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Leprosy - Crime and Punishment

Author: Esther Ehrman, Nisan 5768/ April 2008

Leprosy - Crime and Punishment (Metzora Lev.13)

The English word 'leprosy' is usually the translation in the Bible of the Hebrew tzoraat, which actually means 'smiting', a plague that designates a number of skin diseases. When Moses is given instructions of how to persuade Pharaoh and his court that he is being sent by G-d, he is told that one of the signs he is to give is to put his hand to his chest, show that it is 'leprous', repeat the gesture and show that is back to normal (Ex.4, 6-7). When Miriam and Aaron speak slightingly about Moses, Miriam is punished by G-d, smitten with leprosy and excluded from the comp for seven days, 'And the Lord said unto Moses, if her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? Let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that, let her be received back in again' (Num.12, 14). Moses reminds the Children of Israel of the event (Deut.24), 'Take heed of the plague of leprosy, that you observe diligently and do according to all that the priests the Levites shall teach you, as I commanded them, so shall you observe to do. Remember what the Lord your G-d did to Miriam.'. The context that Moses gives here is a set of moral commandments, not to kidnap an Israelite, not to oppress a servant, not to keep a poor man's pledge overnight, although the teachings of the Levites would seem to refer to laws of purification and sacrifices.

In the weekly portions of the Torah, Tazria and Metzora (Lev.chs 12 - 15), the plague of tzoraat is treated as a fact of life, a disease that makes a person unclean, unfit to remain in the community. It is checked by the Cohen and, once the person has recovered and has been declared clean, the sacrifices that are brought are, first, two birds, tzipporim, alive and clean, with cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop (Lev.14, 4).One of the birds is killed and the Cohen then dips the live bird in the blood, takes the cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop, dips them too and sprinkles the blood seven times on the cured person. 'And the priest shall make an atonement for him before the Lord' (Lev.14, 18) On the eighth day, part of the ceremony whereby the cured person is enabled to re enter the community requires that two male lambs, a sin offering (chataat) and a trespass offering (asham) be brought and the Cohen then sprinkles some of the blood of the asham on the right ear, the right thumb and the big toe of the right foot of the cured person. 'And the priest shall make an atonement for him and he shall be clean' (v. 20). Because 'sin' and 'trespass' offerings are brought and 'atonement', kpper ha cohen alav, is effected, we assume that there has been some wrongdoing. But the wrongdoing is apparently simply being unclean - as are the women after childbirth or males with an issue, both discussed in the same weekly portions of the Torah.

Two of the many questions raised by the account are the significance of the ritual and the nature of the trespass or sin. First, it is important to note that the ritual takes place only once the person is 'clean'. There is no magic cure here. While the person suffers from tzoraat, all that the Cohen does is to inspect and isolate the person. The ritual upon recovery suggests possible interpretations: The Hebrew tzipor, like the English 'birds', suggests a generic meaning; not so, explains Ramban, they are little birds that twitter, not the of ha shamayim of creation. Rashi comments that they chatter, as do people who gossip. The cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop remind us of the purification effected by the ashes of the red heifer (Num. 19) on those who have been defiled by contact with death. Cedar wood is the very best wood, hyssop is the lowest of herbs. The sprinkling on the right ear, thumb and toe recall the dedication of Aaron and his sons by Moses at the dedication of the Tabernacle. Moses takes the blood of the ram of consecration, ayil ha milu'im and sprinkles it on the right ear, thumb and toe of these Cohanim (Lev.8). We thus have elements of gossip, of purification, possible from contact with death (tumat met) and of dedication, all alluded to so far. The accounts are factual. In the case of Miriam, G-d is angry and punishes her, 1. for the words about the Cushite woman, 2. for, like Korach, expressing envy of Moses closeness to the Almighty. Moses, when he recalls the incident, seems to link her speech to both moral and priestly ordinances.

In the rest of the Bible tzoraat also appears. In 2 Kings, 7ff, the Haftara reading to the Torah portion Metzora, we read the story of four 'lepers' who saved the Israelite army because they were outside the camp - sent there, being lepers - and discovered that the enemy camp was deserted, the Aram army having fled in fear; the lepers were able to inform the king of Israel. The Israelites went in pursuit and found an abundance of provisions in the enemy camp, so that on that day 'two measures of barley were sold for two shekel and a measure of fine flour for one shekel', as the prophet Elisha had foretold. The story has no comment on the lepers. Their behaviour was clearly praiseworthy.

Elsewhere (2 Kings, 5), the Syrian general, Naaman, is a leper who is cured by Elisha and who then acknowledges the greatness of the one and only G-d of Israel. The cure consists of dipping in the waters of the Jordan seven times. Since Naaman was not an Israelite, the question of defilement does not arise.

There is also the story of Uzziah, king of Judah (2 Chron, 26), who takes it upon himself to burn incense on the altar in the Temple. The Cohanim try to stop him; he is adamant and, as he holds the censer, he is smitten with tzoraat; the king remains a leper until his death and lives 'in the house of liberation, beit ha hofshut, being a leper' (v.210 ). The affliction here is clearly a punishment, a punishment for arrogating to himself the function of the Cohen; or perhaps also for approaching the Sanctuary, being unfit? The only fact that emerges from the three accounts is the condition in which a leper finds himself and the fact that this entails isolation for Israelites.

There remains the question of 'atonement'. Our understanding is based on the Rabbinic understanding of atonement, requiring repentance and confession and restitution where relevant. The Biblical usage is not as clear, 'You shall cover, ve kiparta' the ark with pitch (Gen 6, 14); or, concerning an ox that gores, 'im kofer yoshet alav, if a ransom has been placed, its life is forfeit' (Ex.21, 30). Rambam is puzzled, 'we do not know the purport of all these expressions of atonement' (Guide). Atonement would seem to entail elements of ransom, of penalty for something that is improper, for an infraction of a moral or a physical statute.

The Mishna, in Negaim,14, is concerned with the correct understanding and pratice of the Temple ritual and enters into the details of the ritual, step by step. We learn that the metzora, the leper, dips himself in the water in the lishkat ha metzorim, the lepers' court. If there was a lepers' court, lepers must have been part of an accepted structure. With the destruction of the Temple, the whole ritual of tahara, purification that requires sacrifices, disappears. The concept of tuma, defilement is seen as having been very much connected to the existence of a Sanctuary. (cf also Rambam, Guide 3,47). The atonement now has to become a spiritual atonement. Rambam quotes the Sifra, which interprets the Biblical kedoshim tiyehu as 'you shall be obedient to His commandments' whence, he explains, the transgression of commandments is also called uncleanness or defilement (ibid, 1.19).

How do we, then, arrive at the opinion, stated by Rambam in his Guide for the Perplexed, that 'all agree that leprosy is a punishment for slander' (3, ch 47 )? We might have expected our Sages to have linked the destructive power of defamation, lashon ha ra, to the ten commandments, lo ta'ane be re'eicha eid shaker, 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour' (Ex 20,13). Miriam's defamation of Moses would seem to be just an example of this. Is it possible that the Rabbis deliberately wanted to link evil speech to physical impurity? Both require atonement. As the quotation from Sifra suggests, infringement of mitzvoth equals impurity, impurity of the soul, the highly serious punishment for which is that it prevents us from fulfilling the commandment of kedoshim tiyehu.