Parashah of the week: Tazria

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash or a discolouration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body it shall be reported to Aaron, the priest or to one of his sons, the priest” Leviticus 13:2


A leper with medieval leper's bell from Ribes Vikinger museum, Denmark (Wikimedia Commons)

For some time now — and more particularly as patients report difficulty in obtaining an appointment at the local GP surgery — the rabbinate is sometimes considered the fourth emergency service without charge at the point of delivery. Does this represent a return to the biblical model of priesthood?

Parashat Tazria prescribes the role of the priest in diagnosing and ritually purifying sufferers of skin complaints, known in biblical Hebrew as tzara’at. The priest in biblical Israel was a source of both religious and medical authority, who was responsible for diagnosing (but not treating) the ailment and for overseeing the reintegration of the sufferer into the community.

Although often translated as “leprosy”, tzara’at, appears to designate a variety of skin ailments concerning which the priestly procedure involved identification and, in some cases, isolation and most dramatically a requirement for the sufferer to declare “Impure, impure!” When the disease had abated, the priest would complete a ritual not to claim credit in a magical way for healing but as part of the rehabilitation of the patient.

This “impure, impure” declaration requirement, which may remind us of the medieval leper’s bell, might initially cause us to recoil but the Babylonian Talmud remarks that the purpose of such a declaration serves not only as a warning to others but should elicit compassion and prayer on behalf of the sufferer (Mo’ed Katan 5a).

Perhaps ahead of its time, the Talmud was alluding to the balance of rights and responsibilities about aspects of health. The modern citizen is entitled to expect the community to offer sympathy and the very best of health care treatment but, as a responsible member of the same society, one should endeavour when one is ill to reduce (where possible) the illness’s damage to oneself and others, and to acknowledge that even the most advanced health care system provision demands a sense of responsibility from its users.

Interestingly, despite the role of the priesthood, Parashat Tazria makes no suggestion that illness arises from moral failure, reaffirming the modern concept that both mental and physical illness strikes its sufferers at random and a decent society places great importance on accurate diagnosis, appropriate treatment and rehabilitation where possible. Read Parashat Tazria, enjoy good health and play your part in ensuring the maintenance of a caring society in which health care remains the right of all regardless of individual circumstance.

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