"Miriam Shut Out From the Camp" by James Tissot
"Miriam Shut Out From the Camp" by James Tissot

When toxic talk led to a physical disease

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 12:1–13:59

The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is chock full of commandments that are directed primarily to the Kohanim (priests). It begins with Temple service and offerings and continues with laws and rituals throughout.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to the affliction of tzaraat.

How does this disease fit into the compendium of responsibilities directed to the Kohanim? For starters, it is a spiritual disease that has physical symptoms, and the Kohanim are the ones charged with the spiritual welfare of the people.

Tzaraat is often rendered into English as leprosy. The challenge with this interpretation is that leprosy is a physical disease. Tzaraat, on the other hand, is something that is considered to have consequences only if it is declared so by a Kohen (Leviticus 13:3).

In fact, the Kohen can choose to not look at the affliction and allow the patient to continue with his regular activities within society. The Mishnah (Tractate Negaim chapter 3) makes it clear that even if the diagnosis is crystal clear, the person is not considered impure until there is a declaration from a Kohen. The same cannot be said of physical diseases such as leprosy.

Another distinction that we find with tzaraat is that it is understood to be contracted as a consequence of speaking lashon hara (derogatory speech).

The classic case in the Torah involved Miriam, the sister of Moses. Miriam spoke negatively about Moses to Aaron and was afflicted with tzaraat (Numbers 12:1-16). The people had to wait seven days until the period of her isolation was complete before they could continue to travel toward the Land of Israel.

The severity of lashon hara is discussed at length in the Chofetz Chaim. When we speak negatively and derogatorily about others, it creates toxicity, which can cause immeasurable damage. People can lose their jobs, their marriages and the very essence of their character.

The English expression of character assassination fits well with our understanding of the severity of this sin. It seems to follow, therefore, that tzarrat is treated as a form of death. In fact, Aaron actually appeals to Moses to beg God to forgive Miriam, lest she be “like a dead person.” The metzora (the one afflicted with the condition) is considered to be tamei, or impure. He or she is required to separate themselves from the community and live in isolation until they are healed.

“The person with tzaraat in whom there is the affliction should have his clothing ripped, his head should be unshorn, and he should cover himself up to his lips; he is to call out, ‘Tamei, Tamei!’ He shall live in isolation, outside of the camp shall be his dwelling place.” (Leviticus 13:45-46)

Rashi, the foremost medieval commentator, suggests that the punishment includes isolation as a measure for measure. This person tries to isolate others through his speech and therefore faces his/her own isolation as a result. In fact, she/he is forced to use her/his own speech to solidify the isolation by warning others that he/she is impure.

It is clear from tradition that tzaraat is no longer around. There is no longer a Temple to which we can bring sacrifices, which is part of the process of reentering society.

Today we contend with physical ailments and disease, and we cannot make such clear associations with the causes for why one would fall ill.

Part of the mourning that takes place on the Jewish fast days is for the loss of the reality that once existed, where people were keenly aware of their missteps because they would be visited by tzaraat.

There was a time when people measured their words more carefully because they lived with the consequences.

Today, we live in a world where we do not have an external spiritual system that is manifest in physical symptoms. We do not have prophets who can connect the pain we experience with particular sins or events.

The transgressions are no less severe, however, and we all have to do our part to make sure that we use our words to create positively and bring people together. There is enough isolation in society without creating further divisions.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.