Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rambam's View of Tzara'as

One of the many difficulties that faced Rambam in harmonizing the Aristotelian worldview with Judaism was the interpretation of Biblical miracles. In the philosophical worldview, the constancy and even inviolability of natural law was fundamentally linked to God’s perfection. Any change or intervention in these laws would amount to a deficiency in them and a change in God’s mind. How, then, are miracles — interventions into, and violations of, natural law — to be understood?

Rambam dealt with the question of miracles directly in six different places amongst four different works, along with scattered insights elsewhere in the context of addressing specific miracles. However, as with many other topics, there are apparent contradictions between the various statements presented by Rambam. In addition, given Rambam’s explicit warning that he will be employing contradictions to hint at esoteric levels of meaning, this complicates matters even further.

It is exceedingly difficult to synthesize Rambam’s various statements concerning miracles, and radically different conclusions have been drawn by different investigators. On the one hand, Rambam, at least exoterically, considered belief in supernatural miracles to be a necessary corollary to belief in creation. At the same time, Rambam made extensive attempts to minimize the supernatural component of Biblical miracles.

Over the last few decades, several studies on this topic have appeared.[1] I will not be discussing the general topic here. Suffice it to say that there are a range of views as to what Rambam's approach actually was. All agree that he generally desired to minimize the supernatural. Some say that he entirely negated the supernatural element of miracles, others say that he just minimized it as much as possible, while others say that he changed his mind on the matter. In this post, I want to focus specifically on Rambam's approach to leprosy.

(I am using this translation of tzara’as for convenience. However it is clear that the tzara’as of the Torah is not leprosy, otherwise known as Hansen’s disease, which probably only reached the Middle East in the last two thousand years. See Joseph Zias, “Lust and Leprosy: Confusion or Correlation?” It has been proposed that the “leprosy” of the Torah is more accurately translated as “mold” – specifically, Stachybotrys sp. See Richard M. Heller, Toni W. Heller, and Jack M. Sasson, “Mold: “Tsara’at,” Leviticus, and the History of a Confusion.”)

In the Guide, Rambam freely refers to leprosy as miraculous:

All agree that leprosy is a punishment for slander. The disease begins in the walls of the houses. If the sinner repents, the objective is attained: if he remains in his disobedience, the disease affects his bed and house furniture: if he still continues to sin, the leprosy attacks his own garments, and then his body. This is a miracle received in our nation by tradition, in the same manner as the effect of the trial of a faithless wife. (Guide III:47)

Can this be reconciled with the view that Rambam was always opposed to the notion of God having to supernaturally intervene? Indeed, some have viewed these cases as proof positive that Rambam did indeed accept supernatural miraculous events.[2]

I would like to propose a different possibility. Maybe, in Rambam’s view, the miracle was not in the event per se, but in it always happening at the appropriate time. In the Kapach translation, it is not called a nes, but an os ve’pele, “a sign and wonder.” This is consistent with Maimonides’ description of it in the Mishneh Torah:
This change which is spoken of in clothing and houses, which the Torah calls tzara’at by way of borrowed terminology, is not from the way of the world, but is a sign and wonder amongst Israel, to warn them against slander. (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Leprosy 16:10)

This certainly sounds somewhat less than supernatural. It is not “davar hanimna be’ha’teva,” something scientifically impossible (the appellation used in the Treatise to describe supernatural as opposed to naturalistic miracles), only “aino miminhago shel olam,” not the way of the world. While Twersky is convinced that this term refers to a supernatural event, this may not necessarily be the case. The term “way of the world” appears in several places in the Mishneh Torah simply in reference to ordinary norms. Rambam condemns mourners who divert from the “way of the world” in displaying excessive grief,[3] but they are not engaged in a supernatural activity! Rambam describes it as being the “way of the world” that the Egyptians were sent to oppress the Israelites, noting that any individual Egyptian had the choice not to do so,[4] but he is not suggesting that such an Egyptian would have been acting supernaturally. And when speaking about the Messianic Era, Rambam states that there will be no change in the “way of the world” or a change in creation.[5] While this may sound as though such a change would be supernatural (since Rambam does accept drastic changes in the social order), the fact it is followed by the alternative of “a change in creation” indicates that a change in the “way of the world” is something less than that.

In the new Hebrew translation of the Guide by Schwartz, it states that leprosy is a miracle that was perpetuated in the nation. This itself might be the basis for classifying it as a miracle, in line with Rambam’s view in the Treatise Concerning the Resurrection of the Dead that a natural event is rated as a miracle if it perpetuates and especially if it occurs at a significant time. Mold and fungus do occur; here they are occurring in conjunction with a skin disease, and after the person has engaged in evil talk. Perhaps in Rambam's view, these are not innately supernatural events, but when they consistently happen to people who have sinned, they are revealed to be miraculous – that is to say, providentially ordained.

There is another much more radical possibility to be considered. This is perhaps hinted at by Rambam’s stress about how the fear of the result was extraordinarily intense and would prevent people from ever putting themselves in such a situation:

The advantage in this belief is clear. Furthermore, leprosy is contagious, and all people flee from it; this is virtually in their nature. (Guide 3:47)

The benefit is in the effect of the belief about the punishment, more than in the effect of the punishment itself. Rambam stresses how people are in such fear of this contagious disease that it is “virtually natural” for them to avoid it. Perhaps, then, Rambam is relegating these wondrous events to the same category as Biblical accounts of God becoming angry: necessary beliefs to promote social order, but not factually true beliefs.[6] This is not at all straightforward, and a little too Straussian for my personal tastes, but it cannot conclusively be ruled out.


[1] Joseph Heller, “Maimonides’ Theory of Miracles”; Hannah Kasher, “Biblical Miracles and the Universality of Natural Laws: Maimonides’ Three Methods of Harmonization”; Haim Kreisel, “Miracles in Medieval Jewish Philosophy”; Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Maimonides and Miracles: The Growth of a (Dis)Belief”; Alvin J. Reines, “Maimonides’ Concept of Miracles”; Michael Tzvi Nahorai, “The Problem of Miracles for Maimonides.”

[2] Yitzchak Twersky, “Halachah and Science,” p. 149.

[3] Laws of Mourning 13:11.

[4] Laws of Repentance 6:5.

[5] Laws of Kings 12:1.

[6] See Guide III:27-28. Yair Lorberbaum argues as such in Bikoret Ha-Aggadah BeMoreh HaNevuchim, p. 216; see note 66 there. See too James Diamond, “Maimonides on Leprosy: Illness as Contemplative Metaphor,” Jewish Quarterly Review, Volume 96, Number 1, Winter 2006, pp. 95-122 and “Maimonides on Leprosy: From Idle Gossip to Heresy,” (Hebrew) in Maimonides: Conservatism, Originality, Revolution, ed., Aviezer Ravitzky, (Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History: Jerusalem, 2008), vol.2, pp.375-394


  1. On the mikra:

    In explaining his word choices for translation, Robert Alter writes “The fact of the matter is that the ancients perceived and described diseases and their symptoms differently than does modern Western medicine, and some conditions, that they understood to be a single malady may actually have been a variety of diseases, not all of them intrinsically related. Scholarly attempts to equate the various conditions reported here with specific dermatological disorders have had only limited success. A certain lack of specificity in the translation of quasi-medical language of this section seems prudent and, indeed, appropriate”.

    On nega tsar’ar’at he then adds: “Here the disparity between ancient understandings and modern categories is most striking. This is the same term for the condition that, when it appears on a human body, has been rendered here as ‘skin blanch’. That translation obviously does not work for fabrics and leather, and the law seems to have in mind some sort of mold or mildew, which, however, is thought to exhibit the same pathology as the dermatological conditions, perhaps because of a sickly whiteness manifested in both”.

    Finally, in regard to “au’vi’shti au’ve’arav (Levit 13:48), Alter points out “Milgrom, who has actually consulted weavers, notes that two kinds of threads of different textures and thicknesses are often used, a fact that makes it possible for certain forms of decay to spread through one set of threads and not the other”.

  2. The "radical possibility" you consider at the end is not so radical, especially with the Rambam himself comparing tzara`at to the trial of mayim hammarim.

    As Peter Leeson suggests in his article "Ordeals," the trial by ordeal (he uses the medieval Christian ordeals as examples) could have been a way to actually determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

    The paper is available at . From the abstract: "Medieval citizens' belief in iudicium
    Dei created a separating equilibrium in which only innocent defendants were willing
    to undergo ordeals."

  3. " This is not at all straightforward, and a little too Straussian for my personal tastes, but it cannot conclusively be ruled out."

    Personally, I think it can be ruled out. If the purpose was fear to make people flee from it, then it never worked. Further, I believe that already in the time of the gemorah it was said that the Tzarat is no longer applicable, yet lashon harah always is.

    If the Rambam felt that this was only about fear, then he would have said that the law still applies.

    On a side note, this parsha always bothered me (until this year) because I could not figure out why the Torah spent so much time on this issue.

    This year, with all the nonsense about earthquakes and "divine punishments" for this or that, the parsha finally became clear to me. This is what happens when we are divinely punished for small sins... and only this. Here are all the details, so you can not confuse it for something else.

    Also, I'm glad to see that I'm not the only person who thinks the Torah is describing mold and not some weird skin disease. I must say, living in Israel, the way I see mold growing, like I've never seen it before, and the way we clean it, so that it strips the paint and ruins the walls... I'm starting to think that Tzarat is making a come back :)

  4. What implications does this have for today?

    Would it cause people suffering from diseases to forgo medical treatment in favor of teshuvah?

    Would it cause them to suffer guilt and the condemnation of their neighbors for sins which they did not commit?

    Could it cause some people with misplaced faith to reject modern medicine because it interferes with Divine judgment?

    These are serious questions. No matter what you can imagine there is someone who will believe it. When social pressures are added some very strange things can happen.

  5. The problem is that leprosy and tzaraas share only a few superficial characteristics and would be easily distinguishable from one another. Also, as Rav Hirsch notes in his chumash commentary, the rules surrounding it make no sense if one is dealing with a contagious disease. Rambam would have had to accept an aspect of the miraculous when dealing with it.

  6. “I would like to propose a different possibility. Maybe, in Rambam’s view, the miracle was not in the event per se, but in it always happening at the appropriate time.”

    I dunno. Practically, in this situation, what is the difference between the two? The “miracle” itself is the fact that it’s a homeclotheskin condition that appears only as a result of speech.

    I am wondering what Rambam’s view is of disease in general. Here he was a ‘doctor’ in an era prior to any knowledge of germs. Would his presumed causes of disease, (ie. imbalances of various colored bile, or whatever,) be very different from disease as a result of imbalanced speech? Wasn’t it the view of the times that disease was the result of spiritual defects?

    I know the following may be qualified as ‘heresy,’ but I am simply unable to believe that tzaraas was truly the result of evil speech. You speak about it happening ‘at the appropriate time.’ How do we know this as a fact? Is it not possible that the kohen was a fallible authority on the subject? Could it not have been that people who did not speak lashon hara got tzaraat, or that people who got tzaraat in fact had mold spores in their homes, and hadn’t spoken lh.

    It’s interesting that lepers too were kept isolated in leper colonies. Any relation?

    I’m also curious, according to ‘daas toireh, when is tzaraas said to have been eradicated?

  7. I always encounter resistance when I claim that a pshat understanding of tzara'at is that it is a natural condition that renders something tamei - just as every other kind of tuma stems from a natural process. Thinking otherwise - that it is a supernatural condition that renders something impure - makes absolutely no sense in the context of the laws of tuma which all follow a shared internal logic: physical change causes impurity - not the other way around.

    People state matter-of-factly that tzara'at is a "physical manifestation of a spiritual condition" but by that logic every kind of tuma should be accorded that significance. Is an animal carcass or menstruation or a venereal disease a "physical manifestation of a spiritual condition"? of course not. It is only at the drash level that the connection is made to Lashon Ha'rah.

    As far as Rambam, it seams to me that the closest analogy should be to his position in hilchot Ta'anit. Even though an earthquake is a natural phenomenon, the response of those affected has to be that it is a sign that they must examine their deeds and repent. Similarly, the response of someone affected by tzara'at (and by extension any serious disease or malady that they experience) out not to be that it is happenstance, but take it as an opportunity for introspection.

    In sum, Rambam is presenting how a religiously sensitive person ought to respond to these kinds of things - tzara'at being the Torah's paradigmatic example, but that does not change the fact that it came about entirely naturally.

    People tend to forget that a naturalistic view of the world does not mean that events lack religious significance.

  8. I know Rambam said that God being described as angry was a euphemism condemning something as not to be done. Where do you get that the Rambam considered it a "necessary" belief.

  9. MJ - Best comment I have seen on a blog in a loooong time!

  10. Just a reminder for those, like me, who had thought that tsara'as came only due to lashon hara:

    According to the Talmud, Arachin 16a, and the majority of historic Jewish literature in general, regards tzaraath as a punishment for sin; it lists seven possible causes for tzara'as:

    * an evil tongue (malicious gossip)
    * murder
    * a vain oath
    * illicit sexual intercourse
    * pride
    * theft
    * miserly behaviour

    One midrashic source categorically states that tzaraath only appeared as punishment for evil tongue, while others add further reasons to the list in the Talmud. (wiki)

  11. In my humble opinion, way too much has been made of the Rambam's statement on contradictions. He never states precisely what you say he states. He states that sometimes the premises of some his discussions will contradict each other. That's about as far as he goes. He never says the conclusions will contradict each other.

    To say that the Rambam clearly states that he will contradict himself in order to elude to hidden truths is a mischarcaterization of his words.

  12. Ya would think that if tzaraat was a punishment for sin that it would have said so in the Torah itself.

  13. "Ya would think that if tzaraat was a punishment for sin that it would have said so in the Torah itself."

    Umm... it does.
    It requires you give sin/guilt offerings, and says that after the sin offering the cohen gives atonement to the person. The question the midrashim want to know is, what sin does this atone for?

    I've seen some that suggest that its a consequence of not following proper nida laws after a woman gives birth. Apparently, it was believed way back when, that a person can naturally gain leprosy if they make a child a few days after the menstrual cycle. The Me'am loez uses this as proof that Tzarat isn't natural, because Jewish families aren't allowed to be together during that time. It was all very strange reading it.

  14. "People tend to forget that a naturalistic view of the world does not mean that events lack religious significance."

    I would agree with you in most situations. But here, it doesn't make any sense.

    As I said before, I find this the most troubling section of the Torah. And I'd love to see if theres any good explanation for it from any theological camp.

    The Talmud's explanation btw, is far from a good one. Its one of those parts you mostly gloss over and say that when Mashiach comes, it will become clear.

    I have to ask you though, what "natural condition" is being described here.

  15. On tzaraat as a punishment, another (non-traditional) view can be seen in the middle of p. 185 of anthropologist Mary Douglas' "Leviticus as Literature" which can be seen at:

  16. Again, if you read the laws of tuma and korbanot together they form an internally logical system. People are retrojecting onto the idea of the sin offering a post-temple notion of sin and repentance.

    But in the temple system a sin offering is not necessarily in response to sin - it has a distinct function as a necessary step for reentry into the community and/or reentry into the sanctuary.

    You see the same pattern of drash several times: Why does the yoledet bring an offering - and chazal suggest a sin, why does the Nazir bringa sin offering - again chazal suggest a sin, why does the metzora bringa sin offering -again, chazal suggest a sin.

    I submit that this is not pshat at all. It is the kind of drash that you don't think twice about becasue it becasue you never were taught otherwise, but it too is drash.

    As far as what natural condition (or more likely, conditions) tzara'at describes: I have no idea. Nor do we know what a zav/a was, but clearly that too is a natural condition.

    What I do know is that the words "se'et, sapachat, baheret" were all natural terms that the people then were familiar with. And they were familar with them becasue they were natural conditions that already existed and which they had names for. Arguably, the designation of those conditions as "tzara'at" introduces a new technical term specifically relating these natural conditions to the laws of impurity.

  17. I wonder what the good Rabbi's reaction is to this latest drasha?

  18. "Anonymous seeker said...

    Ya would think that if tzaraat was a punishment for sin that it would have said so in the Torah itself."

    Well we do know that Miriam was punished for sin with it and sin offerings are brought. If your question is assuming the Torah isn't saying that and then saying shouldn't it have, so that we see it wasn't for sin, you are assuming if I understand you consistently as meaning if something isn't from the Torah it must be made up. I then have a question for you. There were plenty of books including rejected ones and the Nach ostensibly contradicts laws from the Torah if we assume the Torah has all laws listed in it. On what do you base your question then? Religious respect for the written word of the Torah? It's nice to see you reject the Documentary Hypothesis enough to say God gave a full Torah to the Jews as I can't see any other basis to your reasoning.

  19. Interesting article on whether tzaraat was contagious, with related ideas--was it natural or supernatural, etc:


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...