By Israel Drazin


Commentaries on the biblical portion Chukat (Numbers 19:1-21:35) raise theological questions such as, are biblical laws rational, is original sin a Jewish concept, did pagan practices influence Torah laws, and obscurities in the Torah.


Is a chok a biblical law that has no reasonable basis?

Rashi influenced the thinking of many Jews who accepted his view of 19:3 that a chok is a biblical law with which “Satan and the world’s nations taunt Israel saying, ‘What is this command and what is its reason?’ Therefore it is called chok, it is a (divine) decree by me; you have no right to question it.” In short, Rashi felt that there are many Torah laws that are unreasonable, laws with no logical basis, which Jews accept and perform simply because God proclaimed them.


Actually, chok does not suggest this idea;[1] the Talmud[2] and Rashi base their notion that there are biblical rules that we cannot explain upon the law of the red heifer because neither the Talmudic rabbis nor Rashi could think of a reason for it.


However, Maimonides said the opposite. He found reasons for all biblical commands and explained them in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:25-50. In 3:47, he clarifies that touching a dead body doesn’t make a person unclean. People can wash with soap and water and be clean. The laws of impurity “serve to keep people away from the sanctuary, and to prevent them from entering it whenever they liked.” For over familiarity reduces the impression that the sanctuary should have upon people.[3] Additionally: “First, they keep us far from dirty and filthy objects. Second, they guard the sanctuary. Third, they pay attention to an established custom, because the [pagans] had very troublesome restrictions when unclean, as you will soon hear. [Maimonides listed many pagan restrictions, but is saying here that while the Torah didn’t incorporate all of these restrictions, it did incorporate this one.] Fourth, it lightened our burden because these laws did not restrict our ordinary occupations by this distinction between what is pure and what is impure.”


Is Nachmanides’ interpretation Christian?

Commenting on Numbers 19:2, Nachmanides offers a different view. He states that the ceremony of the red heifer was instituted because of “the impurity conveyed by a corpse due to man’s sin committed through the instigation of the serpent.”[4] Nachmanides interprets the verse’s chok as “’hollowed out’ from the (Written) Torah, namely, the Oral Torah.”[5]


In other words, Nachmanides and the rabbis he is relying on, seem to believe in the Christian concept of Original Sin, that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden by eating the forbidden fruit. As a result, not only were they punished, but all of their descendants, even though their descendants did no wrong. This is contrary to current Jewish thinking that children are not punished for their parent’s misdeeds. This Original Sin, according to Christians, is wiped out by Jesus if a person has faith in him.


Israelites copied some pagan laws regarding sacrifices

I pointed out in the past that Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that God neither needs nor wants sacrifices but, as he wrote, he “allowed these kinds of services to continue” because the ancient Israelites felt they need sacrifices to show their love of God and to establish a relationship with him. Numbers 19:2, discussing the rules concerning the parah adumah, the red heifer[6] brought to “clean” a person who touched a dead body, states that the heifer must be an animal “upon which never came a yoke.” Ehrlich writes in his commentary that this same requirement was made for the eglah arufah in Deuteronomy 21:3, the heifer killed when a slain person is found by the inhabitants of the city nearest to the corpse. He notes that the pagan Philistines also followed this rule of using an animal that never carried a burden in I Samuel 6:7 and this requirement is also stated in Homer’s Odyssey  II and III.  Ehrlich explains that pagans felt that female cows were created only to breed and not to work, and to offer a female cow that did work was vulgar. Yet, while the pagans insisted that this rule of burdens applies to all sacrifices, the Torah only mandated it for the eglah arufah and parah adumah.[7]


Ehrlich does not explain why these two situations maintained the age-old pagan requirement of “no burden.”[8] I suggest that both deal with the serious subject of death and people usually seek to do the more conservative, arduous, even oppressive behaviors of the past in such situations as protective measures.[9]


(The Temple Institute, an organization dedicated to preparing the reconstruction of a Third Temple in Jerusalem, has been attempting to identify Red Heifer candidates consistent with the requirements of Numbers 19:1–22 and Mishnah Tractate Parah. In recent years, the Institute thought to have identified two candidates, one in 1997 and another in 2002. The Temple Institute had initially declared both kosher, but later found each to be unsuitable. During a March 2010 radio interview a Temple Institute representative claimed that there is now “definitely a kosher red heifer here in Israel,” from:, told to me by Dr. Jack Cohen).


We don’t know why Moses was punished

While 20:12 states that “because you were not steadfast with me,” lo he’emantem bi, we have no idea what specifically Moses and Aaron did wrong which resulted in a punishment of not being allowed to enter Canaan with the Israelites. Ehrlich: “Perhaps the text is silent regarding Moses’ misdeed, but God found the misdeed, and didn’t want people to know it just as we don’t know his burial place.” As I mentioned in the past, the Torah abounds in obscurities.


[1] Chok means “inscribed,” something written.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 67.

[3] Would Maimonides say the same thing about Jews attending the synagogue twice daily for services and sitting in the synagogue for two and a half hours on Shabbat morning?

[4] Translation by C. B. Chavel in his Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, page 195. Chavel adds a footnote that rabbis have said that “if Adam had not sinned he would never have died.”

[5] He may be saying that the idea that people die today because of the Original Sin of Adam and Eve is not explicit in the Torah, but is among the teachings of the Oral Torah.

[6] A heifer is a female cow that has not produced a calf and is under three years of age.

[7] Ironically, while the Israelites generally did not discriminate between the sexes for sacrifices, they did so for human females both in the past and today.

[8] Both Maimonides and Ehrlich agree that the Torah incorporates some but not all pagan sacrifice procedures. Maimonides emphasizes that the Torah modifies these procedures extremely.

[9] We are reminded that “there are no atheists in a foxhole.”