The Red Heifer

Jun 21, 2015


וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר׃

Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying:

Numbers 19:1

וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־יִגַּע־בּוֹ הַטָּמֵא יִטְמָא וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ הַנֹּגַעַת תִּטְמָא עַד־הָעָרֶב׃

Whatever that unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches him shall be unclean until evening.

Numbers 19:22

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.


Red cows grazing in Northern Israel (Shutterstock)


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?


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