The Rites of the Red Heifer
The Many Inversions in the Red Heifer Law
Parashat Chukat is well known for its famous inversions. The Torah commands that a Red Heifer that has never been yoked be taken from the sanctified camp of Israel, slaughtered, and completely burned. After the slaughtering but before the burning, the priest overseeing the rite sprinkles some of the heifer’s blood toward the Tent of Meeting (אהל מועד) seven times. As the burning takes place, the priest throws cedar, hyssop, and red-dyed wool into the flames. The ashes of the heifer are collected and placed in a ritually pure area outside of the sanctuary to be mixed with water and used for the removal of corpse-impurity from persons and objects.
Those who produce the Red Heifer’s ashes become impure until the evening though the ashes they produce function as “cleansers” of ritual impurity. Only one functionary in the rite remains pure: the person who slaughters the heifer in the priest’s presence (Num 19:3), most likely because the production of the purifying agent, the ashes, has not begun.
The inversions continue. Those who become impure with corpse-impurity must be sprinkled with the water and ashes of the heifer on the third and seventh days of their impurity in order to become pure again. This is accomplished by sprinkling the ash and water mixture with a sprig of hyssop. Once this rite has been completed the impure party becomes pure once the evening of the seventh day arrives (Num 19:19). However, the person who sprinkles the cleansing water that purifies the one who is corpse-impure becomes impure himself until the evening.
Making Sense of the Ritual
It has been said that Solomon, the wisest of men, could find a rationale for all the commandments but not for the rites of the Red Heifer (Midrash Rabbah, ed. Vilna, Hukkat, 19:3). We may not be able to do much better than Solomon regarding understanding some of the rites of the Red Heifer, though several aspects of this rite are made clearer by looking at the symbolism of the materials used in the ritual, especially in comparison to ritual surrounding the cleansing of the leper (Lev. 13).
The Color Red
Let us consider the color of the heifer itself, which is reminiscent of blood. It and all its parts are burned, but the priest adds cedar, a red-colored piece of wool and hyssop to the flames. Again the color red plays a prominent part in these ingredients. The cedar wood and wool are red, again suggestive of blood. Elsewhere, the Tanach is clear about blood and its relationship to life: “The life force in the flesh is blood” (Lev 17:11). Thus, the ashes of the Red Heifer might be viewed as removing corpse-impurity by counteracting it with blood, which contains the life force.
For this reason, the Red Heifer is called a chattat (Num 19:9), which modern scholars have observed does not mean a “sin-offering,” but a “purification offering” from the piel of the verb ח-ט-א, “to cleanse” (Num 19:19-20). Water as a cleanser is, of course, easily understood, but it is also an absolute requirement for sustaining life. Hence, its presence in the purification of corpse-impurity is doubly meaningful.
Regarding hyssop, Jacob Milgrom, one of the twentieth century’s great Bible scholars, in his Leviticus Commentary (v. 1, p. 272) acknowledges the Tosefta’s view that it was added for utilitarian reasons, to provide a larger amount of ash (Tosefta Parah 4:10). This falls short of a sufficient explanation for the use of hyssop as an ingredient in the production of the Red Heifer’s ashes. All the same elements, water, blood, cedar wood, red dyed wool, and hyssop are used in the purification rites of the leper (Lev 14:5-6), though none of these items are burned to provide ashes. Hyssop rather than being a producer of a great amount of ash is itself a symbol of life.
Hyssop grows in the most inhospitable conditions for vegetation, and frequently grows from natural rock outcroppings. It is likely that the biblical hyssop , a plant called ezov in Hebrew, was viewed as a powerful symbol of life because of its ability to thrive where little else could. In addition, from antiquity on this plant has been known as an aid to breathing, circulation, and an antiseptic: in short, a preserver of life. Thus, various different symbols of life help remove both corpse-impurity or leprosy-impurity (the latter is also viewed as a form of death as indicated by Num 12:12 regarding Miriam’s leprosy and Bavli, Nedarim 64b).
A Remaining Mystery
Solomon, however, was right to be stumped about the rationale for and logic of the transference of impurity from what is the agent of purification, namely the solution of water and the ashes of the Red Heifer, to the one who sprinkles it. Although it is reasonable to suggest that during the purification rites themselves the person who purifies draws corpse-impurity away from the impure person to himself. But then why does it draw impurity to the person who burns the Heifer’s carcass and collects the ashes? At those points, the ashes are not serving any purifying purposes whatsoever. What impurity are they drawing to themselves while they rest in a pure place outside the camp waiting to be used?
Thus, some aspects of this law, at least for now, remain a mystery. Perhaps some day in the future, with God’s help, we will know more about purification rites as they were practiced in ancient Israel and among Israel’s Near Eastern neighbors. Then the mitzvah even Solomon could not understand may become fully understandable to us.
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June 22, 2014
September 9, 2020
Prof. Rabbi Michael Chernick holds the Deutsch Family Chair in Jewish Jurisprudence and Social Justice at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate in Rabbinics from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and his semicha from R. Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Chernick’s area of expertise is the Talmud. He focuses on early rabbinic legal interpretation of the Bible and is the author of A Great Voice That Did Not Cease.
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