The Red Heifer

Numbers 19:1-22

The Torah describes the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, a rite which purifies those who have come in contact, directly or indirectly, with the dead. A completely red calf which has never been used for work must be taken outside the camp, slaughtered and burned. A sprig of hyssop, cedar wood, and a strand of scarlet are added to the fire. The ashes are gathered by a pure individual and kept for the purpose of purification. The priests involved in the preparation and collection of the ashes become contaminated until the evening and must immerse themselves in water to be purified.


Those who come in contact with the dead must undergo a sprinkling of water mixed with ashes from the red heifer on the third and seventh days of their impurity. If they do not, they will be cut off from the nation. The priest who does the sprinkling becomes temporarily contaminated as above.


The Israel Bible discusses one of the many unusual details about the red heifer — the fact that the ritual takes place outside the camp, as far from the Tabernacle as possible. At the time of death, the soul, which is a spark of Godliness, departs the body, leaving it Godless. One who comes in contact with the absence of God cannot bring that into the Tabernacle, the place where God’s presence on Earth is concentrated. Only once he is purified can he again encounter God’s presence.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

What do you think we can learn from the fact that the priests who prepare the red heifer, a rite of purification, become impure themselves in the process?


Comments ( 12 )

The comments below do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of The Israel Bibleā„¢.

  • The command of the red heifer belongs to the chuqim, the commands that come straight from HaShem's heart. For us most is unclear but yet they demand an obeying . the kohen who performed this rite became unclean himself, but had the great joy of cooperating on the purification of others by the purification water. The story is situated in the same Parsha where Moshe & Aharon had to hear their punishment after having lead a lifetime their people through the desert. Even e leader makes mistakes sometimes but HaShem will be merciful to them. Moshe got "the water from the rock" and Aharon remained Kohen Gadol his lifetime. So: prepare to fall and to be cleansed.

  • therefore, the priest in becoming unclean shows that as night progresses to day (darkness to light) so is mankind's journey from the darkness of separation from Heavenly Father to the light of Heavenly Father's love as given in Torah

  • simply the reason is the priest in the instance of the red heifer is symbolically taking on the unclean, as Job said, how can that what is unclean become clean – Job 14:4

  • Diana Brown

    In my elementary understanding of Commands, there are three general categories…Eidot….commands to help you remember and give honor to the Lord, like Shabbat and the Feasts, Mishpatim…relational commands, the Ten Utterances/Words/Commands and Chukkim…commands you fulfill because the Lord God asked you to.
    Since the Red Heiffer is in the last category of commands, I suppose that Bnei Israel knew the redemptive commands were Mishpatim so if they perform Chukkat which also include Kashrut and Family Purity Laws, they were drawing nearer to the Lord and becoming defiled to lift up others so they could draw near. Love is obedience and sacrifice in the eyes of a Holy God I believe. Would that be correct?

    • I truly believe you are correct. This was not only a sacrifice but also a humbling experience for the Priest.

  • Alexander

    For the sake of the continued purification of the people the priests make sure of their own purity at all times.

  • Jesse

    The priest who prepares this sacrifice is aware that he will be made unclean for a short duration. But he knows that this is a small thing compared to the thousands of others who will be made clean because of the ashes of the red heifer mixed with water. So the priest is willing to separate himself from God and his dwelling place temporarily in order to bring others close to God and his dwelling place. This is the heart of sacrifice.

    • Diana Brown

      I agree. To be a light unto the Nations is a marvelous call and a heavy burden.

      • Diana Brown

        This portion of the red heifer always stumped Solomon who was very wise. I don’t think this stumped Samuel, Nathan or King David though.

    • Tsivya Fox

      Well said. In the name of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, “Sometimes you have to get down into the muck to lift someone up.”

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