David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father

Life and death and the royal touch: Parshat Tazria

Charles I touching the scrofulous. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Charles I touching the scrofulous. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

King Charles I, who was born in 1600, is probably most famous for being beheaded on January 30, 1649, after Oliver Cromwell ordered him to be killed outside the Palace of Whitehall at the climax of the Civil War. He was the only British monarch ever to be executed.

His son, King Charles II, is best known for being invited back from his exile in France in 1660, to take back the throne, two years after the death of Oliver Cromwell in the restoration of the monarchy. Charles II was also known as the Merry Monarch, because of the overt hedonism of his court. Although he left no legitimate children, he acknowledged at least a dozen illegitimate children by various mistresses.

An interesting fact you may not have known about Charles II is that he revived a practice known as the Royal Touch that Cromwell had banned. Back in those days, it was believed kings had the power to cure disease. Subjects suffering from scrofula (also known as the King’s Evil, but is actually cervical tuberculous lymphadenitis, a tubercular infection of the lymph nodes) would line up for hours waiting for the king to touch their face and cure them.

For example, on December 27, 1633, Charles I touched 100 people at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh.

Charles II performing the royal touch; engraving by Robert White, 1684. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

During the interregnum, in the absence of a king, people took relics from the late Charles I and rubbed them on their swollen faces in order to cure their scrofula.

In the introduction to his wonderfully titled 1684 book, “Adenochoiradelogia, or, An anatomick-chirurgical treatise of glandules & strumaes, or Kings-Evil-swellings : Together with the royal gift of healing, or cure thereof by contact or imposition of hands, performed for above 640 years by our Kings of England, continued with their admirable effects, and miraculous events; and concluded with many wonderful examples of cures by their sacred touch,” John Browne writes:

In this Treatise also you have the marvelous and miraculous efficacy of the Blood of our late Sacred Martyr King CHARLES the First; wherein by strange Examples are discovered this efficacious Virtue of Healing, by many true Devoters of His Great Name, the which, altho stript of its Life, yet not robb’d of its vigor, made good by many, who collected the lame in Linnen, and applying thereof to their Scrophulous Swellings, by which they found immediate ease, and present relief.

List of number of people touched by King Charles II in Browne, ‘Adenochoiradelogia’. (Public Domain/

After the monarchy was restored, Charles II took his touching duties very seriously. Browne has lists of the numbers of people Charles II touched. In 1660 he touched 6,725 people, in 1661 another 4,619, and around 3,000-4,000 every year until 1682, when he managed to touch 8,577 scrofula sufferers, making a total of 92,000 during his reign.

According to legend, the English belief in the royal touch and that the monarch had a duty to rub the faces of infected people dates back to Saint Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042-1066). French kings had a similar belief which they traced back to Philip I (ruled 1059-1108). In one of the strangest international rivalries I know of, the French insist that their monarchs were the first to have this curative power, and that in England it only began with Henry I (ruled 1100-1135), who – they claimed – stole the idea from across the channel.

The first direct evidence of the royal touch in England is from the reign of Edward I (ruled 1272-1307), who gave out pennies to the patients after he touched their faces. These touch coins themselves eventually were thought to have healing power. From the time of Edward VI (ruled 1461-1483), the monarch would give the diseased person a gold coin known as an Angel and hang it around their neck.

Touch piece of Henry VI (CC BY-SA, Classical Numismatic Group, Inc./ Wikimedia Commons)

Henry VII (ruled 1485-1509), the first Tudor king, came to the throne after the destructive War of the Roses and the death of Richard III. He wanted to establish the legitimacy of his claim to the crown which was no stronger than many others. So he formalized the touching procedure into a four-step process:

1. The monarch touched the face of the diseased person
2. The monarch hung a gold coin around their neck
3. Biblical verses were read
4. Prayers were offered

But, as far as we know, Henry only touched about seven or eight people a year, and in many years, he touched no scrofula sufferers. His son, Henry VIII touched rarely – between 1530 and 1532 he only touched 59 people. There is no evidence that his son Edward VI touched anyone (though he only ruled for six years and died aged 15). The next two monarchs, Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth probably did touch the ill, but we have very little direct evidence. Elizabeth’s nephew, James I wanted to abandon the practice (his Presbyterian education made him skeptical of its value), but it seems the sick still lined up at his door for healing.

The royal touch was predicated on the idea that the monarch ruled by Divine right. As God’s representative, so they said, the king or queen could act as God and heal the sick.

The belief that the monarch’s touch could cure disease did not end until the late 18th century. The ceremony was edited out of the Book of Common Prayer in 1732, about the time that people stopped believing in the divine right of kings and queens.

The king or queen literally had the power of life and death in their hands. It was the monarch who could sentence people to death. The ruler’s edicts could grant the population enough food to eat, or starve an entire nation to death. Standing at the nexus between life and death, it is not surprising that people believed the monarch literally had the power to cure illness.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that it is not the king but the priest who is involved in curing people. In this case, the illness is not cured by a bacterial infection, but is the expression of a spiritual failing.

Leviticus 13:2 states:

If a person has on the skin of his flesh a lesion or scab or spot… he shall be brought to Aharon the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.

This disease, called by Scripture tzara’at, is often translated into English as “leprosy” but it is not the Hansen’s disease of today’s medical textbooks. Rather, tzara’at was caused by spiritual impurities in the way a person had acted, and caused them to become impure.

However, they only became impure if a priest declared that they were impure. And they only returned to their former purity at the word of a priest. A priest had discretion of whether or not to declare someone impure. For example, there were certain festive times when the priests would not examine lesions to determine whether the sufferer was impure or not. And if they did examine them, it was only under certain conditions, to give the person the best chance of remaining pure.

As Jacob Milgrom explains in his essay, “The Rationale for Biblical Impurity,” all ritual purity and impurity is connected to life and death. A woman becomes impure after birth because she no longer has another life inside her. The impurity of menstruation and seminal emissions is because of the potential loss of future life. And the ultimate impurity is a corpse.

Similarly, purification is through immersion in water – the source of life, often accompanied by an animal sacrifice, which teaches the importance of life and death.

And the priest stands at the nexus between life and death. In Temple times, working in the sanctuary was the most spiritually elevated task, and the most likely to lead to death. The Talmud (Yoma 9a) says that in the last 290 years of the Second Temple, there were more than 300 High Priests, meaning that the average life expectancy for the role was slightly less than a year.

It was Aharon, the High Priest, who ended the plague that decimated the nation after Korach’s rebellion as we read in Numbers 17:12-13:

Aharon… ran to the midst of the congregation, but the plague had begun among the people. He placed the incense and atoned for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living and ended the plague.

The biblical priest and the medieval ruler stood on the line between life and death. With a word they could sentence someone to illness or death, and with a word they could purify or provide what they needed to live.

It is extremely unlikely King Charles III will be touching and curing the ill at his coronation in a couple of weeks. And modern priests do not declare whether or not a lesion is leprous.

But each of us has moments when we stand between life and death. When our words and actions can make all the difference in the world to those around us.

This week, as Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) ends and as Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) begins, we will be in the grey area between life and death – straddling the days that commemorate the deaths of individuals and the life of the country. This is an opportunity for us to think about the fine line between life and death, to be grateful for every moment of life we have, and to do our best to ensure that we direct our efforts to supporting the lives of others.

In honor of my new granddaughter, who is named in memory of my late mother.

My next three-series class on WebYeshiva will begin on May 2nd and is entitled “The Inner Meaning of Sefirat HaOmer.” You can sign up on WebYeshiva. I’ve also started sharing more of my Torah thoughts on Facebook. Follow my page, Rabbi Sedley.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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