Why A Red Heifer? The Biblical Representation & Meaning Explained | Aleph Beta

Why Do We Need A Red Heifer?

Why Do We Need A Red Heifer?


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Nothing cleanses like…ash from a red heifer?

Parshat Chukat starts out with instructions for how to purify someone who became tamei met, "impure through contact with a corpse." And the instructions include taking a red heifer (female cow), burning it, mixing the ash with water and sprinkling the water on the impure person. The $64,000 question is: Why?? Why on earth would this kind of ceremony make someone pure? What about it undoes contact with the dead?

In this unscripted podcast conversation, Rabbi Fohrman and Daniel Loewenstein offer some possible answers to the meaning of the red heifer sacrifice.


Rabbi Fohrman: Hi everybody. Welcome to another episode of Parsha Lab. This is Rabbi David Fohrman. I'm here this week with Daniel Loewenstein, one of our writers. We're going to be looking at Parshat Chukat together. Daniel, this is your first podcast with us. Is it not?

Daniel: It is and I am very excited to be joining.

Rabbi Fohrman: Oh good. I'm very excited to have you. You could just think of the audience as sort of the spectators in the Roman coliseum of podcasts, if you will, ready to tear us apart for any possible mistake. I hope that puts you at ease, Daniel.

Daniel: Rabbi Fohrman, does that make us the gladiators?

Rabbi Fohrman: No, it makes us the poor animals who have a terrible fate at the end of the show. Anyway, Daniel, with that, let's jump in. I hear that you have prepared something to share with us or with me and I am eager to see what you might have come up with so take it away.

Daniel: Thank you so much. As you mentioned, the parsha we'll be discussing today is Parshat Chukat and the opening of Parshat Chukat is about the parah adumah, the red heifer, which is used in purifying someone who came in contact with a dead body. One very basic question right at the beginning is why a red heifer?

Rabbi Fohrman: And by that you mean --

Daniel: Why red?

Explaining the Laws of the Red Heifer in the Bible

Rabbi Fohrman: Why red. I mean the whole procedure seems a little bit on the, I don't know if I would say bizarre, but it's certainly got all sorts of kirks in it. It's this red heifer turned to ash essentially and then the ashes are kind of mixed together and there's this red thread that's thrown in and these ashes are sprinkled and it makes the person who was tamei, who was impure, pure and it makes the sprinkler impure. There's a lot of strange qualities about this. You want to focus on the redness of the heifer and why is it red.

Daniel: That's where I wanted to start and I wanted to know if you had any thoughts about that.

Rabbi Fohrman: You know, I've kind of wondered about that. One thing just sort of jumps out at me. Don't know if it is significant, but the redness of the heifer is referred to as parah adumah spelled Alef-Daled-Mem-Hei and part of this really specific procedure which is done with the red heifer involves the sprinkling of the blood of the heifer. If you look at the word for blood – first of all, blood of course is red – if you look at the word for red there it's damah, or it's blood. Damah just happens to borrow three out of four of the letters in order of adumah. So you're with a red heifer of which its blood is sprinkled leaving only the Alef kind of dangling out there as the difference between the redness of the heifer and the blood of the heifer. I offer that without any explanation. I'm not sure that's where you were going, but just I throw it out there.

Daniel: Rabbi Fohrman, I love that you paid attention to the spelling of the word adumah and noticed also the connection between the redness of the blood and the spelling of the word dam or damah and adumah. But also we notice that the spelling of adumah is also spelled with the same letters as the word adamah which means earth.

The Meaning of Parah Adumah

Rabbi Fohrman: That is kind of interesting. You've got earth in there. Parah adumah is vowelized as adumah, but could just as easily read without vowels as a heifer of the earth.

Daniel: And it's not like they're not connected at all because the reddish brown color of the heifer actually does approximate the reddish brown color of soil. So there's an interesting possibility there.

Rabbi Fohrman: Are you suggesting, just to interrupt you, that the color of soil and the color of blood is similar?

Daniel: I'm suggesting that the color of the heifer is similar to the color of blood and similar to the color of soil.

Rabbi Fohrman: Because it is kind of interesting. If you think about it, we do think of blood as red, but if you prick your arm, you'll notice that it's really a very dark crimson that almost approximates a brownish or at least a very dark burgundy red, which kind of is close in some ways to the color of earth. Interesting that the word adumah and adamah and earth and blood should be so close when their pigmentation is close. So yeah, kind of interesting.

Biblical Connections to the Ashes of the Red Heifer

Daniel: There's one more thing that strikes me as interesting that I wanted to get your opinion about. If you look in Numbers, Chapter 19, Verse 9, this is what it says. "V'asaf ish tahor" a pure person should gather "et eifer haparah" the ash of the red heifer that's been burnt "v'hini'ach michutz lamachaneh" and he should put it aside outside of the camp "b'makom tahor" in a pure place "v'haytah adat B'nei Yisrael l'mishmeret" and it will be for the congregation of the Children of Israel for a safekeeping "l'mei niddah chatat hi" it will be waters of niddah and it is a chatat.

That phrase mei niddah, it's an interesting phrase and I wasn't sure what to make of it when I first saw it. What do you think, Rabbi Fohrman? What does it say to you?

Rabbi Fohrman: It's certainly a rather striking piece of language. Generally, when we think of niddah we think of a woman who is ritually unclean by virtue of menstruation. I guess you got redness there with the blood of menstruation perhaps, if you want to continue the redness theme. It's certainly not the simple meaning of the phrase, but what the simple meaning of the phrase is kind of up in the air.

Daniel: Definitely agree. I have something I'd like to suggest but, you know, anybody's guess really. Rabbi Fohrman, do you know the first time that we encounter the word niddah or some similar form and similar meaning of the word niddah?

Rabbi Fohrman: The first time we ever – oh, would it be – oh, I know where you're going now. Ha ha. Clever, clever, clever. If I'm going to guess your train of thought. The first time we ever have that language of niddah is going to go back to Cain, the punishment that he gets. That he's "na v'nad t'hiyeh ba'aretz." He is a wanderer without a place. Right?

Daniel: Right.

Rabbi Fohrman: As if he's lonely in isolation.

Daniel: Exactly. The word nad in that context means someone who is cast out, exiled, condemned to wander.

Rabbi Fohrman: In which may be where the idea of niddah comes from because there's something that's lonely about her or cut off while she's in an impure state much like Cain is cut off in a sense that he's wandering and cut off from society.

I see where you're going now with the ideas of blood and with ground because Cain right before we hear "na v'nad t'hiyeh ba'aretz," what you have with Cain right before that is that God exclaims to Cain "arur atah min ha'adamah asher pa'tz'tah et pihah lakachat et d'mei achicha miyadecha." Cursed are you from the ground that has opened its mouth to take in the blood of your brother from your hands. So there's that image of blood mixed with ground. Blood coming into the ground that may be somehow comes out in this red heifer which has the language of adumah or adamah and you're not quite sure which and just so happens to have that element of "na v'nad t'hiyeh ba'aretz" of separation involved with these waters of mei niddah.

Then, by the way Daniel, if you're going in that direction, that would explain the phrase l'mei niddah chatat hi. This offering, strangely, has the quality of a chatat, which by the way Daniel, is also unusual because you wouldn't think of an offering which is just there to make someone pure as a sin offering. But if you think about it in terms of coming back from Cain and Abel that again echoes with the language that God uses to Cain specifically when He says cursed are you from the ground that's opened its mouth to take the blood of your brother from your hands. What God says to him right before that is lapetach chatat roveitz. There's that language. That sin lies crouching...

Daniel: I didn't even notice that.

Rabbi Fohrman: Of course that's the title of my book, but that sense of chatat also goes straight back to Cain. The sin, perhaps, of murder. Of course Cain is that first story of death at the hands of another human being. Here somehow this animal is being used to somehow give us a way of coping with death.

What Does the Red Heifer Represent in the Bible?

Daniel: Rabbi Fohrman, just to briefly review what we just discussed. We noticed that the spelling of the word adumah, red, is also the same spelling as the word adamah, earth and we also noticed that the waters or the ash and water mixed together that's used in the sprinkling to purify the person is referred to as mei niddah. We then noticed that the same elements of niddah or nad and adamah and blood and redness all show up also in the story of Cain and Abel, of Kayin and Hevel, when Cain murders his brother and God tells Cain that the blood of your brother is screaming to me from the adamah, from the earth and therefore his curse will be that he will be na v'nad, that he will be forced to live permanently in exile and as a wanderer.

Rabbi Fohrman: And that theme of exile, by the way, is also present here not just in the mei niddah, but in the fact that the ish tahor, this pure person who takes the ashes of the heifer, it says in the same verse "v'hini'ach michutz lamachaneh b'makom tahor" he is to place the ashes outside the camp in a pure place. That again sort of seems to conjure up that image of exile for which the story of Cain and Abel comes to mind.

Daniel: There's definitely a lot of themes of exile and separateness involved in this whole narrative of the red heifer. There's one more piece that I want to introduce which I think will sort of lead us into a theory. Rabbi Fohrman, I'm going to actually rely on you for this part because you have a very elaborate theory of the sins that happened in the beginning of Bereishit, in the beginning of Genesis, centered on the idea of da'at and da'at as a kind of creator knowledge or creator perspective. I believe that you discuss in a few different places about how we can see that in Cain. So could you just summarize for us what exactly the action Cain has to do with da'at and the Eitz Hada'at?

Rabbi Fohrman: Daniel, my views on this have sort of developed and morphed over the years, but more recently I've been seeing this in terms of the notion of knowing good and evil with the Tree is kind of sort of affecting the next generation. What I mean by that is that good and evil are the words that a creator uses to describe the system that they've created. It's specifically the way that a creator or master of the system evaluates his world. Hence, when God evaluate His world "vayar Elokim ki tov" God sees that it's good. God sees that it's good. Later when He decides to destroy the world, He sees that it's evil and He goes and destroys it.

Good and evil are these words associated with a master of a system, God, declaring whether something should exist or not exist within the system. As such, these are not words for human beings because we are not outside the system; we're inside the system. To use my Monopoly analogy. We're not Parker Brothers, the creator of the game. We're little hat and little shoe who go around the board. And little hat and little shoe are not allowed to make proclamations about the way things should be on the board. You get to decide whether you're building a house on Park Place. You don't get to decide whether or not when you roll doubles, you get to go to Free Parking and collect $1 million and win the game.

Daniel: Right. So when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree what they essentially were doing was they were deciding to step outside of the roles that were given to them and they decided that they wanted to think like a creator as well and they wanted to be able to declare what is good and what is bad.

Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. In the next generation, this leads to murder. Murder is something which you'd be horrified of doing if you realize you're little hat and little shoe. Little hat and little shoe don't get to make those ultimate decisions about which piece stays on the board and which piece doesn't stay on the board. That's not little hat and little shoe decision. But if you think that you're the master then you think you get to make those decisions and murder becomes at least thinkable once you've eaten from the Tree of Knowledge Good and Evil. Where would you take that, Daniel?

Daniel: Here's my theory and please be honest and let me know what you think.

Rabbi Fohrman: Daniel, I'm always ruthlessly honest.

What Is the Bible Saying About the Red Heifer?

Daniel: When a person encounters a dead body, what kind of effect does that have him psychologically? I would venture to say that if you are little hat or little shoe, sort of faithfully sticking to your role and murder is unthinkable, but you hang out around death all the time. You see people die. So it could be that seeing death will make you appreciate life all the more, but it could also be that when you encounter death, it sort of makes death a little bit less taboo, a little bit less scary. Maybe if you encounter death then you can think oh, death happens in the world. It's not such a big deal.

Rabbi Fohrman: That's kind of interesting because if you think about that that is truly the way it does work with us human beings. Normally, we have this aversion to death. Death spooks us out which is why all the scary movies are all about death. It's about graveyards and about skulls and haunted houses really exploit our sense of fear of death which is a natural part of being human and maybe the way God wants it to be because little hat and little shoe should have an aversion to death. Death means you're going off the board and the whole point of being little hat and little shoe is that you're living on the board. You should be scared of going off the board. But, as you suggest, nothing can inure you to a reality that you should be scared of like constant exposure can. Constant exposure changes things. If you're on the battlefield, you can get numb to death.

By the way, maybe you even see the beginnings of that with Cain and Abel because even though Cain has only experienced one death and you would expect him to be shocked, one of in fact the most shocking things as a reader in reading the story of Cain and Abel is how unshocked Cain is when God confronts him and says what have you done?

Daniel: Right. Cain isn't distraught. He isn't weeping and horrified by what he did. He just says leave me alone.

Rabbi Fohrman: "Hashomer achi anochi" am I my brother's keeper? What's awful about that is it's not just his dismissal of responsibility for his brother, but just the casual sense in which he's assimilated this terrible reality. The first death in the history of mankind just rolls off his back like he lost a squash tournament and what the heck. It's not my problem. Let's move on. You're suggesting that maybe at some level the red heifer is trying to guard us against that?

Daniel: Exactly.

Rabbi Fohrman: It's almost like the anti-Cain experience?

Daniel: What I'm suggesting is that the next step off the wagon, let's say, after exposure to death is being inured to death and then feeling like potentially you could be the arbiter of death and not feel like it's a big deal. So in order to protect us from making that jump, we have this ceremony of the red heifer. What I'm suggesting is that the red heifer is filled with all these symbols of Abel. If you think about it, the red heifer, we Number 1 have the reference to adamah. What we do with the red heifer is we turn it into ash and we take that ash, ash that's like dirt or dust that symbolizes Hevel.

Rabbi Fohrman: Wait just let me slow you down here. When Daniel, reader or listener, says that it was talking about Hevel here he is referring obliquely, if I'm not mistaken, not just to the name Hevel but to the meaning of the word. The word hevel means that which dissipates, that which is fragile, as Abel himself is. Abel just dies and literally goes up in a puff of steam. It's strange to have a brother named puff of steam, but that's what happens to poor Abel. He's fragile. He dies and you see the fragility of life and how easily it evaporates from the quick loss of Abel, which is encapsulated in his name.

So Daniel is saying you've got this heifer which is a very sturdy thing. We turn it into ash showing its fragility. We take the ash and mix it with water so the ash completely disappears so there's really nothing left and then, Daniel?

Daniel: And then we collect this water ash solution, we call it mei niddah.

Rabbi Fohrman: Water to be stayed away from?

Daniel: So what I want to suggest is actually it's a warning. These are the waters that represents how you can become exiled. These are the waters that represent the first murder, the first death and the first event that lead...

Rabbi Fohrman: So it's almost like we're throwing cold water on you.

Daniel: Yeah. Actually that's a great way to talk about it. We're alerting you to the fact that you are on this slippery slope towards viewing life in a very callous way.

Rabbi Fohrman: So in other words just your contact with the dead, the fact that you were an undertaker, the fact that you're seeing all these bodies, it can have a deleterious effect on you. It can take away the natural horror that little hat, little shoe feels toward death. So what we do is we try to shock you with the sprinkling of this death water, this mei niddah, which could also mean stay-away water, which also – because that sense of niddah to stay away like the Ibn Ezra says – but also niddah going all the way back to Cain and Abel, going all the way back to the fragility of Abel that is distilled down into the essence of these ashes, that is distilled down into this water we sprinkle with its fragility to remind you that life is fragile.

Hence, by implication, precious, not to be trifled with, that it can easily be gone. Therefore, treat death with a sense of reverence and horror and natural aversion which you naturally ought to. It's kind of rebalancing that system. Very fascinating, Daniel.

Daniel: Thank you.

Rabbi Fohrman: By the way, Daniel...

Daniel: Yes.

A Paradox of the Ash of the Red Cow Sacrifice

Rabbi Fohrman: If I could just add something more that one of the paradoxes of the red heifer is that the ashes make the person who was impure i.e. the person who came into contact with the dead, pure but the person who sprinkles it becomes tamei, becomes impure. Maybe the answer to that along the lines of your thinking is this. When you've come into contact with the dead that has the deleterious effect of desensitizing you to death, which is dangerous for you, little shoe. Therefore, the best we can do for you is to sort of pour the water of the haunted house upon you. Splash cold water on you to try to reshock you with the fragility of life. That will bring you back from the brink, which is the sense of casualness that you might be experiencing with death and bring you back to normalcy.

The tragedy is or the irony is is that the person who has not been exposed to death, the regular little shoe who then so much comes into contact with these haunted waters, himself becomes haunted with them and becomes spooked by death. Therefore he himself attains a certain kind of impurity because for him just coming into contact with that cold water or that sense that oh my God, life really is fragile in that way, when you're just sort of coming along and going through your life, is enough to precipitate a kind of death crisis for you which can then pull you into a kind of impurity as well.

Daniel: Fascinating.

Rabbi Fohrman: In other words, it feels like life as it should be is that little hat and little shoe kind of have to pretend there's no edge of the board or have to not get near to the edge of the board naturally. They go about their way and their focus is on Park Place and their focus is on Tennessee Avenue even though there's this joke at the heart of it all which is that everybody dies. It's a journey and no one knows where it goes. It's horrifying and it's scary, but that's life. You somehow have to live your life.

There are certain things that can throw you off kilter. Contact with the dead, those that are outside the board, throws you off kilter. But for someone who hasn't even had contact with the dead, just contact with the waters that are intended to remedy you, throws you off kilter in a way. It makes you no longer thinking about buying a house on Tennessee Avenue and somehow you need a period of readjustment for your life as well.

Daniel: Rabbi Fohrman, what are we to make of this theory in terms of our lives today? We don't have these waters and I think culturally where we're located nowadays they might not even mean all that much to us. We don't have the same frame of reference to symbolically see Hevel both in the character sense and in the puff-of-smoke sense. How are we to guard ourselves against this possibility?

What Is Meaning of the Red Heifer Offering Today?

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. So I don't know. I mean what does the red heifer tell us in a world in which there is no red heifer? According to what you're arguing, it feels to me like the Torah is sensitizing us to this dance that we have to play with death in the world which is that we're all going to die. It's the most ubiquitous event in the world. They make the joke about death and taxes; the only things that are certain.

Yet, despite that somehow any time we experience death, it's like we can never see it coming and it just strikes us as horrible and horrifying. It might not in fact be horrifying, but we are engineered as human beings to regard it as horrifying. For all we know, the dead are on the other side having a grand time and thinking oh my gosh, can't believe we were so scared of this. But the fact is that human beings are supposed to find it horrifying even if it's wonderful on the other side because that's not our job to be on the other side. Somehow we have got to be able to encounter death, which happens all the time, and still maintain the normal sense of horror and the normal sense of staying away and not to become inured.

The red heifer says that you got to be careful about that and that when you come into contact with death, you got to somehow get yourself back into real life by recovering your ability to be shocked at death.

I remember personally when I've had encounters with family members who've experienced loss or close friends who have experienced loss, I remember walking to a car after going there and this terrible feeling of disorientation. How do I go back to work? How do I live in a world in which life really is so fragile and this could just happen? It feels like I live in a fake world because I don't think about death all the time. I don't think about that possibility, but it's really so real and anybody can be taken off the board at any time because that's just the way life is. But somehow there's that feeling of disorientation that doesn't let you play the game when you get hung up there. You've just got to go back and almost willfully immerse yourself into the game of routine and be able to recover your horror for death because that's the only way you can go about life.

It just strikes me as the Torah being gentle with us and helping us maintain the delicate dance of what it means to be little hat and little shoe in the world.

Daniel: I just want to add a personal level from my end. I think this conversation is actually making me think a lot about modern media and at least the way I consume it personally and how sort of ubiquitous death is in so many different forms. What we're seeing here with this red heifer process and with the mei niddah warning is that it's important to take steps to sensitize ourselves, like you were saying to recover the horror. That may not be so simple.

Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah. It may be one of the takeaways is stay away from gory crime movies. There are things in life that are meant to shock you. NPR had a thing the other day about the ubiquity of curse words in society. They said if you're using curse words for shock value, it doesn't work because once you use them five times, they don't shock you anymore. It's the same thing if you use death to sell tickets at the movies. It doesn't work after a certain point. It doesn't shock you anymore. But you have done is something deleterious and painful and difficult and tragic for the humans that watch the movies which is you've taken away the natural sensitivity to death, which impairs our ability to live full lives. There's something about the horror of death which is part of living.

Daniel: And something that needs to be preserved.

Rabbi Fohrman: And something that needs to be preserved. Yup. Daniel, this has been fantastic. I really need to tell you that. I love it. You give me so much nachas you writers. You're the best. It was great hanging out with all of you.

Daniel: This was a real honor for me to be able to come on the podcast. Thanks for having me.

Rabbi Fohrman: Thank you for being had and for sharing your thoughts with all of our listeners and with me. It's really a thrill at Aleph Beta to be able to work with a group of dedicated folks that are thinking and pondering life and coming up with wonderful richness in Torah. So I consider myself privileged.

Just before I sign off, Daniel, I do want to remind all of you guys out there that you can subscribe to us. You can just click a handy dandy subscribe button. You can do it on your favorite podcast app on your phone. It doesn't matter where you do it. As long as you do it, you will have us every week without even batting an eyelash. You can follow along because it's a great journey. This is Rabbi David Fohrman for Daniel Loewenstein and the rest of us here at Aleph Beta Central saying so long. We will see you next week. Have a very good Shabbos.

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