How long would tzaraat remain on a surface? How long would isolation last? Was tzaraat an airborne virus?
Isolation, as a means of curing sickness, is not new to Judaism. In this week’s double parsha Tazria-Metzora, we read that if someone believed they had contracted tzaraat, there was a process of testing, quarantine, isolation, and healing. First, go to the cohen to be tested for the virus. If he suspected you had symptoms, he would quarantine you at home. After seven days, you waited to see if the results of the test would be positive or negative. If you tested positive, you were sent outside the camp for a period of isolation, until you were cured.
How did a person catch tzaraat? There are basically two opinions. According to many of the mediaeval commentators, the virus was highly contagious, with the potential danger of spreading across the population and contaminate clothing, houses and other material possessions. Abravanel suggests that clothing readily absorbs bodily decay upon close personal contact. Gersonides explains that moisture caused by a foreign substance will cause a chemical imbalance, leading to the disintegration of a garment. Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk contends the treatment is proof that tzaraat is an infectious disease. The ‘leper’ is isolated and required to inform others about his condition. Only the specially-trained cohanim, protected by their Divine PPE, are permitted access to the patient.
Later commentators, such as Sforno and Rav SR Hirsch disagree with this diagnosis, maintaining that tzaraat was a supernatural phenomenon. Here are just two pieces of evidence for their position. First, when tzaarat is suspected on a house, the owners were told to remove everything prior to the arrival of the cohen for testing. If tzaraat was a natural disease, such a procedure could potentially expose others to the virus! Second, tzaraat testing did not take place on Shabbat or Yom Tov, whereas the Chief Rabbis of Israel permitted people to take the phone-call if their Corona test came back on the holy days (in order to isolate from others, if the results were positive). Clearly, tzaraat was not contagious on a physical, natural level; otherwise, the danger would have overridden the laws of Shabbat!
Let’s take the question a step further back and explore how the Talmud viewed tzaraat. According to our Sages, tzaraat was a punishment for speaking lashon hara, or other inappropriate talk. Metzora (leper) is an abbreviation for ‘motzi ra’ – one who emits bad. In the Torah, Moshe and Miriam were afflicted with tzaraat when they spoke lashon hara, scriptural proof of the malady’s supernatural nature. In fact, the reason for isolation, our Sages explain, is quid pro quo. The metzora caused separation and disunity; consequently, he must separate himself from the community.
Were the mediaeval commentators not familiar with the Talmud’s approach to tzaraat? Did they not read all the Torah’s laws pertaining to the metzora and wonder why it all seemed random and unconnected to the treatment of infectious disease?
The early commentators were well aware of the supernatural causes of tzaraat. What did they mean by their suggestion that tzaraat was a contagious disease? They were emphasizing that the underlying causes for the virus would result in a contagious outbreak. The virus could spread not just amongst people, but even to material items, such as clothing and houses.
Lashon hara is one of the most contagious diseases. Our Sages suggest that it has the power to kill three parties: the speaker, the listener, and the subject of the gossip. But when you harm an individual’s reputation, that ‘innocuous comment’ can spread to their material possessions, their jobs, homes, and other tangibles. A wounded reputation leads to serious financial loss, affecting them and their families.
We cannot fathom the Almighty’s ways and we do not understand why He has hidden His face from the brotherhood of humankind and allowed this ‘nega’ (plague) to strike with such a vengeance. All we can do is take a lesson from the Torah’s mandate of isolation. Our Sages teach that the purpose of isolation is self-reflection and self-improvement. It’s a period of quiet, designed to review our behaviour, take the time to introspect on our lives, and to seek ways to become better, less judgmental individuals. Absence makes the heart grow fonder: the absence of community should lead to a yearning for community and a commitment to improving one’s approach to fomenting unity and tolerance for all.
May we all come out of this impossible situation of isolation as improved, refined, and purified versions of our former selves!