses and the other in reference to his sister, Miriam. In Exodus 4:6–7, when Moses is standing before the burning bush, he doubts that Jews will believe that he is the messenger of God. God provides him with two signs to prove his mission: turning his rod into a snake and then back into a rod and turning his hand into being stricken with tzaraath and then back again. Moses revealed these wonders to the elders in Exodus 4:30. In Numbers 12:10, Miriam was stricken with tzaraath for her involvement in slandering Moses. Aaron asks Moses to cure her via extraordinary means, because he claims that he, as her own brother, cannot examine, confine or purify her. Moses prays for his sister and she is cured of the tzaraath but must remain in confinement for seven days. The Torah, however, does not indicate that she went through any purification process similar to what is normally required, as elaborated on below.
- "אדם כי יהיה בעור בשרו שאת או ספחת או בהרת לנגע צרעת והובא אל אהרן הכהן או אל אחד מבניו הכהנים"
- "When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection of the skin of his body, it shall be reported to [or he shall be brought before] Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests." (JPS Tanakh, Leviticus 13:2)
According to some (such as ArtScroll/Mesorah) the three subdivisions of skin tzaraath are best left transliterated, rather than translated, because there are no equivalent English terms and any attempt to translate them greatly diminishes the distinctiveness and focus of the Hebrew term. Though this is not the view of the Jewish Publication Society nor of the Bible Society. Additionally, a diagnosis of tzaraath is not to be performed by anyone but a kohen (Jewish priest).
Some say the manifestation of tzaraath is termed a negah (נגע) "affliction", nega'im (plural: נגעים) and there are three varieties of nega'im that relate to human flesh, two of which are:
- boils and burns (Leviticus 13:18–28)
- bald patches or lesions of the scalp or beard, the negah of which is called a נתק (netek) (Leviticus 13:29–44)
The laws of tzaraath are dealt with in Mishnah Nega'im.
Patches of the skin
Patches of the skin are confirmed as tzaraath by the occurrence of one of three signs:
- white hair (והיא הפכה שיער לבן) – if at least two hairs within the confines of the negah turn white
- healthy flesh (ומחית בשר חי) – if skin of a normal appearance appears within the confines of the patch
- spreading (ואם פשה תפשה המספחת בעור) – if the patch became enlarged since the time of the initial examination by the Kohen
Whereas baldness is not a form of tzaraath, patches that occur on a bald scalp may be tzaraath if they meet the criteria as mentioned by the Torah. Such an eruption on a bald scalp must appear in a distinct fashion but is regulated by rules similar to that of nega'im on the skin; however, it can only occur on men. For a scalp eruption to be tzaraath, the lesion must be a white patch tinged with red (נגע לבן אדמדם). This can occur in one of two places: within what are referred to as a man's posterior baldness (קרחת) and anterior baldness (גבחת).
If someone cuts off some skin or a part of his body to remove a negah, he becomes impure, even if he had no confirming signs. He may become pure only after another negah forms. The exception is when a negah appears on the tip of the foreskin and is cut off during circumcision, which is permitted, because a positive commandment overrides a negative commandment.
Boils and burns
Boils and burns, as occur naturally as a result of an abscess, blunt force trauma or thermal insult to the skin, are not tzaraath and do not carry impurity. During the healing phases of these wounds, however, if certain signs that mimic those of the aforementioned patches appear, tzaraath may occur. Confirmation is by the occurrence of one of two signs:
- white hair (ושערה הפך לבן and נהפך שער לבן בבהרת) – similar to that in patches (Leviticus 13:20 and 13:25)
- spreading (ואם פשה תפשה בעור and אם פשה תפשה בעור) – similar to that in patches (Leviticus 13:22 and 13:27)
Bald patches or lesions of the scalp or beard
The initial symptom of this type of negah is patches of hair loss. According to Maimonides, scalp and beard nega'im are characterized by hair loss without any change to the skin of the bald spot  The Tosefta, however, maintains that the skin of the bald spot does indeed become altered in a negah. There are two confirming signs:
- thin yellow hair (ובו שער צהב דק) – if at least two and a half hairs from within the bald patch turn yellow (Leviticus 13:30)
- spreading (והנה פשה הנתק בעור) – if the balding spreads, according to Maimonides. According to Abraham ben David, who quotes the Tosefta, this spreading would refer to spreading of a skin change as well (Leviticus 13:36).
Inspection of nega'im of human flesh, and tzaraath determination
For all of the different types of nega'im of human flesh, there is a similar protocol put in place by the Torah for determining whether or not the skin eruption is indeed tzaraath. The individual with the eruption must visit a kohen, who is a male possessing direct lineage to Aaron, who was the High Priest and brother of Moses. The kohen, trained in examining lesions and diagnosing tzaraath, will examine the lesion and determine whether or not it meets the specifications of tzaraath. Specifically, he will evaluate the lesion for the criteria mentioned above, except of course for the final criterion of spreading, which can only be diagnosed at a follow-up examination, should one be necessary. If during the initial examination, the characteristics of the lesion meet the criteria for tzaraath, the kohen will declare the individual tamei (טמא, "ritually impure"). (Leviticus 13:3, 20, 25, 30)
If the criteria are not met by the lesion during the initial examination by the kohen, the individual is confined in his home for seven days, pending a follow-up examination (Leviticus 13:4, 21, 26, 31) If the criteria for tzaraath are again not met and the lesion has not spread, there is a difference in protocol depending of the type of lesion.
- For patches of the skin, another confinement period of seven days is imposed.
- For boils or burns, the kohen declares it merely a צרבת (tzarevet, "scar") and there are no further examinations (Leviticus 13:23 and 28)
- For bald patches or lesions of the scalp or beard, another confinement period of seven days is imposed. However, prior to this second confinement period, the individual is shaved around the nesek (והתגלח ואת הנתק לא יגלח – "he should be shaved but the nesek should not be shaved), leaving a rim of two hairs completely surrounding the bald spot to make any spreading recognizable (especially according to Maimonides, who asserts that these lesions manifest as pure hair loss without any concomitant skin eruption.)
After the second confinement period of seven days, both those with patches on the skin as well as those with bald patches are re-evaluated once more. If the criteria for tzaraath have still not been met, the afflicted individual is declared tahor (טהר, "ritually pure"). He or she, does, however, have to wash both his or her body and garments; due to the confinement, he or she is considered impure in some sense.
If the negah was declared ritually pure and later it spread, it must be shown once again to a kohen, who will then declare it tzaraath. There are many other regulations regarding the inspection:
- The kohen must be able to see the entirety of the lesion. Thus, if the skin eruption or bald spot wraps around either the body or body parts, or occurs at the tip of terminal body parts—any place that would preclude the observation of the entire lesion at one time (i.e. wrapping around the torso, scalp or arm, or occurring at the tip of a finger or toe) – there can be no declaration of tzaraath.
- In a similar vein, a kohen who is blind in one eye or who cannot see well may not perform the inspections. An eligible kohen may inspect anyone, including his relatives, except himself. However, it is not necessary that a kohen perform the inspection; anyone who is proficient in the laws of nega'im may perform the examination. However, only a kohen may declare purity or impurity. A non-kohen examiner may inform an accompanying inexpert kohen of his determination that a negah is or is not tzaraath and the kohen declares "purity" or "impurity".
- Nega'im do not render impurity on parts of the body that are naturally concealed by other parts of the body according to specific regulations. For skin eruptions on the legs, men are inspected standing as though they are hoeing and women standing as though they are rolling dough. For eruptions on the arms, men raise their arms as though they are picking olives and women raising their arms as though they are weaving or spinning.
- Nega'im do not render gentiles impure.
- A groom is exempt from visiting the kohen until the eighth day after his wedding for any nega'im on his flesh, garments or house. Similarly, there are no inspections carried out on the days of Passover, Shavuot or Sukkot.
- Even on the days when inspections are performed, they are only allowed for two hours each day: during the fourth and eighth hour of the day (corresponding roughly to 9–10 AM and 2–3 PM).
If, however, the criteria for tzaraath have been met, either during the initial exam or at either of the two follow-ups (when applicable) or even after a previous declaration of purity, the individual is declared tamei (טמא, "ritually impure"). The individual is declared impure even if the lesion did not worsen or spread but remained the same—the skin eruption must become dimmer in appearance for it to be declared pure at the second follow-up examination.
The metzora: management of tzaraath of human flesh
The individual who is declared impure with tzaraath is referred to as either a tzarua (צרוע) or a metzora (מצורע). The metzora is shunned and must live alone outside the confines of the community (Leviticus 13:46) The metzora tears his or her garments in mourning like those who are in mourning for a close family member and does not cut his or her hair. The metzora must also cover his or her face until the upper lip in the fashion of mourners, and he or she calls out "impure, impure" to warn others to keep their distance (Rashi Commentary on Leviticus 13:45).
The metzora remains confined outside of the community until his tzaraath vanishes. The metzora is evaluated by a kohen, who leaves the community to examine him. When the kohen observes the resolution of the tzaraath, he begins a procedure that ultimately reverses the impure status of the metzora (Leviticus 14:4).
- "וצוה הכהן ולקח למטהר שתי צפרים חיות טהורות ועץ ארז ושני תולעת ואזב"
- "The kohen shall command to take for the person undergoing purification (the metzora) two live kosher birds, cedarwood, red string and hyssop."
The items used in the purification ritual were specifically included to deliver a message to the metzora. Although many sins may lead to this punishment, the most predominant sin to cause tzaraath is lashon hara (an "evil tongue", see Interpretations below); to speak derogatorily about others consistently to one's friends is likened to birds, who chatter endlessly (Talmud Arachin 16b). In a similar vein, the one who speaks ill of others is haughty, holding himself or herself high above others and is likened to the tall cedar. To be healed, the metzora must erase arrogance, making themselves lowly like a worm. This is a play on words—the word tola'as (תולעת) means both "red" and "worm" – as well as hyssop.
Spring water is placed in an earthenware vessel, over which one of the birds is slaughtered and into which the blood is allowed to run. The kohen then dips the remaining bird and other items into the bloodied water and sprinkles the metzora seven times on the back of the hand. Some say the sprinkling was done onto his or her forehead. The identical procedure was performed for a house struck by tzaraath, with the sprinkling done on the lintel. The slaughtered bird was buried in the presence of the metzora and the live bird was freed into the open field.
The metzora washes their garments from impurity and shaves off all their hair, save for that located in places similar to those in which nega'im are not subject to impurity (Mishnah Nega'im 2:4) The metzora then waits for seven days to begin the final steps of his or her purification ceremony (Leviticus 14:8–9). On the seventh day, the metzora again washes the garments he or she had been wearing from impurity and again shaves off all of his or her hair. (Mishnah Nega'im 14:3) On the eighth day, the metzora brings three animal sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem: a sin offering of a female lamb and a guilt offering and a burnt offering, both of male lambs (Leviticus 14:10).
Blood from the slaughtered guilt offering was placed on the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the metzora (Leviticus 14:14) The need for this to be done was cause for some complication, because the metzora was not allowed into Temple grounds prior to his purification process and the blood of the offering was not allowed out of the Temple grounds. To reconcile this dilemma, the metzora stuck these body parts through the gateway one at a time to receive the blood. The same was done with the oil from the flour offerings of the metzora. If the metzora lost any of these body parts after he was ready for purification, he could never obtain purification (Mishnah Nega'im 14:9).
The priestly gift
The remaining portion of the olive oil, called in Hebrew log shemen shel metzora, is retained by the kohen at the completion of his service. This portion is listed as one of the twenty-four kohanic gifts.
Affliction of clothing
Tzaraath can also afflict garments (Leviticus 13:47). Garment tzaraath is relevant to only three materials:
- wool (Hebrew צמר)
- linen (Hebrew פשתים)
- Two types of leather are indicated in Leviticus 13:48:
- unworked leather (עור)
- finished leather (כל מלאכת עור, literally "all worked leather")
In a wool or linen garment, the tzaraath may appear as a uniformly existing negah within the material or as a negah limited to either only the woof or warp (או בשתי או בערב) of the garment (Leviticus 13:48).
There are a number of limitations to tzaraath as it applies to clothing:
- Clothing belonging to a gentile are insusceptible to tzaraath.
- Only sheep's wool is susceptible to a negah of tzaraath, although an even mixture of sheep's wool and another type of wool (camel's wool, for example) can be afflicted. In a similar vein, a mixture of plant fibers containing linen is insusceptible unless it is at least half linen.
- The leather referred to by the Torah does not include the hides of marine animals.
- The fabric of wool or linen or leather article cannot be rendered impure by tzaraath if it is artificially dyed. If, however, the item is naturally colored (such as wool from a black sheep), it can be rendered impure.
Appearance, inspection and management of tzaraath in clothing
Tzaraath appears in clothing as an intense green (ירקרק – yerakrak) or red (אדמדם – adamdam) eruption, and must be brought to the kohen for inspection. In regards to garment tzaraath, there are no criteria by which it can be declared impure upon initial examination. The garment is confined for seven days, and if on the seventh day, the negah has spread, it is a negah of tzaraath and is declared impure. Subsequent to a declaration of tzaraath, the garment, whether wool, linen or leather, is completely burnt (באש תשרף); if the tzaraath was confined to the woof or warp, only that need be burnt.
Upon re-evaluation after the seven-day confinement, the kohen may instruct that the garment with the eruption be washed and confined once more for seven days. If upon a second re-evaluation after the second seven days of confinement, the kohen sees that the eruption did not dim and did not spread, the garment is declared impure and must be completely burnt.
If the second re-evaluation reveals a dimming of the eruption, the kohen tears the area with the eruption from the garment and burns the torn out portion completely. The torn out area is patched to allow for a reinspection of the area for return of the negah. If, the eruption returns to the patch, there is no confinement period instituted and the entire garment is completely burnt.; if a negah reappears on the garment but not on the patch, the garment must be burned but the patch can be saved. To recapitulate, if the negah remained as it was after the first week of confinement, it is washed and reconfined. If it remained as it was after the second week of confinement, it is burned.
Affliction of housing
The third and last type of tzaraath mentioned by the Torah affects buildings. If an individual notices an affliction on his house, he is to inform a kohen. The kohen will then command that they empty the house of all of its contents prior to his inspection; this is to prevent further financial loss, because should the house be confined, everything within it became impure as well.
When the kohen comes to perform the inspection, he looks for lesions on the wall that appear either intense green (ירקרקת) or intense red (אדמדמת) and that appear sunken below the plane of the wall's surface (שפל מן הקיר, literally "lower than the wall"). If this is what he sees, the kohen exits the house and confines it for seven days.
On the seventh day, upon re-evaluating the eruption, if the kohen sees that the eruption has spread beyond what it had been, the afflicted stones are removed, the area around the afflicted stones is scraped and both the removed stones and clay plaster are cast into a place of impurity. At least two afflicted stones are necessary for removal of any stones and at least two new stones must be used to fill the void. If the afflicted wall is shared by two houses owned by two neighbors, both neighbors must help to remove the afflicted stones, scrape and place the new stones, but only the owner of the house whose interior was afflicted performs the replastering. It is from this ruling that the proverb Oy l'rasha, oy l'scheino (או לרשע או לשכנו, "Woe to the wicked! Woe to his neighbor!") originates.
The void is filled with new stones and clay plaster and the house is confined for another seven days. If upon a second re-evaluation, the negah has returned after new stones have been plastered in, the negah is deemed tzaraath and the entire house must be dismantled. If the negah does not return, the house is pronounced pure, and the same purification process mentioned in relation to tzaraath of human flesh is employed here.
There are numerous limitations put on the tzaraath that afflicts houses:
- The house of a gentile is insusceptible to tzaraath.
- Only houses that possess four walls and four corners are susceptible. Similarly, only those houses that rest on the ground are susceptible, to the exclusion of those that are suspended above ground or are built on a boat.
- Tzaraath only affects houses that are built entirely out of stones, wood and clay plaster. If any of the four walls are built or internally overlaid with marble, natural outcropping of rock, brick or earthen soil, that wall is insusceptible to tzaraath, and a house cannot be rendered impure unless all four walls are susceptible.
- Two storey houses are treated as two distinct houses and the beams that serve as the floor of the upper storey and the roof of the lower storey are allowed to remain with whichever house remains.
- Houses are the only buildings that are susceptible to tzaraath (not, for example, barns or cattle stalls) and only houses that exist within the region of land originally divided among the 12 tribes, because the verse refers to beis eretz achuzaschem (בית ארץ אחזתכם, "a house of the land of your inheritance"); this also excludes houses in Jerusalem, because it was not given as an inheritance to any one tribe, but rather held jointly by all of Israel.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch clams that tzaraath was not to be interpreted as a medical malady, but rather as a spiritual affliction. The verse itself arguably suggests this, as it directs those who find themselves afflicted to seek out a Kohen (priest) and not a doctor, while the Torah does permit and even encourages those who are in need of medical care to seek treatment from physicians.
The Torah's emphasis is clearly on the tu'mah (טומאה, "ritual impurity ") that results from a diagnosis of tzaraath because the verses focus on the kohen's declaration of "unclean" – וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו ("The kohen will see [the eruption] and [declare] him impure").
- an evil tongue (malicious gossip)
- a vain oath
- illicit sexual intercourse
- miserly behavior
One midrashic source categorically states that tzaraath only appeared as punishment for evil tongue, while others add further reasons to the list in the Talmud. Unlike the modern medical approach, which seeks to cure by natural means, the classical Jewish sources argue that cure from tzaraath only came about through repentance and forgiveness. In particular, the Midrash Rabba sees the different types of tzaraath as increasing levels of punishment, which could be curtailed at any stage if repentance was made:
- the first stage in the Rabbah's view was the infection of homes, and if repentance came here it only required removal of the affected stones for a cure.
- in the second stage, the entire house must be torn down as the tzaraath would not go away, and the infection came upon one's clothes; if repentance came here it required only washing of the clothes for a cure.
- in the third stage of Rabbah's scheme, the clothes must be burnt, and the infection enters the person's skin; if repentance occurs here then purification could occur.
- in the fourth stage, which only occurs when the person has completely refused to repent, the person is forced to dwell alone.
Other classical rabbinical writers saw tzaraath of houses as having a practical benefit. According to one, as well as being a punishment for miserliness, it also demonstrated that the house owner was lying, if they had said they did not own certain objects neighbours had asked to borrow, since the biblical regulations require the house owner to take all their possessions outside prior to confinement. On the other hand, Rashi, basing his view on the Leviticus Rabbah, states that tzaraath of houses was a reward for the homeowner, arguing that the Israelite homes had previously been those of Canaanites, who had hidden their valuables in the walls; the tzaraath required the house owner to remove the bricks, and so find the treasures hidden there.
Rather than following the biblical descriptions of the symptoms of tzaraath in the manner of modern doctors, classical rabbinical literature took an extremely literal view. In the group of symptoms where the hair of the inflicted region has turned white, the Mishnah argues that plucking out the white hair was all that was required for the disease not to be considered tzaraath; similarly since the biblical text mentions tzaraath occurring where boils had previously healed, but not where unhealed boils exist, the Mishnah maintains that the appearance of the other symptoms in an unhealed boil or burn do not indicate tzaraath, and that if the boil or burn subsequently heals, it still doesn't indicate tzaraath, unless the other symptoms occur in parts of the body not previously diseased. The Mishnah also argues that sores smaller than the size of a lentil, those on the extremities of the body (such as the fingers, toes, ears, nose, breasts, etc.), those that occur in the location of an unhealed boil or burn, and those that occur in hairy parts of the body, do not indicate tzaraath.
Scholars suspect that these descriptions of tzaraath, where it applies to skin conditions, actually refer to a number of different skin diseases, which, owing to the undeveloped state of medical science at that period, were not distinguished. Of the particular situations that the Priestly Code describes as being tzaraath,
- the whitening of the skin over the whole body with sores, is considered by scholars to be most indicative of psoriasis 
- the spreading of sores is regarded by scholars as most symptomatic of impetigo
- the spreading of swellings or spots in a burn injury, according to scholars, is most probably a result of erysipelas
- in regard to subcutaneous disease where the hair has turned white
- the additional presence of swellings or spots in a burn injury are thought by scholars most likely to be tropical sores
- the additional presence of bodily sores, and swellings or spots where there previously had been a boil, is one of the classical symptoms of leprosy
- the additional presence of sores on the head or chin is thought by scholars to most probably indicate the presence of ringworm
Symptoms of other conditions
In addition to simple rashes, inflammations, and swellings, the Biblical text mentions a number of other conditions that could be confused with tzaraath. Among other situations the text considers harmless are the appearance of dull white spots, white patches of skin without sores, and baldness without sores; the latter two of these are thought by scholars to most probably refer to vitiligo and alopecia, respectively, and the Bible remarks that the former – the dull white spots – are merely a form of freckles. The symptoms that the text considers to be indicative of disease include those of the spread of superficial swellings or spots (where there had previously been a boil), and those of reddish-white sores in areas of baldness; the former condition is identified by the Bible as plague, and scholars regard its symptoms as pointing to a diagnosis of smallpox, while the latter is unidentified in the Biblical text, but considered by scholars to indicate favus.
In clothing fabrics
In addition to infecting the skin, tzaraath is described by the priestly code as being able to infect historically common clothing fabrics, specifically wool, linen, and leather. The Biblical description of tzaraath in such fabrics is strikingly analogous to that of tzaraath in the skin, with, for example, spreading of the infection being tested for by isolating the fabric in question for first 7 days. The principal symptoms are described as being very green or very red spots, which spread within a week, or that do not change appearance at all after a fortnight, having been washed after the first week, or that return a week after having been torn out, if they also had faded with washing prior to being torn out. These descriptions are regarded by scholars as most probably indicative of certain moulds, and especially matching infections by Penicillium (the fungus that produces penicillin).
The biblical text also describes tzaraath as infecting the walls of houses; the symptoms it describes are depressions in the wall, which are very green or very red, and spread over a period of seven days. The description is regarded by scholars as again being strikingly similar to the wording of the description of tzaraath infections in the skin, but still somewhat obscure; it would seem to fit some form of fungal growth, especially dry rot, which produces yellowish-green and reddish patches on walls.
Cause and treatment
As a "physical manifestation of a spiritual malaise," tzaraath is a "divine retribution for the offender's failure to feel the needs and share the hurt of others.
Although the medical and chemical conditions, which scholars consider the descriptions to fit, have obvious natural causes in the light of modern scientific knowledge, the biblical texts characterise it as a spiritual affliction with a supernatural cause, bringing ritual impurity to its victims. Each victim of tzaraas mentioned by the Bible is stated to have received the condition due to some transgression of biblical laws, including Joab being cursed for the murder of Abner (whose blood was shed deceitfully in time of peace), Gehazi (for 1. rebelling against Elisha's decision to not take payment for a miracle God had worked 2. working deceitfully to take the payment 3. lying to Elisha, saying he hadn't done the thing); and Uzziah for presuming to burn incense in the Holy Temple—violating a clear and direct Commandment of God (which prohibited anyone besides the priests to burn incense).
If a person was afflicted with tzaraath in their skin, they were required to wear torn clothes, keep their hair unkempt, cover the lower part of their face, cry out [ritually] impure, [ritually] impure, and reside away from other people; a few medical historians, such as Arturo Castiglioni, regard this as the first model of sanitary legislation. Nevertheless, this isolation isn't necessarily due to concerns over the contagiousness of the disease, but rather due to concerns about the risk of moral corruption to other people; the Talmud doesn't treat tzaraath as contagious, and doesn't consider non-Jewish victims of tzaraath to be ritually impure. The Talmud states that if tzaraath hadn't been confirmed by a Jewish priest, then a bridegroom with suspected symptoms of it was allowed to postpone any isolation or inspection by a priest until a week after his wedding, and if a person developed suspected symptoms of tzaraath during a holy day, then the isolation and inspection by a priest could be postponed until the holy days had finished.
Fabrics and clothing affected by tzaraath were required by the text to be burnt entirely, unless it was the form of tzaraath that faded after washing but came back after being torn out, in which case it could be considered ritually pure as soon as the tzaraath had gone, and it had subsequently been washed. Tzaraath infections in houses were to be treated similarly harshly according to the biblical regulations, and didn't have any exceptions; stones showing the symptoms had to be removed, and the house had to be scraped, with the removed stones and scraped-off clay being cast into a rubbish heap outside the city, and if the infection returned once replacement stones were laid and daubed with clay, then the whole house had to be dismantled, with the rubble again going to the tip outside the city. Additionally, people who had been in a house while it was infected with tzaraath was considered ritually impure until the evening came, and anyone who had eaten or slept there had to also wash their clothes.
When the priest had certified that tzaraath had been cured, the biblical text requires that the formerly infected person undergo a number of ritual events, some occurring straight away, and some occurring a week later. According to critical scholars, these are really two independent rituals spliced together, with the first group being the ritual that was originally part of the regulations for tzaraath of skin, and the other group being a later attempt at replacing the first group of rituals, so that the regulations fitted better with the sacrifice-centric view of the Aaronid priesthood. The biblical text states that a ritual, almost identical to the first group of rituals for skin-tzaraath, also had to be carried out for houses that had been cured of infections from tzaraath; however, there is no further ritual for houses that could parallel the second group of rituals for skin-tzaraath.
The first group of requirements are that the formerly infected person kills a (ritually pure) bird over fresh water, in a clay pot, and dips another living bird, together with cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and ezov, into the blood; this combination was used to sprinkle the formerly infected person seven times with the blood. Once the surviving bird was released over open fields, and the formerly infected person had shaved off all their hair, and bathed themselves and their clothes in water, they were counted as ritually pure. According to biblical scholars, this ritual is primarily an example of sympathetic magic, with the running water and living bird being symbolic representations of ritual impurity going away; killing animals over running water was a widespread ancient custom. The cedar and ezob have more practical applications, with cedarwood having medicinal properties, and ezob being a good implement to use for sprinkling.
In the second group of requirements, having completed the first group, the formerly infected person is required to avoid their own home for a week (although they may mix with other people), after which they must shave off absolutely all of their hair, including their eyebrows, and then wash themselves. Having done this, the formerly infected individual was required to make a standard whole offering, a standard sin offering (to excuse the profanity of having had tzaraath), and a guilt offering (to apologise for the cause of the tzaraath); if people are too poor to afford that, the Bible allows the standard alternative set of sacrificial victims to be used instead.
Unlike other guilt offerings, the priest was required to put some of the blood from the sacrifice onto the formerly infected person's right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, then some of the oil for the sacrifice had to be poured into the priest's left palm, and applied with the priest's right forefinger onto the formerly infected person's right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, and then the rest of the oil from the priest's palm was to be poured onto the formerly infected person's head; critical scholars regard the Priestly Code, of which the tzaraath regulations are a part, to have been written in the early 7th century, and it is in this context that these additional rules have significance. By that era, non-priests were not allowed to pass beyond a certain gateway (the gate of Nicanor) in the complex at the Temple in Jerusalem, while the blood from sacrifices couldn't pass outside, thus for a person to be touched by the blood, they had to lean through the gateway without setting foot on the other side; the right ear, thumb, and toe, were symbolically the parts of the body that achieve this.
Modern attempts at identification
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A wide range of diseases known to modern medicine have been suggested as differential diagnosis of tzaraath, including psoriasis, seborrhoeic dermatitis, favid, dermatophyte infections, nummular dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, pityriasis rosea, crusted scabies, syphilis, impetigo, sycosis barbae, alopecia areata, boil, scabies, lichen simplex chronicus, scarlet fever, lupus erythematosus, lichen sclerosus et atrophicus, folliculitis decalvans, morphea, sarcoidosis, and lichen planopilaris.
In attempt to identify the skin condition of tzaraath, Russian pathologist Gregory Minh discovered that leprosy has the contagion factor and is thus disqualified as being the tzaraath discussed in the Bible. Similar conclusions were made by Reuven Kalisher, who suggested that vitiligo, as a skin discolorative disease that possesses the trio of characteristics mentioned in the Torah text, is the likely candidate of being one and the same with tzaraath; those three being:
- non-contagious and
- cause the hair located within the discolored area to turn white (also known as poliosis or leukotrichia) and
- can grow in size within a week to two-week period.
This trio of symptoms is discussed in chapter 13 of the book of Leviticus as being the tell-tale sign of tzaraath. A near-identical skin discolorative disease has been labeled as vitiligo (also known as leucoderma and piebaldism). Based on rabbinic literature, it has also been suggested that vitiligo exhibits parallels to the color and hues mentioned in the Mishna tractate of Negaim (ch. 1) and is in fact the tzaraath mentioned in the book of Leviticus. Yehuda L. Katzenelson concluded in his work that the chazalic consensus in extant mishanic text is that vitiligo and tzaraath are one and the same.
- Cheyne and Black, Encyclopedia Biblica
- Jewish Encyclopedia
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- Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon article λέπρ-α , Ion. λέπρ-ρη , ἡ, (λεπίς) cites "A. leprosy, which makes the skin scaly, Herodotus Histories 1.138, Hippocrates Aphorisms 3.20 (plural), Prorrh.2.43 (pl.), Epid.5.9 (sg.), Morb.1.3 (sg.), Arist.Pr.887a34, Theophrastus Characters 19.2, Sud.14, LXX Leviticus 13.2.
- JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh : the traditional Hebrew text and the new JPS translation (1st pocket ed.). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society. 2003. ISBN 0-8276-0697-4.
- Mishnah Nega'im 3:3
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- Leviticus 13:33 + associated commentary of Rashi
- Leviticus 13:6 and 34
- Leviticus 13:6, commentary by Rashi
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- Mishnah Nega'im 6:7
- Mishnah Nega'im 2:3
- Mishnah Nega'im 2:5
- Mishnah Nega'im 3:1
- Mishnah Nega'im 2:4
- Mishnah Nega'im 3:2
- Mishnah Nega'im 2:2
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- Leviticus 13:44 and 14:2, respectively
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- Mishnah Nega'im 14:1
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- Leviticus 13:51
- Leviticus 13:52
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- Leviticus 13:58, commentary of Rashi
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- Leviticus 14:36
- Leviticus 14:38
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- Leviticus 14:34, commentary of Rashi
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- Leviticus 13:4–6
- Leviticus 13:23
- Leviticus 13:28
- Leviticus 13:38–39
- Leviticus 13:12–13
- Leviticus 13:39
- Leviticus 13:21–22
- Leviticus 13:42–44
- Leviticus 13:47–48
- Leviticus 13:50–51
- Leviticus 13:49
- Leviticus 13:53–54
- Leviticus 13:56–57
- Heller RM, Heller TW, Sasson JM (2003). "Mold: "tsara'at," Leviticus, and the history of a confusion". Perspect. Biol. Med. 46 (4): 588–91. doi:10.1353/pbm.2003.0085. PMID 14593226.
- Leviticus 14:34
- Leviticus 14:37
- Leviticus 14:38–39
- Artscroll Tanakh, Leviticus 13, commentary. page 272.
- Leviticus 13:45–46
- Arturo Castiglioni, A history of medicine (p. 71)
- Nega'im 3:1, 11:1
- Nega'im 3:2
- Leviticus 13:52
- Leviticus 13:55
- Leviticus 13:58
- Leviticus 14:40–41
- Leviticus 14:42–43
- Leviticus 14:46–47
- Leviticus 14:1–3
- Leviticus 14:4–8
- Leviticus 14:9–32
- Leviticus 14:4–8, as far as ...ritually pure
- Leviticus 14:8–32, starting at After this...
- Jewish Encyclopedia, Leviticus
- Leviticus 14:49–53
- Leviticus 14:4–6
- Leviticus 14:7
- Leviticus 14:8
- Leviticus 14:9
- Leviticus 14:10–20
- Leviticus 14:21–32
- Leviticus 14:14
- Leviticus 14:15–17
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- Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
- Grzybowski, Andrzej; Nita, Małgorzata (2016). "Leprosy in the Bible". Clinics in Dermatology. 34 (1): 3. doi:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2015.10.003. ISSN 0738-081X.
- HaTalmud V’Chachmas HaRefuah (Berlin 1928 p. 323) title at hebrewbooks.org, p. 339-340