When the world has got hold of a lie, it is astonishing how hard it is to kill it. You beat it over the head, till it seems to have given up the ghost, and behold! the next day it is as healthy as ever.
— Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
The Torah describes a condition called Tzaraat, which has continuously and erroneously been translated as leprosy. The only connection between these two terms is that they refer to some skin condition, but except for that they are dissimilar and incomparable.
One of the most important Roman historians, Tacitus, is guilty of a great crime against the Jewish people. Besides his anti-Semitic rhetoric, perhaps the most long-lasting damage has been his interpretation of the Hebrew word Tzaraat as leprosy. Tacitus, almost 2,000 years ago, wrote the following fanciful account in his history of the Jews:
“Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, broke out over Egypt; that king Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods.”
“The people, who had been collected after diligent search, finding themselves left in a desert, sat for the most part in a stupor of grief, till one of the exiles, Moses by name, warned them not to look for any relief from God or man, forsaken as they were of both, but to trust to themselves, taking for their heaven-sent leader that man who should first help them to be quit of their present misery. They agreed, and in utter ignorance began to advance at random.”
Tacitus continues to spout further venomous nonsense, which centuries later was picked up by modern historians. However, perhaps Tacitus’ greatest offense is that his characterization of Tzaraat as leprosy has even made it into modern translations of the Torah.
Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus Chapter 13 attacks “Tacitus’ fairy tale” and provides a detailed and lengthy explanation of exactly how Tzaraat has nothing to do with the disease known as leprosy. Tzaraat is not contagious nor were those afflicted quarantined. Tzaraat is a physical manifestation upon the skin of a spiritual malady. The result of a person contracting Tzaraat is that he is considered ritually impure, not sick.
In the words of Rabbi Hirsch, Tzaraat is the result of “such sins as arrogance, falsehood, avarice and slander which escape the authority of human tribunals.” As a result, God Himself intervenes and dispenses justice by affecting the sinners’ body, possessions and home.
May we distance ourselves from negative personality traits and acts and thereby be spared from God’s modern substitutes for Tzaraat, which contrary to popular translations have nothing to do with leprosy!
To Ed and Dalia Stelzer for their hospitality and more.