Common wisdom, and often specific regulations, discourage doctors from diagnosing or healing their own close family members. In such cases, the necessary objectivity is often missing. Additionally, that which one considers “first hand knowledge,” might impede a proper diagnosis. This rule, however, is not unique to modern medicine. The Mishnah (Negaim 2:5) states that “A man may examine all leprosy signs–except his own. Rabbi Meir ruled: [he may] not even [check] the leprosy symptoms of his relatives.”
While ancient doctors would diagnose and heal physical ailments, the kohanim were the only ones able to make a spiritual diagnosis. The leprosy mentioned in the Bible is not the bacterial disease of the modern age. Known as tza’ra’at, it was a physical symptom of a spiritual illness. If one noticed whitish-red spots on the torso, he or she would consult with a kohain (priest) as to whether it was or was not tza’ra’at. If it was tza’ra’at, the person was put into isolation and underwent specific rituals to cure the infection.
Since tza’ra’at was a spiritual illness and not a communicable disease, an explanation is needed as to why those afflicted needed to be sent into isolation. “Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Johanan: Because of seven things the plague of tza’ra’at is incurred: slander, the shedding of blood, oaths taken in vain, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy” (Arachin 16a). All of these transgressions share a common anti-social element, but the oral law places the most stress on the first sin, slander. Persons placed in isolation, hopefully, become aware quickly of the anti-social aspects of their actions.
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