By Israel Drazin


            Numbers 19 tells how people who became impure because of contact with a dead human must be sprinkled with ashes of a red heifer before they can enter the tabernacle.[1] Among other particulars of the law, verse 9 states, “A man who is clean should gather the ashes of the heifer and lay them outside the camp in a clean place (for future use)” There was a dispute between the Sadducees and Pharisees over what is “clean.”


Scholars explain that Sadducee, Tzedukim in Hebrew, denotes the holy ones, and Pharisees, Perushim in Hebrew, indicates separatists or reformers.[2] The Sadducees maintained the ancient traditions, insisted that the Torah be read literally, and said it says what it says, nothing more. Pharisees disagreed: Torah shouldn’t be taken literally; there is an ancient tradition called the Oral Law that informs how to read the text. For example, although the Torah says “an eye for an eye” – if one pokes out another’s eye, he loses his own – the Pharisees said the words signify money. Similarly, when the Torah states do not boil a calf in its mother’s milk, it forbids eating dairy and meat products together, and one can consume meat a short time after dairy but must wait longer to eat dairy after meat.[3]    


Scholars maintain that Judeans, as they were called at the time, followed the Sadducean approach until they came in contact with the Greeks in the fourth century BCE, when the Pharisaic movement began.


Sadducees interpreted verse 9’s “A man who is clean should gather the ashes” literally: he could not be ritually unclean (impure). Despite the clear wording, as they did with the above mentioned examples, Pharisees maintained that they had an Oral Law that the man could be unclean. And they went further. They insisted that their view must be publicized so that people would know that the Sadducean approach to Judaism is wrong. They therefore instituted the practice that the man who gathered the ashes would be publically made unclean before he gathered the ashes.[4]


The Pharisees used this technique of developing practices to demonstrate that Sadducean views are wrong many times. Shabbat candles are an example. Exodus 35:3 states: lo teva’aru eish b’khol moshveikhem b’yom hashabat. Sadducees defined teva’aru as “burn” and translated the verse: “You may not burn a fire in all of your habitations on the sabbath day” and sat in darkness on the sabbath. Pharisees, who sought ways to make laws more lenient, translated teva’aru as “kindle.” They prohibited creating a fire, but if the fire already existed one could enjoy its light and heat. To demonstrate that the Sadducee position is wrong, Pharisees developed the custom of lighting candles just before the sabbath and keeping it lit for at least a short period during the sabbath.[5]


[1] As stated above, Maimonides explained in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:47 that nothing really happens to a person who comes in contact with a dead body that can’t be remedied by using soap and water. The purpose of this command is to minimize the opportunities for the Israelites to visit the tabernacle, for overuse reduces the impact that the tabernacle should have.

[2]Many traditionalists insist that the Sadducees broke off from the Pharisees and that the later followed the Oral Law that was given by God to Moses at Sinai. They define Tzedukim as descendants of Tzadok from whose family high priests were chosen for some generations. However, the high priests during the period of Pharisees and Sadducees were not from this family and Sadducees would not refer to the ancient practice which would have been an embarrassment since the high priests should have been from this family. They define Perushim as those who explain the Torah. Many if not most of the laws in the Oral Law can be dated to the post-biblical period.

[3] Why did the Pharisees change the laws? Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau offers many examples of the changes and the different reasons for them in his three-book series The Sages. Among other reasons are the changes in circumstances. Hillel had to allow loans to continue in force after the Shemita year despite the Bible saying differently; otherwise people would stop lending money. Another reason is a change in outlook. This is why “eye for an eye” was later understood as monetary compensation. Some of the new laws, however, created hardships, such as the law forbidding mixing meat and dairy products and laws instituted to “create a fence around the Torah,” laws designed to keep Jews a distance from the possibility of violating what the rabbis considered a Torah law, such as forbidding touching a lamp lest one forgets and accidently extinguishes it.


[4] See Mishna Para 3:7 and Maimonides explanation of it.

[5] See Mishna Menachot 10:3 for another example.