Preparing the Red Heifer in Purity: The Rabbis’ Polemic against the Sadducees
The Torah mandates that the person preparing the ashes of the red heifer must be pure:
במדבר יט:ט וְאָסַף אִישׁ טָהוֹר אֵת אֵפֶר הַפָּרָה וְהִנִּיחַ מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה בְּמָקוֹם טָהוֹר וְהָיְתָה לַעֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְמֵי נִדָּה חַטָּאת הִוא.
Num 19:9 A man who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing.
The text similarly mandates that the person who sprinkles the waters on those undergoing purification must be pure:
במדבר יט:יח וְלָקַח אֵזוֹב וְטָבַל בַּמַּיִם אִישׁ טָהוֹר וְהִזָּה עַל הָאֹהֶל וְעַל כָּל הַכֵּלִים וְעַל הַנְּפָשׁוֹת אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ שָׁם וְעַל הַנֹּגֵעַ בַּעֶצֶם אוֹ בֶחָלָל אוֹ בַמֵּת אוֹ בַקָּבֶר. יט:יט וְהִזָּה הַטָּהֹר עַל הַטָּמֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי...
Num 19:18 A person who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on him who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. 19:19 The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus cleansing him by the seventh day…
In the Torah, a person regains purity by washing and waiting until sunset (e.g., Lev 15:5, 27, 22:6). Thus, any person who contracted impurity would need to go through the relevant purification process in order to be eligible to gather the ashes or sprinkle the waters. Nevertheless, this point was a bone of contention in the fractious sectarian arena of the Second Temple period.
Purity: Two Steps or Two Levels?
As noted, the Torah speaks of certain purifications requiring two steps, for example, the requirement for an impure priest to eat holy food:
ויקרא כב:ו ...וְטָמְאָה עַד הָעָרֶב וְלֹא יֹאכַל מִן הַקֳּדָשִׁים כִּי אִם רָחַץ בְּשָׂרוֹ בַּמָּיִם. כב:ז וּבָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְטָהֵר וְאַחַר יֹאכַל מִן הַקֳּדָשִׁים כִּי לַחְמוֹ הוּא.
Lev 22:6 …he shall be unclean until evening and shall not eat of the sacred donations unless he has washed his body in water. 22:7 As soon as the sun sets, he shall be clean; and afterward he may eat of the sacred donations, for they are his food.
While the Torah presents this as two steps in one process—washing and then waiting until the sunset—Second Temple and Rabbinic texts speak of two levels of purity. In rabbinic parlance:
- After the washing—defined as immersion from the Second Temple period and on—the person has the status of a tevul yom (טבול יום) “one who has immersed that day.” A minor level of impurity still adhered to that individual.
- After sunset, the person has the status of a meʿorav shemesh (מערב שמש) “one for whom the sun has set.” That person was fully ritually pure.
According to the rabbis, a tevul yom was pure enough to collect the ashes and sprinkle the waters (m. Kelim 1:5; m. Neg. 14:3; m. Zabim 5:12; m. Ṭebul Yom). Sifrei Numbers (§129) offers a midrashic source for this view in a gloss on the phrase איש טהור “a pure man” in Numbers 19:18:
ר' עקיבה או[מר]: "'טהור' למ[ה] נא[מר]? עד שלא יאמר יש לי בדין. אם האוסף טהור, המזה לא יהא טהור? הא מה ת"ל 'טהור'? טהור מכל טומאה. ואי זה זה? זה טבול יום."
Rabbi Akiva said: “‘Why does the text use the term ‘pure’? Even if it hadn’t said it, I would have known through reason. If the person gathering the ashes must be pure, can the one sprinkling them be impure? So why does the verse use the term ‘pure’? He is pure from all impurity. And who is that? The tevul yom [who has done the act of immersion from impurity though has not yet waited for the sunset].
The midrash here is defending a surprisingly lenient ruling with a homiletical reinterpretation of a phrase (see postscript for how the rabbis actually extend the purity laws for the red heifer in every other respect). The Sadducees, however, believed that sunset was required of the person who collected the ashes and sprinkled the water, and the Mishnah describes how the “early rabbis” (the Pharisees) forced them to comply with their ruling:
משנה פרה ג:ז זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָא[ל] הָיוּ מֵקְדִּימִין בְּרַגְלֵיהֶן לְהַר הַמִּשְׁחָה וּבֵית טְבִילָה הָיָה שַׁם וּמְטַמִּין הָיוּ אֶת הכֹּהֵן הַשּׂוֹרֵף אֶת הַפָּרָה מִפְּנֵי הֵצַּדוּקִין שֶׁלֹּא יְהוּא אוֹמְ׳ בִּמְעוֹרְבֵי שֶׁמֶשׁ הָיְתָה נֶעְשֵׂת׃ ג:ח סָמְכוּ אֶת יְדֵיהֶן עָלֶיו וְאוֹמְ׳ לוֹ אִישִׁי כֹהֵֽן גָּדוֹל טְבוֹל אֵחת ⟦וְ⟧יָרַד וְטָבַל ועָלָה וְנִיסְתַּפַּג.
t. Parah 3:7 And the elders of Israel would precede [the cow and all those that assist it] on foot to the Mount of Olives, and a house for immersion was there. And they would [deliberately] defile the priest who was to burn the cow, on account of the Sadducees, so that they should not say, “[only] by those on whom the sun has set was it [the cow] prepared.” 3:8 They would place their hands on him, and say to him, “My lord, High Priest, immerse once.” He descended and immersed, emerged and dried off.
According to this, the dispute was so contentious, that in order to establish precedent, the elders would actually make the priest impure by touching him with their hands, then have him immerse, but not wait for the sun to set, so that he would be in a state of tevul yom when sprinkling the ashes.
The Tosefta quotes this same ruling, and moves on to an anecdote about when Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai faced off with a Sadducean priest who was planning on performing the ritual after sunset:
תוספתא פרה ג:ה ...ומעשה בצדוקי אחד שהעריב שמשו ובא לשרוף את הפרה וידע בו רבן יוחנן בן זכיי ובא וסמך שתי ידיו עליו ואמ' לו: "אישי כהן גדול, מה נאה אתה להיות כהן גדול! רד טבול >אחת<." ירד וטבל ועלה.
t. Parah 3:7 It once happened that a certain Sadducee on whom the sun had set came to burn the cow. And Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai became cognizant of his intention, and he came and placed his two hands on him and said to him: “My lord, High Priest. How fitting are you to be high priest! Now go down and immerse once.” He went down and immersed and emerged.
By touching the priest and making him impure, Rabban Yohanan forces his hand and he must immerse, but the priest is quite angry with the dirty trick that was pulled on him:
אחר שעלה, צרם לו באזנו. אמר לו: "בן זכיי לכשאפנה לך." אמ' לו: "כשתפנה." לא שהה שלשה ימים עד שנתנוהו בקברו. בא אביו אצל רבן יוחנן בן זכיי ואמ' לו: "בן זכיי לא נפנה בני."
After he came up, he (the priest) pulled on his ear. He said to him: “Ben Zakkai, when I have time for you.” He said to him: “When you have time.” Not three days passed before they put him in his grave. His father came to Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and said, “Ben Zakkai, my son did not have time.”
Here we see the dispute from the rabbis’ perspective. Luckily, the Dead Sea Scrolls offer us a glimpse of the other side of the debate in their own words.
The Qumran Perspective
The stance ascribed to the Sadducees in the Mishnah and Tosefta appears explicitly in a legal text found in Qumran called Miqtzat Maʿasei Ha-Torah (4QMMT), “Some Precepts of the Torah.” Framed as a letter aimed at convincing a political leader of the veracity of the sectarian halakhic stance, the middle section, which lays out many controversial halakhic issues of the time, states that the person who prepares the waters of the red heifer must wait until sunset:
ואפ על טהרׄתׄ פרת החטאׄת֯ השוחׄט֯ אותה והסורף אותה והאוסףׄ [א]תׄ אפרה והמזה אתׄ החטאת לכול אלה להערי[בו]תׄ השמש לה֯יׄות טהורימ בשל שאיהיה הטהר מזה על הטמה כי לבני [אהרן ]ראואי [להיות מׄ... 
And concerning the purity of the cow of the purification offering, he who slaughters it, and he who burns it, and he who gathers its ashes, and he who sprinkles the [water of] purification—all of these should be pure at (the level of purity achieved following) sunset so that the pure may sprinkle upon the impure. For the sons of Aaron should [be m…]
Why Insist on the Tevul Yom?
Considering that the Torah states that the person preparing the red heifer must be pure, why did the rabbis insist on using a tevul yom? Wouldn’t the more stringent option of a meʿorav shemesh (post sunset) be preferable? Indeed, the Tosefta (t. Parah 3:5) records how the high priest Ishmael ben Paabi ruled that a meʿurav shemesh would be an optimal choice. His colleagues, however, object to this ruling and take the drastic decision to dispose of the ashes prepared by a meʿorav shemesh and prepare new ones:
אמרו לו: "אם מקיימין אנו אותם מוציאנו שם רע על הראשונים שהיו אומ[רים] טמאות היו." גזרו עליו ושפכה, וחזר ועשה אחרת בטבולי יום.
They said to him: “If we preserve them [the ashes prepared in perfect purity] we give a bad name to the former generations, for ]people] will say that they [the previous cows whose ashes were prepared by a tevul yom] were impure.” They forced him, and he poured out [the ashes], and had them prepared again by tevulei yom.
Taking such a harsh stance by ruling that the cow and its ashes can only be handled in a state of lesser purity, can be understood as part of the general Pharisaic inclination in cases of controversy to publicize and demonstrate the validity of their own practices as opposed to those of other factions, as the Mishnah explicitly states: “on account of the Sadducees.” Another advantage accruing from this policy is the exclusion from the temple and its cult of those who adhered to the Sadducee-sectarian demand for full purity, due to lack of qualified red-cow-ashes according to their system.
Separating between Priests and Regular People
Why was the purity of a tevul yom such an important point to the Pharisees and/or rabbis? Joseph Baumgarten (1928–2008) contended that, in general, the Pharisaic goal in conceptualizing tevul yom as a state of purity was to enable “the widespread observance of purity and the maintenance of normal marital life.”
That is why they limited the obligation of waiting until sundown only to the consumption of sacrifices and terumah, but allowed regular pure food and second tithe to be consumed by someone with the status of tevul yom. Sadducean and sectarian halakhah, in contrast, probably demanded that immersion always take place immediately preceding sunset, “thus in fact eliminating the status of tevul yom,” as Elisha Qimron of Hebrew University notes.
Thus, in Baumgarten’s view, the application of this leniency to the red heifer rite was primarily meant to support the overall Pharisaic/rabbinic approach to the tevul yom, which was necessary for other situations. But this argument is not persuasive since the red heifer ritual is not part of home observance, but a priestly/Temple ritual, and thus, even the rabbis should be open to requiring a higher level of purity there.
The Liminal Nature of the Red Cow Ritual
Hanan Birenboim of Herzog College and Cana Werman of Ben Gurion University each pointed out independently that according to several Qumran works, the immersion of an impure person on the first day of a seven-day purification process sufficed to allow the person to eat pure nonsacred food. In other words, Qumran also accepted a status of partial purity. This implies that the dispute with the Pharisees/rabbis revolved not around the concept of tevul yom but rather around the red heifer rite itself.
The dispute relates to the rite’s ambiguous nature. On one hand, it is an extra-temple ceremony, performed entirely outside the sanctuary, and the cow is never sacrificed on the altar. This fits with the rabbinic belief that a tevul yom should be sufficient. On the other hand, the ritual displays great similarity to a sacrifice in demanding a faultless, unblemished animal, participation of a priest, sprinkling of blood, a locus within sight of the sanctuary, and in its aim to maintain the purity of the temple, which supports the sectarian approach.
Birenboim and Werman argue that the dispute was rooted in a broader, more fundamental disagreement concerning religious life at large. As implied above, many scholars posit that the Judean desert community shared the same legal system with the Sadducees, who were a priestly oligarchy, and that this shared legal background was “a conservative, elitist priestly conception, advocating a severe separation between priests and people.” In contrast, the rabbinic system was heir to a more inclusive, popular Second Temple faction.
Although the connection between Sadducean halakhah and that of Qumran is disputed, Qumran law indeed emphasizes the privileged priestly status and their role in religious rituals inside and outside the temple as well as in the communal life of the sect. The rabbinic system, on the other hand, commends non-priestly legal authority, placing rabbis as supervisors of, and divorcing priests from, certain rituals (e.g. m. Yoma 1:3–5; 6:3; m. Sotah 1:4).
In the case of the red heifer rite, whereas the Pharisees were motivated by “the desire for popular participation in the life of the temple,” priestly halakhah opted for priestly “mediation.” Thus, in a Qumran text known as 4Q Tohorot B, we read that (4Q277 1 II, 5–7):
[ואל יז] אׄיש א֯[ת] מ֯י הנדה על֯ ט֯מׄאי נׄ[פש] כׄיא איש כוהן טהו֯ר֯ [יזה] [על]י֯הן כיׄ[א מ]כפר הו֯א֯ עׄל֯ הטמ֯[א].
[No] man [shall sprinkle] the water for cleansing upon those impure by a c[orpse.] Only a clean priest [shall sprinkle] [upo]n them, because he i[s a]toning for the impur[e].
In contrast, the rabbis (m. Parah 12:10) taught that הַכֹּל כְּשֵׁרִין לְהַזּוֹת “all are eligible to sprinkle (the water containing the ashes of the Red Heifer),” even non-priests, and even the tevul yom.
Extending the Purity Requirements for the Red Heifer: The Rabbinic Paradox
Oddly, while the rabbis were insistent on taking the lenient stance for the purity status of the person involved in gathering and sprinkling the ashes, the whole thrust of rabbinic halakha pushes in the opposite direction, extending the purity requirements for the red heifer ritual.
First of all, the Mishnah extends the purity requirement to the one who slaughters the red heifer (m. Parah 3:9) and the one who burns it (m. Parah 3:1, 7). The sages even extended the requirement to actions not even mentioned in Scripture, requiring the person who brings a vessel from the potter in order to use it for the preparation of the water, the person who watches over or carries the water, and the person who “sanctifies” the water by mixing it with the ashes—as well as the vessel itself, to all be pure (m. Parah 5:1–4; 6:4; 7:10; 8:1,2).
4QMMT also expands the requirement for purity to all those involved in the ritual, also adding the person who slaughters the animal and the one who burns it to the list of pure people. While these extensions are logical, and even intuitive for the Qumran/Sadducee side of the argument, the rabbinic-Pharisaic stance is oxymoronic.
Moreover, Mishnah and Tosefta Parah dedicate a lengthy description to a meticulous, almost obsessive procedure designed to achieve the utmost purity of the priest designated to burn the red heifer (m. Parah 3:1–6; t. Parah 3:1–5):
- Seven days before the ritual, he is separated from his home and family and isolated in a chamber near the temple.
- During this period, he uses only stone vessels which are not susceptible to impurity and all the ashes of previous red cows are sprinkled on him.
- Young boys, brought up from birth in halakhically “sterile” confined surroundings, are responsible for readying the water to be sprinkled on the priest about to prepare the new red cow.
- A special causeway is built from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, “arches upon arches,” so as to prevent the procession of “all those that assist the cow” from defilement while marching from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives.
In light of the exceptional procedure outlined in the Mishnah, the deliberate act of defiling the priest at the very end of the process, and then keeping him in a state of partial purity through the ritual itself is astounding. How do we explain halakhah’s oxymoronic thrust, to allow (non-priestly) tevul yoms to perform the sprinkling and gathering, but at the same time, extending the purity requirements to so many aspects of the process not mentioned in the Bible?
Phases in the Development of Religious Legislation
It appears that the two opposing tendencies within rabbinic halakhah represent two distinct phases in the development of the red cow legislation. The earlier layer, previously shared by all Jewish circles and evident in the DSS, including 4QMMT, considered the ḥattat cow and its rites to represent the highest level of purity, requiring scrupulous care. The opposite ruling, which reduced the purity requirements for the red cow below the level for sacrifices and terumah, was a later Pharisaic move, resulting from an intersectarian struggle regarding the status of liminal rituals.
Having developed this new outlook, the Pharisees pushed against the priestly view of the rite in harsh and polemical fashion, at least as characterized in rabbinic literature. At the same time, the other related laws remained as they were, in line with the older priestly understanding of the rite.
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Prof. Vered Noam is Professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University. She holds a Ph.D. in Talmud from the Hebrew University, and in 2020, she became the first woman to ever win the Israel Prize for Talmudic Studies. Noam is the author of Megillat Ta’anit (YBZ 2003, Hebrew), From Qumran to the Rabbinic Revolution (YBZ 2010, Hebrew), Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans (Oxford, 2018), and (with Tal Ilan) of Josephus and the Rabbis (YBZ 2017, Hebrew).
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