>As we continue through the book of Leviticus, this week we break from the focus on sacrifices and move to the subject of impurity, skin disease and bodily discharges. Often the Jewish calendar allows us to combine the Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora, so that in one single Shabbat we are able to read both of these passages. However this year, as we add an additional month for the Jewish leap year, we have a fortnight in which to read all about purification after childbirth, leprosy, more leprosy and purification required after human discharges. As you can imagine these are not my favourite Torah portions.
When discussing the disease of tzaraat, or leprosy as it is commonly translated, one of the interesting features is the fact that the disease afflicts both a person’s skin and a person’s clothing: ‘The garment also where the disease of leprosy is, whether it is a woollen garment, or a linen garment’ (Leviticus 13:47). The disease is not even limited to bodies or clothing, as it is possible for the walls of a house to be affected by leprosy as well (Leviticus 14:34-45).
The fact that leprosy could affect houses and clothing suggests that it could not have been limited to leprosy (Hansen’s disease) as we know it today (a fact backed up by Encyclopaedia Judaica).
One of the most famous cases of leprosy in the Tanakh affected Moses’ sister Miriam, she was struck down after Aaron and she had been talking about Moses’ Cushite wife. The text tells us: ‘Miriam had become leprous, white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous’ (Numbers 12:10). In this context leprosy appears as a punishment for Miriam, directly caused by God. This idea appears to be supported by building leprosy, as it states: ‘When you come to the land of Canaan, which I give to you for a possession, and I put the disease of leprosy in a house of the land of your possession’ (Leviticus 14:34).
If we view leprosy as a punishment from God, then it may be understandable for a person to be afflicted with it, but it seems stranger for clothes and buildings to suffer as well.
In the ancient world when the garment was diseased the priest shut up the garment for seven days, and then checked if the disease had spread (Leviticus 13:50-51). Today if we found a garment with the ‘disease’ I imagine we would throw it straight in the washing machine, and then consider it fully cleansed.
For us today the idea of diseased garments need no longer apply to a disease that is ‘reddish or greenish in the garment’ (Leviticus 13:49). Instead we may consider garments to be diseased based on the way that they are made. Clothes created by underage workers might be considered diseased. Garments which are made by people in unsafe conditions may be considered afflicted. And outfits which use harmful chemicals may be considered leprous.
In our modern world perhaps we need to look for the disease before we buy the item of clothing, viewing it as something which needs to be eradicated through our shopping rituals, rather than a seven day purification ritual. If we use our purses and wallets to demonstrate our displeasure with certain practices in the fashion industry, perhaps we can then purify our garments of the leprous disease.