Parashat Metzora: The sickness of slander

Saturday 13th April 2019 8th Nissan 5779

Parashat Metzora: The sickness of slander By Shlomo Riskin

Leviticus 14:1-15:33; 2 kings 7:3-20; Matthew 17:9-13

‘The person who is leprous [Hebrew: tzora’at], the priest-kohen must declare him ritually impure… The leprous person who has the plague: his clothing must be torn, his hair must go wild and cover his face until his lips. “Ritually impure, ritually impure” he will call out…. This shall be the law of the leper [Heb.: metzora] on the day of his purification: he shall be brought to the kohen-priest”

Continuing last week’s theme (Tazria), our portion this Shabbat deals with discolorations of the skin, patches of white or red, the mysterious malady known in Hebrew as tzara’at, “For as long as the mark of this plague is upon [the individual], he shall be ritually impure; he must dwell in solitude, outside of the encampment of his dwelling” (Lev. 13:46). The usual English translation of tzara’at is leprosy, a dreadful and unseemly communicative affliction whose sufferers were exiled to isolated leper colonies far from the necessary comforts and amenities of normative societies. Most Bible readers understand the painstaking descriptions of detection, quarantine and eventual purification as the ancient Hebrew method of dealing with this dread disease.

Many of our Commentaries, however, reject such an interpretation, most notably Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (Frankfurt, Germany, 1808-1888). Unlike the disease called leprosy (Hansen’s disease), the biblical tzara’at (translated as leprosy) was a phenomenon limited to ancient Israel and only until the end of the First Commonwealth (586 BCE). Also the tzara’at discolorations affected not only human beings, but also garments and the walls of houses. Moreover, the individual who was called upon to make decisions regarding the existence of the malady was not the medical expert as was to be expected, but the k