Tzara’at, the biblical discoloration of human skin and other objects, is given center stage for the majority of two Parshiot in the Torah. It covers who should examine it, how it should be identified, and how it is treated. Since Tzara’at appears on the body and includes quarantine in its treatment, it seems to be a physical illness. The Torah is obviously not a medical text. Why does it discuss this illness at all? If Tzara’at, however, is not a physical illness, but rather a spiritual condition, it certainly would be within the Torah’s purview. If that would be the case, however, we would expect the Torah to make some mention of its spiritual cause – but it doesn’t. Is the nature of this affliction physical or spiritual?
Maimonidies, in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:47), seems to amalgamate both options into one. In his list of beneficial aspects of these laws, he mentions that the quarantine isolates the repulsive and (apparently) contagious illness. At the same time, he emphasizes the rabbinic interpretation that views Tzara’at as an outstandingly miraculous Divine reprimand for talking negatively about others (Lashon Hara). Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, in his classic Pentateuch and Haftorahs (pg. 459), suggests the same approach (without citing Maimonidies), regarding all types of ritual impurity. He points out that there are precedents in the Torah for a twofold rationale for one law. Regarding Shabbat, for example, in Shemot (Exodus 20) the Torah mentions a religious motive: “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy…for in six days the Lord your God made the Heavens and the Earth and rested on the seventh day.” In Devarim (Deuteronomy 5), however, the Torah gives a social reason: You should rest and give your servants and slaves a day of rest, because when you were slaves in Egypt you suffered from the unceasing labor and from your task masters’ lack of compassion. Thus, while the spiritual basis for Tzara’at teaches the severity of the way we think and talk about others, its physical basis improved the Jewish community’s physical life as well.
It is common for people that have been exposed to an observant Jewish lifestyle for the first time to be impressed by its unique qualities. Although some people find the ritual aspects of that lifestyle compelling, many notice in particular its mundane benefits as well. The dichotomous reasons Maimonidies gives for Tzara’at can give us insight into the laws of the Torah in general. Even when a series of laws seems technical and of a purely spiritual, educational or ritual nature, we must also not lose sight of their more mundane, physical, and simple quality-of-life benefits as well.