The linguistic root of tzaraath means "smiting", in reference to a Talmudical explanation that it serves as a punishment for sin; it is quite possible that tzaraath was a general term for certain types of skin disease, rather than a particular condition, and the Talmud maintains a similar view, arguing that tzaraath referred generally to any disease that produces sores and eruptions on the skin..
The Torah also speaks of tzaraath on two other occasions, one in reference to Moses and the other in reference to his sister, Miriam. In Exodus 4:6-7, when Moses is standing before the burning bush, he doubts that the sages who lead Israel will believe that he is the messenger of God. God provides him with two signs to prove his mission: turning his rod into a snake and then back into a rod and turning his hand into being striken with tzaraath and then back again. Moses revealed these wonders to the sages in Exodus 4:30.
In Numbers 12:10, Miriam was striken with tzaraath for her involvement in slandering Moses. Aaron asks Moses to cure her via extraordinary means, because he claims that he, as her own brother, cannot examine, confine or purify her. Moses prays for his sister and she is cured of the tzaraat but must remain in confinement for seven days. The Torah, however, does not indicate that she went through any purification process similar to what is normally required, as elaborated on below.
The three subdivisions of skin tzaraath are best left transliterated, rather than translated, because there are no equivalent English terms and any attempt to translate them would greatly diminish the distinctiveness and focus of the Hebrew term. Additionally, a diagnosis of tzaraath is not to be performed by anyone but a kohen (member of the priestly caste).
The manifestation of tzaraath is termed a נגע (negah, "skin eruption" or literally "a strike," plural: נגעים, nega'im) and there are three varieties of nega'im that relate to human flesh:
Whereas baldness is not a form of tzaraath, patches that occur on a bald scalp may be tzaraath if they meet the criteria as mentioned by the Torah. Such an eruption on a bald scalp must appear in a distinct fashion but is regulated by rules similar to that of nega'im on the skin; however, it can only occur on men. For a scalp eruption to be tzaraath, the lesion must be a white patch tinged with red (נגע לבן אדמדם). This can occur in one of two places: within what are referred to as a man's anterior baldness (קרחת) and posterior baldness (גבחת).
If someone cuts off some skin or a part of his body in order to remove a negah, he becomes impure, even if he had no confirming signs. He may become pure only after another negah forms. The exception is when a negah appears on the tip of the foreskin and is cut off during circumcision, which is permitted, because a positive commandment overrides a negative commandment.
If the criteria are not met by the lesion during the initial examination by the kohen, the individual is confined in his home for seven days, pending a follow-up examination. If the criteria for tzaraath are again not met and the lesion has not spread, there is a difference in protocol depending of the type of lesion.
After the second confinement period of seven days, both those with patches on the skin as well as those with bald patches are re-evaluated once more. If the criteria for tzaraath have still not been met, the afflicted individual is declared tahor (טהר, "ritually pure"). He or she, does, however, have to wash both his or her body and garments; due to the confinement, he or she is considered impure in some sense.
If the negah was declared ritually pure and later it spread, it must be shown once again to a kohen, who will then declare it tzaraath. There are many other regulations regarding the inspection:
If, however, the criteria for tzaraath have been met, either during the initial exam or at either of the two follow-ups (when applicable) or even after a previous declaration of purity, the individual is declared tamei (טמא, "ritually impure"). The individual is declared impure even if the lesion did not worsen or spread but remained the same -- the skin eruption must become dimmer in appearance for it to be declared pure at the second follow-up examination.
The metzorah remains confined outside of the community until his tzaraath vanishes -- the metzorah is evaluated by a kohen who leaves the community in order to examine him or her. When the kohen observes the resolution of the tzaraath, he begins a procedure that will ultimately result in the reversal of the impure status of the metzorah:
The items used in the purification ritual were specifically included to deliver a message to the metzorah. Although many sins may lead to this punishment, the most predominant sin to cause tzaraath is lashon hara, loosely translated as "gossip." The metzorah, who talked derogatorily about others consistently to his friends is likened to birds, who chatter endlessly. In a similar vein, the one who speaks ill of others is haughty, holding himself or herself high above others and is likened to the tall ceder. In order to be healed, the metzorah must erase his or her arrogance, making himself or herself lowly like a worm or a hyssop.
Spring water is placed in an earthenware vessel, over which one of the birds is slaughtered and into which the blood is allowed to run. The kohen then dips the remaining bird and other items into the bloodied water and sprinkles the metzorah seven times on the back of the hand. The identical procedure would be performed for a house struck by tzaraath, with the sprinkling done on the lintel. The slaughtered bird was buried in the presence of the metzorah and the live bird was freed into the open field.
The metzorah washes the garments he or she had been wearing from impurity and shaves off all of his or her hair, save for that which is located in places similar to those in which nega'im are not subject to impurity. The metzorah then waits for seven days to begin the final steps of his or her purification ceremony. On the seventh day, the metzorah again washes the garments he or she had been wearing from impurity and again shaves off all of his or her hair. On the eighth day, the metzorah brings three animal sacrifices to the Holy Temple: a sin offering of a female lamb and a guilt offering and a burnt offering, both of male lambs.
Blood from the slaughtered guilt offering was placed on the right ear, right thumb and right big toe of the metzorah. The need for this to be done was cause for some complication, because the metzorah was not allowed into Temple grounds prior to his purification process and the blood of the offering was not allowed out of the Temple grounds. To reconcile this dilemma, the metzorah would stick these body parts through the gateway one at a time to receive the blood. The same was done with the oil from the flour offerings of the metzorah. If the metzorah lost any of these body parts after he was ready for purification, he could never obtain purification.
There are a number of limitations to tzaraath as it applies to clothing:
If upon re-evaluation after the seven day confinement, the kohen instructs that the garment with the eruption be washed and confined once more for seven days. If upon a second re-evaluation after the second seven days of confinement, the kohen sees that the eruption did not dim and did not spread, the garment is declared impure and must be completely burnt.
If the second re-evaluation reveals a dimming of the eruption, the kohen tears the area with the eruption from the garment and burns the torn out portion completely. The torn out area is patched to allow for a reinspection of the area for return of the negah. If, the eruption returns to the patch, there is no confinement period instituted and the entire garment is completely burnt.; if a negah reappears on the garment but not on the patch, the garment must be burned but the patch can be saved. To recapitulate, if the negah remained as it was after the first week of confinement, it is washed and reconfined. If it remained as it was after the second week of confinement, it is burned.
If, however, upon the second re-evaluation, the negah disappears, the garment must be immersed in a mikvah (מקוה, "ritual bath") and is then pure.
When the kohen comes to perform the inspection, he looks for lesions on the wall that appear either intense green (ירקרקת) or intense red (אדמדמת) and that appear sunken below the plane of the wall's surface (שפל מן הקיר, literally "lower than the wall"). If this is what he sees, the kohen exits the house and confines it for seven days.
On the seventh day, upon re-evaluating the eurption, if the kohen sees that the eruption has spread beyond what it had been, the afflicted stones are removed, the area around the afflicted stones is scraped and both the removed stones and clay plaster are cast into a place of impurity. At least two afflicted stones are necessary for removal of any stones and at least two new stones must be used to fill the void. If the afflicted wall is shared by two houses owned by two neighbors, both neighbors must help to remove the afflicted stones, scrape and place the new stones, but only the owner of the house whose interior was afflicted performs the replastering. It is from this ruling that the proverb Oy l'rasha, oy l'scheino (או לרשע או לשכנו, "Woe to the wicked! Woe to his neighbor!) originates.
The void is filled with new stones and clay plaster and the house is confined for another seven days. If upon a second re-evaluation, the negah has returned after new stones have been plastered in, the negah is deemed tzaraath and the entire house must be dismantled. If the negah does not return, the house is pronounced pure, and the same purification process mentioned in relation to tzaraath of human flesh is employed here.
There are numerous limitations put on the tzaraath that afflicts houses:
The Torah's emphasis is clearly on the tu'mah (טומאה, "ritual impurity ") that results from a diagnosis of tzaraath because the verses focus on the kohen's declaration of "unclean" - וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו ("The kohen will see [the eruption] and [declare] him impure").
One midrashic source categorically states that tzaraath only appeared as punishment for evil tongue, while others add further reasons to the list in the Talmud. Unlike the modern medical approach, which seeks to cure by natural means, the classical Jewish sources argue that cure from tzaraath only came about through repentance and forgiveness. In particular, the Midrash Rabbah sees the different types of tzaraath as increasing levels of punishment, which could be curtailed at any stage if repentance was made:
Other classical rabbinical writers saw tzaraath of houses as having a practical benefit. According to one, as well as being a punishment for miserlyness, it also demonstrated that the house owner was lying, if they had said they did not own certain objects which neighbours had asked to borrow, since the biblical regulations require the house owner to take all their possessions outside prior to confinement. On the other hand, Rashi, basing his view on the Leviticus Rabbah, states that tzaraath of houses was a reward for the homeowner, arguing that the Israelite homes had previously been those of Canaanites, who had hidden their valuables in the walls; the tzaraath would require the house owner to remove the bricks, and so find the treasures hidden there.
Rather than following the biblical descriptions of the symptoms of tzaraath in the manner than modern doctors would, classical rabbinical literature took an extremely literal view. In the group of symptoms where the hair of the inflicted region has turned white, the Mishnah argues that plucking out the white hair was all that was required for the disease not to be considered tzaraath; similarly since the biblical text mentions tzaraath occurring where boils had previously healed, but not where unhealed boils exist, the Mishnah maintains that the appearance of the other symptoms in an unhealed boil or burn do not indicate tzaraath, and that if the boil/burn does subsequently heal it still wouldn't indicate tzaraath unless the other symptoms occur in parts of the body that were not previously diseased. The Mishnah also argues that sores smaller than the size of a lentil, those on the extremities of the body (such as the fingers, toes, ears, nose, breasts, etc.), those which occur in the location of an unhealed boil or burn, and those which occur in hairy parts of the body, do not indicate tzaraath.
Scholars suspect that these descriptions of tzaraath, where it applies to skin conditions, actually refer to a number of different skin diseases, which, owing to the undeveloped state of medical science at that period, were not distinguished. Of the particular situations that the Priestly Code describes as being tzaraath,
In addition to simple rashes, inflammations, and swellings, the biblical text mentions a number of other conditions that could be confused with tzaraath. Among the other situations which the text considers harmless are the appearance of dull white spots, white patches of skin without sores, and baldness without sores; the latter two of these are thought by scholars to most probably refer to vitiligo and alopecia, respectively, and the bible remarks that the former - the dull white spots - are merely a form of freckles. The symptoms that the text considers to be indicative of disease include those of the spread of superficial swellings or spots (where there had previously been a boil), and those of reddish-white sores in areas of baldness; the former condition is identified by the bible as plague, and scholars regard its symptoms as pointing to a diagnosis of smallpox, while the latter is unidentified in the biblical text, but considered by scholars to indicate favus.
The biblical text also describes tzaraath as infecting the walls of houses; the symptoms it describes are depressions in the wall, which are very green or very red, and which spread over a period of seven days. The description is regarded by scholars as again being strikingly similar to the wording of the description of tzaraath infections in the skin, but still somewhat obscure; it would seem to fit some form of fungal growth, especially dry rot, which produces yellowish-green and reddish patches on walls.
Although the medical and chemical conditions, which scholars consider the descriptions to fit, have obvious natural causes in the light of modern scientific knowledge, the biblical texts characterise it as a spiritual affliction with a supernatural cause, bringing ritual impurity to its victims. Each victim of tzaraas mentioned by the Bible is stated to have received the condition due to some transgression of biblical laws, including Joab being cursed for the murder of Abner, Gehazi for being covetous, and Uzziah for infringing the exclusive rights of certain people to burn incense.
If a person was afflicted with tzaraath in their skin, they were required to wear torn clothes, keep their hair unkempt, cover the lower part of their face, cry out [ritually] impure, [ritually] impure, and reside away from other people; a few medical historians, such as Arturo Castiglioni, regard this as the first model of sanitary legislation. Nevertheless, this isolation isn't necessarily due to concerns over the contagiousness of the disease, but rather due to concerns about the risk of moral corruption to other people; the Talmud doesn't treat tzaraath as contagious, and doesn't consider non-Jewish victims of tzaraath to be ritually impure. The Talmud states that if tzaraath hadn't been confirmed by a Jewish priest, then a bridegroom with suspected symptoms of it was allowed to postpone any isolation or inspection by a priest until a week after his wedding, and if a person developed suspected symptoms of tzaraath during a holy day, then the isolation and inspection by a priest could be postponed until the holy days had finished.
Fabrics and clothing affected by tzaraath were required by the text to be burnt entirely, unless it was the form of tzaraath which faded after washing but came back after being torn out, in which case it could be considered ritually pure as soon as the tzaraath had gone, and it had subsequently been washed. Tzaraath infections in houses were to be treated similarly harshly according to the biblical regulations, and didn't have any exceptions; stones showing the symptoms had to be removed, and the house had to be scraped, with the removed stones and scraped-off clay being cast into a rubbish heap outside the city, and if the infection returned once replacement stones were laid and daubed with clay, then the whole house had to be dismantled, with the rubble again going to the tip outside the city. Additionally, people who had been in a house while it was infected with tzaraath was considered ritually impure until the evening came, and anyone who had eaten or slept there had to also wash their clothes
When the priest had certified that tzaraath had been cured, the biblical text requires that the formerly infected person undergo a number of ritual events, some occurring straight away, and some occurring a week later. According to critical scholars, these are really two independent rituals spliced together, with the first group being the ritual that was originally part of the regulations for tzaraath of skin, and the other group being a later attempt at replacing the first group of rituals, so that the regulations fitted better with the sacrifice-centric view of the Aaronid priesthood. The biblical text states that a ritual, almost identical to the first group of rituals for skin-tzaraath, also had to be carried out for houses that had been cured of infections from tzaraath; however, there is no further ritual for houses that could parallel the second group of rituals for skin-tzaraath.
The first group of requirements are that the formerly infected person kills a (ritually pure) bird over fresh water, in a clay pot, and dips another living bird, together with cedar wood, scarlet yarn, and ezob, into the blood; this combination was used to sprinkle the formerly infected person seven times with the blood. Once the surviving bird was released over open fields, and the formerly infected person had shaved off all their hair, and bathed themselves and their clothes in water, they were counted as ritually pure. According to biblical scholars, this ritual is primarily an example of sympathetic magic, with the running water and living bird being symbolic representations of ritual impurity going away; killing animals over running water was a widespread ancient custom. The cedar and ezob have more practical applications, with cedarwood having medicinal properties, and ezob being a good implement to use for sprinkling.
In the second group of requirements, having completed the first group, the formerly infected person is required to avoid their own home for a week (although they may mix with other people), after which they must shave off absolutely all of their hair, including their eyebrows, and then wash themselves. Having done this, the formerly infected individual was required to make a standard whole offering, a standard sin offering (to excuse the profanity of having had tzaraath), and a guilt offering (to apologise for the cause of the tzaraath); if people are too poor to afford that, the bible allows the standard alternative set of sacrificial victims to be used instead.
Unlike other guilt offerings, the priest was required to put some of the blood from the sacrifice onto the formerly infected person's right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, then some of the oil for the sacrifice had to be poured into the priest's left palm, and applied with the priest's right forefinger onto to the formerly infected person's right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, and then the rest of the oil from the priest's palm was to be poured onto the formerly infected person's head; critical scholars regard the Priestly Code, of which the tzaraath regulations are a part, to have been written in the early 7th century, and it is in this context that these additional rules have significance. By that era, non-priests were not allowed to pass beyond a certain gateway (the gate of Nicenor) in the complex at the Temple in Jerusalem, while the blood from sacrifices couldn't pass outside, thus for a person to be touched by the blood, they had to lean through the gateway without setting foot on the other side; the right ear, thumb, and toe, were symbolically the parts of the body which achieve this.