By Sanford Olshansky

Many traditional Jews believe that the entire Torah was revealed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Accordingly, they have no problem with the existence of mitzvot (commandments) that appear to have no practical purpose. In fact, they delight in performing such commandments. For example, Yeshayahu Leibowitz has written, in an article in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, that

Every reason given for the mitzvot that bases itself on human needs . . . voids the mitzvot of all religious meaning. For if the mitzvot . . . are meant to benefit society, or . . . to maintain the Jewish people, then he who performs them serves not God but himself, his society or his people.1

Many liberal Jews prefer to believe that there is a practical benefit in some of the Torah’s mitzvot, especially if this practical benefit is something that the ancient Israelites could not have known by themselves. The existence of a practical benefit helps us to respond to others who believe that there was never any revelation whatsoever; no contact at all between God and our ancient ancestors.

I would like to focus on this week’s supplementary reading, from the book of Numbers, which deals with the law of ritual impurity arising from contact with the dead.

God tells Moses and Aaron to find a perfect, red cow and turn it over to the deputy high priest. The Israelites are to slaughter the cow, burn its body and gather the ashes. The text describes how to ‘do sin expiation’ (Num 19:12) for a person who has become impure through contact with a corpse. This involves splashing the ‘impure’ person with ‘waters of purification’ made with the ashes.

Some commentators have focused on the paradox that while the ashes of the red cow made impure people pure, they also made pure people impure. By focusing on this, I believe that they miss the import of the following verses:

This is the instruction: When a person dies in a tent, anyone who comes into the tent and everything that is in the tent will be impure [for] seven days. And any open container, on which there is not a fastened cover, it is impure. (Num 19:14, 15)

Everything in the tent becomes impure, whether the deceased touched it or not, whether or not it was near the corpse. The only exception is a covered container together with its contents, which Rashi says would not be considered impure as a result of the person’s death. The text suggests that the impurity associated with the dead person is somehow transmitted through the air, as are germs. This raises the question of whether there may be a connection between ritual impurity and germs. Could this ‘law’ be a set of mitzvot intended to prevent disease?

Rashi notes the separate case ‘that in an open field, where there is no tent, a corpse contaminates through contact’, as stated in Num 19:16:

And anyone who, in an open field will touch a corpse slain by the sword or a human bone or a grave will be impure seven days.

This suggests additional knowledge of communicable disease, as does the full description of the purification ritual prescribed for both kinds of contamination:

And the one who is pure shall sprinkle it [the water of purification] on the impure on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall cleanse him (expiate sin) on the seventh day, and he shall wash his clothes and wash in water and be pure in the evening. (Num 19:19)

Rashi’s understanding is that ‘he shall cleanse him’ refers to the person who was first contaminated by contact with the dead and not to the person who did the sprinkling. Rashi wrote ‘This consummates his cleansing.’

What if the Almighty wanted to improve the survival chances of the ancient Israelites, within the context of the world in which they lived? Over 3,000 years would pass before Pasteur and others educated humanity about disease-bearing germs and how to deal with them. But what if public health measures could be clothed in ritual? Performance of the ritual would be enforced by punishing those who failed to do it with being ‘cut off from Israel/the community’ (Num 19:13, 20), one of the strongest punishments in the Torah.

I believe that there is more here than a superficial process to maintain the ritual purity of the desert sanctuary, and eventually the Temple. Rabbi Reuven Hammer says that however we understand the concept of revelation ‘Judaism continues to affirm that within the Bible the voice of God can be heard.’2 I believe that Numbers 19 is one of the places where we can hear that voice.


Sanford Olshansky is a rabbinical student at AJR.

  1. Y. Leibowitz, in A.A. Cohen/P. Mendes-Flohr, eds. Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, p. 71 [back]
  2. R. Hammer, Entering Jewish Prayer, p. 121 [back]