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Parsha and Manuscript: Chukat – ‘The Red Heifer through Oxford’s Hebrew manuscripts'

Thursday, 11 July, 2019 - 9:50 pm

CCCMS165, fol. 116 Chukas.pngThe Torah portion of Chukat discusses the laws of the red heifer, relating to a person who came in contact with a dead corpse, the process of purification of which involves sprinkling of ashes of the red heifer mixed with spring water. This law was taught for the first time at the time of the inauguration of the tabernacle on the second day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, to purify Israel for the bringing of the Paschal offering in the newly erected sanctuary. It was subsequently recorded in the Torah in the portion of Chukat, after the rebellion of Korach that saw many of the people of Israel fall in a plague.

 

In the opening of the laws regarding the red heifer, the Torah states:[1]

 

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: This is the statute (chukat) of the Torah (law) that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.

 

The classification of the red heifer as ‘the statute of the Torah’ provides for the following comment of Rashi, proposing the concept of the arationality of the law of the red heifer:

 

This is the statute[2] of the Torah: Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this command and what reason is there for it”, on this account Scripture writes the term ‘statute’ (chukah) about it, implying: It is an enactment from before Me: you have no right to criticize it.[3]

 

The origin of the Rashi about the arationality of the red heifer is a combination of the text of the Midrash Tanchuma[4] and the Talmud,[5] where the former[6] lists the red heifer as one of the things that the evil drive would refute due to its arationality, and the latter declaring the idea of statutes (chukim) a ‘decree’ that is beyond criticism. While the commentary of Rashi is derived from the Talmud and Midrash, we would like to explore this commentary of Rashi through three variations in the versions of the Rashi commentary as found in the Hebrew manuscripts in the Oxford libraries.

 

Variation 1 – ‘This is the statute’ of the Torah’ 

 

MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 143 Chukas.png

In the opening of the comment of Rashi as found in the printed edition, it quotes from the biblical text: ‘This is the statute (chukat) of the Torah (law).’ The opening of this commentary, however, has four variations:

 

1. In 12th century manuscript CCCMS165 and MS. Oppenheim 35 (1408), it just says: ‘Statute of the Torah’ (Chukat Hatorah). 2. In MS. Oppenheim 34 (1201-1225) and MS. Huntington 425 (1403), it just says: ‘This is the statute’ (Zot Chukat).  3. In MS. Michael 384 (1399), MS. Huntington 445 (1376-1400), MS. Huntington 389 (1301-1400), it says: ‘This is the statute of the Torah’ (Zot Chukat Hatorah). 4. In MS. Canon. Or. 81 (1396), it states in the main text: ‘This is the statute’ (Zot Chukat) but then added in the margin the word ‘Hatorah,’ following MS. Michael 384, MS. Huntington 445, and MS. Huntington 389.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

The fact that there is a correction in the margin in MS. Canon. Or. 81, where the additional words ‘of the Torah’ (Hatorah) were added, indicates a deliberate choice of words in each of these options of the quotation of the biblical text in deriving the commentary and its interpretation. What is the significance of these differences?

 

Variation 2 – ‘What reason is there for it?’

 

MS. Canonici Or. 35, fol. 176 Chukas.pngA second variation is: The printed edition includes two parts about how Israel is taunted about the red heifer: a. “What is this command?” b. “what reason is there for it?” In all the Oxford manuscripts of Rashi, the second half of the challenge: “What reason is there for it?” is omitted, stating only: “What is this command?” This is the case in the following manuscripts: CCCMS165,[7] MS. Canon. Or. 81,[8] MS. Canonici Or. 35,[9] MS. Michael 384,[10] MS. Oppenheim 34,[11] MS. Oppenheim 35,[12] MS. Huntington 389,[13] MS. Huntington 425 (1403),[14] MS. Huntington 445.[15] In MS. Canon. Or. 81, the additional question: 'What reason is there for it?' is added in the margin. 

 

The history of the text appears then to be that it was first omitted, at some point it was added in the margin and then finally lifted from the margin to be included in the main text, as we find in the printed edition of the text of Rashi today. The original text of Rashi that did not have this second part of the question added is reflected in the text of Rashi as brought in the commentaries of Nachmanides (1194-1270) in the 13th century and Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525) in the 16th century,[16] where the second question is omitted.

 

It may be asked: Since the authentic version of Rashi appears only to have the first part of the challenge: “What is this command?” why was the additional question: “What reason is there for it” added in the margin and subsequently the main text? The question is particularly relevant regarding MS. Canon. Or. 81, where the correction in the margin can be found regarding both the above variations: a. The additional word ‘of the Torah’ after ‘This is the statute’ and b. the additional question: “What reason is there for it?”

 

Variation 3 - wronging verbally

 

MS. Huntington 389,fol. 52 Chukas.pngA further variation in the manuscripts is a marginal note found in MS. Canonici Or. 35,[17] where an explanation of the Hebrew word ‘monin’ (taunt) - ‘lashon ona’at devarim’ - wronging verbally – can be found. The purpose of the marginal note is to explain that the word ‘monin’ is similar to the word found in Leviticus:[18] ‘And you shall not wrong (tonu), one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear your G-d, for I am the Lord, your G-d,’ and ‘When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him,’[19] whereby Rashi comments in both places that Scripture is warning against wronging or tormenting someone verbally (as opposed to financially).[20]

 

A further verse is in Isaiah:[21] ‘And those who taunt you - I will feed their flesh, and as with sweet wine they shall become drunk from their blood; and all flesh shall know that I am the Lord Who saves you, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.’ Rashi comments: ‘The word מוֹנַי (monoi) is an expression akin to:[22] “You shall not taunt (al tonu).” This denotes taunting with words, those who anger you with their revilings.’

 

Thus, while the marginal comment seems to be helpful to explain the word monin – taunt – emphasising that the intent is verbal, as opposed to financial, the question may be asked: why is it a necessary comment and whether there is any connection between this marginal note and the above two variations: a. the particularism of the biblical quote of the verse: ‘This is the statute of the Torah,’ and b. the additional question in the text of Rashi: ‘What reason is there for it?’

 

Three interpretations of Rashi’s question

 

MS. Michael 384, fol. 107 Chukas.pngThe first variation in the text whether the quotation from the biblical verse should be a. ‘This is the statute of the Torah,’ b. ‘This is the statute’ or c. ‘Statute of the Torah’ may be understood by offering three interpretations regarding what exactly the premise to the question of Rashi is regarding the word ‘statute’ (chukah). It may be understood in three ways: 1. What is the meaning of the word chukah? There are in fact six words in the Torah that relate to the concept of law: Mitzvah, Torah, Chok (chukah), Mishpat, Mishmar, Gezeirah. In this context, the question may be understood as simply: what is the meaning of the word ‘chukah?’[23] 2. A second approach[24] is that the problem with the word chukah before the word Torah (zot chukat hatorah) is that that the word chukah appears to be redundant. The reason is, firstly, it could have just used the word Torah, as in the following cases: a. This is the law (Torah): if a man dies in a tent, anyone entering the tent and anything in the tent shall be unclean for seven days,’[25] b. ‘This is the law (Torat) for the burnt offering,’[26] c. ‘And this is the law (Hatorah) of the guilt offering,’[27] d. This is the law (Hatorah) for every lesion of tzara'at, and for a netek.’[28] Alternatively, it could have just used chukah, as in the verse:[29] ‘The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: “This is the statute (zot chukat) of the Passover sacrifice: No estranged one may partake of it.”’ A further style of the biblical text is to write both phrases but separately, as in Genesis:[30] ‘Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge (mishmarti): My commandments (mitzvotai), My laws (chukotai), and My teachings (Torotai).’ In Genesis, however, since there are clearly two phrases they would have two different meanings: laws that have no reason[31] and the Oral Law, as expounded on by the commentaries.[32] In the case of the red heifer where the word chukat is a construct and used adjectivally - 'statutes of the Torah,' it implies a single meaning. The question therefore is: why does the biblical text use both phrases? 3. A third approach[33] is that the premise of the question regarding the word chukah in the verse is not that it is redundant but rather why it says: 'This is the statute of the Torah,' and not ‘This is the statute of the red heifer,’ similar to 'This is the statute (zot chukat) of the Passover sacrifice.’[34] By writing 'This is the statute (zot chukat) of the Torah,’ with the emphasis on the ‘This’ and ‘The Torah,’ it has the implication that the law of the red heifer is the only statute of the whole Torah, to the exclusion of all other laws of the Torah that are not in the same category of chukah (statute).

 

The difference between these three approaches is: the first two approaches presuppose that the red heifer is in the same category of the other statute laws including mixed fibres, eating pork etc. that have no reason - without differentiating between the degrees of lack of reasoning of laws. The third approach that focuses on the exclusivity of the red heifer presupposes that the arationality of the red heifer law is in its own exclusive category of arationality of the statutes.

 

Two concepts of arationality

 

MS. Oppenheim 34, fol. 88 Chukas.pngIn summary: the idea that the red heifer belongs in its own category – according to the third approach above - implies there are two categories of arational laws of the Torah. There are statutes that are partly rational, including: 1. The law against eating pork, 2. wearing diverse garments, 3. performing the ḥalitza ceremony with a yevama, a widow who must participate in a levirate marriage or ḥalitza; 4. the purification ceremony of the leper; 5. and the scapegoat. These would be somewhat rational though not wholly rational. Maimonides, for example, in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:48), explains that the law against eating pork is to teach cleanliness. There is a second category that pertains exclusively to the red heifer that has no rationality at all.

 

Red heifer – exclusive or inclusive 

 

MS. Oppenheim 35, fol. 83 Chukas1.pngThis debate whether the red heifer is in its own category of arationality or part of the general category of arational laws can be found in the following classic texts and commentaries regarding the arationality of the law of the red heifer. The Midrash Rabba[35] maintains the red heifer is uniquely incomprehensible, as Solomon says: All these I have fully comprehended but as regards the section dealing with the red heifer, I have investigated and inquired and examined but it was far from me. Midrash Tanchuma[36] similarly states that the red heifer is incomprehensible to everyone but Moses.

 

The same view may be seen regarding the particular reasons why the red heifer is arational: a. The Midrash Rabbah [37] and the Midrash Tanchuma[38] maintains it is because it has a dual effect: it purifies one who is impure while making those who engage in the purification process impure.[39] b. Midrash Tanchuma presents another view that it is the fact that a few drops of ashes can purify a whole person.[40] c. Minchat Chinuch[41] also makes a distinction between the categories, whereby he writes: ‘Even though my heart has given me the courage to write hints of the simple reasons for the previous commandments, with the excuse that [this] work is to instruct my son and his young friends, may G-d protect them; on this commandment (red heifer) my hands are weak and I am afraid to open my mouth about it at all.’ d. Minchat Chinuch further states it is the fact that ashes (as opposed to water) affects purity.[42] e. Minchat Chinuch argues also ‘its great wonder is that the process is done outside the camp, unlike the way of other offerings. And about this point the [other] nations [have a claim against] Israel, as they will think that it is offered to the demons in the open field, as is their practice today.’ f. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn[43] maintains that the red heifer is arational because it is not similar to any other law of the Torah. It is not similar to a sacrifice that is offered on the altar (Numbers 19:5), and in contrast the red heifer is taken outside the camp, and it is also not similar to the scapegoat since the red heifer is sprinkled towards the tent of meeting by the deputy high priest and is considered a sin offering, with its status as sacrificial meat.[44] These discussions about the nature of the arationality of the red heifer, not found by the other arational commandments, is predicated on the idea that the red heifer is uniquely incomprehensible, as per the Midrash Rabba and Tanchuma above.

 

On the other hand, Midrash Tanchuma in another teaching does not appear to distinguish between the cleansing of the red heifer and the rest of the laws of purity, placing them all in the same arational category of laws, arguing that they are effective only due to the will of G-d.[45] This generalisation is implied also in Maimonides, where he writes in his legal work Mishneh Torah[46] that an aspect of the law of the red heifer is that ‘even the slightest amount of the water touches any portion of the body of the impure person, the sprinkling is effective. This applies even if the sprinkling fell on the tips of his fingers or on the tip of his lips. Similarly, when a vessel contracted impurity from a corpse and the water was sprinkled on it, if even the slightest amount of the sprinkling water touches the body of the vessel, the sprinkling is effective.’ On the other hand, he doesn’t suggest this is the unique aspect of the red heifer that makes it arational, but rather writes at the end of the laws of purity[47] about the general arationality of the laws of purity, including the red heifer that they are all arational. Maimonides writes:

 

It is a clear and apparent matter that the concepts of purity and impurity are Scriptural decrees and they are not matters determined by a person's understanding and they are included in the category of chukim. Similarly, immersion in a mikveh to ascend from impurity is included in the category of chukim, because impurity is not mud or filth that can be washed away with water. Instead, the immersion is a Scriptural decree and requires focusing the intent of one's heart. Therefore our Sages said: “When one immersed, but did not intend to purify himself,” it is as if he did not immerse. Although it is a Scriptural decree, there is an allusion involved: One who focuses his heart on purifying himself becomes purified once he immerses, even though there was no change in his body. Similarly, one who focuses his heart on purifying his soul from the impurities of the soul, which are wicked thoughts and bad character traits, becomes purified when he resolves within his heart to distance himself from such counsel and immerse his soul in the waters of knowledge. And Ezekiel[48] states: “I will pour over you pure water and you will be purified from all your impurities and from all your false deities, I will purify you.”

 

Similarly, Nachmanides maintains that the red heifer is not entirely distinct from the other categories of arational statutes, as, while it is different than other sacrifices that affect atonement or purity, like for a discharge or a new born, the red heifer, however, that is performed outside the temple, in the field, is similar to the scapegoat that is also considered an arational statute. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi[49] goes further in the generalisation of the red heifer to argue that the phrase ‘This is the statute of the Torah’ implies that the red heifer is a reflection of the whole Torah whereby all the commandments have the distinct feature of the red heifer – the combination of fire in the form of ashes, indicating the desire of the soul to let go of its connection to this world and ascend to G-d, and water that flows downward, indicating the requirement to follow the commandment in the physical world.

 

Manuscripts

 

These two views, whether the red heifer is in its own category of arationality or not, can help explain the variations in the Oxford manuscripts. The version that quotes unabridged from the verse: ‘This is the statute from the Torah,’ suggests the view that the red heifer is exclusively the only statute of the Torah. This is consistent with the view that the red heifer is indeed in its own category of arational laws of the Torah that have no reason at all. The other versions that only quote the words ‘Statute of the Torah’ or ‘This is a statute’ does not negate the idea that the red heifer is part of the general category of the statute laws that have no reason. As mentioned, these two views are consistent with the two approaches in understanding the premise to the question of Rashi, whether it is about the exclusivity of the red heifer as a ‘chukah’ – statute, or merely about the redundancy of the word chukah alongside the word Torah or the meaning of the word chukah.

 

This explains also the second variation in the manuscript that adds in the margin and subsequently included in the main text the second question: ‘What reason is there in it?’ This presupposes the view of Rashi that there is in fact no reason at all for the law of red heifer, as opposed to other arational laws that may be explained with some rationale.[50] This would be consistent with the view that the red heifer is in its own category of an arational statute. Finally, we may explain through this distinction between the two categories, the marginal note in the manuscript that monin means verbal taunt, which is inconvenient but not anything more harmful, like financial, or other physical threat to cause the Jews to abandon the laws of the Torah. This suggests the idea that the challenge is in a sense less in the case of the red heifer than other arational laws that may be subject to more intense criticism. This is because a law that has no rationale at all, such as the red heifer, will not be challenged to the same degree as a law that is partly rational but is of no apparent purpose or contains inherent inconsistencies.[51]

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, the law of the red heifer in the view of Rashi, as presented in the Oxford Hebrew manuscripts, may be viewed as consisting of an arational law that is not merely a part of the general category of arational laws (chukim) but its own category of having no reason at all. This explains the three distinct variations in the manuscripts: It explains a. the version, as found in the printed edition, that contains all three opening words ‘(1) This is (2) the statute (3) of the Torah’ – Zot Chukat Hatorah’ - implying exclusivity of the law of the red heifer. b. It explains also the additional question: ‘What is the reason for it’ - added in a margin of one of the manuscripts and subsequently added in the printed edition, as the question presupposes the idea that the red heifer has no reason at all – further highlighting it being in its own category, and c. it explains also the translation of ‘monin’ found in the margin of one of the manuscripts, referring to verbal taunting, implying a lesser degree of taunting due to the lack of any rationale to the red heifer law; observed justifiably only due to the decree of the Divine will. 

 


Footnotes

[1] Numbers 19:1-2.

[2] Rashi on the Talmud: it appears they are only the decree of the king, as in I Samuel (30:25): ‘And it was from that day on, that he made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel until this day,’ and Genesis (47:22): ‘Only the farmland of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh.’

[3] Talmud Yoma 67b: ‘The phrase: And you shall keep my statutes (Leviticus 18:4), is a reference to matters that Satan and the nations of the world challenge (Rashi on the Talmud: The evil inclination respond to them causing the Jewish to err that the Torah is not true for what purpose do they have, therefore it states ‘chok’ – ‘I am the Lord’ – I decreed them for you). They are: 1. The prohibitions against eating pork; 2. wearing garments that are made from diverse kinds of material, i.e., wool and linen; 3. performing the ḥalitza ceremony with a yevama, a widow who must participate in a levirate marriage or ḥalitza; 4. the purification ceremony of the leper; 5. and the scapegoat. And lest you say these are meaningless acts, therefore the verse states: “I am the Lord”( Leviticus 18:4), to indicate: I am the Lord, I decreed these statutes and you have no right to doubt them.’

[4] Chukat 7: R. Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi, “There are four things that the evil drive would refute, and for each of them is written the word, chukah (i.e., an unquestioned statute). Now these concern the following: (1) the nakedness of a brother's wife, (2) diverse kinds, (3) the scapegoat, and (4) the red heifer.”

[5] Yoma 67b.

[6] Midrash Tanchuma continues to elaborate: ‘In regard to the nakedness of a brother's wife, it is written (in Leviticus 18:16), “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife”; [yet if the brother] dies without children [it is written] (in Deuteronomy 25:5), “her brother-in-law shall have sexual intercourse with her [and take her for a wife].” And it is written about the sexual prohibitions (in Leviticus 18:5), “And you shall keep [all] My unquestioned statutes [...].” In regard to diverse kinds, it is written (in Deuteronomy 22:11), “You shall not wear interwoven stuff, [wool and flax together]”; yet a linen cloak with [wool] tassels is permitted. And for [this commandment also] it is written, [that it is] an unquestioned statute. [Thus it is written (in Leviticus 19:19),] “You shall keep My unquestioned statute. You shall not mate your cattle with a different kind…, [nor shall you wear a garment with diverse kinds of interwoven stuff].” In regard to the scapegoat, it is written (in Leviticus 16:26), “And the one who sets the azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes”; yet it is [the goat] itself that atones for others. And for [this commandment also] it is written (in Leviticus 16:34), “And this shall be to you an unquestioned statute forever.” In regard to the red heifer, where is it shown? Since we are taught (in Parah 4:4), “All engaged with the [rite of the red] heifer from beginning to end render [their] garments unclean”; yet it is [the heifer] itself that purifies [what is] unclean. And for [this commandment also] it is written, [that it is] an unquestioned statute. Thus it is written (in Numbers 19:2), “This is an unquestioned statute of the Torah.”’

[7] Fol. 116.

[8] Fol. 143.

[9] Fol. 176.

[10] Fol. 107.

[11] Fol. 88.

[12] Fol. 83.

[13] Fol. 52.

[14] Fol. 41.

[15] Fol. 39.

[16] On Numbers 19:2.

[17] Fol. 176.

[18] Leviticus 25:17. Rashi comments: And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow-Jew: Here, Scripture is warning against wronging verbally, namely, that one must not provoke his fellow Jew, nor may one offer advice to him that is unsound for him but according to the mode of life or the benefit of the advisor. And if you say, “Who can tell whether I had evil intentions. Therefore, it says, “and you shall fear your G-d.”-The One Who knows all thoughts-He knows. Concerning anything held in the heart and known only to the one who bears this thought in his mind, it says “and you shall fear your G-d!” Talmud Baba Metzia 58b.

[19] Leviticus 19:33. Rashi comments: This refers to tormenting with words [as opposed to torment through other means, e.g., financially, as in Lev. 25:14. See Rashi]. For instance, do not say to him, “Only yesterday you were an idol worshipper, and now you come to learn Torah, which was given over by the Almighty G-d Himself!”’ Torat Kohanim 19:82.

[20] Though Leviticus 25:14 that refers to tormenting financially has the same expression (see Rashi there).

[21] 49:26.

[22] Leviticus 25:14.

[23] The problem with this understanding of the question is that Rashi has already explained the meaning of Chukah in Genesis 26:5, among other places that is earlier than our verse in Numbers 19:2.

[24] Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi on Numbers 19:2.

[25] Numbers 19:14.

[26] Leviticus 7:1.

[27] Leviticus 7:37.

[28] Leviticus 14:54.

[29] Exodus 12:43.

[30] 26:5.

[31] Rashi on Genesis 26:5: ‘My ordinances (chukotai): matters which our evil inclination and the heathen nations argue against the necessity of prohibiting, such as the eating of swine’s flesh and the wearing of garments made of a mixture of wool and linen — things for which there are no apparent reasons but which are the King’s decrees and enactments imposed on His subjects (Talmud Yoma 67b).’ Interestingly, one may argue that the additional marginal note: ‘What reason is there?’ may be derived from Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 26:5, where this phrase is used. We will argue however for a reason why the phrase may not have been included in our case and why it indeed was later added.

[32] Rashi on Genesis 26:5: ‘And my laws: The plural serves to include with the written Law also the Oral Law which prescribes commands that are an ancient institution given by G-d to Moses from Sinai (cf. Genesis Rabbah 64:4).’

[33] Likkutei Sichot 8:123.

[34] 12:43.

[35] Bamidbar Rabba, Chukot 3: Rabbi Isaac opened his discourse with the verse (Ecclesiastes 7:23): ‘All this I tested with wisdom; I said, "I will become wise," but it was far from me.’ Solomon meant: All these I have fully comprehended but as regards the section dealing with the red heifer, I have investigated and inquired and examined: ‘All this I tested with wisdom; I said, "I will become wise," but it was far from me.’

[36] Midrash Tanchuma 8: ‘That they bring unto you a red heifer without blemish (Number 19:2): R. Jose bar Hanina said, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses. ‘To you I am revealing the reason for the heifer, but to others it is an unquestioned statute.’” 

[37] Midrash Rabba, Chukot 19: ‘This is the ordinance - As it is said verse (Job:14): Who gave (brought forth) purity to one who is impure? Such as Abraham from Terah, Hezekiah from Achaz, etc , Israel from the nations of the world, the world to come from this world. Who did so, who commanded so, who decreed it so, if not The One! There we learned (Parah 4:4): those who occupy themselves with the Parah from beginning to end, impurify their clothes, but it makes clothes Pure. G-d said: I carved a law (into the fabric of creation), a decree I made, you have no ability to transgress (override) My law!’

[38] Midrash Tanchuma 7.

[39] Sefer Hachinuch (397:2) argues that this may not be the wonder of the red heifer: ‘And yet many medicinal herbs of the field and [medicinal] trees - from the cedars that are in Lebanon to the hyssop on the wall - are full of mysteries [that operate] in opposite [ways]. They heat the cold and cool the hot. And if we understood the nature of the spirit, its root, its illness and its health, we would also understand [perhaps] (about the sickness), since the mystery of the heifer is also to sicken the soul and render impure those who are involved in the burning, while its ashes heal from the sickness of impurity. Yet it is not clear that this would yield any result, but the love of the sacred and the desire to understand the hidden moves the quill to write.’

[40] Midrash Tanchuma 8: A certain stranger questioned Rabban Johanan ben Zakkay, “These things which you do seem like a kind of sorcery. You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. Then [when] one of you is defiled by a corpse, they sprinkle two or three drops on him, and you say to him, ‘You are clean.’” He said to him, “Have you ever had a bad spirit of madness enter you?” He told him, “No.” He said to him, “Perhaps you have seen someone into whom a bad spirit has entered?” He told him, “Yes.” He said to him, “So what did you do for him?” He said to him, “They bring roots and burn them beneath him. Then they sprinkle water on [the spirit], and it flees.” He said to him, “Let your ears hear what you are uttering with your mouth. Similarly is this spirit an unclean spirit. Thus it is stated (in Zech. 13:2), ‘and I will also remove the prophets and the unclean spirit from the land.’ They sprinkle the purifying water upon him, and he flees.”

[41] Sefer Hachinuch 397:1.

[42] Sefer Hachinuch (397:1) negates this as arational: And now, the listener should not think that the matter of its secret and the matter of its being an arational commandment (chok) is that the ashes affect purification, as one will find a similar [process] with other sacrifices for the person with a discharge or a new mother, whose purification is completed by the offering of their sacrifices. In the next section (397:2) he however seems to concede: ‘The real wonder, so far as I have heard, is in its purifying the impure, yet rendering impure those involved in its burning. And even though the same is true for all burnt-offerings from cows and goats - that the one who burns them makes his clothes impure at the time that he burns them until they become ashes - nonetheless, their ashes do not purify.’

[43] Likkutei Sichot 8:125.

[44] Numbers 19:3-9. See Rashi.

[45] Midrash Tanchuma 8: After the gentile had left, [R. Johanan's] disciples said to him, “Our master, you repelled this one with a [mere] reed [of an answer]. What have you to say to us?” He said to them, “By your lives, a corpse does not defile, nor does a heifer purify, nor does water purify. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, has said, ‘I have enacted a statute for you. I have issued a decree, [and] you are not allowed to transgress against my decree.’” Thus it is written (in Numb. 19:2), “This is the statute of the Torah.”

[46] Parah Adumah 12:1.

[47] Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Taharot 11:12.

[48] 36:25.

[49] Likkutei Torah Chukat.

[50] It would seem according to this argument that Rashi in his commentary on the Torah in the book Numbers (19:2) that the red heifer is in its own category would be subtly different than the way he expresses his view in his commentary on Genesis (26:5) where he writes in general terms: ‘matters which our evil inclination and the heathen nations argue against the necessity of prohibiting, such as the eating of swine’s flesh and the wearing of garments made of a mixture of wool and linen — things for which there are no apparent reasons (ta’am) but which are the King’s decrees and enactments imposed on His subjects (Yoma 67b).’ In Talmud Yoma (67b), however, where the Talmud states: ‘The phrase: And you shall keep my statutes, is a reference to matters that Satan and the nations of the world challenge. They are: The prohibitions against eating pork; wearing garments of wool and linen; performing the ḥalitza ceremony with a yevama, a widow who must participate in a levirate marriage or ḥalitza; the purification ceremony of the leper; and the scapegoat. And lest you say they are meaningless acts, therefore the verse states: “I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:4), to indicate: I am the Lord, I decreed these statutes and you have no right to doubt them,’ Rashi comments not with the word there is no reason but ‘no purpose (to’elet) in all these’ and therefore ‘the Torah in not true.’ This would point to the idea that there is the challenge of no purpose that applies to the above statutes mentioned in the Talmud (excluding the red heifer) and the challenge of no reason, which is a stronger argument that applies to the red heifer.

[51] This may be indicated in the language of the Talmud Yoma (67b) pertaining to the laws of the statutes (chukim), other than the red heifer, where the language the Talmud uses in the criticism is ‘tohu’ – chaos. Rashi elaborates on this in his commentary to the Talmud by explaining that the question is what is the purpose (to’elet) and that since there is no purpose the Torah must not be true and should be abandoned. This is different with regard to the red heifer where the premise is that there is no rationale at all since it is purely the decree of G-d.

 

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