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A Social Disease

by Tim O'Hearn

A-rab (as Psychiatrist): Juvenile delinquency is purely a social disease.

Diesel: Hey, I got a social disease!

(From West Side Story, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim)

Diesel may not have had a clear concept of what is commonly meant by a “social disease.” The song does make a point that some diseases or conditions may be socially related. When using the term in that sense, many rabbis would say that biblical leprosy is a social disease.

Many people hear the term leprosy and assume that what is spoken of in the Bible is the same as the disease of leprosy known today. The disease, also known as Hansen’s disease, comes in two types. The milder form is characterized by flat, pale patches of skin on the trunk. The more serious type reveals itself in red or pale symmetrical patches of skin that may be flat or raised, and appear on the face or joints. Both may include nerve damage which, if ignored, may lead to loss of extremities such as toes or fingers. Without antibiotics, the disease is incurable. One does not normally fight it off like a common cold.

Biblical leprosy may appear in the whitewash of houses, and may appear in clothing. The symptoms are also somewhat different, with some similarities.

When the hair in the plague is turned white, and the plague in sight be deeper than the skin of his flesh, it is a plague of leprosy: and the priest shall look on him, and pronounce him unclean. If the bright spot be white in the skin of his flesh, and in sight be not deeper than the skin, and the hair thereof be not turned white; then the priest shall shut up him that hath the plague seven days: And the priest shall look on him the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague in his sight be at a stay, and the plague spread not in the skin; then the priest shall shut him up seven days more: And the priest shall look on him again the seventh day: and, behold, if the plague be somewhat dark, and the plague spread not in the skin, the priest shall pronounce him clean: it is but a scab. … Behold, if the leprosy have covered all his flesh, he shall pronounce him clean that hath the plague: it is all turned white: he is clean. (Lev 13:3-6, 13)

If the leprosy of the Bible is not Hansen’s disease, a bacterial infection, then how was it contracted? Why would the rabbis consider it a social disease?

Many Jewish scholars believe that leprosy was a miraculous disease that was caused by lashon hara, evil speaking. In one of the most famous cases, the leprosy appeared instantly (not taking six months to several years to incubate) and followed a very specific case of disrespectful speech. In Numbers 12, Miriam (and Aaron) spoke what would today be called hate speech, condemning their brother for an interracial marriage, and compounded it by claiming equal authority with Moses. As a result, Miriam was struck with leprosy. Seven days later she was allowed back into the camp. In 2 Chronicles 26, Uzziah is not quoted as having said anything, but he was angry and so may have spoken evilly. He also was stuck with leprosy, and never recovered.

Another reason the rabbis think leprosy was speech related is the isolation of the patient. As long as one was leprous, that person was relegated to life outside the camp. He was to cover his lip, and when anyone approached he was to announce that he was unclean. In this way, evil speaking would not spread throughout the nation. If one is isolated, anything he says can hurt only him. If lashon hara is allowed to remain in society, soon it will spread and cause dissension. There will always be someone who is willing to spread gossip, rumor, and innuendo.

As soon as the leprous person learned his lesson, the disease would run its course and he would be allowed back into the camp. Even Naaman, as long as he spoke against the prophet and what God instructed him to do, could not be cured. But when he stopped complaining and started obeying, his leprosy left him. Evil speech is a social disease that requires an anti-social cure.