Is Acne Spiritual?

I can’t remember where I saw or heard it, but recently you mentioned that some skin conditions may be spiritual. Would you please expand on this?


Dear JR,

In ancient Jewish wisdom, the Five Books of Moses are divided into 54 sections, each with its own name. On Shabbat, in the synagogue, we read one of these ‘sections’ per week, with occasional doubling up. Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33 is the section known as MeTZoRaH. If you read the English, it seems to be discussing leprosy and lepers.

You might ask: “That is an awful lot of ink to spend on one disease. Where is the chapter on diabetes? Heart disease? Acne? I didn’t realize the Bible was a medical book.” The question falls away when we recognize that leprosy is a terrible, if common, mistranslation. That section of Scripture, along with many other verses that discuss skin ailments, is specifically addressing a spiritual condition.

Today, we are no longer able to diagnose the symptoms of these conditions, nor are we able to apply the exact prescriptions. What is its importance for us?

Our bodies and our souls are not two separate entities. They are intertwined and connected. On a basic level, our souls need our bodies in order to function in the world. On a deeper level, our emotions, behaviors, and thoughts have a physical effect on us. Our skin is actually one of the easier ways to recognize this interconnectedness, even in our days. Many people know that their skin responds to their being under stress or in pain. For instance, psoriasis, eczema and hives are among the skin conditions known to be aggravated by mental stress. To be very clear, we are not saying that nowadays, someone with sensitive skin or who has acne or skin tags is on a spiritually lower level than someone with a clear unblemished complexion. We are just noting that even today the health of our skin, the body’s largest organ, is as likely to be helped by harnessing our thoughts as it is by popping pills.

Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that God chose to have our bodies show an outward sign of our embarrassment by causing blushing on our skin, and what is more, that no animal has this feature. This helps promote peace as it can evoke sympathy on the part of the observer who realizes that he or she might have caused the embarrassment. In the late 19th century Charles Darwin (of natural selection fame) described blushing as, “the most peculiar and most human of all expressions.” Along with later scientists, he was astonished by the uniquely human capacity to blush. Apparently the skin responds to our emotional conditions. In other words, our skins are as sensitive to our spiritual welfare as they are to our physical.

What the Bible is telling us is that our bodies also reflect our abandoning of God and His ways. The word MeTZoRaH, the one mistranslated as leprosy, is an acronym that breaks down into three words: motzee shem ra – putting forth a bad name. In other words, it is the sin of talking badly about others in a way that negatively affects them. An example might be my complaining to a friend that I had to wait days for plumber X to call me back and so no one should use him, when I have no idea if this is a regular bad business practice on his part or if there were mitigating circumstances.

There are actually many categories of forbidden speech in the Bible, reflecting the power of words. This section of the Bible is informing us that each time we use the gift of speech incorrectly, it affects us. We are far removed from the times of Moses when we could actually see that effect, which allowed us to quickly atone. Yet, the principle still remains. When we damage our souls we damage our bodies. These days, the damage is harder to see.

Clear skin ahead,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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