The Bible Says What? ‘Speak to the people of Israel so they bring you a red heifer’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Speak to the people of Israel so they bring you a red heifer’

 Mark Goldsmith takes a controversial passage from the Torah and applies a progressive response

In the middle of the Book of Numbers (Chapter 19), towards the end of instructions for the priests, there is a strange instruction.

A red heifer, to be defined later in the Mishnah Parah as a cow with no more than two hairs which are not red, is to be slaughtered and the ashes of its body used to make a solution which will be sprinkled on those who have had contact with a dead body to purify them.

Most synagogues read the instruction from the Torah on the Shabbat before the month that contains the festival of Pesach.

Rabbinic tradition considers the red heifer ritual to be a chok, that is a Jewish law that does not have rational explanation.

It is read before Pesach so that, were the Temple to be rebuilt, we would know how to make ourselves ritually pure in order to eat the Passover sacrifice.

Why then read it today?

The red heifer law says that there is such a thing as ritual purity, there is such a thing as being in the right state to do something special or holy.

When we leave a cemetery, most Jews will briefly wash their hands, not because of hygiene but rather to say that they have moved from accompanying the dead to returning to everyday life.

Many Jews ritually rewash their hands before eating challah on Shabbat or before the Seder meal. We share the symbol of ritual washing with Muslims, Hindus and many other religious cultures.

It is physical gesture that helps us to move from the everyday into the special or from the special back to the everyday.

Red heifers, however, are safe these days.

  •  Mark Goldsmith is rabbinic partner at North Western Reform Synagogue (Alyth)
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