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Parashat Hukkat

June 28, 2012

The Heifer’s Mysteries: Death and Purification

 The law of the red heifer (Numbers, Chapter 19) is offered in the Jewish tradition as the paradigm of a hok, an arbitrary law whose reasons are known only to God, but surpass human understanding. A red heifer is slaughtered and burned to ashes, then its ashes are combined with pure water to be used in the purification ceremony of people unclean by reason of contact with the dead. The final purification ceremony would take place only after a seven day waiting period following contact with the dead. What could possibly be the rationale of such a ritual?

The 1st-century Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, after delivering to a gentile an explanation by analogy with exorcism of a demon, was challenged by his students: “You deflected him with a reed! What would you say to us?” He replied: “The dead body does not defile, nor do the waters purify, but God said, I have laid down a decree, and it is not your business to challenge it.” (Midrash Pesikta de-Rav Kahana §4, 40b).

Similarly: “All this I tested with wisdom, I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me” (Ecclesiastes 7:9). King Solomon purportedly sought to solve all the riddles of the Torah, but was stumped by the law of the red heifer (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati, §14:9, 61b). Apparently, if there had been a reason for the practice, it was lost by the time of the rabbis-or it did not fit their ideational scheme.

Modern Biblical scholarship, deploying the perspectives of archaeology and comparative religious anthropology, has revisited these mysteries. The late Jacob Milgrom’s interpretation of the priestly legislation stands at the forefront of these efforts. His detailed exposition of the “red heifer” law in the JPS Torah Commentary on Numbers complements his exposition of the Levitical laws of impurity in his commentaries on Leviticus (Anchor Bible and Fortress Press Continental Commentaries). Though I have learned from his approach, my interpretations here are my own (and also draw on Clifford Geertz’s theory of religious ritual).

The ultimate mysteries (to which, no doubt, the author of Ecclesiastes was really referring) are life and death. Not surprisingly, birth and death (and sex, which connects them) are the moments of human existence most heavily laden with rituals, including the rituals of impurity and purification. The “impurity” that the ancient Israelite experienced was associated with anxiety and dread inspired by recognition of one’s mortal, fragile flesh-and-blood nature. The seven-day “purification” period provided an opportunity to retreat from worldly concerns and come face-to-face with one’s fears, then emerge “purified” and achieve re-entry into the world, reassured that the order of the regular life-pattern supervenes over the chaos of disease and death. Similarly, the whole panoply of purification rituals establishes a behavioral framework of order to deal with the complexities and mysteries of uncertain human existence.

Today’s Jewish rituals surrounding death echo ancient practice. The kohen, who is commanded to remain pure, is debarred from the cemetery. Those who return from the cemetery wash their hands before re-entering their homes. As the ancient Israelite underwent purification for contact with the dead for seven days, so the modern Jew observes shiva, the seven-day period of retreat and withdrawal from life’s business, to achieve healing and restoration.

In his scholarly work, Jacob Milgrom tried to show how in Biblical purity law, the notion of “impurity” evolved away from the pagan notion of demonic possession to the ethical notion of human sin. This ethical transformation is also expressed in an interpretation that my favorite 16th-century commentator, Ephraim Luntshitz, wove together from several midrashim: Originally, he said, death incurred no impurity. But because of the sin of our ancestors in Eden, mankind was visited with the “pollution of the serpent.” When Israel stood at Sinai, they were cleansed of this pollution. When they worshipped the Golden Calf, the ancient pollution returned. But the “red heifer” is the symbolic “mother” of the Golden Calf, and she atones for the sin of her wayward son. For ordinary Israelites, the ashes of the heifer achieve purification. But for the Torah scholar, Torah itself is still the most potent purifying agent. This is alluded to by the verse in our portion: Ve-zot ha-Torah, adam ki yamut ba-ohel (Numbers 19:14). Our standard translation reads: “This is the ritual: when a person dies in a tent [whoever enters the tent and whoever is in the tent shall be unclean seven days…].” But a midrashic reading yields: “This is the [nature of] Torah: when a person mortifies himself through studying day and night in the ‘tent’ of Torah.” Thus the devotion to Torah is as efficacious in its purifying power as all the cultic rituals. (Ephraim Luntshitz, Siftei Da’at § 254 on Parashat Hukkat, translated in Leonard Levin, Seeing With Both Eyes, pp. 425-428).

We engage in the study of “Torah”-a tradition of sacred learning that has been developing for millennia, since close to the dawn of recorded history. If some of its provisions seem mysterious and difficult to fathom, it is because we as a species and a people have developed so much over the ages. Yet on deeper examination we can appreciate how human needs have remained remarkably continuous over time, and how the ways we cope with life and death are a direct outgrowth of the practices recorded from the beginnings of our tradition.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Seeing With Both Eyes: Ephraim Luntshitz and the Polish-Jewish Renaissance (Brill, 2008).