Shabbat Parshat Parah: Preparing for Redemption

Between Parshat Zachor before Purim and Parshat Hachodesh in Nisan is Shabbat Parshat Parah when we read about the red heifer, a statute elucidated below.

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Daniel Pinner,

Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
Six Day War Paratroopers at the Wall
David Rubinger


Shabbat Parah is the Shabbat directly preceding Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, which is the Shabbat which either coincides with or immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Nisan (Mishnah, Megillah 3:4; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 13:20; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 685:1-6; Mishnah Berurah 685:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 140:2).


In this portion, God gives us the quintessential chok (“statute”) – a mitzvah for which we, with our limited human intelligence, can fathom no rational reason. The Red Heifer purifies the Jew from spiritual defilement contracted from coming into contact with the corpse of a dead Jew. An unblemished Red Heifer which had never been given a yoke was to be slaughtered outside the camp; it was then burnt entirely – its hide, its flesh, its blood, its dung; then the Kohen would take cedar-wood, hyssop, and crimson thread, and throw those into the pyre.


The Kohen who performed this rite would thereby become ritually impure until evening. Then another man, who was ritually pure, would gather the ashes and store them in a pure place; he, too, would become impure until evening. The ashes would then be stored up to be used as and when needed to purify any Jew from ritual impurity caused by contact with the corpse of a dead Jew.


Why do we read the portion of the Red Heifer on this Shabbat? – Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (Italy and Israel, late 15th century) explains that it is “to warn Israel to purify themselves so that they will be able to sacrifice the Paschal Lamb in purity” (Commentary to Mishnah Megillah 3:4).


A cow which had even two hairs of any colour other than red was disqualified (Mishnah, Parah 2:5; Rambam, Laws of the Red Heifer 1:2). So rare was it to find a cow which fulfilled this criterion that only nine such cows were ever burnt (Mishnah, Parah 3:5; Rambam, Laws of the Red Heifer 3:4). In the words of the Rambam: “Nine Red Heifers were performed from the time when they were commanded this mitzvah until the Second Temple was destroyed. The first, Moshe our Master performed; the second, Ezra performed; then there were seven from Ezra until the Destruction of the [Second] Temple. And the tenth will be performed by King Mashiach – may he be revealed speedily, amen, may this be His will!”.


There is something startlingly out of character about this Rambam. The Mishneh Torah is a book of halacha, with scant ideology, philosophy, history, or rationale for the mitzvot. For those, the Rambam wrote other works. Occasionally in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam cites historical examples from the Tanach, showing how and when various mitzvot were performed in times gone by (for instance Laws of Shabbat 2:25, Laws of Murder and Protecting Life 12:15, Laws of Theft and Loss 1:3, Laws of Kings 1:7). But in this halakhah, the Rambam digresses to give us a historical overview, telling us of nine Red Heifers in the past.


And then comes something unique in the Mishneh Torah: “…King Mashiach – may he be revealed speedily, amen, may this be His will!”. Nowhere else in the Mishneh Torah does the Rambam ever include a prayer of any kind at all – not even when he codifies the halakhah of Mashiach in Laws of Kings chapters 11 and 12 (with which the Mishneh Torah concludes).


In several other places in the Mishneh Torah the Rambam describes events which will happen and how our lives will be affected when Mashiach will come (for instance Laws of Repentance 9:2, Laws of Fasts 5:19, Laws of Megillah and Chanukah 2:18, Laws of Shmitta and Jubilee Year 13:1, Laws of Sacrifices 2:14, Laws of Murder and Protecting Life 8:4, Laws of Kings 4:8). Again, in none of these does he include a prayer that this happen speedily.


Let us add a parallel observation. When the Ramban comments on the Red Heifer, he concludes: “But because of our sins we have the impurity of the exile, and we will not know the purity of holiness ‘until the spirit be poured upon us from on high’ (Isaiah 32:15) and HaShem will sprinkle pure waters upon us that we will be purified. Amen, and may this be His will speedily in our days!” (Commentary to Numbers 19:16).


This is the only prayer that the Ramban infuses into his Commentary to the Torah.


What is so special about the Red Heifer that in its context, uniquely in the entire Mishneh Torah, the Rambam saw fit to include historical background and the plea that Mashiach “be revealed speedily, amen, may this be His will!”, and the Ramban, uniquely in his commentary to the Torah, added this same prayer?


I suggest the following observation:


The laws of the Red Heifer appear in the Torah shortly after the sin of the spies, at the end of the first year and a half (approximately) in the Sinai Desert. This is the last mitzvah which God would give to the generation which left Egypt. Once God has given this mitzvah, we have some thirty-seven and a half years of silence. The Torah re-joins the narrative in the next verse: “The Children of Israel, all the congregation, came to the Wilderness of Zin in the first month” (Numbers 20:1), meaning Nisan in the final year of the forty years of the desert wanderings.


According to many opinions, the laws of the Red Heifer appear out of chronological sequence and were actually given at the time when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was erected (see Gittin 60a-b and Yerushalmi Megillah 3:5). Indeed the Ramban sees the Red Heifer as “the completion of the Laws of the Kohanim [i.e. the Book of Leviticus], but is written here immediately after the gifts which are given to the Kohanim only to teach that Israel’s purification is also to be done by the Kohanim” (commentary to Numbers 19:2).


Nevertheless, in the sequence of the Torah this is the last word we will hear before the final stage of exile. After this, nothing of note was to happen until the generation of exile died out and the generation which inherited the Land of Israel arose.


The generation of exile represents all generations of exile throughout our history. And as so many of our greatest rabbis have said, the exile is a graveyard. The Jew living in exile is inevitably living in the midst of death, and as such is constantly in the grip of the ritual impurity caused by contact with the corpse of a dead Jew.


As such, the Red Heifer represents the antidote to exile. It is the gateway to the Land of Israel, to rebuilding the Holy Temple, and to the final redemption. Thus it is eminently fitting that both the Rambam in his codification of halachah, and the Ramban in his Commentary to the Torah, there infuse their prayers for the redemption.


Sixteen years ago, a completely red calf was born in Kfar Hassidim (in the north of Israel, not far from Haifa). When she was six months old she was examined by some twenty-five experts, including Rabbi Yisrael Ariel and Rabbi Yosef Elboim, who pronounced her to be a genuine Red Heifer.


The excitement in Israel within the religious community was palpable: this red calf could have removed the last obstacle to rebuilding the Holy Temple.


The enemies of Torah understood this just as clearly, and what they understood terrified them. Avraham Poraz, then a Member of Knesset in the extreme Left Meretz Party and uncompromisingly anti-religious, announced that “that cow represents the risk of a massive religious war. If the fanatics get a hold of it and try to take over the Temple Mount, G-d knows what will happen. It only takes a few crazies to endanger all our lives”.


The equally fanatically-left and bitterly anti-religious Yossi Sarid (also a Meretz Knesset member) defined the Red Heifer as a “four-legged ticking time bomb”. Along with many of the hard left, he called on the security services to “deal with it”, if necessary “by shooting it through the head” (an intriguing attitude for someone usually so concerned with animal rights…).


Rabbi Shmariyahu Shore, the first rabbi who had examined the cow, responded: “The only execution carried out by Israel was that of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann 35 years ago and if the state were to do the same to the Red Heifer, I don’t know whether I’d laugh or cry”. Due to these death threats, the Red Heifer was moved to a secret location.


In the event, before she reached three years old – the youngest age for the purification ritual (Mishnah, Parah 1:1; Rambam, Laws of the Red Heifer 1:1) – she developed several hairs of different colours. The disappointment from the Torah community in Israel, and the nigh-hysterical relief from the anti-Torah community, swept over the country like a storm. Neither side was immune to the most powerful of emotions.


Perhaps this enables us to understand why both the Rambam and the Ramban used the phrase “Amen, and may this be His will speedily in our days!” in the context of the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer is such a powerful and stark and uncompromising sign of redemption, that both these Torah giants were unable to suppress this spontaneous prayer when analysing it.


The Red Heifer was the necessary prelude to Pesach, because its ashes would enable the Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem to become purified, and thereby to enter the Holy Temple to offer both the Korban Pesach (the Paschal lamb) and the Korban Chagigah (the Festival Sacrifice). And since Pesach represents the redemption from Egypt, which in turn is the paradigm of the final redemption, the Red Heifer represents the prelude to the final redemption, the end of exile, and to Mashiach – “may he be revealed speedily, amen, may this be His will!”