Parashat Shemini-Shabbat Parah

This Shabbat, Shabbat Parah, is the third of the special Shabbatot that are observed from before Purim, beginning with Shabbat Shekalim, and continuing through the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Nisan, Shabbat ha-Hodesh. This week’s special maftir Torah reading is about the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. This section of the Torah is read because the use of the Red Heifer’s ashes was a necessary step in the process of purification before the offering of the Korban Pesah, the Paschal offering. The meaning of the Red Heifer has challenged commentators and interpreters since late antiquity. The following midrash addresses the meaning of the Red Heifer, contrasting the explanation that was given by a rabbi sage from the first century CE to a Gentile with the explanation that he gave to his students. Raising the question of whether we should tailor our teachings and opinions to different audiences.

A gentile asked Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, saying to him, “These rites that you carry out look like witchcraft. You bring a cow and slaughter it, burn it, crush the remains, take the dust, and if one of you contracts corpse uncleanness, you sprinkle on him two or three times and say to him, ‘You are clean.'” He said to him, “Has a wandering spirit never entered you?” He said to him, “No.” He said to him, “And have you ever seen someone into whom a wandering spirit entered?” He said to him, “Yes.” He said to him, “And what did you do?” He said to him, “People bring roots and smoke them under him and sprinkle water on the spirit and it flees.” He said to him, “And should your ears not hear what your mouth speaks? So this spirit is the spirit of uncleanness, as it is written, I will cause prophets as well as the spirit of uncleanness to flee from the land (Zechariah 13:2).” After the man had gone his way, his disciples said to him, “My lord, this one you have pushed off with a mere reed. To us what will you reply?” He said to them, “By your lives! It is not the corpse that imparts uncleanness nor the water that effects cleanness. But it is a decree of the Holy One, blessed be He. “Said the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘A statute have I enacted, a decree have I made, and you are not at liberty to transgress my decree: This is the statute of the Torah (Numbers 19:1).'” [Pesiqta deRab Kahana: An Analytical Translation, trans Jacob Neusner (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 65]


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.