Understanding the Mystifying: The Red Heifer Commandment—and Every Other Commandment Parashat Chukkat 5781

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Our parashah opens with the “strange” rite of the red heifer. This was a central rite in biblical times in that it enabled people, exposed to dead humans, to regain ritual purity and go to the tabernacle/temple. However, by talmudic times, the understanding of the rationale and process of the rite was lost. Traditions then built up around this supposed mystery to argue that this inscrutability was deliberate.1 In this framework, the Torah consists of rationally understandable commandments (often called mishpatim)—but also of totally incomprehensible mitzvot (hukkim), given to teach us to obey instructions simply because God said so, without visible rhyme or reason.2 Later commentators pushed this approach to teach us that one obeys the Torah, no questions asked, simply because it is the word of God.

I maintain that this direction of interpretation was mistaken, that the red heifer rite was not an exercise in obeying the inscrutable. This ritual was, in fact, fully understood in biblical times. Furthermore, it is a fundamental principle of covenant that the commandments are given, not to train us to robotic conforming obedience in the service of God, but rather to improve people and their character traits.3 As such, they need to be explained rationally, and clarified in presentation, so that people will fully understand which improvements they should work on to become a better human being and partner with God, in living and applying the Torah to make a better world. The deeper truth is that the unfolding of covenant is the grand movement away from obedience—enforced by punishment—toward the human partner becoming a serious agent in defining the mitzvot, and accepting these disciplines, in order to live life on a higher plane.

The steps of the red heifer ritual actually offer an example of a rational commandment that was fully understood in its time. Hukkat opens with the challenge of overcoming the greatest state of ritual impurity: one caused by encounter with a dead human being. The human being is the highest form of life, therefore the human corpse represents the most intense anti-life.4 Contact with a corpse plunges an individual into an intense ritual impurity, which cannot be overcome by standard ritual purification (that is: mere immersion in a mikveh). Rather, one must be sprinkled by a liquid consisting of the blood of a pure red heifer, mixed with ashes of the cow, plus cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn. If this is done on the third and seventh days, then the special purification rite is efficacious, so that the person—freed from death impurity—can enter the zone of holiness, the zone of life dominant, which is the holy tabernacle/temple (Numbers 19:11-12, 18-20).

To give but one illustration of the extent to which, by talmudic times, the Rabbis had lost understanding of the rite, one Rabbi said: Even Solomon, the wisest of all mortals, could not decipher the red heifer’s meaning. Hence the King exclaimed: “I said that I would be wise but it (meaning: the red heifer rationale) was beyond me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23).5 All this became an ideological school that Torah is to be obeyed and there are no moral, intellectual, or other criteria that should be exercised in obeying it.

I stress the alternative school of thought. The Torah’s instructions are given, not to glorify and obey God, but “to purify God’s creatures.”6 Therefore, the commandments had to be presented rationally so people would understand them, and be able to develop their character or behaviors to meet a higher standard of morality and spiritual meaning.

Thanks to modern critical scholarship—and the work of Jacob Milgrom in particular—we can recover the original meaning and rationale of the red heifer rite.7 Explains Milgrom: The red heifer is a hattat, a purification offering, which in this case decontaminates death impurity (Numbers 19:9). Blood—which is the carrier of life (see Leviticus 17:11)—is the decontaminant of death impurity. The blood plus the ashes of the all red cow—also symbolizing blood—is mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson yarn to create a liquid which purges the death impurity. Part of the blood is sprinkled toward the altar to purge the tabernacle/temple. The rest is sprinkled on the impure individual, moving them from the zone of being under death’s influence to the zone of life. This makes them eligible to enter the tabernacle/temple, the zone of life dominant and growing. In symbolic language, this is the repeated, fundamental message of our tradition, that the human is to shake off death and act, work, and live on the side of life and in creating life in the world.

Milgrom also points out that the single anomaly that most bewildered the Talmud—that the ashes of the cow purified the impure but made the priestly handler ritually impure—is a characteristic of the hattat sacrifice in general. The death impurity is “absorbed” by the hattat, rendering the individual pure; but it itself is now imbued with the impurity, and so therefore renders its handlers impure. Thus, the priestly handler of the ashes must immerse overnight to become pure again.8

In short, Milgrom shows that the red heifer rite made sense in the symbolic language of the hattat system, and was part of a conscious ritual proclaiming the commitment of God and the holy tabernacle/temple to help the individual fight off the encroachment of death, and to turn them to the side of increasing life. This is in accord with the general thrust of all covenantal—one might say: halakhic—behaviors, to maximize life—and to minimize the death or decay element—in every life activity. This red heifer rite was not imparted to teach people to obey orders even when they were incomprehensible. On the contrary, this rite fits neatly into the overall goal of the commandments as a way of life, as an exercise in acting on the side of life.

The red heifer rite, then, can be used as a model of all covenantal-halakhic instructions, which are meant to guide the individual to live on the side of life. The individual needs to understand the logic of the instruction so they can choose life, and be a mature partner in the covenant of tikkun olam, of improving life and of the quality of life in the world. This clear rationale applies to every mitzvah in every society and culture. Each commandment must be articulated toward upholding life, and toward a greater human autonomy and partnership role. This is the way that mitzvot move us toward the goal of a final universal triumph over all the enemies of life—poverty, hunger, oppression, all forms of discrimination that deny the equality of the other, war, and sickness. An important part of religious instruction is to upgrade the individual human being to embrace life more, to be more loving, more helpful to others, more self-respectful, more patient and understanding, more capable of restraint, which gives room to others to develop and express themselves. Every instruction, then, is not only to be understood, it is to be articulated so that the individual feels that their choice makes a difference. Their choosing life and maximizing its quality is part of an effort by a universal community toward transforming the broader society and the whole world toward a fuller life. The greater the autonomy and individual choice, the greater is the dignity and surge of value of the individual, and the more capable they are to play a role as an active partner in applying the covenant to improve the world.

A person who absorbs the mitzvah in this spirit of participatory agency feels confirmed that they are an image of God—infinitely valuable, equal, and unique—and therefore a legitimate and important partner in the covenant of tikkun olam. In turn, the partner is capable of applying the Torah’s instructions to ensure that they maximize life in whatever culture is currently regnant. This also means that where applying the inherited patterns from past articulations will harm life or undermine the dignity of others, the partner has the authority to apply the norms in a way that enhances the dignity of life instead. Thus, in an egalitarian society where women are fully participatory on an equal basis and fully eligible for leadership, the inherited special-but-not-equal status of women in Jewish tradition can be upgraded to honor the fullness of women’s image of God. Similarly, all other participants who traditionally are rated less than equal—be they based on sexual orientation, or gender, or based on disabilities, or even on being non-Jewish—can be upgraded and articulated to honor the fullness of their life and their dignity as an image of God.

It should be stressed that in every area of life, having full understanding, having the capacity to choose and affirm the specific behaviors, having the sense, not of yielding to an inscrutable dominant power, but rather joining in partnership with a higher force to make a better life for all, increases the dignity and sense of higher purpose that gives life richer texture and deeper meaning and inspiration. This is, in fact, the lesson of the red heifer rite.

1 See Bemidbar Rabbah 19:7, especially the words of R. Yose ben Hanina and the colloquy of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and the idolator on the red heifer rite.

2 See Maimonides’ discussion in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:26.

3 See my prior essay on Parashat Hayyei Sarah, “The Torah Came to Make a Mensch: Reflections on the Discovery of Rebecca,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/torah-came-make-mensch; and especially the teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter, referenced there. See also Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook chapter 51 of his Guide of the Perplexed of Our Time.

4 See my prior essay on Parashat Tazria-Metzora, “Purity-Impurity: A Code of Life and Death,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/purity-impurity-code-life-and-death.

5 Using the common attribution of the book of Ecclesiastes to King Solomon. See Bemidbar Rabbah 19:3.

6 Bereishit Rabbah 44:1 (= Vayikra Rabbah 13:3).

7 Milgrom, Leviticus: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible series), in two volumes.

8 See Leviticus 16:28 and Milgrom's extended discussion of the hattat system in vol. 1, pp. 270-278.

Texts Cited

(ט) וְאָסַ֣ף ׀ אִ֣ישׁ טָה֗וֹר אֵ֚ת אֵ֣פֶר הַפָּרָ֔ה וְהִנִּ֛יחַ מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה בְּמָק֣וֹם טָה֑וֹר וְ֠הָיְתָ֠ה לַעֲדַ֨ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל לְמִשְׁמֶ֛רֶת לְמֵ֥י נִדָּ֖ה חַטָּ֥את הִֽוא׃ (י) וְ֠כִבֶּ֠ס הָאֹסֵ֨ף אֶת־אֵ֤פֶר הַפָּרָה֙ אֶת־בְּגָדָ֔יו וְטָמֵ֖א עַד־הָעָ֑רֶב וְֽהָיְתָ֞ה לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְלַגֵּ֛ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכָ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֥ת עוֹלָֽם׃ (יא) הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בְּמֵ֖ת לְכׇל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם וְטָמֵ֖א שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃ (יב) ה֣וּא יִתְחַטָּא־ב֞וֹ בַּיּ֧וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֛י וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י יִטְהָ֑ר וְאִם־לֹ֨א יִתְחַטָּ֜א בַּיּ֧וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֛י וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י לֹ֥א יִטְהָֽר׃
(9) A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. (10) He who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you. (11) He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. (12) He shall cleanse himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean.
(יח) וְלָקַ֨ח אֵז֜וֹב וְטָבַ֣ל בַּמַּ֘יִם֮ אִ֣ישׁ טָהוֹר֒ וְהִזָּ֤ה עַל־הָאֹ֙הֶל֙ וְעַל־כׇּל־הַכֵּלִ֔ים וְעַל־הַנְּפָשׁ֖וֹת אֲשֶׁ֣ר הָֽיוּ־שָׁ֑ם וְעַל־הַנֹּגֵ֗עַ בַּעֶ֙צֶם֙ א֣וֹ בֶֽחָלָ֔ל א֥וֹ בַמֵּ֖ת א֥וֹ בַקָּֽבֶר׃ (יט) וְהִזָּ֤ה הַטָּהֹר֙ עַל־הַטָּמֵ֔א בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֖י וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֑י וְחִטְּאוֹ֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וְכִבֶּ֧ס בְּגָדָ֛יו וְרָחַ֥ץ בַּמַּ֖יִם וְטָהֵ֥ר בָּעָֽרֶב׃ (כ) וְאִ֤ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִטְמָא֙ וְלֹ֣א יִתְחַטָּ֔א וְנִכְרְתָ֛ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִ֖וא מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַקָּהָ֑ל כִּי֩ אֶת־מִקְדַּ֨שׁ יְהֹוָ֜ה טִמֵּ֗א מֵ֥י נִדָּ֛ה לֹא־זֹרַ֥ק עָלָ֖יו טָמֵ֥א הֽוּא׃
(18) A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on him who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. (19) The clean person shall sprinkle it upon the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus cleansing him by the seventh day. He shall then wash his clothes and bathe in water, and at nightfall he shall be clean. (20) If anyone who has become unclean fails to cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the LORD’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on him: he is unclean.
(כג) כׇּל־זֹ֖ה נִסִּ֣יתִי בַֽחׇכְמָ֑ה אָמַ֣רְתִּי אֶחְכָּ֔מָה וְהִ֖יא רְחוֹקָ֥ה מִמֶּֽנִּי׃
(23) All this I tested with wisdom. I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.
(כח) וְהַשֹּׂרֵ֣ף אֹתָ֔ם יְכַבֵּ֣ס בְּגָדָ֔יו וְרָחַ֥ץ אֶת־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ בַּמָּ֑יִם וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֖ן יָב֥וֹא אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
(28) He who burned them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may re-enter the camp.
(יא) כִּ֣י נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר֮ בַּדָּ֣ם הִוא֒ וַאֲנִ֞י נְתַתִּ֤יו לָכֶם֙ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־הַדָּ֥ם ה֖וּא בַּנֶּ֥פֶשׁ יְכַפֵּֽר׃
(11) For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have assigned it to you for making expiation for your lives upon the altar; it is the blood, as life, that effects expiation.

(ז) רַבִּי אַחָא בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חֲנִינָא אָמַר בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁעָלָה משֶׁה לַמָּרוֹם, שָׁמַע קוֹלוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁיּוֹשֵׁב וְעוֹסֵק בְּפָרָשַׁת פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה וְאוֹמֵר הֲלָכָה בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרָהּ, רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר עֶגְלָה בַּת שְׁנָתָהּ וּפָרָה בַּת שְׁתַּיִם. אָמַר לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁיְהֵא מֵחֲלָצַי, אָמַר לוֹ חַיֶּיךָ שֶׁהוּא מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ, הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב (שמות יח, ד): וְשֵׁם הָאֶחָד אֱלִיעֶזֶר, שֵׁם אוֹתוֹ הַמְיֻחָד.

(7) ...R. Acha in the name of R. Chanina said: At the time when Moses ascended to the heavenly heights, he heard the voice of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, who was sitting and studying the [Torah portion of] the Red Heifer, and uttering a halakhah in the name of the one who spoke it. "R. Eliezer said: a calf [when written in the Torah] is one year old, and a cow is two [years old]." [Moses] said before Him: "Master of All the Worlds! May it be Your will that he [R. Eliezer] would be from my loins [i.e. would be my descendant]." [God] said to him: "By your life [i.e. assuredly] he is from your loins! For so it says in Scripture (Exodus 18:4): "...and the name of the other [son of Moses] was 'Eliezer'...", the same particular name.

(ג) זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה וגו', רַבִּי יִצְחָק פָּתַח (קהלת ז, כג): כָּל זֹה נִסִּיתִי בַחָכְמָה אָמַרְתִּי אֶחְכָּמָה וְהִיא רְחוֹקָה מִמֶּנִּי, כְּתִיב (מלכים א ה, ט): וַיִתֵּן אֱלֹהִים חָכְמָה לִשְׁלֹמֹה, מַהוּ (מלכים א ה, ט): כַּחוֹל, רַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי נָתַן לוֹ חָכְמָה כְּנֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (הושע ב, א): וְהָיָה מִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּחוֹל הַיָּם וגו'...

(3) 3 (Numb. 19:2) “This is the statute of the Torah”: R. Isaac began [his discourse] (with Eccl. 7:23), “All this I tested with wisdom; I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” It is written (in I Kings 5:9), “So God gave Solomon wisdom [...].” What is the meaning of (I Kings 5:9, cont.,) “As vast as the sand of the sea.” The rabbis say, “[This] teaches that He gave him as much wisdom as all Israel, who are compared to the sand, as stated (in Hos. 2:1), ‘The number of the Children of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea...

(א) אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הָיָה דְבַר ה' אֶל אַבְרָם בַּמַּחֲזֶה לֵאמֹר וגו' (בראשית טו, א), (תהלים יח, לא): הָאֵל תָּמִים דַּרְכּוֹ אִמְרַת ה' צְרוּפָה מָגֵן הוּא לְכֹל הַחוֹסִים בּוֹ, אִם דְּרָכָיו תְּמִימִים, הוּא עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה, רַב אָמַר לֹא נִתְּנוּ הַמִּצְווֹת אֶלָּא לְצָרֵף בָּהֶן אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, וְכִי מָה אִיכְפַּת לֵיהּ לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמִי שֶׁשּׁוֹחֵט מִן הַצַּוָּאר אוֹ מִי שֶׁשּׁוֹחֵט מִן הָעֹרֶף, הֱוֵי לֹא נִתְּנוּ הַמִּצְווֹת אֶלָּא לְצָרֵף בָּהֶם אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת. דָּבָר אַחֵר, הָאֵל תָּמִים דַּרְכּוֹ, זֶה אַבְרָהָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (נחמיה ט, ח): וּמָצָאתָ אֶת לְבָבוֹ נֶאֱמָן לְפָנֶיךָ. אִמְרַת ה' צְרוּפָה, שֶׁצֵּרְפוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּכִבְשַׁן הָאֵשׁ. מָגֵן הוּא לְכֹל הַחוֹסִים בּוֹ, (בראשית טו, א): אַל תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ.

(1) After these things the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision, saying, etc. (Psalms 18:31) "As for God — His ways are perfect; the Word of Hashem is tried; a shield is He for all who take refuge in Him." If His way is perfect, how much more is He Himself! Rav said: Were not the mitzvot given so that man might be refined by them? . Do you really think that The Holy One of Blessing cares if an animal is slaughtered by front or by the back of the neck? Therefore, mitzvot were only given to make humans better.

(א) כמו שחלקו אנשי העיון מבעלי התורה אם מעשיו ית' נמשכים אחר חכמה או אחר רצון לבד לא לבקשת תכלית כלל כן חלקו זאת המחלוקת בעצמה במה שנתן לנו מן המצוות. שיש מי שלא יבקש לזה סיבה כלל ויאמר שהתורות כולם נמשכות אחר הרצון לבד; ויש מי שיאמר שכל מצוה ואזהרה מהם נמשכת אחר החכמה והמכוון בה - תכלית אחת ושהמצוות כולם יש להם סיבה ומפני התועלת צווה בהם. והיות לכולם עילה אלא שאנחנו נסכול עילת קצתם ולא נדע אפני החכמה בהם - הוא דעתנו כולנו ההמון והסגולות. וכתובי התורה מבוארים בזה "חוקים ומשפטים צדיקים". "משפטי יי אמת צדקו יחדיו". ואלו שנקראים 'חוקים' כשעטנז ובשר בחלב ושעיר המשתלח' אשר כתבו עליהם החכמים 'ז"ל' ואמרו "דברים שחקקתי לך ואין לך רשות להרהר בהם והשטן מקטרג עליהן ואומות העולם משיבים עליהן" - לא יאמין המון ה'חכמים' שהם ענינים שאין להם סיבה כלל ולא בוקש להם תכלית - כי זה יביא לפעולות הבל (כמו שזכרנו); אבל יאמין המון ה'חכמים' שיש להם עילה - רצוני לומר תכלית מועילה על כל פנים אלא שנעלמה ממנו אם לקיצור דעותינו או לחסרון חכמתנו. כל ה'מצות' אם כן יש להם אצלם סיבה - רצוני לומר כי למצוה ההיא או לאזהרה יש תכלית מועילה מהם מה שהתבאר לנו צד התועלת בהם. כאזהרה מן הרציחה ומן הגניבה ומהם מה שלא התבארה תועלתם כמו שהתבאר בנזכרים כאיסור ה'ערלה' וכלאי הכרם'. והם אשר תועלתם מבוארת אצל ההמון יקראו 'משפטים' ואלו שאין תועלתם מבוארת אצל ההמון יקראו 'חוקים'...

(1) As Theologians are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom, or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, so they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the will of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful. All of us, the common people as well as the scholars, believe that there is a reason for every precept, although there are commandments the reason of which is unknown to us, and in which the ways of God's wisdom are incomprehensible. This view is distinctly expressed in Scripture; comp. "righteous statutes and judgments" (Deut. 4:8); "the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether" (Ps. 19:10). There are commandments which are called ḥuḳḳim, "ordinances," like the prohibition of wearing garments of wool and linen (sha‘atnez), boiling meat and milk together, and the sending of the goat [into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement]. Our Sages use in reference to them phrases like the following: "These are things which I have fully ordained for thee: and you dare not criticize them"; "Your evil inclination is turned against them"; and "non-Jews find them strange." But our Sages generally do not think that such precepts have no cause whatever, and serve no purpose; for this would lead us to assume that God's actions are purposeless. On the contrary, they hold that even these ordinances have a cause, and are certainly intended for some use, although it is not known to us; owing either to the deficiency of our knowledge or the weakness of our intellect. Consequently there is a cause for every commandment: every positive or negative precept serves a useful object; in some cases the usefulness is evident, e.g., the prohibition of murder and theft; in others the usefulness is not so evident, e.g., the prohibition of enjoying the fruit of a tree in the first three years (Lev. 19:73), or of a vineyard in which other seeds have been growing (Deut. 22:9). Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called "judgments" (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called "ordinances" (ḥuḳḳim)....