The Mystery of the Red Heifer
One of the many biblically mandated practices that no longer exists is the law of the red heifer. However, it did morph into another practice today.
Chapter 19 in Numbers describes this very curious practice: the selection of a red heifer, its slaughter, and its use with other materials to “ritually” cleanse people who became “ritually impure” by coming in contact with a human corpse. Numbers 19:13 and 19:20 state that people who become “defiled” with the corpse and who fail to undergo the ceremony of the red heifer, defile the Sanctuary if they enter it. There are rather strange rules regarding this cow: the heifer must be totally free of any blemish or defect, never pulled a plow or cart, or engaged in any other work. The most remarkable aspect of the red heifer ceremony is that while it cleans the “impure” person, it defiles the three other people involved in the ceremony: the man who burns the heifer, the man who gathers the ashes and places them in storage, and the priest who performs the ceremony.
This ceremony raises many questions, such as: Why does touching a dead body make a person “ritually impure”? Why can’t the person become “pure” by washing with soap and water? Why does the mixture of ingredients sprinkled on “impure” people cleanse them of “impurity,” while those involved in preparing the heifer ashes for the ceremony, who never touched the dead body, become “ritually impure”?
Most people think that this is a classic example of the many inexplicable Torah laws, laws that defy reason. They insist that people must obey God’s laws without questioning them. But the following are opinions of those who offer rational explanations for red heifer law, even thoughthe Torah does not provide one.
In his Guide for the Perplexed 3:47, Maimonides outlines four reasons for the laws of “impurity.” Even a cursory examination of his reasons shows that he was convinced that there is no spiritual basis for the laws.
First, he states, the laws of impurity “keep us at a distance from dirty and filthy objects.” Thus, the ritual of the red heifer, employed when a person came in contact with a corpse, prevented—or at least somewhat minimized—the spread of infection.
Second, “they guard the Sanctuary.” By this he not only means that diseases are kept from the Sanctuary, but contrary to the view of many others, Maimonides felt that frequent visits to the Sanctuary would minimize its impact upon the person visiting it. Therefore the Torah established a number of “impurity” laws to reduce visits to the Tabernacle and the later Temple, since an Israelite would frequently come in contact with “impure” objects.
Third, these laws reconfigure pre-Torah pagan notions of impurity and modify their rationale and practice, thus allowing them to be integrated into Jewish life.
Fourth, the Torah’s impurity laws reduced the burden imposed by the pagan impure practices—which restricted the pagans in all aspects of daily life—and limited the impurity rules only to the Sanctuary.
While explaining the law in general, he admits: “I do not know at present the reason … why cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet were used in the sacrifice of the red heifer.” He notes that the Midrash gives explanations, but states that “the explanations do not agree with our theory.” In essence, he recognizes that the midrashic explanations turned the details of the ceremony into moral lessons on behavior, while his view offers rationality to the promulgation of these laws.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
Rabbi Hirsch, like the Midrashim that Maimonides mentioned, offers an example of a “moral behavioral lesson” which may be derived from the law of the red heifer. He suggests that the Torah recognizes that when people come in contact with a dead body, they may become depressed. They may reflect that only yesterday this person was alive and now the person is dead. They may begin to think that people are like grains of sand tossed to and fro in the winds of time. They are not masters of their destiny. They have no real control over their lives. These thoughts are in a sense defiling, for the Torah wants people to be positive and enthusiastic about life and its possibilities. We must, therefore, be purified from the defiling thoughts that depress us. This explains why the “pure” people involved in preparing the red heifer for the ceremony become “impure.” Thinking about the ceremony and death, they too may sink into despair. They become “defiled,” and must be “purified” with a ceremony that reminds them to rid themselves of these depressing thoughts.
Joseph Bechor Schor:
Bechor Schor also saw the Torah’s red heifer law helping people cope with death. He wrote that the law: (1) restrains people from keeping the dead near them out of love for their deceased relatives; (2) stops people from following the pagan practice of using parts of dead bodies for divination; and (3) prevents people from wearing bones, as many pagans did, or to use the bones as vessels. The Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 122a, states something similar: the skin of dead humans was declared impure to stop people from making rugs out of them, as some people do with animal skins.
The practice of using a red heifer was discontinued after the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. However, a new practice arose based on the red heifer law.
Today’s custom of washing hands upon leaving cemeteries reminds us of the laws of the red heifer and the need to wash away defiling ideas that can nullify God’s intention that we enjoy life.
This custom is similar to the current custom of washing one’s hands before eating. Besides being a good health practice, it reminds us of two things: (1) Sitting at a table and eating food is similar to the ancient temple altar. The temple altar was used to thank God for the pleasures of life. When we sit and eat, we should also think of God having indirectly provided the food. (2) Before the temple was destroyed, the priest would wash before serving at the altar. Today’s ritual of washing before eating reminds us of the ancient practice and how we should view our meals today.
There are many different ways of addressing biblical laws. One is to accept the law because the person is convinced that the law was mandated by God, and to do so without asking why.
Another approach is to decide to observe the law but still ask why it was promulgated.
The difficulty with the second approach is that the person asking the question is usually unable to find a quick answer, may give up the quest for a solution, and abandon the biblical practice. This is probably why some ancient rabbis suggested that Jews should not question the divine decrees. However, these three examples not only offer an explanation of the law of the red heifer, they also prompt people to think about life generally. They also show that while biblical laws change, they can morph into significant new routines.