The Leper Messiah

Why does the Talmud refer to the Messiah as “The Leper?” What does the Messiah have in common with a leper?

Artistic impression of suffering and exile. (Image © First Fruits of Zion)

Tazria-Metzora

Regular Shabbat Readings

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* Note: On Jewish holidays, special readings often interrupt the regular cycle.

  • Tazria-Metzora (תזריע/מצורע | She will conceive/Leper)
  • Torah: Leviticus 12:1-15:33
  • Haftarah: 2 Kings 7:3-20
  • Gospel: Mark 9:14-50/Luke 9:51-10:42

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Leviticus 12:1 | Purification of Women after Childbirth
    • Leviticus 13:1 | Leprosy, Varieties and Symptoms
    • Leviticus 14:1 | Purification of Lepers and Leprous Houses
    • Leviticus 15:1 | Concerning Bodily Discharges
  • Prophets
    • 2Ki 7:3 | The Arameans Flee

Portion Summary

Tazria

The name of the twenty-seventh reading from the Torah is Tazria (תזריע), which means "she conceived." The name is derived from the words of Leviticus 12:2, where the LORD says to Moses, "When a woman [conceives] and bears a male child ..." Leviticus 12 discusses the laws of purification after childbirth. Leviticus 13 introduces the laws for diagnosing and quarantining lepers. Except in biblical calendar leap years, Tazria is read together with the subsequent Torah portion, Metzorah, on the same Sabbath.

Metzora

The twenty-eighth reading from the Torah is Metzora (מצורע), a word that means "leper." The word appears in the second verse of the reading, which says, "This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing" (Leviticus 14:2). Leviticus 14 spells out the complex purification rituals for the cleansing of a leper and a leprous home. Leviticus 15 briefly covers the laws regarding ritual unfitness stemming from bodily emissions. Except in biblical calendar leap years, Metzora is read together with the previous Torah portion, Tazria, on the same Sabbath.


In one cryptic passage from the Talmud, the sages discuss different theories about the potential name of the Messiah. Several schools of disciples offer different opinions. Each one has a theory about what the name of the Messiah will be. After the Talmud offers the list of opinions, it presents an authoritative ruling of the sages. The Messiah will be called “the Leper of the House of Rabbi,” a strange name indeed for the promised Savior King:

And the rabbis say: “His name is The Leper … as it is said [in Isaiah 53:4], ‘Surely our sicknesses he himself bore and our sorrows he carried, yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.’” (b.Sanhedrin 98b)

A word association between the leper and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 involves the Hebrew verb nega (נגע) which means to “smite.” The Torah refers to the condition of leprosy with the noun form of the same word which means plague, smiting, and affliction. The Talmud quotes Isaiah 53:4 where Isaiah uses the same word to describe the affliction of the suffering servant:

Surely our sicknesses (nagua, נגוע) He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:4)

On the basis of these associations, the sages referred to the suffering Messiah son of Joseph as “The Leper.” The Messiah son of Joseph carries the suffering of the exile and the punishment of the Jewish people like a leper carries his affliction.

The sages understood the verse to mean that Messiah took on the nation’s leprosy, not literally, but figuratively. The title “Leper Messiah” sounds like a deprecation, and it contradicts the Bible’s own description of the Messiah: “Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up and greatly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13). The Bible indicates that the Messiah will be the wisest of all men, exalted above Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and even the angels. His stature will exceed that of all the great men and kings of the earth.

Therefore, Chassidic teaching concludes that the Talmud hints toward some deeper meaning when it refers to the Messiah as “The Leper.” It indicates that the redeemer suffers the agonies and afflictions of Israel’s exile. He impatiently waits for the final redemption when He can purify the nation, but until then, He personally suffers the pain of Israel’s leprous-like affliction, the agony of the ongoing exile.

For as long as the exile persists, the Messiah is called The Leper. He Himself is essentially pure and perfect. His affliction merely reflects the condition of exile. The “day of his purification” refers to the moment of the redemption, when Messiah will be revealed and His true person and righteousness will become manifest to all.

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