© S.H. Parker, 2018
Today is Shabbat Parah, the third special Shabbat before Pesach. We read about the פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה (parah adumah), the so-called "red" heifer (Bamidbar (Num.)19:1 ff).
"So-called?" In fact adumah is more a brown or reddish-brown color. The word is related to adamah, earth, and to adom ("adam"), human being.
A perfect, unblemished cow - that is, having no more than two hairs of a different color - which has not been worked is slaughtered. It is slaughtered outside the camp. It is not offered as a korban (sacrifice) – slaughtering it outside the camp should immediately alert us that something is up as slaughtering is always done at the altar in the tabernacle.
The cow is burned, in its entirety, along with a piece of cedar, hyssop and crimson wool.
The kohen officiating becomes impure.
The person who burned the cow becomes impure.
A ritually pure person collects the ashes and becomes impure.
But, anyone who has corpse-uncleanness and is sprinkled with some of the ash mixed in water becomes ritually pure.
The Rabbis of the Talmud find a great mystery in this: the clean are made unclean and the unclean are made clean. And these transformations are all by the same objects, same rituals.
A classic חוק (chok, "a difficult thing"), Talmud lomer:
To a high-placed Roman questioner, who expressed his amazement at the procedure in connections with the Red Heifer, Johanan ben Zakkai replied by referring him to a Pagan analogy: "Just as a person afflicted by melancholy or possessed of an 'evil spirit' is freed from his disease by taking certain medicaments or by the burning of certain roots, in the same manner the ashes of the Red Heifer, prepared in the prescribed way and dissolved in water, drive away the 'unclean spirit' of defilement...." The Roman was satisfied with the answer, and went his way. Thereupon the pupils of Johanan said to him: "That man's attack thou hast warded off with a broken reed, but what answer hast thou for us?" "By your lives," said the Master, "the dead man doth not make impure, neither do the ashes dissolved in water make pure: but the law concerning the Red Heifer is a decree of the All-holy, Whose reasons for issuing that decree it behooves not mortals to question."
In other words, "When God speaks, just do it" (with no apologies to E.F. Hutton or Nike).
The parah adumah is about ritual impurity, of which there are two causes. The first mentioned and, I think, the most important, at least to the early Rabbis, is "unintentional sin." By this, the Rabbis do not mean "transgressions committed without the intention to do wrong," though that is possible. What they mean are intentional acts that you did not know were transgressional. And, more frequently, intentional act that you forgot to complete, like vows unfulfilled.
Clearly, cleansing by sprinkling with the ashes of the parah adumah is not intended to clean sin; that's what Yom ha'Kippurim does. Besides, contact with a corpse is not a "sin." Neither does parah adumah clean the type of uncleanliness spoken of at greatest length: uncleanness from bodily flows like ejaculation (the most common cause of this type of uncleanness) or t'zaarat.
Parah adumah cleansing is strictly for corpse-defilement. But, in all these cases, the continued benevolence, indeed continued presence, of the deity depends on being ritually clean when approaching the god. Ritual impurity could drive the god out of the temple and, therefore, out of the land. Serious stuff this. (Hence the Sadducean position that the rites of ritual cleanliness applied only to the temple and its immediate precincts.)
Procedures and ceremonies like this, to cleanse corpse-defilement are common throughout ancient Mesopotamia, some resembling this one. The parah adumah is likely a syncretistic practice in ancient Israel for, unlike Egypt where death was worshipped, in the ancient east, death was seen as a major loss, a great sadness.
It has to be observed that knowing about the ritual of the parah adumah is not purely academic. Just a few years ago, there was a report of a cow that someone thought qualified as a parah adumah. In fact, more than two hairs of a different color were eventually discovered. The important thing is that there are people out there actively looking for a parah adumah. This means that there are people out there who think this ritual needs to be conducted today. And because ritual impurity is communicable, virtually everyone “needs” the “waters of lustration.”
Now, why the Rabbis find this mysterious is beyond me: the clean becomes unclean and the unclean becomes clean, what’s the mytery? What is clear is that the Rabbis simply never helped their wives with housework, especially the thorough pre-Pesach house cleaning. Anyone who has ever done housework knows you start with clean supplies and a dirty house. You end up with dirty supplies and a clean house.