Parshat Parah

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by Ari Enkin

On the Shabbat following Purim we read “Parshat Para,” the portion which discusses the Para Aduma, the Red Heifer. [1]Bamidbar 19:1-22. The Para Aduma was a sacrificial cow whose ashes were used for ritual purification. One who became impure, such as by coming in contact with a corpse, was required to have himself sprinkled with the ashes of a Para Aduma in order to become pure once more. The sages instituted the reading of the Para Aduma at this time of year in order to remind us of the purification process that was traditionally a part of the Pesach preparations. This is because one who was impure was not only forbidden from entering the Beit Hamikdash but was even forbidden from partaking in the Korban Pesach, as well.

Among the many interpretations for the Para Aduma ritual is that it was intended to serve as an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. [2]Rashi, Bamidar 19:22. As a result of having toiled in the service of a cow designated for idolatry, the Jewish people were now required to toil in the service of a cow designated for purity and atonement. Indeed, our sages call the Para Aduma ritual “a mother who comes to clean up the mess that her child made”. Additionally, the Para Aduma was required to be unblemished. This was intended to recall the “blemish” that the Jewish people caused through the sin of the golden calf. [3]Torah Temima, Chukat 125.

According to a number of authorities, it is actually a Torah obligation to hear the reading of Parshat Para in the synagogue. [4]Beit Yosef, OC 685; OC 146:2; 685:7. One reason for this is that in addition to recalling the ancient purification procedure, the reading also serves to recall the sin of the Golden Calf which is a mitzva in its own right. In fact, there are actually six events that one is required by Torah law to always remember and the incident of the Golden Calf is one of them. [5]Devarim 9:7. In many congregations, it is customary for the gabbai to remind the congregation to have kavana, to have in mind to fulfill the mitzva of remembering the sin of the Golden Calf, while Parshat Para is read.

The consensus of most authorities, however, is that the requirement to hear the Parshat Para reading is rabbinical in nature. The only Torah reading that one is truly required to hear by Torah law is Parshat Zachor, which is read before Purim. [6]Tosfot, Megilla 17b s.v. “Kol Hatorah.” In fact, there are those who insist that the “opinion” that the Parshat Para reading is a biblical obligation is merely the result of a printer’s error! [7]Biur Hagra, OC 685:22. See also

It might also just be that those who rule that the Parshat Para reading  is a biblical obligation are basing themselves on a completely different consideration. All authorities agree that the Kohanim were required by Torah law to read Parshat Para, as they were the ones who would prepare the Para Aduma. Therefore, it can be suggested that since the reading of Parshat Para was once treated as a Torah obligation – for at least some of the population — it should continue to be treated as such. [8]Moadim V’zmanim 2:168. Although women should make an effort to hear Parshat Para read in the synagogue, there is no true obligation for them to do so. [9]Nitei Gavriel Purim 22:4. Indeed, it is argued that women should be completely exempt from having to hear the Parshat Para reading because they were not involved in the sin of the Golden Calf.

In the event that Parshat Para was not read at its proper time, it can be read on the next Shabbat, or any Shabbat up until Pesach, for that matter. [10]Tzitz Eliezer 14:66; Yechave Daat 3:52. It is noted that the Para Aduma is referred to as a “chukat olam” – an eternal decree. This teaches us that Parshat Para must be read even though we are no longer able to perform the mitzva of Para Aduma. [11]Aruch Hashulchan, OC 685:7. We are told that after the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed there were people who preserved some ashes of a Red Heifer so that it could be used immediately upon the arrival of Mashiach. [12]Chagiga 25a.


1Bamidbar 19:1-22.
2Rashi, Bamidar 19:22.
3Torah Temima, Chukat 125.
4Beit Yosef, OC 685; OC 146:2; 685:7.
5Devarim 9:7.
6Tosfot, Megilla 17b s.v. “Kol Hatorah.”
7Biur Hagra, OC 685:22. See also
8Moadim V’zmanim 2:168.
9Nitei Gavriel Purim 22:4.
10Tzitz Eliezer 14:66; Yechave Daat 3:52.
11Aruch Hashulchan, OC 685:7.
12Chagiga 25a.

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot.

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