Chukat - in Classical Rabbinic Interpretation - Numbers Chapter 19

Numbers Chapter 19

Tractate Parah in the Mishnah and Tosefta interpreted the laws of the red cow in Numbers 19:1–22. (Mishnah Parah 1:1–12:11; Tosefta Parah 1:1–12:19.)

Rabbi Tanhum son of Rabbi Hannilai taught that Numbers 19 was one of two sections in the Torah (along with Leviticus 21, on corpse contamination) that Moses gave the Israelites in writing that are both pure, dealing with the law of purity. Rabbi Tanhum taught that they were given on account of the tribe of Levi, of whom it is written (in Malachi 3:3), “he shall purify the sons of Levi and purge them.” (Leviticus Rabbah 26:3.)

The Mishnah and Tosefta taught that if the month of Adar began on a Sabbath, then the section on the red cow in Numbers 19:1–22 was read on the third Sabbath of the month (thus preceding Passover, so as to caution the people to purify themselves in preparation for eating the Passover sacrifice). (Mishnah Megillah 3:4; Tosefta Megillah 3:3.)

Rabbi Joshua of Siknin taught in the name of Rabbi Levi that the Evil Inclination criticizes four laws as without logical basis, and Scripture uses the expression “statute” (חֹק, chok) in connection with each: the laws of (1) a brother’s wife (in Deuteronomy 25:5–10), (2) mingled kinds (in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11), (3) the scapegoat (in Leviticus 16), and (4) the red cow (in Numbers 19). In connection with the red cow, the Mishnah noted the paradox that the garments of all those who took any part in the preparation of the red cow became defiled, but the cow itself made garments ritually clean. (Mishnah Parah 4:4.) And Numbers 19:1 applies the term “statute” to the red cow. (Numbers Rabbah 19:5; see also Babylonian Talmud Yoma 67b on “statutes” generally.)

A Midrash taught that an idolater once asked Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai about the red cow, likening its procedures to witchcraft. Rabban Johanan asked the idolater what he had seen done for a man possessed by a demon of madness. The idolater explained how in such a case, they would bring roots, make them smoke under the madman, sprinkle water on the man, and the demon would flee. Rabban Johanan told him that the red cow dealt similarly with the spirit of uncleanness, as Zechariah 13:2 says: “And also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.” Rabban Johanan told him that when they sprinkled the water of purification on the unclean, the spirit of uncleanness fled. But when the idolater had gone, Rabban Johanan’s disciples told Rabban Johanan that they saw that he had put off the idolater with a mere makeshift, and asked him what explanation Rabban Johanan would give them. Rabban Johanan told his disciples that the dead did not defile nor the water purify; God had merely laid down a statute, issued a decree, and commanded that we not transgress the decree, as Numbers 19:2 says: “This is the statute of the law.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:8.)

Expounding upon the commandment of the red cow in Numbers 19:2, Rabbi Jose ben Hanina taught that God told Moses the reason for the commandment, but to everyone else it would remain merely a statute. (Numbers Rabbah 19:6.)

All other communal sacrifices were of male animals, but the red cow was of a female animal. Rabbi Aibu explained the difference with a parable: When a handmaiden’s boy polluted a king’s palace, the king called on the boy’s mother to clear away the filth. In the same way, God called on the red cow to come and atone for the incident of the golden calf. (Numbers Rabbah 19:8.)

Rabbi Eliezer ruled that the calf (עֶגְלָה, eglah) prescribed in Deuteronomy 21:3–6 had to be no more than one year old and the red cow (פָרָה, parah) prescribed in Numbers 19:2 had to be two years old. But the Sages ruled that the calf could be even two years old and the red cow could be three or four years old. Rabbi Meir ruled that the red cow could be even five years old, but they did not wait with an older cow, as it might in the meantime grow some black hairs and thus become invalid. (Mishnah Parah 1:1.)

Rabbi Eliezer ruled that a red cow that was pregnant was nonetheless valid, but the Sages ruled it invalid. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that the red cow could not be purchased from Gentiles, but the Sages ruled that such cow could be valid. (Mishnah Parah 2:1.) If the horns or the hoofs of the red cow were black, they were chopped off, and the red cow was then valid. The cow’s eye, teeth, and tongue could cause no invalidity. And a dwarf-like cow was nonetheless valid. If the red cow had a sebaceous cyst and they cut it off, Rabbi Judah ruled the cow invalid, but Rabbi Simeon ruled it invalid only if no red hair grew in its place. (Mishnah Parah 2:2.)

A red cow born by a caesarean section, the hire of a harlot, or the price of a dog was invalid. Rabbi Eliezer ruled it valid, for Deuteronomy 23:19 states, “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the price of a dog into the house of the Lord your God,” and the red cow was not brought into the Temple. The Mishnah taught that all blemishes that caused consecrated animals to be invalid as sacrifices also caused the red cow to be invalid. If one had ridden on the cow, leaned on it, hung on its tail, crossed a river with its help, doubled up its leading rope, or put one’s cloak on it, the cow was invalid. But if one had only fastened it by its leading rope or made for it a sandal to prevent it from slipping, or spread one’s cloak on it because of flies, it remained valid. The general rule was that wherever one did something for its own sake, the cow remained valid; but if one did something for the sake of another purpose, it invalidated the cow. (Mishnah Parah 2:3.) If a bird rested on the cow, it remained valid. If a bull mounted it, it became invalid; but Rabbi Judah ruled that if people brought the bull to mate with the cow, the cow became invalid, but if the bull did so on its own, the cow remained valid. (Mishnah Parah 2:4.)

If a cow had two black or white hairs growing within one follicle, it was invalid. Rabbi Judah said even within one hollow. If the hairs grew within two adjacent follicles, the cow was invalid. Rabbi Akiba ruled that even if there were four or even five non-red hairs, if they were dispersed, they could be plucked out. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that even as many as 50 such hairs could be plucked. But Rabbi Joshua ben Bathyra ruled that even if it had only one non-red hair on its head and one on its tail, it was invalid. If the cow had two hairs in one follicle with their roots black and their tips red or with their roots red and their tips black, Rabbi Meir taught that what was visible determined validity; but the Sages ruled that validity followed the root. (Mishnah Parah 2:5.)

Rav Judah reported in Samuel’s name an account of the rarity of completely red cows: When they asked Rabbi Eliezer how far the honor due parents extended, Rabbi Eliezer told of a non-Jew from Ashkelon named Dama son of Nethinah. The Sages offered Dama a profit of 600,000 gold denarii (or Rav Kahana said 800,000 denarii) in exchange for jewels that he had that the Sages could use in the ephod, but as the key to the jewels lay under Dama’s father’s pillow, Dama declined the offer so as not to trouble his father. The next year, God rewarded Dama by causing a red cow to be born in his herd. When the Sages went to buy it, Dama told them that he knew that he could ask for all the money in the world and they would pay it, but he asked for only the money that he had lost in honoring his father. (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31a.)

Rabbi Eliezer noted that both Leviticus 16:27 (with regard to burning the Yom Kippur sin offerings) and Numbers 19:3 (with regard to slaughtering the red cow) say “outside the camp.” Rabbi Eliezer concluded that both actions had to be conducted outside the three camps of the Israelites, and in the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, both actions had to be conducted to the east of Jerusalem. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 68a.)

Rabbi Isaac contrasted the red cow in Numbers 19:3–4 and the bull that the High Priest brought for himself on Yom Kippur in Leviticus 16:3–6. Rabbi Isaac taught that a lay Israelite could slaughter one of the two, but not the other, but Rabbi Isaac did not know which was which. The Gemara reported that Rav and Samuel disagreed about the answer. Rav held it invalid for a lay Israelite to slaughter the red cow and valid for a lay Israelite to slaughter the High Priest’s bull, while Samuel held it invalid for a lay Israelite to slaughter the High Priest’s bull and valid for a lay Israelite to slaughter the red cow. The Gemara reported that Rav Zeira (or some say Rav Zeira in the name of Rav) said that the slaughtering of the red cow by a lay Israelite was invalid, and Rav deduced from this statement the importance that Numbers 19:3 specifies “Eleazar” and Numbers 19:2 specifies that the law of the red cow is a “statute” (and thus required precise execution). But the Gemara challenged Rav’s conclusion that the use of the terms “Eleazar” and “statute” in Numbers 19:2–3 in connection with the red cow decided the matter, for in connection with the High Priest’s bull, Leviticus 16:3 specifies “Aaron,” and Leviticus 16:34 calls the law of Leviticus 16 a “statute,” as well. The Gemara supposed that the characterization of Leviticus 16:34 of the law as a “statute” might apply to only the Temple services described in Leviticus 16, and the slaughtering of the High Priest’s bull might be regarded as not a Temple service. But the Gemara asked whether the same logic might apply to the red cow, as well, as it was not a Temple service, either. The Gemara posited that one might consider the red cow to have been in the nature of an offering for Temple upkeep. Rav Shisha son of Rav Idi taught that the red cow was like the inspection of skin diseases in Leviticus 13–14, which was not a Temple service, yet required a priest's participation. The Gemara then turned to Samuel’s position, that a lay Israelite could kill the red cow. Samuel interpreted the words “and he shall slay it before him” in Numbers 19:3 to mean that a lay Israelite could slaughter the cow as Eleazar watched. The Gemara taught that Rav, on the other hand, explained the words “and he shall slay it before him” in Numbers 19:3 to enjoin Eleazar not to divert his attention from the slaughter of the red cow. The Gemara reasoned that Samuel deduced that Eleazer must not divert his attention from the words “and the heifer shall be burnt in his sight” in Numbers 19:5 (which one could similarly read to imply an injunction for Eleazar to pay close attention). And Rav explained the words “in his sight” in one place to refer to the slaughtering, and in the other to the burning, and the law enjoined his attention to both. In contrast, the Gemara posited that Eleazar might not have needed to pay close attention to the casting in of cedarwood, hyssop, and scarlet, because they were not part of the red cow itself. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 42a–b.)

Ulla interpreted the words “and he shall bring it forth” in Numbers 19:3 to teach that he could not bring forth another cow with the red cow. As the Mishnah taught (in Mishnah Parah 3:7), if the red cow refused to go forth, one could not send a black cow with the red cow, lest people say that they slaughtered a black cow, nor could two red cows be brought forth together, lest people say that they slaughtered two. Rabbi (or others say Rabbi Jose) taught that a second cow was not to be taken out because Numbers 19:3 says “and he shall bring it forth” and “it” implies by itself. The Gemara taught that the teaching of the Mishnah and Rabbi differed in the case of whether one could bring forth a donkey with the red cow. (According to the Mishnah, that would be permitted, because the presence of the donkey would not mislead people that they were sacrificing the donkey, but according to Rabbi, it would be forbidden, for “it” excludes permission for any other animal to be brought forth together with the red cow.) (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 42b.)

Ulla interpreted the words “And he shall slay it” in Numbers 19:3 to teach that one could not slaughter any other one with it. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 43a.)

A Midrash noted that God commanded the Israelites to perform certain precepts with similar material from trees: God commanded that the Israelites throw cedar wood and hyssop into the red cow mixture of Numbers 19:6 and use hyssop to sprinkle the resulting waters of lustration in Numbers 19:18; God commanded that the Israelites use cedar wood and hyssop to purify those stricken with skin disease in Leviticus 14:4–6; and in Egypt God commanded the Israelites to use the bunch of hyssop to strike the lintel and the two side-posts with blood in Exodus 12:22. (Exodus Rabbah 17:1.) Noting that the cedar was among the tallest of tall trees and the hyssop was among the lowest of low plants, the Midrash associated the cedar with arrogance and the hyssop with humility. (Numbers Rabbah 19:3; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:35.)

Rabbi Isaac noted two red threads, one in connection with the red cow in Numbers 19:6, and the other in connection with the scapegoat in the Yom Kippur service of Leviticus 16:7–10 (which Mishnah Yoma 4:2 indicates was marked with a red thread). Rabbi Isaac had heard that one required a definite size, while the other did not, but he did not know which was which. Rav Joseph reasoned that because (as Mishnah Yoma 6:6 explains) the red thread of the scapegoat was divided, that thread required a definite size, whereas that of the red cow, which did not need to be divided, did not require a definite size. Rami bar Hama objected that the thread of the red cow required a certain weight (to be cast into the flames, as described in Numbers 19:6). Rava said that the matter of this weight was disputed by Tannaim (as explained below). Abaye objected (based on Mishnah Parah 3:11) that they wrapped the red thread together with the cedar wood and hyssop. Rabbi Hanin said in the name of Rav that if the cedar wood and the red thread were merely caught by the flame, they were used validly. They objected to Rabbi Hanin based on a Baraita which taught that if the thread caught fire in midair, they brought another thread to prepare the water of lustration. Abaye reconciled the two opinions by interpreting the Baraita to speak of a flame that blazed high above the cow, and interpreting Rabbi Hanin to speak of a subdued flame that consumed the thread near the burning cow. Rava explained the dispute among Tannaim about the weight of the red thread in connection with the red cow. Rabbi taught that they wrapped the cedar wood and hyssop together with the red thread so that they formed one bunch. Rabbi Eleazar the son of Rabbi Simeon said that they wrapped them together so that they had sufficient weight to fall into the midst of the burning cow. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 41b.)

When Rav Dimi came from the Land of Israel, he said in the name of Rabbi Johanan that there were three red threads: one in connection with the red cow, the second in connection with the scapegoat, and the third in connection with the person with skin disease (the מְּצֹרָע, m’tzora) in Leviticus 14:4. Rav Dimi reported that one weighed ten zuz, another weighed two selas, and the third weighed a shekel, but he could not say which was which. When Rabin came, he said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan that the thread in connection with the red cow weighed ten zuz, that of the scapegoat weighed two selas, and that of the person with skin disease weighed a shekel. Rabbi Johanan said that Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta and the Sages disagreed about the thread of the red cow, one saying that it weighed ten shekels, the other that it weighed one shekel. Rabbi Jeremiah of Difti said to Ravina that they disagreed not about the thread of the red cow, but about that of the scapegoat. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 41b–42a.)

The Mishnah taught that seven days before the burning of the red cow, they removed the priest who was to burn the cow from his house to a room called the stone chamber facing the north-eastern corner of the Temple. The Mishnah taught that throughout the seven days, they sprinkled on the priest a mixture of all the sin-offerings that were there, but Rabbi Jose taught that they sprinkled only on the third and the seventh days. And Rabbi Hanina the Deputy High Priest taught that on the priest who was to burn the cow they sprinkled all the seven days, but on the one who was to perform the service on Yom Kippur they sprinkled only on the third and the seventh days. (Mishnah Parah 3:1.)

To protect against defilement from contact with the dead, they built courtyards over bedrock, and left beneath them a hollow to serve as protection against a grave in the depths. They used to bring pregnant women there to give birth and rear their children in this ritually pure place. They placed doors on the backs of oxen and placed the children upon them with stone cups in their hands. When the children reached the pool of Siloam, the children stepped down, filled the cups with water, and then climbed back up on the doors. Rabbi Jose said that each child used to let down his cup and fill it from on top of the oxen. (Mishnah Parah 3:2.) When the children arrived at the Temple Mount with the water, they got down. Beneath the Temple Mount and the Temple courtyards was a hollow, which protected against contamination from a grave in the depths. At the entrance of the court of the women, they kept a jar of the ashes of the sin-offerings. (Mishnah Parah 3:3.) If they did not find the residue of the ashes of seven red cows, they performed the sprinkling with those of six, of five, of four, of three, of two or of one. (Mishnah Parah 3:5.)

Rabbi Meir taught that Moses prepared the first red cow ashes, Ezra prepared the second, and five were prepared since then. But the Sages taught that seven were prepared since Ezra. They said that Simeon the Just and Johanan the High Priest prepared two each, and Eliehoenai the son of Hakof, Hanamel the Egyptian, and Ishmael the son of Piabi each prepared one. (Mishnah Parah 3:5.)

The Mishnah taught that they bound the red cow with a bast rope and placed it on the pile with its head towards the south and its face towards the west. The priest stood on the east side facing west. He slaughtered the cow with his right hand and received the blood with his left hand. But Rabbi Judah said that he received the blood with his right hand, put it on his left hand, and then sprinkled with his right hand. He dipped his finger in the blood and sprinkled it towards the Holy of Holies seven times, dipping once for each sprinkling. (Mishnah Parah 3:9.)

The Mishnah taught that during the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, all the walls of the Temple were high except the eastern wall. This was so that the priest who burned the red cow, while standing on the top of the Mount of Olives, might see the door of the main Temple building when he sprinkled the blood. (Mishnah Middot 2:4.)

The Mishnah taught that when the priest had finished the sprinkling, he wiped his hand on the body of the cow, climbed down, and kindled the fire with wood chips. But Rabbi Akiba said that he kindled the fire with dry branches of palm trees. (Mishnah Parah 3:9.) When the cow’s carcass burst in the fire, the priest took up a position outside the pit, took hold of the cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, and said to the observers: “Is this cedar wood? Is this hyssop? Is this scarlet wool?” He repeated each question three times, and the observers answered “Yes” three times to each question. (Mishnah Parah 3:10.) The priest then wrapped the cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool together with the ends of the wool and cast them into the burning pyre. When the fire burned out, they beat the ashes with rods and then sifted them with sieves. They then divided the ashes into three parts: One part was deposited on the rampart, one on the Mount of Olives, and one was divided among the courses of priests who performed the Temple services in turn. (Mishnah Parah 3:11.)

Reading Numbers 19:8, the Mishnah noted that the person who burned the red cow (as well as the person who burned the bulls burned pursuant to Leviticus 4:3–21 or 16:27 and the person who led away the scapegoat pursuant to Leviticus 16:7–10 and 26) rendered unclean the clothes worn while so doing. But the red cow (as well as the bull and the scapegoat) did not itself render unclean clothes with which it came in contact. The Mishnah imagined the clothing saying to the person: “Those that render you unclean do not render me unclean, but you render me unclean.” (Mishnah Parah 8:3.)

Tractate Oholot in the Mishnah and Tosefta interpreted the laws of corpse contamination in Numbers 19:14–16. (Mishnah Oholot 1:1–18:10; Tosefta Oholot 1:1–18:18.)

Ulla taught that the Rabbis ruled the skin of dead people contaminating so as to prevent people from fashioning their parents’ skin into keepsakes. (Babylonian Talmud Chullin 122a.) Similarly, the Mishnah taught that the Sadducees mocked the Pharisees, because the Pharisees taught that the Holy Scrolls rendered unclean the hands that touched them, but the books of Homer did not. In response, Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai noted that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees taught that a donkey’s bones were clean, yet the bones of Johanan the High Priest were unclean. The Sadducees replied to Rabban Johanan that the uncleanness of human bones flowed from the love for them, so that people should not make keepsakes out of their parents’ bones. Rabban Johanan replied that the same was true of the Holy Scriptures, for their uncleanness flowed from the love for them. Homer’s books, which were not as precious, thus did not render unclean the hands that touched them. (Mishnah Yadayim 4:6.)

Rabbi Akiba interpreted the words “and the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean” in Numbers 19:19 to teach that if the sprinkler sprinkled upon an unclean person, the person became clean, but if he sprinkled upon a clean person, the person became unclean. The Gemara explained that Rabbi Akiba’s view hinged on the superfluous words “upon the unclean,” which must have been put in Numbers 19:19 to teach this. But the Sages held that these effects of sprinkling applied only in the case of things that were susceptible to uncleanness. The Gemara explained that the Rabbis’ view could be deduced from the logical proposition that the greater includes the lesser: If sprinkling upon the unclean makes clean, how much more so should sprinkling upon the clean keep clean or make cleaner? And the Gemara said that it is with reference to Rabbi Akiba’s position that Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 7:23: “I said, ‘I will get wisdom,’ but it is far from me.” That is, even Solomon could not explain it. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 14a.)

Rabbi Joshua ben Kebusai taught that all his days he had read the words “and the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean” in Numbers 19:19 and only discovered its meaning from the storehouse of Yavneh. And from the storehouse of Yavneh Rabbi Joshua ben Kebusai learned that one clean person could sprinkle even a hundred unclean persons. (Tosefta Demai 1:14, Makhshirin 3:15.)

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