Tzaraat—The Spiritual-Dermatological Disease”
(updated and revised from Tazria 5763-2003)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tazria, as well as parashat Metzorah that follows, are among the most challenging portions of our Torah. These parashiot concern a strange disease known as צָרַעַת–Tzaraat, the popular translation of which is “leprosy.” According to the Torah’s understanding, Tzaraat cannot be leprosy. After all, according to the Torah’s account, Tzaraat is not contagious, the way leprosy is. It is, rather, a physical malady, caused by a spiritual imperfection, designed to induce spiritual transgressors to mend their ways.

According to Jewish tradition, the primary cause of Tzaraat, is לְשׁוֹן הָרָע–L’shon haRah, slander or speaking evil of others. In ancient times, those who would speak evil of others would be stricken with a rash or infection that would appear on their possessions or on their bodies. In fact, our Sages point out that the word, מְצוֹרָע–metzorah, is a contraction of the Hebrew words מוֹצִיא רָע–motzi rah, speaking evil.

The understanding that emerges from an in-depth study of the Tzaraat disease, is that it is Divine punishment for a person’s failure to regard the needs, and share the hurt, of others. The commentary of the Stone edition of the ArtScroll Chumash, points out that through this dermatological affliction, the Al-mighty, in effect, rebukes this anti-social behavior by isolating the transgressor from society so that he/she can experience the pain that they have inflicted on others, and heal themselves through repentance. Consequently, once those who speak evil are afflicted and diagnosed with Tzaraat by the Cohen (Priest), they are sent out of a camp of Israel, where the cattle and sheep are penned. The irony, of course, is that the transgressors now have no one with whom to speak! Clearly, the greatest punishment for a gossip is the absence of an audience!

On the surface, the assertion that one can develop a horrifying skin rash from speaking evil seems quite preposterous. And, frankly, I was, for many years, at a loss to explain the Torah’s contention to my students. At some point, one of my students referred me to a fascinating book, authored in 1979, by Lewis Thomas, entitled The Medusa and The Snail. Dr. Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), who attended Princeton University and Harvard Medical School, was an award-winning medical author and, in his time, was one of the foremost medical practitioners in America. His last professional position was President of the prestigious Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

In a fascinating chapter entitled, “On Warts,” Thomas contends that among the most effective treatments for warts is hypnotic suggestion. You read that correctly! Yes, according to Thomas, warts can be hypnotized away.

I once spoke about Thomas’ claim publicly at a Shabbat service, and the two dermatologists in attendance simply rolled their eyes. One dermatologist argued vehemently that this was simply “hogwash,” and was determined to disabuse me of my fantasy. Not too long afterwards, she attended a dermatological convention. At the convention, 10 of the foremost dermatologists in America were featured on a panel and asked how to treat various dermatological diseases: sexually transmitted diseases, rashes, etc. When the issue of warts came up, the majority of the experts stated firmly that the most effective treatment for warts was hypnosis. Upon returning to the synagogue, the doctor contritely shared with me the prevailing view of the experts.

Upon learning conclusively that hypnosis heals warts–the Torah’s claim that L’shon haRah can cause Tzaraat, became more credible. After all, if one can rid oneself of skin blemishes through proper thought–hypnosis, then one can develop a skin blemish through improper speech—L’shon haRah.

Another intriguing aspect of the Tzaraat disease is that the Torah declares that only a Cohen, a priest, can pronounce the diagnosis. No matter how many experts or doctors confirm the presence of the disease, a violator is not sent out of the community into exile until the Cohen himself utters the words, טָמֵא, טָמֵא, “unclean, unclean.” According to Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tzaraat Impurity, 9:2, even if the priest is a minor, a child, or mentally incompetent, to the extent that experts must instruct the Cohen to say the words, “Ta’may Ta’may,” only then, is the violator punished.

Strange as it seems, only the mouth and voice of the Cohen determine the fate of the gossip. This clearly underscores the arbitrariness of a word, and the capriciousness of speech. An incompetent person, (in this case the Cohen), is being told to simply say the words טָמֵא, טָמֵא–“Ta’may, Ta’may” about another person, and that person is rendered impure. As a result of the Cohen’s words, (not the words of the expert advisor), the disease is declared Tzaraat. Only then, is the violator banished from the camp, for at least one week, to live among the sheep and the cattle. Even though the Cohen has no idea what he has said, he has determined the fate of another human being by simply uttering two, three-letter, Hebrew words, “Ta’may, Ta’may.” How dramatically this underscores the power of the spoken word. Clearly, an arbitrary word, can make, or break a life.

It is for this reason, that King Solomon affirms, in the book of Proverbs (18:21), מָוֶת וְחַיִּים, בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן, Death and life is in the “hands” of the tongue. A word, a wanton word, a capricious word, can determine the fate of another’s life.

In light of the above, how wonderful it would be for all of us to resolve to try a little harder, to do a little better in the week and weeks to come, to guard our tongues from speaking evil, and to make a sincere and concerted effort not to hurt others with our wanton words.

May you be blessed.