What if ‘tzara’at’ is none of the above?


By Stephen Berer

This week’s double Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33.

Parshat Metzora, chapters 14 and 15 of Leviticus, discusses signs of “tzara’at” in humans and objects, and how to treat the symptoms. It then extends the topic into sexual discharges of men and women, and how to treat them. Treatment in all these matters falls into two categories: 1) practical and medical attention, and 2) ritual atonements.

The problem is, for the last 1,200 years at least, no one has known what diseases Metzora is actually talking about. I scanned my seven chumashim, plus four other online versions that I commonly use, and most translate the Hebrew word “tzara’at” as “leprosy.” Those that don’t use that term, don’t translate it at all. They just transliterate the Hebrew.


This we know: It’s highly unlikely that the Torah is talking about leprosy, the often deadly disease that deteriorates the skin and nervous system. We know this because, first, what we call leprosy has different symptoms. Second, until very recently it had no cure, unlike the tzara’at in Torah. And third, leprosy does not attack clothes or stones or pottery, as it does in the Torah.

The Christian New International Version tries to address this disjunction by selectively translating the term as “mold” when the text turns to objects with tzara’at. But, given the Torah’s aggressive response to houses with tzara’at — dismantling them and disposing of all stone and timber outside the settlement — that seems like an extreme response to mold.

Most commentators also simply avoid the problem of what this disease is. Medieval commentators talk about “tzara’at” as being a linguistic fusion of the words for speaking ill of a person, so for them the parshah is about the evils of nasty gossip.

Modern commentators take it a half step further by talking about resisting marginalization of outsiders or the poor, or else pursuing a sense of personal purity in thought or deed.

Tzara’at is turned into a metaphor. The commentators are really saying: Let’s pretend the Torah knows what it’s talking about, even though it doesn’t.

I object. I believe our Torah was written with great attention to detail. So why did it go so off the rails here? I would suggest it didn’t go off the rails. What we see is an accurately written text telling us about a disease that doesn’t exist anymore.

Either, humans have developed immunity or the disease has mutated. If it’s the first case, it’s a disease that human evolution has driven extinct. Otherwise, the disease itself has mutated, perhaps into other forms of the innumerable skin diseases, such as psoriasis, that plague us today.

Our Torah is a remarkably prescient and inspired text, unfolding itself to us as we unfold ourselves. So let us add yet another dimension to our understanding of Torah: a text that will stand as evidence of human and environmental change in an evolving world.

Stephen Berer is a writer, working on the epic story of a Jewish Odysseus. He is also education coordinator at Shirat HaNefesh and a teacher at Tifereth Israel Congregation.

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