“And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification from a sin.” (Numbers 19: 9)
Chapter 19 of Numbers is titled, ‘The Red Heifer’, and deals with the purification from ritual contamination by a corpse through the means of the ashes of a red heifer (a young female cow that has not produced offspring).
Even in the catalogue of bizarre ritual we find in our Torah, the purification by the ashes of a red – and it must be red – heifer takes some beating.
One is required to take a perfect heifer – one with a uniform coloured skin that has never been yoked or used for work – and burn it with aromatic spices.
The ashes are divided into three. One part for storage, one for mixing with the ashes of the next red heifer, and the final part to be utilised by persons contaminated by contact with a corpse – who are sprinkled with the ashes and fresh water on the third or seventh day of impurity, regaining their purity after a period of isolation.
Jews and non-Jews have long been baffled by the process, including students of first century Yochanan ben Zakkai and the 19th century Samson Raphael Hirsch.
Hirsch suggests the cow itself represents human ‘animal nature’ and the absence of the yoke hints at the control of such passions.
So while this verse is never literally enacted, it show us the human ability to overcome both the contamination, and its parallel ‘animal nature’.
It enables a person to face death and yet overcome it by achieving
a certain type of immortality.
- Rabbi Danny Rich is the Senior Rabbi of Liberal Judaism