Nelly Shulman
Nelly Shulman

To be different

Both my mother and my son would have been pronounced unclean in the times of Torah since the condition of “tzaraat”, discussed in detail in the portions of Tazria and Mezorah has nothing to do with leprosy, although it is routinely translated as such. Modern medical scholars agree that “tzaraat” is likely to be either vitiligo or psoriasis or the combination of both.

According to Torah, the tzaraat is highly contagious, penetrating even the cloth, the wood, and the leather. No wonder that the Torah demands from the afflicted person not only to separate themselves from the rest of the people but also to go through the degrading ritual of renting his clothes, covering his mouth, and calling out “I am unclean”.

This is, of course, due to the peculiar nature of tzaraat, which, according to the Torah, is the Divine punishment for the variety of sins of moral nature. Of course, the reason for such a disfiguring disease was incomprehensible for our ancestors, thus they have taken an easy way of blaming the afflicted for their affliction. My son, who has developed vitiligo in his early teens, was troubled by these Torah portions until I have explained to him the reasoning behind such treatment of people who differ from us physically.

Thankfully, these demands of the Torah have been long in the past, but Ibn Ezra, commenting on Leviticus 13:14, offers an unexpectedly modern piece of advice. Discussing the obligation of tzaraat sufferers to cover their faces, Ibn Esra adds, ‘He shall cover his upper lip so that he does not harm anyone with the breath of his mouth”. Skin conditions are not airborne but for the commentators, this fact is of secondary or no importance. It is more essential to set apart the afflicted as far as possible to stop him from spreading the bad influence on the community.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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