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The Enigmatic 'Red Heifer' Finally Explained

The Symbolism of the 'Red Heifer'

© 1992, 2000, Yi•rᵊmᵊyâhu Bën-Dâ•wid, Pâ•qid 16
The Nᵊtzâr•im
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Through the ages the sages have universally regarded the symbolism of the as an unsolvable enigma. No reasonable symbolic structure explaining this enigma is found in either rabbinic nor Christian literature. Indeed, admitting their inability to grasp the meaning and wishing to forestall anyone else explaining it, the rabbis declared the topic "off-limits unsolvable"!

"Even [Shᵊlomoh ha-Mëlëkh], the wisest of men, was baffled by it (Mi•dᵊrâsh Rab•âhQō•hëlët 7.23 no. 4)… It is even stated that the reason was not revealed to [Mosh•ëh] himself (Mi•dᵊrâsh Rab•âhQō•hëlët 8.1 no. 5;" Ency. Jud. 14.13).

Many rabbis are compelled to deny any possibility of understanding the since they regard it "as a classic example of a [khoq] (i.e., a statute for which no rational explanation can be adduced, but which must be observed because it is divinely commanded)" (Ency. Jud., 14.12, emphasis added). While the latter is absolutely true, that a khoq must be observed, Tor•âh also tells us that "it isn't too wondrous for you nor too distant from you" (Dᵊvâr•im 30.11-14). There is no justification for refusing a logical and rational explanation underlying the khoq.

"According to the rabbis there were nine [generations of ] (Pâr•âh 3.5), and the tenth and last will be prepared by the [Mâ•shiakh] (Yâd, 3.4)"; Ency. Jud., 14.12).

The keys to relating to the meaning of this rite of purification have long been known. It is well established that the ashes of the were mixed with cedar, crimson and hyssop to produce a reddish water used for the purification of persons and objects which had been defiled through contact or association with death.

The sages also noted that this reddish water closely resembled that used in the purification of the recovered mᵊtzor•â; not a leper as commonly misconstrued, cf. The Nᵊtzâr•im Reconstruction of Hebrew Ma•ti•tᵊyâhu (NHM, in English) note 15.31.1). In the former the cedar, crimson and hyssop were mixed with water while in the latter the cedar, crimson and hyssop were mixed with the blood of a dove. In each case the vehicle of purification was a reddish solution resembling, and/or containing, blood.

Moreover, both the and the birds used in the purification of the mᵊtzor•â (wa-Yi•qᵊr•â 14.7) were atypical in the requirement they be slaughtered outside of the camp. Aside from these, only the scapegoat (wa-Yi•qᵊr•â 16.10) and the axed calf in the case of an unsolved murder (Dᵊvâr•im 21.4) were required to be slaughtered outside the camp. What all of these share in common is defilement of an individual due to circumstances beyond his or her control. At one time or another, defilement beyond one's control is a certainty in everyone's life. Yet, even when defilement is beyond one's control, nevertheless such defilement remains a barrier which prevents that individual's communion with ‑‑, a barrier which only ki•pur can remove.

The blood-like solution made from the is called . This phrase was intended as a key to understanding the meaning. While the phrase explicitly links itself to the , there are other associations as well. It is a well established principle in Judaism that the proximity of subjects in Tor•âh often suggest a relationship between them. This is the case with the recovered mᵊtzor•â and the (wa-Yi•qᵊr•â 14-15). There is good reason for this proximity.

While we have noted the connection between the mᵊtzor•â and the , the connection of these with the is more subtle. This connection is to be seen in the type of defilement common to all three – defilement associated with death. This purpose is given for the case of the . In the case of the mᵊtzor•â, a mᵊtzor•â is accounted as dead, "as it is written, '[And A•ha•ron looked upon Mirᵊyâm and, behold, she was leprous. And A•ha•ron said unto Mosh•ëh…] let her not be as one dead.' " (Ma•sëkët Nᵊdâr•im 64b; based on bᵊ-Mi•dᵊbar 12:10-12).

Yet, how is the associated with death, thus tying the three together? Menses is the only phenomenon in nature that washes away death (the dead egg). It was recognized that the onset of the woman's menstrual cycle somehow signaled the death of a potential human life. Today we would characterize this as the expelling of a human egg. But the essence holds nevertheless. It was not her flow of menstrual blood which defiled the woman. On the contrary, just as the of the cleansed the person or object who had become defiled by contact with death so, too, the of the woman cleansed her of her contact with the death of that potential human life. In all three cases, contact with the dead required seven days of purification by similar rituals and similar !

However, this isn't the case of the ko•hein who, undefiled by death, was merely temporarily defiled only by the purifying . Consequently, unlike the mᵊtzor•â or individual contaminated by death, the seven-day waiting period wasn't required of the ko•hein. Thus, the contamination of the has nothing to do with any "association with human death" (Ency. Jud. 14.11).

This suggests that the purification ritual of the for objects and persons who had become defiled by contact with death, and the purification ritual for the recovered mᵊtzor•â who was as dead, were patterned after the natural purification of the woman. These purification rituals can then be readily understood as a symbolic washing away of the tokens of death in the .

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