Iyunim - Weekly insights on the Parasha with commentaries by Nehama Leibovitz, za"l

Mystery of the red Heifer


The chapter on the Red Heifer with which our Sidra begins is one of the most mystifying in the Torah. Our Sages observed that it was one of the matters which even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom:

“This is the statute of the Torah”. fR. Isaac opened with the text: “All this I have tried (to fathom) by wisdom; I said, I will get wisdom; but it was far from me” (Ecclesiastes 7, 23). Thus spoke Solomon: I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but, as soon as I reach this chapter about the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned, “I said I will get wisdom, but it was far from me” . (Yalkut Shimoni 759)

We shall similarly not pretend to fathom it completely but shall present some of the observations of our commentators and Sages thereon.

R. Joseph Bechor Shor (one of the Tosaphists) adopts a completely rational approach:

The rites pertaining to the Red Heifer were designed to discourage association with the dead, prompted by the bereaved’slove for the departed, and excessive grief. Alternatively, that people should not make a practice of consulting the dead or familiar spirits, the text pronounced the defilement of the dead person as more contaminating that all other defilements, making it the prime source of uncleanliness, defiling both man and vessels and defiling as well through overhanging (ohel ).

Also on account of human respect, that people should not come to using human skin for coverings and human bones for articles of use just as we use the skin of animals; it is disrespectful of humanity. Our Sages made a similar point (Hullin 122a): “Why has the skin of a corpse been declared unclean? That a person should not use his parent’s skin for coverings”.The greater the love, the greater the defilement. The text likewise went to the strictes lengths in its requirements, demanding the ashes of a red heifer which are an expensive item.

The foregoing exposition would seem to be an oversimplification, not in keeping with the mysterious irrational characterof the whole chapter and certainly does not afford an explanation of the strange details of the rite.

Others have adopted an allegorical, homiletic approach. Here is an extract from Sforno’s elaborate explanation:

The crux of the mystery is its property of contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated. Perhaps we may catch a little of its significance in our attempt to understand the observance . . . one of the fundamental requirements is that the heifer had to be completely red. The prophet has explained that sin is described as red; cf.: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Isaiah 1,18).

We should bear in mind that the Torah recommends the golden mean- all extremes are undesirable . . . there is no better way of rectifying misdoing (the crooked) regaining the middle way than by veering to the other extreme. The cedar symbolises pride, the hyssop, the opposite. The scarlet thread between symbolises that both are sinful. It has been said that Saul was punished for not caring about his own dignity (erring on the side of humility).

Thus though this precept is a statute which has not to be questioned, possessing without doubt a sublime meaning known to the King who commanded it, it contains an allusion to the way of repentance to be followed by every sinner - that he should tend to the other extreme in order to regain the middle path and be purified. But while this corrective measure is beneficial and purifying for the sinner, it is wrong and defiling for every pure heart.

But the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai adopts an entirely different approach, far removed from the allegorical. His words are highly instructive for us today.

A certain heathen asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai: The rites you perform in connection with the Red Heifer smell of witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, grind it and take its ashes. You sprinkle two or three drops on one of you who is contaminated with corpse defilement and say to him, You are clean. Said R. Yohanan b. Zakkai to him: Have you never been possessed by a demon? He answered: No. - Have you never seen a man possessed by a demon? He answered: Yes. - And what do you do for him? - We bring herbs and make them smoke beneath him, and throw water on him and the demon is exorcised. He answered: Let your ears hear what your mouth has spoken. The spirit of defilement is the same as your demon. We sprinkle on it the waters of purification and it is exorcised.

After the heathen had left, R. Yohanan’s disciples said to him: Him you have put off with a straw, but what answer will you give us? He replied to them. By your life, neither does the dead defile nor the water purify, but the Holy One blessed be He said: It is a statute I have laid down, a decree that I have decreed and you are not authorised to violate my decree.

The heathen required a rational explanation, appealing to his common sense. The Torah’s defilement is a kind of disease or evil spirit. The red heifer’s ashes are no more than a kind of cure for the disease, a demon-repellent. But he could tell his disciples, students of the Torah and who accepted its yoke, the truth. Uncleanliness is not an integral part of nature, neither in the corpse nor in the one who comes in contact with it. It is not a demon or pest originating in the corpse itself. The ashes of the heifer and the waters of the sin- offering have no intrinsic purificatory properties. It is a Divine commandment. That alone determines the defilement of the cropse and the purificatory properties of the ashes. It is the commandments that refine the human soul.

Let us not be among those who seek for rational explanation for those things, to which the laws of reason do not apply. May we be like the disciples of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who accept the yoke of the statutes (hukkim ), just as they do the yoke of the other commandments of the Torah.




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05 Sep 2005 / 1 Elul 5765 0