The Red Heifer in Synagogue: Purifying Israel from Sin
The Special Readings for Shabbat Parah
The Shabbat three weeks before Passover is known as Shabbat Parah. It derives its name from a special liturgical feature: the additional Torah reading (maftir) drawn from the purity rite of the red heifer (Numbers 19). This practice goes back to the Tannaitic period (late 2nd century C.E.) and is referenced in the Mishnah (m. Megillah 3:4):
בשניה זכור בשלישית פרה אדומה ברביעית החדש הזה לכם בחמישית חוזרין לכסדרן.
On the second Sabbath [after the start of Adar they read] “Remember” (Deut. 25:17). On the third [they read] the red heifer. On the fourth [they read] “This month shall be for you” (Exod. 12:1). On the fifth they return to their [usual] order.
The choice of the reading is based on the fact that all Israelites were required to partake in the pesach (Passover) sacrifice, and to do so required that the person be ritually pure. Even though sacrifices were no longer brought in rabbinic times, the reading is a remnant of the paschal sacrifice, and a nostalgic wish for its return. In addition, the theme of cleansing makes it a natural fit in the weeks of pre-Passover cleaning.
This special maftir is paired with a prophetic reading (haftarah) from Ezekiel’s depiction of the restoration of Israel from the Exile (Ezekiel 36). The prophet opens with YHWH recounting that because Israel’s sins defiled their land, He exiled them––only to realize that this had sullied His reputation in the eyes of the nations. Therefore, He resolves to restore them for His own sake, purifying them of their defilement and spiritually reinvigorating the covenant. The haftarah closes with a vision of the glorious renewal of Israel, both the people and the land.
The Red Heifer Ritual
The Torah presents the ritual of the perfectly red heifer as an antidote to the impurity contracted from contact with a corpse—the most serious type of impurity in ancient Israel. The cow is slaughtered and immolated, and although the process renders the officiants themselves impure (Num. 19:3-8), its ashes are used to create a cleansing agent:
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 clean 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 second half of the chapter details the use of this “waters of lustration” (מי נדה) in a variety of scenarios involving contact with a dead body.
A Priestly Ritual
Although it does not take place at the altar, the rite of the red heifer is suffused with Priestly language and conceptions. The special role of the priest as officiant is emphasized right from the beginning. He is charged with a set of complex rules involving the slaughter of an animal, which is typical of ritual throughout the Priestly Source.
The fundamental focus of the ritual is removing impurity and restoring purity, a major concern of the Priestly legislation. The root טהר (“pure”) occurs five times in this chapter, its counterpart טמא (“impure”) a striking eighteen. Tellingly, there is no obvious moral valence to these categories; a person becomes impure through contact with a corpse, not through sin.Impurity is mysterious, but it is not metaphorical. It is a fact of the Priestly world.
The ritual function of blood, which is emphasized repeatedly, is also a central Priestly motif. Commentators, including both Jacob Milgrom and Baruch A. Levine, have suggested that the theme of blood stands behind the call for a specifically red heifer. The cow’s redness serves as a visual representation of the blood, symbolically increasing the amount of blood that goes into the cleansing agent.
Prophets versus Priests?
If the red heifer seems at home in the religion of the priests, then it might initially seem impossibly remote from the religion of the prophets, whose attitude toward ritual is encapsulated in the inaugural vision of Isaiah.
ישעיה א:יג לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה.
Isa. 1:13 Stop bringing vain offerings! Incense is an abomination to Me; new moon and Sabbath, calling convocation—I cannot bear iniquity with assembly.
ישעיה א:יז לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.
Isa 1:17 Learn to do good! Seek justice! Do right by the wronged! Vindicate the orphan! Defend the widow!
Amidst social injustice, cultic worship itself becomes an abomination to God. This strong language notwithstanding, it would be overly simplistic to imagine that the prophets were diametrically opposed to the priestly cult. They all recognize the cult as a fundamental, if easily corruptible, component of Israel’s relationship with God.
Ezekiel: A Priestly Prophet
Biblical scholars have long recognized that Ezekiel has a close relationship with the main Priestly source, P, and especially with the Holiness Collection, H. He is, after all, a priest himself:
יחזקאל א:ג הָיֹה הָיָה דְבַר יְהוָה אֶל יְחֶזְקֵאל בֶּן בּוּזִי הַכֹּהֵן…
Ezek. 1:3 The word of YHWH came to Ezekiel son of Buzi the priest…
Ezekiel devotes far more time to transgressions in the priestly realms of cult and ritual than do the other Israelite prophets. As Tova Ganzel notes, “The theme of the book [of Ezekiel] is holiness: of the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Temple, the Sabbath, and the divine name.” Yet this does not mean that moral concerns are absent in Ezekiel.
Michael Fishbane, in his commentary on the haftarot, explains,
The prophet’s priestly orientation is marked by his presentation of moral sins as causing impurity to the Land. Similarly, the purification of the nation is portrayed in cultic terms…. The punishment for exile is thus presented here as recompense for ritual-moral crimes.
“The prophet is a person, not a microphone,” wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel. “He speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his own situation.”Ezekiel reaches for the theological imagery of his Priestly background as he renders his prophetic encounters into human language.
Ezekiel’s Echoes of the Red Heifer
Synagogue attendees on Shabbat Parah, having just heard the recitation of Numbers 19, can readily detect what Fishbane notes: “The vocabulary of defilement, cleansing, sprinkling, and pure water [employed by Ezekiel] are all used in connection with the rite of the red heifer.”Although it is impossible to say for certain whether Ezekiel was thinking specifically of the red heifer in this prophecy, there can be no doubt that he draws from the well of Priestly language that the red heifer embodies.
Consider the opening of the haftarah:
יחזקאל לו:טז וַיְהִי דְבַר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר. לו:יז בֶּן אָדָם בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל יֹשְׁבִים עַל אַדְמָתָם וַיְטַמְּאוּ אוֹתָהּ בְּדַרְכָּם וּבַעֲלִילוֹתָם כְּטֻמְאַת הַנִּדָּה הָיְתָה דַרְכָּם לְפָנָי. לו:יח וָאֶשְׁפֹּךְ חֲמָתִי עֲלֵיהֶם עַל הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שָׁפְכוּ עַל הָאָרֶץ וּבְגִלּוּלֵיהֶם טִמְּאוּהָ.
Ezek. 36:16 The word of YHWH came to me, saying: 36:17 O mortal, the house of Israel dwells on their land and defiles it with their ways and deeds; like the impurity of a niddah[menstruating woman] were their ways before Me. 36:18So I poured out My wrath upon them on account of the blood that they shed upon on the land, defiling it with their filth.
Numbers 19 is concerned with the ritual impurity brought about by coming in contact with a dead body. In Ezekiel 36, the Israelites have become impure because of their wicked behavior, specifically bloodshed. In other words, whereas in Numbers, natural death ritually defiles, in Ezekiel, unnatural death (i.e. murder) morally defiles.
Moreover, in Numbers 19:13, the purifying concoction is called “waters of niddah,” whereas Ezekiel 36:17 describes Israel’s impurity as “like that of a niddah.” The implication of Ezekiel’s use of priestly language here is that just as the person, physically impure from contact with the dead, must go through a cleansing ritual, so too, the Israelites, impure from their wicked behavior, must go through a cleansing ritual.
Purification and Covenantal Renewal
As the late Swiss theologian and Bible Scholar, Walther Zimmerli (1907-1983) notes in his commentary, Ezekiel’s ritual of spiritual and moral cleansing has three-stages.
Stage 1 – God Purges Israel from Sin
In the first stage, Ezekiel makes heavy use of cultic language found in Numbers 19: The key words, ideas, and actions––sprinkling, waters of purification, and impurity––all appear.
יחזקאל לו:כה וְזָרַקְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַיִם טְהוֹרִים וּטְהַרְתֶּם מִכֹּל טֻמְאוֹתֵיכֶם וּמִכָּל גִּלּוּלֵיכֶם אֲטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם.
Ezek. 36:25 I will sprinkle upon you the purifying waters, and you shall be purified; from all of your impurities and from all of your filth, I shall purify you.
In Ezekiel, however, the concern is not a technical state of ritual impurity but the broader, moral defilement of Israel’s “filth.”
Using the expression כְּמָא ד , “like,” Targum Jonathan (ad loc.) makes the connection between purification and sin explicit:
וְאֶשְׁבּוֹק לְחוֹבֵיכוֹן כְּמָא דְמִדַכָּן בְּמֵי אַדְיוּתָא וּבִקְטָם תּוֹרָתָא דְחַטָאתָא וְתִדַכּוּן מִכָל סַאֲבָתְכוֹן וּמִכָּל טַעֲוָתְכוֹן אֲדַכֵּי יַתְכוֹן:
I will forgive your sins like the purifying of the sprinkling waters and the ash of the cow of the sin offering; you will be purified from all your impurities, and from all your errors I will purify you.
In both Ezekiel and the Targum, the transformation must be effected by YHWH, who takes on the role of priest. As Moshe Greenberg emphasizes, “The external origin of the purification of the exiles, not from a turn of heart, is underlined by imagery drawn from purgation rituals.”
Stage 2 – Israel is Granted a New Heart and a New Spirit
Here, we reach the climax of spiritual renewal as the technical cultic language falls away entirely.
יחזקאל לו:כו וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת־לֵב הָאֶבֶן מִבְּשַׂרְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר: לו:כז וְאֶת־רוּחִי אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם…
Ezek. 36:26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; 36:27 I will put My spirit in you…
Having been the recipient of ritual ablutions, Israel is now, more fundamentally, the recipient of a “new heart” and a “new spirit”—terms which seem to refer to an inner transformation of Israel’s attitude to YHWH and the covenant. Importantly, the heart that they are to receive is specifically one of flesh. Even at his most spiritual, Ezekiel, still a priest, remains anchored in the concrete, bodily realm typical of the cult. There is not a trace of the later Hellenistic insistence on a diametric opposition between “spirit” and “flesh.” According to Ezekiel, they are integrated dimensions of covenantal life.
Stage 3 – Renewing the Covenant
From the heights of spiritual renewal, Ezekiel moves to a third and final stage: the renewal’s realization. Renewal is return—to covenantal obedience.
יחזקאל לו:כז …וְעָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר בְּחֻקַּי תֵּלֵכוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם. לו:כח וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לִי לְעָם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים.
Ezek. 36:27 …And I will make it such that you walk according to My statutes, and that you keep My laws, observing them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your ancestors; you shall be My people and I will be your God.
The technical language of cult that echoes the red heifer has given way to a broader notion of covenant, but one that still demands concrete obedience to particular “statutes” and “laws.” The language is reminiscent of the Holiness Collection (Leviticus 17-26), as well as Deuteronomy and Jeremiah. The culmination is a stirring instantiation of the classic covenant formulary: “You shall be My people and I will be your God.” The defiled have been purified. Israel is a consecrated people once again.
Creating Liturgical Intertextuality
The red heifer pericope is deeply reflective of priestly theology and ritual. Paired liturgically with Ezekiel, it accents the way the prophet, himself of priestly pedigree, mobilizes the language of ritual purity and impurity in his prophecy. Whereas Numbers 19 provides for the ritual purification of individual Israelites in order that they may dwell in the camp, Ezekiel imagines the spiritual and moral purification of the entire people of Israel in order that they may dwell in the land.
His prophetic reinterpretation of priestly ritual was evidently valued by the ancient rabbis, who were attempting to continue a religion based in a cult that no longer existed. Detecting the thematic and lexical affinities between these two texts, they brought them together in the liturgy, thereby bringing the priestly imagery and rituals that fuel Ezekiel’s prophecy into the life of the synagogue. Ezekiel confronts the Jewish worshipper as both prophet and priest—identities that, for him, are inextricable. Three weeks before Passover, he offers a powerful message of spiritual purification and the promise of a covenant renewed.
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March 16, 2017
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Dr. Ethan Schwartz holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University. He received his B.A. in philosophy and Jewish studies from the University of Chicago and his M.A. in Hebrew Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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