Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5769/ April 25, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Why Leprosy?


Menahem Ben-Yashar 


Institute for Jewish Bible Study, Bar Ilan University

Ashkelon College


Parashat Tazria is concerned primarily with the indications of ritual cleanness and uncleanness of various types of skin affections, and Parashat Metzora is mostly devoted to the sacrifices that those who have been affected with leprosy must bring after they are cleansed.  Despite this extensive concern with leprosy, these readings do not explain even obliquely the reason for the uncleanness of leprosy or why this disease strikes human beings.

In Tractate Ketubbot (77b) Rabbi Johanan says:  “Why are there no lepers in Babylonia?   Because people eat spinach, drink alcohol, and bathe in the Euphrates,” which implies that the reasons for leprosy have to do with nature and hygiene.   Yet Midrash Tadshe says on the verse “… I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess” (Lev.14:4), “Do not believe it is merely coincidental; rather, it is to get back at you that I inflict My eruptive plague upon houses, for it says ‘I inflict an eruptive plague’ – it is a plague that I shall bring upon you.” [1]   Indeed, the expression, “I inflict an eruptive plague,” emphasizes that it comes from G-d and that its purpose is educational.

The List of Sins

The literature of the Sages contains four lists of sins that cause leprous affection, all of them compiled by the amoraim of the land of Israel and differing from one another in varying degrees.  In the Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16a, Rabbi Johanan lists seven sins.  A list appearing in Leviticus Rabbah 17.3 (pp. 374-377), mentions ten sins.  Midrash Tanhuma, both in the Buber edition ( Metzora 10.24b-25b) and the printed edition ( Metzora 4), lists eleven sins and another two ascribed anonymously.  Numbers Rabbah 7.5 also has a list of eleven sins and two additional ones, but this list is different from the one in Tanhuma.   We shall not specify the details of these lists and the variations among them (which is a subject of study in its own right), but shall mention most of the midrashic derivations that are tied to linguistic hints in the verses.   Nine of the sins are associated with specific expressions, or with actual instances of leprous infection in the Bible:

  1. Robbery, based on what is said with reference to an eruptive plague upon a house:   “… shall order the house cleared” (Lev. 14:36), [2] according to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin.
  2. Miserliness, based on what is said in the above-cited passage, [3] according to all four lists.
  3. Entertaining false thoughts, based on Moses’ hand becoming afflicted with leprosy (Ex. 4:6) for slandering the Israelites by saying, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?” (Ex. 4:1).
  4. Stealing that which does not belong to one, learned from King Uzziah, who became afflicted with leprosy when he appropriated the priesthood to himself (II Chron. 26:15-21).  Thus in Leviticus Rabbah, Tanhuma, and Numbers Rabbah this sinner is dubbed “one who entered a realm that was not his.”
  5. Tale-bearing, from Miriam’s leprosy (Numbers 12).  This appears in Leviticus Rabbah, Tanhuma, and Numbers Rabbah under the term “bearing falsehood.”
  6. Behaving arrogantly, deduced in Leviticus Rabbah from the leprosy of King Uzziah, of whom it was said, “When he was strong, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly” (II Chron. 26:16).  So we find in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin and in Leviticus Rabbah; however in Tanhuma and Numbers Rabbah this sin is deduced from the case of Naaman the Aramean, who suffered from leprosy and who was referred to in Scripture (II Kings 5:1) as “important to his lord and distinguished" (Heb. nesu fanim), which could also be rendered as 'haughty'.
  7. Desecrating the holy name, deduced from Gehazi, who contracted the leprosy that had afflicted Naaman. Gehazi requested and accepted from Naaman a precious gift in exchange for the miraculous cure that Elisha had wrought for Naaman (II Kings 5:20-27).   So we find in the lists in Leviticus Rabbah and Numbers Rabbah, whereas Arakhin ascribes a different sin to Gehazi, namely the next one which we list here.
  8. Swearing in vain, learned from the text, “Naaman said, ‘Please (Heb. ho’el)’” (II Kings 5:23), which is interpreted homiletically as relating to an alah or oath.
  9. Killing, from the curse of leprosy that David pronounced on the house of Joab when Joab deceitfully murdered Abner (II Sam. 3:29).  Thus in Arakhin, Leviticus Rabbah, and Numbers Rabbah.

Other sins that cause leprosy are deduced in the various lists from indirect linguistic derashot:   idolatry, illicit sexual relations, cursing G-d, stealing, inciting strife among brothers, and perversion of justice by a judge.

The Moral Teaching

From what we have presented above we see that it is no easy task to understand how these four lists came into being. [4]   Nevertheless, the Midrashic search for sins which bring on leprosy prompts us to ask whether the Torah is not telling us something, or at least intimating something about the reason for this serious disease and the impurity associated with it.   The answer seems to lie in two verses in Parashat Ki-Tetze (Deut. 24:8-9):

In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you.  Take care to do as I have commanded them.  Remember what the Lord your G‑d did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.

Normally, one would turn to a dermatologist when affected with signs of disease. Therefore the Torah tells us that one should also turn to the priest and follow his instructions.  But why?   Because you should remember what happed to Miriam and what the Lord said to Moses about the reason for her leprosy:   “If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days?  Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted” (Num. 12:14).  These verses make it clear that leprosy comes from G‑d and is as if the Creator had spit in the face of the person who became so afflicted.  Therefore the leper must be shut out, separated from the public and from the sacred precinct.  Thus it becomes clear that although "cures are in the hands of the Healer", meaning doctors, [5] the priest must nevertheless make sure that as long as the leprosy persists the person affected is still called impure and is to be quarantined away from the community.

The Nature of the Sins

From the plain sense of Scriptures, we may see that in all these cases where "the Lord spits in someone's face,” and leprosy is explicitly mentioned as the punishment, the common element is that they have sinned by showing disrespect for the authority or office which the Lord delegated to his chosen ones.  In the case of Miriam, she challenged the unique degree of prophecy given to Moses; Uzziah challenged the exclusive rights of Aaron’s descendants to the priestly service; Gehazi contradicted his mentor, the prophet Elisha, who had refused to accept any remuneration or gift from Naaman (II Kings 5:15-16).  In so doing, Gehazi showed disrespect for the status of a prophet in Israel, making him appear as someone hired to perform witchcraft.   Further, the omen that G‑d gave to Moses, turning his hand leprous for a brief moment, which the Sages interpreted as a sort of punishment of Moses, [6] can be interpreted in a similar vein, as a rebuke to Moses for stubbornly refusing to accept the mission to Pharaoh that the Lord had chosen for him.

Showing disrespect for the authority of the Lord’s emissaries and refusing to obey them in their mission is an affront to the sovereignty of the Lord himself.  Just as a father might spit in the face of a son or daughter who rejects his authority and thus ostracize them or remove them from his home, so too anyone who refuses to accept the authority of the supreme Father, the Holy One, blessed be He, ought to be removed from the House of Israel, from the holy community, and prohibited from eating of the sacrifices in the Sanctuary, which is compared to eating from the table of the Father in Heaven.

The Bible also contains two stories about lepers who showed respect for the authority of the Lord’s prophet:   Naaman, commander of the Aramean army, who had leprosy, took lightly the instructions given him by the prophet Elisha, but later, when he finally listened to the prophet, he was immediately cured (II Kings 5:1-14).   Having been taught a lesson, he therefore proclaimed that “there is a prophet in Israel” (v. 8) and that “there is no G‑d in the whole world except in Israel” (v. 15).  The second story is that of the four lepers outside the camp, by the gate of Samaria (II Kings 7), who in the end brought deliverance to Israel.   At first, when the prophet Elisha prophesied during the siege and famine, “This time tomorrow, a seah of choice flour shall sell for a shekel at the gate of Samaria, and two seahs of barley for a shekel” (II Kings 7:1), he was taken lightly and mocked.  And lo, by the agency of these four lepers the words of the prophet came to be fulfilled before the eyes of all. [7]





[1] Midrash Tadshe, also known as Baraitha de-Rabbi Phinehas ben Yair, printed in Otzar ha-Midrashim, pp. 475-485.  The subject at hand appears on page 482.  Note that the biblical Hebrew term nega (rendered here as affection or plague) and the piel form of the verb n-g-‘ denote a plague by G-d.

[2] Since in clearing the house one discovers the stolen goods that are in it.

[3] Since in clearing the house one may discover a house-ware item that someone wished to borrow from the owner, which the latter had claimed that he did not possess. See Leviticus Rabbah 17.2, p. 373.

[4] They raise many questions, such as two sins being deduced from a single scriptural passage, as occurs in the cases of affection of a house, Uzziah’s leprosy, and the story of Gehazi, and a single sin in various lists being deduced from different passages, namely the sins of behaving crudely, killing, swearing in vain, stealing.   The Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin, deduces tale-bearing from the linguistic allusion in Psalms 101:5, yet Miriam’s leprosy, which is explicitly said to have come because of a sin, does not appear in the list there, perhaps out of a desire to protect the honor of the prophetess.

[5] Bava Kama 85a.

[6] See above.

[7] According to a homily of the Sages (Sotah 47a) the four lepers were Gehazi and his sons. This story would then be setting right an earlier shortcoming:  Gehazi, who had formerly insulted the prophet and his prophecy, now contributed to the prophet’s high esteem.