The Rules of the Para Aduma Water

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Chukkat

The full details of this week’s mitzvah would take too much space for this forum; besides, the way Rambam and Sefer HaChinukh present it seems to me more eye-catching. I know it is what caught my eye, for what that’s worth.

A Mitzvah Rambam Leaves Ambiguous

Rambam, Obligation 108, calls the mitzvah “the torah we were taught regarding the”para aduma waters, their sometimes restoring tahara, the permissibility to touch or enter items or areas of Mikdash-related sanctity, sometimes tum’a, a status forbidding a person from such contact. (He and Sefer HaChinukh call them mei nidda, waters to be sprinkled, as Rashi interprets Bamidbar 19;9, where the term is used, pointing to Eikha 3;53, va-yadu even bi, they threw stones at me, as another example of this meaning.)

Torah here means a set of rules, this mitzva the thirteenth time in a row Rambam counted a whole set of rules as a Biblical obligation, the requirement to follow those rules should occasion arise, all to do with tum’a and tahara. Ramban rejected the idea of including a contingency in the 613,as we will see.

Rambam’s presentation carries more surprises. All he says about the mitzvah is that the para aduma water sometimes leads to tum’a, sometimes tahara. Instead of any more detail, he expounds at length on where the Talmud presents the laws of this mitzvah, Mishnah and Gemara, as well as the previous twelve, which had taken up each type of tum’a the Torah established.

I think the reason he does so becomes clear at the end, where he says he has already explained the entire Seder Tahorot, the section of the Mishna that lays out these laws, sufficiently clearly to allow a person to understand them with only his exposition.

Rambam’s Contribution to Understanding Tum’a/Tahara

[I once read his introduction to the Seder and it was—unsurprisingly, given we are discussing Rambam—clear and well ordered. His statement here that his work means the reader does not need anything else, a claim he most famously made about Mishneh Torah, his restatement of Jewish law, have led some to understand him to have thought his work superseded previous ones, despite his explicit denial he meant that.

I believe he was addressing the casual reader, saying his explanation of the issues gave a good understanding of the topic, could be a one-stop site for reasonable knowledge, not that he was the last word. Here, particularly since Taharot has always been among the less studied sections of tradition-there is no Talmud, Babylonian or Jerusalem, on Taharot, other than Nidda—Rambam’s commentary contributed significantly to the education of non-scholars. In another situation, Ramban pointed to Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva in similar terms, his having gathered scattered information to organize a topic, make it more easily accessible, without any implication it was all one needed.]

He seems to have preferred directing us to where he had more clearly presented the topic, instead of giving a too-brief summary.

Tum’a/Tahara Is Not a Mitzva, Ramban Retorts

Obligation 96 was the first of the thirteen Rambam listed for mitzvot of tum’a/tahara, and Ramban’s gloss applies here as well as there. Although Rambam defended the idea of a mitzva of a set of rules that need not be enacted—most Jews who become tamei could largely ignore it, just never have contact with untithed grains and/or teruma, never go to the Mikdash, etc.—Ramban disagreed.

These rules purely preparatory, Ramban does not count any of them. [At the end of each section of Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, the list of Obligations and Prohibitions, Ramban lists mitzvot Rambam omitted, perhaps most famously the requirement to live in Israel. Taking out these thirteen forced him to find replacement ones. The interested reader will be rewarded by reading the list.]

Ramban points out there are mitzvot prohibiting entry to the Temple and/or eating sanctified foods (sacrifices and/or teruma) in a state of tum’a, a mitzva obligating us to eat those foods while tahor. All those assume and require a system to know when we are tamei as well as how to restore tahara, dispensing with the need for a mitzva to know those underlying rules. They are implicit in those other mitzvot.

The Greater Detail in Sefer HaChinukh

I commented on Rambam’s minimalism, his referring only to the para aduma waters sometimes creating tum’a, sometimes taharaSefer HaChinukh gives us more already in his first description of the mitzva, where he says the waters render tamei someone previously tahor, and vice verse.

His order itself teaches us what we might not know. Since the primary goal of the water is to restore tahara, I would have thought he would refer to that function first. However, the other rule, those who touch or carry the water when not involved in sprinkling it become tamei (as Arukh HaShulchan HeAtid, Laws of Para Aduma 77;1 clarifies), is true only before the water has been used for sprinkling, Arukh HaShulchan tells us in 77;10.

Since he is counting the mitzvah, Sefer HaChinukh gives Rambam’s definition, a command to observe these laws, to mix fresh water with the ashes of a para, use it to sprinkle on those in need of tahara. He gives many more details, the water had to be drawn from running springs or rivers, by a competent Jewish adult, who could not be involved in any other activity while dealing with the water, would invalidate it should s/he do anything else before pouring it onto ashes and making it mei nidda.

Not Taking Money

A last point records the rule against taking money to secure and bring the water. Minchat Chinukh considers it an example of “mah ani be-chinam,” the idea in Nedarim 37a and elsewhere that just as Moshe taught us Torah without remuneration, we are supposed to do so as well (teaching Torah is a more well-known one).

He reminds us the ideal asks any of us who act similarly to Moshe in setting up a Jewish society to do so for free, if possible. While necessity showed the way to carve out permission to take money while teaching Torah, obtaining the para aduma water remains a volunteer-only activity or privilege, otherwise the water becomes invalid.

Complicating matters, Minchat Chinukh tells us, a passage in Kiddushin suggests this is a matter of asmakhta, a rule Chazal attached to a verse. Were it so, being sprinkled with such water should work, yet it seems a person who entered the Mikdash afterwards would still be liable for a sacrifice to atone for not having been properly tahor. More surprising, Rambam does not refer to any of this, speaks categorically of the water being invalid.

Two Surprises in Sefer HaChinukh

The careful reader will have noticed I have not yet given Sefer HaChinukh’s reason for the mitzvah. That is because he refrains from offering one, instead plays off Tehillim 139;6, the knowledge of the mitzvah is too wondrous, too high for him to reach [I believe is referencing Midrashim that portray Shlomo HaMelekh as unable to understand para aduma].

As we have seen in other mitzvot, he tells us he is sticking with Rambam’s list despite Ramban’s disagreement. Here as elsewhere he says he finds Ramban’s contentions very strong. I had always thought he stuck with Rambam because only Rambam had written a whole list, expect here Sefer HaChinukh says Ramban had presented his counterclaims in his Sefer HaMitzvot, implying he thought Ramban had in fact put together a complete list [as Ramban himself does, in his additions to Rambam’s lists of Asehs and Lo Ta’asehs].

If he viewed Ramban’s work as a Sefer HaMitzvot of its own, why wouldn’t Sefer HaChinukh just use his count? I’m not sure, but I think Ramban leaves some ambiguity in his count, making it more complicated to use it.

The para aduma water, mei nidda, restoring tahara where called for, to be used only in that context, bringing tum’a to anyone who carries or touches it for other purposes. A not fully comprehended mitzvah, daunting even the usually reason-ready Sefer HaChinukh.

About Gidon Rothstein

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