Making a Parah Adumah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Hechsher mitzvah, necessary preparations for a mitzvah (cutting a lulav off a palm tree, let’s say, or making tefillin), is not usually its own mitzvah, we just know we need to do whatever it is to then be able to fulfill the mitzvah. Parah Adumah offers an exception; slaughtering the red heifer, burning its carcass to ash to have available for removing tum’at met, the ritual impurity conferred by contact with the deceased, is obligation 110 in Rambam’s Sefer Ha-Mitzvot.

[A heifer is a cow that has not yet given birth. I think the switch from calf to heifer happens at a year. Our Parah is a cow rather than an egelSefer Ha-Hinuch, Mitzvah 397, says it had to be at least three years old. Minhat Hinuch reminds us it could not be less than three, because an eglah arufah, the calf whose neck was broken to atone for a murdered traveler, could be up until two years old. Rambam, based on a discussion in the Gemara, ruled a Parah had to be at least two years and thirty days old.

We do not generally leave a Parah to age, for fear the animal’s hairs would blacken. Mishneh Le-Melech and Tosafot Yom Tov alerted us to the danger of old age weakening the Parah. An animal whose age makes it infirm is invalid for any sacrificial service, including Parah Adumah.].

To Have At the Ready

Rambam infers the mitzvah was to make a Parah Adumah, from the Torah telling us, Bamidbar 19;9, the Jewish people should have it le-mishmeret, something they watch and keep, showing a value in the having. Sefer Ha-Hinuch phrases the mitzvah as a matter of burning the Parah, since the mitzvah is focused on producing the ashes.

Enough other mitzvot would have forced us to have a Parah Adumah anyway, so the separate obligation calls us to wonder what point the Torah wanted us to glean from this added requirement. After all, we are already duty-bound to appear at the Beit Ha-MIkdash on certain occasions, prohibited from going there while teme’ei met, and told the only way to remove tum’at met is with Parah Adumah water.

Yet the Torah here chose to also command us to prepare the ashes.

Ta’amei Ha-Mitzvot for Parah

The issue of reasons for mitzvot carries special weight with Parah Adumah because, as Sefer Ha-Hinuch tells us, Tanhuma Hukkat 6 says Shlomo Ha-Melech—wisest of all men—admitted defeat in seeking to understand this mitzvah. Tanhuma took Kohelet 7;23 to be about Parah, when he said “I thought to be wise but it eluded me.” It also quotes a tradition of R. Yose b. Hanina, God revealed the reason to Moshe, not to share.

The challenge lies in the Parah’s oxymoronic quality, its rendering impure the tahor people involved in its preparation, while rendering tahor the tamei people on whom the ash-water is sprinkled. Sefer Ha-Hinuch includes among it laws the idea that only those who actively help in the burning, by moving the animal to burn better, adding more fuel to the fire, or stoking the wood, become tamei. Someone who lights the first fire does not, nor does anyone involved after the Parah has already become ash.

I could go on, such as with the story of my first year back from Israel, when mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein, zt”l, fastened on exactly this element of the Parah in the old Beit Midrash of YU. But we here are trying to track mitzvot and their de-oraita rules, so I reluctantly leave that conversation and get back on track.

Basic Qualifications

The Parah must be all red, because the verse calls it adumah temimah¸ whole in its redness, two hairs of any other color ruining it. Helpfully, redness depends on the roots, so hair that turns other colors as it/they grow could be cut short, the redness maintained. Rambam seems to have held the roots must be long enough to be able to cut with a scissors, but Minhat Hinuch thinks the non-red part of the hair can count as well. He further thinks the heifer would be acceptable after the fact even if those hairs were not shortened (as long as they could be). However, the horns and nails must be the same color or must be cut off.

Even a very small heifer could be used, as long as it would be acceptable for sacrifice. The Parah ever having performed any kind of work makes it ineligible, because the Torah says asher lo alah aleha ol, which has not been yoked, where “yoked” includes bearing any burden. Mishnah Parah 2;3 says putting one’s clothing on the Parah is a problem, unless it was for the good of the heifer (loads that help or protect it do not count).

Minhat Hinuch points out that Rashi held placing a load on the animal for a moment, with no intention of the animal transporting it, is not yet a problem. The briefest moment of placing an actual yoke on it does, however, turn it into “asher alah aleha ol,” one of the disqualifications in the verse. Rambam agrees about the yoke, seems to think just placing a load also has immediate impact. I leave other details—such as if the owner puts the animal in a field, where the animal might naturally do field labor the owner wants, or where the owner has no such intention but the animal does it anyway, and/or the level of the owner’s preference for what the animal is doing—for other venues.

Parah Is a Hatat

Since tradition picked up on the Torah referring to a Parah Adumah as a hatat, a sort of sin-offering, all the rules of sacrifices apply: it cannot have any mum/ physical oddity, cannot have sustained the kind of wound that makes it a terefah, cannot have been used as the purchase price for a dog, etc.

Since sacrifices must be performed in a particular place, Minhat Hinuch assumes the Parah ceremony had a necessary place as well. The Torah defined it as mi-hutz la-mahaneh, outside of the three camps of the Jewish people in the desert.  In Israel, the parallel to the three desert camps are the Azarah, the courtyard of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the Temple Mount, and the city of Jerusalem itself. Burning a Parah in Jerusalem would be in the mahaneh, not mi-hutz, and is one obvious way to do it in the wrong place.

The right place must also be in line of sight of the Heichal, the Temple building, I assume because Bamidbar 19;4 requires sprinkling the blood nochah penei Ohel Mo’ed, in the direction of the opening of the Mishkan. Traditionally, it was done on Har Ha-Mishhah, what we call the Mount of Olives, but that is not essential.

As with sacrifices, this procedure could not be done at night, needed proper intent throughout, the priests involved wearing their priestly garments. (Minhat Hinuch registers some questions about the belt, since the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur wore a different belt than regular kohanim, and Yoma treats Parah as similar to Yom Kippur.)

Buying It, Redeeming It

The first of the laws of the mitzvah Sefer Ha-Hinuch shares is from the first Mishnah in Parah, where Bamidbar 19;2—ve-yikhu eilecha parah, they shall take to you a heifer—is taken to mean the animal should be purchased once already a parah, not as a calf.

The farmer hoping to sell it, who is in line for a great profit, would have to watch it until then, protect it from blemishes and from doing any work. The community could set the purchase price ahead of time, Minhat Hinuch says, I think to give him incentive to be careful about the animal’s special needs. He assumes the rule against purchasing it early is only le-chathillah, the proper way to perform the mitzvah, but would not force us to find a different parah if it was not observed.

Ra’avad rejects most of the idea. He agrees the Parah cannot be sanctified until the right age, but does not think the inference stops us from purchasing it earlier. (That would ease the process, I think, because we are more confident people involved with the Beit Ha-Mikdash would not work the animal or let a blemish happen to it, than on a farm.]

Communal Funds for Communal Needs

The purchase price comes from terumat ha-lishkah, the public funds raised by the annual mahatzit ha-shekel collection. [I think Shekalim says they defined the coin for the half-shekel differently based on the population and need; the year they had to purchase a Parah Adumah, I imagine the shekel was a very expensive one.] Minhat Hinuch records debate about whether the owner could donate it, a topic for many communal sacrifices, which must be given by the community. Sometimes we trust the individual will donate it fully and completely, making it now the community’s property and a communal offering. With Parah Adumah, it wasn’t clear.

Should something go wrong with the Parah, it could be redeemed and it then returned to full ordinariness (as opposed to animals intended for sacrifice, which had limitations on their uses even after they developed a blemish and were redeemed).

Rabbinic Care For Ritual Impurity

Sefer Ha-Hinuch points out Hazal went to great lengths to stress the seriousness of ensuring the ceremony went off without a hitch. A kabbalah, tradition old enough to be considered more than rabbinic, had the kohen who would oversee the Parah Adumah ceremony separate from his family and other possible sources of tum’ah for seven days prior, like the Kohen Gadol before Yom Kippur.

Each of those days, he would have Parah Adumah water sprinkled on him, in case he had been ritually impure [as the Gemara points out, this is more than necessary, because if they just sprinkled on him on days 3 and 7, he would have all the same ritual impurities covered. It was to make a point of the care they were taking].

The person doing the sprinkling was someone who had never had contact with deceased persons, a status (mParah 3;2) achieved by raising children in all-stone courtyards, where ritual impurity does not penetrate. All the utensils in the ceremony were of stone as well.

[Sefer Ha-Hinuch does not mention it, but Hazal also inserted an element of ritual impurity into the ceremony, because the Sadducees denied that a tevul yom, someone who already immersed in a mikveh but would only become fully ritually pure that evening, could do this ceremony as well. Hazal therefore purposely rendered the man impure in a way that could be relieved by going to mikveh, so he would be a tevul yom. After all that care, to make this other point about the tradition.]

Sefer Ha-Hinuch closes with the idea the mitzvah applies in Israel when we have a Temple, an obligation of the community as a whole, significant in his eyes as a prerequisite for other important mitzvot, particularly the Pesah sacrifice. To remind us of it, custom has us read about it annually, on Parshat Parah.

Once again, the clock runs out before we get to Aruch Ha-Shulhan, so next time we will go there before Minhat Hinuch. Also, none of these details shed much light on the original question: why would the Torah make this hechsher mitzvah a mitzvah of its own? To not leave you hanging, I suggest an answer, but am clear that it is my guess, without sufficient backing to be more than that.

Although perhaps Sefer Ha-Hinuch hinted at it when he mentioned the custom to read about it every year. Perhaps the Torah wanted us to know the avenue to purification is always available, not just technically but ideologically. Even were we to find a way to immunize ourselves against ritual impurity, the Torah wants us to have the way out of it.

It reminds me of R. Herschel Cohen, a”h, the wonderful longtime Associate Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue. Every year, he would speak about Parshat Parah (and Pesah Sheini, I think) as a reminder God is always looking for ways to ease Jews’ way back, back to religion, back to connection, back to service of God. No matter how tamei we get, technically or spiritually, the Jewish people are to have a Parah Adumah ready to help us find our way home.

About Gidon Rothstein

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