Chukkat, 6th July 2019, Leslie Wheeler

The Red Heifer and the purification of tumah
We read in (Numbers 19:2) “This is the statute of the law which the Lord has commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer, faultless, wherein is no blemish and upon which never came yoke.”

The question I asked myself when reading this verse was why would God make this strange ritual a statute of the law? My exploration of the subject drew a blank! I could find no logical reason for this ritual, only that God had commanded it.

King Solomon, the wisest of men, understood all commandments except this one:  “All these [commandments] I have fully understood, but as for the section dealing with the Red Heifer, I have investigated and inquired and examined, but I have been unable to fathom it.” So I decided, If King Solomon could not fathom this commandment, I had absolutely no chance!

Some reports indicate that, from the time of Moses until the 2nd Temple was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, only nine such red heifers were used for this special ceremony.

According to the Talmud only heifers that met the following criterion were acceptable:

  • It is at least three years old (younger is a “calf” and not a “cow”).
  • It is natural-born (not by caesarian).
  • It has not mated with a bull sent to mate with it (but if the bull does it on its own, it is valid)
  • It has no more than one hair that is not red.

Immediately I questioned what breed of cattle is red in colour? Did red cows actually exist in biblical times?

The answer given by Yehuda Shurpin (Chabad) Subject: “For Real, How rare is a Red Heifer?”

I recently came across an article on the Internet about the “amazing discovery” of a red heifer. The article made it sound like this was a portent of the messianic era. Can you explain what the big deal is? And are red heifers really that rare?

A heifer is simply a fancy name for a young female cow that hasn’t yet borne a calf. And the red colour we’re looking for here is not ruby red, but more of a reddish-brown, earthy colour. (In fact, the Hebrew word for “red,” adumah, is etymologically linked to the word for “earth,” adamah.) So if you’re asking how rare red cows are, the answer is not very.

Why did God choose a heifer and not a young bull?
Possible reasons for this are:

  • Most cattle herds have only one choice bull that acts to serve the cows within the herd. This is to maintain the quality of the offspring.
  • Any bull calves produced unless selected for breeding are castrated to prevent bull on bull fighting within the herd.
  • In connection with animals unfit for sacrifice. The castration of animals is forbidden according to Jewish law. This prohibition can be found in Leviticus 22:24,

Verse 24, the focus of my proposed reasoning, describes increasingly severe degrees of testicular damage.Heifers without blemish are likely to be far more plentiful than their male counterparts.

Ritual Slaughter of the Red Heifer
(Numbers 19:3-5) The heifer is ritually slaughtered and burned outside of the camp.

Why outside the camp?

  • Was there a degree of ritual impurity that somehow threatens the holiness of the sanctuary itself?
  • The area outside the camp is the sphere of uncleanness to which lepers, persons with sexual diseases, and those defiled by contact with the dead are sent (Numbers 5:2).
  • Excrement was buried outside the camp (Deuteronmy 23:14).
  • The stoning to death of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath took place outside the camp (Numbers 15:35).
  • Why were the ritual offering for the leper performed inside the camp while the ritual slaughter of the red heifer was performed outside the camp?

It was generally agreed at our Thursday evening Shiur that the main reason for burning the heifer outside the camp was due to the stench and smoke that would be emitted from burning a whole heifer to ashes, unlike the sacrifices performed in the sanctuary where only the fats were burnt and the remaining meat cooked and subsequently eaten by priests.

Items to be added to the burning heifer
(Numbers 19:6) – cedar wood, hyssop, and wool or yarn dyed scarlet are added to the fire, and the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure water.

What is the significance of these added items?
It was here that I came across a real gem of information:

  • Research chemist Dr.Robert Kunin writes“our biblical ancestors were well aware of water pollution and were also aware of technology capable of treating such polluted water. A chemist analysing this ritual carefully would realise that the mixture of ashes is a mixture of granular and powdered activated carbon and chard bone—a mixture of virgin carbonaceous adsorbents capable of removing practically all known toxins, viruses, and pollutants, including radioactivity. It should be noted that the components of the ash and the basic method of treating water as described in Numbers is essentially the only method currently approved by the United States government. (“The Mystery of the Red Heifer,” Dor le Dor, Spring 1985, pp. 267–269 )

What denotes Pure Water? (Numbers 9:7-8)
The water must be “living” i.e. spring water. This is a stronger requirement than for a ritual bath. Rainwater accumulated in a cistern is permitted for a mikveh but cannot be used in the red heifer ceremony.

Although not from the same period, I found these reports from the Mishnah referencing the ceremony performed in the Temple intriguing:

Mishnah Para 3.2
The Mishnah reports that in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, water for the ritual came from the Pool of Siloam. The ceremony involved was complex and detailed. To ensure complete ritual purity of those involved, care was taken to ensure that no one involved in the red heifer ceremony could have had any contact with the dead or any form of tumah, and implements were made of materials such as stone, which in Jewish law do not act as carriers for ritual impurities. The Mishnah recounts that children were used to draw and carry the water for the ceremony, children born and reared in isolation for the specific purpose of ensuring that they never came into contact with a corpse: There were courtyards in Jerusalem built over [the virgin] rock and below them a hollow [was made] lest there might be a grave in the depths, and pregnant women were brought and bore their children there, and there they reared them. And oxen were brought, and on their backs were laid doors on top of which sat the children with cups of stone in their hands. When they arrived in Shiloah [the children] alighted, and filled [the cups with water], and mounted, and again sat on the doors.

Various other devices were used, including a causeway from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives so that the heifer and accompanying priests would not come in contact with a grave.

According to the Mishnah, the ceremony of the burning of the red heifer took place on the Mount of Olives. A ritually pure kohen slaughtered the heifer and sprinkled its blood in the direction of the Temple seven times. The red heifer was then burned on a pyre, together with crimson dyed wool, hyssop, and cedar wood.

How was the purification ceremony performed
A ritually pure person would mix together a jar of fresh spring water with some ashes from the red cow. The water would then be sprinkled on a ritually impure person during the third or seventh day of impurity. At the setting of the sun on the seventh day, the person would become pure again (Numbers 19:9).

In order to purify a person who has become ritually contaminated by contact with a corpse, water from the vessel is sprinkled on him, using a bunch of hyssop, on the third and seventh day of the purification process. (Numbers 19:18-19). The priest who performs the ritual then becomes ritually unclean, and must then wash himself and his clothes in running waters. He is deemed impure until evening. The priest and his attendant who burned the heifer become impure until evening, after gathering the ashes. So the red heifer purifies the impure and makes impure the pure.

This strange ceremony has puzzled many interpreters. Why, they have asked, do the ashes of a red cow contain the power to purify those who touch a corpse? Why is this ceremony so important? What is its meaning and power? Apparently, non-Jews also were baffled by this ceremony of the red cow. The famed Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, head of the Sanhedrin at the time of the destruction of the Temple, was once asked by a non-Jew to explain the ritual. “Do you really believe that some ashes from a red cow purify a person who has touched a corpse? Are you not practicing magic?” he challenged. Rabbi Yochanan answered the man by comparing the ritual of the red cow to the commonly practiced ritual among non-Jews for curing an insane person. “Don’t you expose the mad person to the smoke of roots and sprinkle water upon him in order to cure him? Are not both ceremonies similar?” asked the rabbi. Later, Rabbi Yochanan’s students, who had overheard the conversation, said to him, “Appealing to common sense, you provided the non-Jew with a simple answer. Now share with us the real meaning of the ritual of the red cow.” Rabbi Yochanan responded by telling them that there is no explanation. The ritual is commanded by God. It is set out within the Torah law. That is what justifies its observance, not some rational interpretation. ( Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4:7)

The fact that the ashes of the heifer “purify the contaminated and contaminate the pure” carries an important lesson to us in our daily lives: If your fellow has been infected by impurity and corruption, do not hesitate to get involved and do everything within your power to rehabilitate them. If you are concerned that you may become tainted by your contact with them, remember that the Torah commands the kohen to purify his fellow Jew, even though his own level of purity will be diminished in the process.