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Thoughts on Parashat Parah


Now that Purim has come and gone, we are in the last thirty days prior to the holiday of Pesach.  Aside from shopping, cleaning, and cooking for the holiday, the sages created some liturgical preparation as well as we draw near our celebration of Passover.  We have considered before the four special shabbatotat this time of year.  The first two, Shabbat Shekalim and Shabbat Zachor, before the new moon of Adar and before Purim respectively, have gone by and now during the remainder of the month of Adar, we mark the last two special shabbatot with readings from a second scroll on Shabbat as well as a specially designated haftarah in place of the prophetic reading normally associated with the Torah portion of the week.


This week we will observe the first of these, Shabbat Parah, literally “the Sabbath of the Cow,” because of its special reading from the book of Numbers regarding the elaborate purification rite performed in Temple days following ritual impurity imparted by being in contact with or in close proximity to a dead body.  The prime ingredient in the mixture sprinkled on the individual to be purified was a tiny quantity of the ashes from a completely red heifer.  While this ritual was to be performed year-round for anyone planning to enter the Temple court or to offer a sacrifice on the altar, people coming up to Jerusalem on pilgrimage from distant parts of the country for Passover, who planned to offer the “Paschal lamb” (korban Pesach) might need a reminder to take care of this ritual matter in time to be able to bring the appropriate sacrifice on the eve of the holiday.  While we no longer have a Temple and sacrifices in Jerusalem and the vast majority of the laws of ritual purity and the ancient purification rites are no longer in practice, nonetheless, the rabbis have us read about them each year in combination with a prophetic reading from Ezekiel, to remind us today that all of those ritual preparation for the holiday observance only take us so far if they are not accompanied by a spiritual cleansing and renewal at this season as well.


At the end of the seder meal among the songs we sing is the number song in which we ask “Who knows one?” and “Who knows two?” regarding thirteen items that are associated with our tradition. For number six, we ask “Who knows six?” and the answer is “I know six; six are the orders of the Mishnah.”  The Mishnah is the earliest collection of rabbinic law, a workdivided into six orders, six major sections, each focusing on a particular area of Jewish law.  The sixth order of the Mishnah is Toharot, which deals with the laws of ritual impurity and the process for purification.  This elaborate and fascinating collection of laws, as mentioned, are for the most part, no longer observed in the absence of the Temple.  An entire tractate deals with the highest form of ritual impurity, that conveyed by contact, proximity, or even by being under the same roof as a dead body, while another tractate focuses on this very strange ritual mentioned in the book of Numbers, that was intended to purify one from such a state.  My colleague, Rabbi Martin Cohen, wrote a book based on his study of the dozen tractates of Toharot, entitled “The Boy on the Door on the Ox: An Unusual Spiritual Journey Through the Strangest Jewish Texts.”  His book piqued my interest and the appearance of the Art Scroll Mishnah volumes on Toharot around the same time, led me to explore this rather arcane area of our tradition about fourteen years ago.


The title story in Cohen’s book happens to refer to the tractate of Parah where we learn that as strange as the ritual of the red heifer appears in our Torah reading, our sages decided to make it even more elaborate and unusual as they describe an incredible process intended to provide the needed ashes for the ritual.  The book’s title refers to a teaching in the Mishnah of Parah intended to guarantee complete ritual purity in the preparation of the mixture to be sprinkled on impure individuals.  This particular element of the process begins as follows, “There were courtyards in Jerusalem, built on rock, and under them was a hollow which served as a protection against a grave in the depths.  And they bring pregnant women, who give birth there, and who raise their sons there.  And they bring oxen, and on them are doors, and the youngsters sit on top of them, with cups of stone in their hands.  (We might note that stone vessels do not receive ritual impurity.)  When they reach the Siloam (the water source under the city of Jerusalem), they descended and filled them, and mounted and sat on top of them (on top of the doors which separated them from the oxen).”  All of these precautions were intended to be certain that these children never experienced ritual impurity in their lives up to this point.  By age seven or eight, however, they were retired and other children took their places.  I quote this passage only as a taste of the strange and unusual procedure prescribed by the sages around the ritual of the red cow.  Whether this was ever actually carried out as described, I would tend to doubt.


Already in scripture itself, though, we recognize the unusual nature of this ritual.  All of those involved in preparing the ashesof the cow and sprinkling them on the contaminated individual, in the process of purifying him or her, become themselves ritually impure; they must immerse in a mikveh, cleanse their clothing, and remain “unclean” until evening.  This is one of the laws known as a “chok” (plural, “chukim”) usually translated as a statute, which has no apparent rational reason for its observance, but is simply a decree from on high that we, as faithful adherents of God’s Torah are expected to follow.  The process of purification takes a week during which the ashes of the red cow are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff in water, and the concoction is sprinkled on the person who is ritually impure on the third and seventh days of the process.


When questioned about this procedure by a local heathen, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, the great first century patriarch, puts him off by comparing the ritual to pagan magical rites.  However, to his students, Rabban Yochanan explains, “By your lives, I swear, the corpse does not have the power by itself to defile, nor does the mixture of ash and water have the power by itself to cleanse.  The truth is that the purifying power of the red cow is a decree of the Holy One.  You are not permitted to transgress My decree. ‘This is the ritual law (chok).’”  While Rabban Yochanan chalks it up to a divine decree, more modern scholars do indeed dissect the law, compare it to other rituals of Judaism and other ancient practices and explain how it was intended to effect purification.  But clearly all of this is in the realm of ritual, procedures that are not intended to be understood, but merely to be followed.


The haftarah designated for Shabbat Parah is taken from the 36thchapter of the Book of Ezekiel, verses 16 to 36.  Here the prophet, in the Babylonian exile, addresses the people of Israel and speaks of a different kind of impurity from which only God can purify them:  “Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their doings…So I poured out My fury upon them for the blood that they had shed in the land, and for their idols with which they had defiled it.”  The exile of the people from the land is seen as punishment for these sins both against society and against God.  However, over and above these specific sins is the overall desecration of God’s name caused by this people who had been known as “God’s people” yet they had to leave His land because of their sins.  Their actions reflected badly upon God’s holy name in the eyes of other nations and in so doing the people of Israeldesecrated that name.  According to Ezekiel, in order to sanctify His name once more, God will gather the exiles from all the countries to which they have been scattered and bring them once more into the land.  The prophet uses the imagery of the purification process to describe God’s intent:  “Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be cleansed from all your impurities, and I will cleanse you from all your idols.  I will also give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh.  I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to follow My statutes, and you will be careful to keep My judgments.”


Ezekiel speaks of great blessing that God will bring upon the land once He restores the exiles to their homeland.  At this point, says the prophet, “You will remember your own evil ways, and Your doings which were not good, and you will loathe yourself in your own sight because of your iniquities and your disgusting deeds.”  This redemption of the land and the return of its people is not, according to the prophet, due to any merit of the people, but is rather God’s way of restoring His own reputation among the nations and intended to make us ashamed of our past sins and to lead to a moral purification of the nation.

As I said at the outset, it is the combination of the ritual acts and the spiritual cleansing which will ultimately bring about the sanctification of God’s holy name in the world.  The Ashkenazic tradition adds two verses to the end of the haftarah which depict the people of Israel “like consecrated sheep, like the sheep of Jerusalem on her festivals,” an appropriate image for the ancient celebration of the Passover pilgrimage.  Reading these passagesin the weeks prior to all of our intense ritual preparations for the holiday, reminds us to take the time to look beyond the ritual and to incorporate the spiritual element of our housecleaning into our internal preparations for Passover.


Each year, various rabbinical groups, including the Rabbinical Assembly to which I belong, publish detailed instructions on how to prepare our homes for Passover, defining leaven (chametz) and listing products that may or may not be used during the week of the holiday and telling us how to prepare our kitchens for Passover use.  A number of my colleagues have pointed approvingly to a paragraph added to these instructions this year, written by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the emeritus chair of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Assembly.  Rabbi Dorff provides an introduction to the guide and at the endof these introductory remarks, adds these words which are very much in line with the lessons intended by our readings on Shabbat Parah.  Rabbi Dorff writes: “One last, but important, comment. Because Passover involves more dietary strictures than the rest of the year, many Jews become downright compulsive about the rules of the holiday. We should be careful not to use these rules to assert our superior piety over others and remember that observance of Passover should not come at the expense of the values of honoring our parents and treating everyone with respect. Passover is really important – a central feature of what it means to live a Jewish life. Its very meaning, though, is completely undermined if the dietary rules of Passover lead people to treat each other with disrespect. So, as we explain the dietary rules of Passover below, we reenact the Exodus through story, discussion, and song at the Seder table. We restrict our diet to remind ourselves of the slavery of Egypt.We fervently hope that they will instead function as they are supposed to – namely, to serve as graphic reminders throughout the holiday of the critical lessons of Passover, of the need to free ourselves and the world around us of all the physical, intellectual, emotional, and communal straits that limit us and others in living a life befitting of people created in the image of God. May we all succeed in making this and every Passover the stimulus for us to fix the world in these ways every day of our lives.”  

You can download the entire Passover Guide at

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