More Than Skin Deep – Tazria 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

The consensus among the commentators is that all skin disease, particularly tzara’at described in Leviticus 13 and 14, is a result of punishment from God for some malicious act. Miriam, for instance, is afflicted with tzara’at for her malicious criticism of Moses’ choice of spouse (Numbers 12:1-3). According to the rabbis, Na’aman, a commander of the Syrian army, was afflicted by tzara’at (2 Kings 5:1-2) because of his sins of haughtiness and vanity (Numbers Rabbah 7:5). He is also identified as the unnamed archer who killed King Ahab (Midrash Psalms 60). And, according to the Talmud (Hullin 60a), the daughter of Caesar was afflicted with leprosy for mocking the powers of God.

But the Rabbis never explain why punishment from God should afflict the skin rather than any other body part. In fact, if maladies were rated on the basis of the resultant pain, intestinal disorders or, alternatively, what the Talmud (Berakhot 8a; Shabbat 33a) calls askara (perhaps diphtheria) were considered the most painful. So, if the punishment was intended to be a severe reprimand, a skin disorder would not be the malady of choice.

Perhaps the answer does not have to do with the pain of skin afflictions but with its location. Skin ­­– the largest organ of the human body – is the most prominent and public body part. Afflictions of the skin reveal the guilt of the afflicted. Internal maladies may be painful but would be undetectable to the observer. In contrast, skin afflictions would be visible and prominent, clearly indicating the guilt of the afflicted. The logic of this conclusion is supported by the two other forms of tzara’at: one afflicting clothing (Leviticus 13:47-59), and the other afflicting the walls of house (Leviticus 14: 33-53). Both are prominent and immediately visible to the eye. Further, skin is tantamount to the person him or herself. The rabbis, for example, rule that if one person spits on another and the spittle lands on the skin, the one who spat is liable to pay damages for assault, as if he physically attacked the person (see, for example, Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 420:38).

Hence, skin afflictions call attention to the guilt of the afflicted. The consequence is that the afflicted now has the additional motivation to repent and thus remove the cause for public humiliation.


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What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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