Parshat Chukat

Parshat Chukat

In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.


The first part of Chukat describes priestly functions, seemingly misplaced from Leviticus. It’s followed by an episode of Moses angrily striking a rock to produce water, leading God to deny him entry into Canaan. At the end of the parshah, Aaron dies.


One of the priestly functions is the rite of the red heifer. The purpose of the sacrifice is to create a water, ash, and herb mix that purifies persons exposed to corpses. A strange property of the ritual is that it renders the priest conducting it impure. The ritual as a whole — from the particular characteristics of the cow to the order and rules of performance — evade any attempt at rationalization.


Bamidbar 19:2-7

This is the ritual 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. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. … after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening.


For Thursday


Because the detailed rules of the ritual lead to Talmudic discussion about the application of the rules. For example, the statement “on which no yoke has been laid” raises questions about the definition of a yoke and whether it is referring to the yoke as an object or to a cow that had been put to work. The rabbis conclude that it is referring to harnessing the cow for the intent of putting it to work. Outside of the Mishnah, the rabbis discuss in midrash the meaning of the ritual and whether its meaning can be discerned.


Mishnah Parah, which means cow is almost entirely about the ritual of the Red Heifer. According to the text, since the time of Moses, the ritual had only been performed nine times. None of the rabbis discussing it would have directly observed the ritual.


Mishnah Parah 1:1-4:4

Rabbi Eliezer says: the heifer is no more than one year old and the cow is no more than two years old. But the sages ruled: the heifer may be even two years old and the red cow even three or four years old. Rabbi Meir says: even five years old, though she is old. But they did not wait with it so long since it might in the meantime grow some black hairs and [thus] become invalid.

Rabbi Eliezer says: a [red] cow for the sin-offering that is pregnant is valid, But the sages say: it is invalid. Rabbi Eliezer says: it may not be bought from non-Jews, But the sages say: it is valid. …

If the horns or the hoofs of the [red] cow are black they are chopped off. The eye ball, the teeth and the tongue do not invalidate the [red] cow. One that is dwarf-like is valid. If there was on it an extra digit and it was cut off: Rabbi Judah says that it is invalid. Rabbi Shimon says: wherever, if removed, no red hair grows in its place is it invalid.

If one had ridden on it, leaned on it, hung on its tail, crossed a river by its help, doubled up its leading rope, or put one’s cloak on it, it is invalid. But if one had only tied it up by its leading rope or made for it a sandal to prevent it from slipping or spread one’s cloak on it because of flies, it is valid. This is the general rule: wherever anything is done for its own sake, it remains valid; but if for the sake of another, it becomes invalid.

All who are occupied with the preparation of the [red] cow from the beginning to until the end, defile their clothing …

Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 7-8 (Midrash)

  1. Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi, “There are four things that the evil inclination would refute [as irrational], and for each of them is written [the word,] chukah (i.e. an unquestioned statute). Now these concern the following: (1) the [contradiction between the prohibition of seeing] nakedness of a brother’s wife [and the requirement of the Levirate marriage], (2) diverse kinds, (3) the scapegoat, and (4) the red heifer.” … In regard to diverse kinds, it is written (in Deut 22:11), “You shall not wear interwoven stuff, [wool and flax together]”; yet a linen cloak with [wool] tassels is permitted. … In regard to the red heifer, where is it shown? Since we are taught (in Mishnah 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.”

  1. 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.'” As Rav Huna said, “It is written (in Ps. 75:3), ‘For I will set a time, when I Myself will judge with equity.’ It is also written (Zech. 14:6), ‘On that day there shall be no light of cold and frost.’ Things that are hidden from you in this world are going to be clear to you in the world to come, as with the blind person who gains his sight. … Things that were not revealed to Moses were revealed to R. Akiva and his colleagues, “his eye sees every precious thing.” [Job 28:10]. R. Jose bar Hanina said, “It was implied was that all heifers perish, but [Moses’] lasts forever.” R. Aha said in the name of R. Jose bar Hanina, “When Moses ascended into the firmament he heard the voice of the Holy One, blessed be He, sitting and being occupied with the parashah of the [red heifer], and he was reciting a halakhah [Mishnah Parah 1:1] in the name of its author, ‘My son, Eliezer says, “The calf [whose neck is to be broken] is to be one year old, but the [red] heifer is to be two years old.'” Moses said, ‘Master of the world, do not the realms above and below belong to you? Now you are citing a halakhah in the name of flesh and blood? [R. Eliezer]?’ He [God] said to him, “A righteous man is going to arise in my world and is first going to begin [his teaching] with the parashah of the [red] heifer …

A certain stranger questioned Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, “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. … They sprinkle the purifying water upon him, and he flees.”

After the gentile left, [R. Yohanan’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 “This is the statute of the Torah.” (Numbers 19:2).

For Saturday


Menachem Mendel of Vorki, 19th century, Poland

The secret of the red heifer is: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18].

(His grandson R. Mendel [early 20th century] … offered this opinion: “Look here, the red heifer made the [ritually] clean unclean and made the [ritually unclean clean; that is, the priest made himself unclean in order to cleanse [people] other than himself.”)

Bamidbar 20:14

From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom …

For Saturday


Structure of the Soul

Nefesh : “animal soul,” drives and desires

Ruach: connection between Neshamah and Nefesh, location of free will, consciousness

Neshamah: closest to God, God-within-us, spiritual soul

Ya’akov Yosef of Polnnoye, 18th century, Ukraine

The dwelling place of the soul [neshamah] is in the brain, which is called Kadesh. The soul [nefesh] sends out agents to “matter,” that is, the body, which [normally] pursues permitted desires, as Scripture [has Esau] saying, “Feed me, I beg you, [some of the red stuff (adom)'” (Genesis 25:30). For this [reason], he is called Edom.

Now, this is the king of Edom, who rules over the limbs of the body, without being subject to “form,” until you arouse your heart with holy thoughts, that is, thoughts of repentance, which come from Kadesh.

“Thus says your brother, Israel” — for you should pay attention to the purpose of your creation in matter and form in the world, [which is] in order to make your matter subject to form, so that they should exist in harmony and peace, and not be opponents.


We should develop our awareness to harmonize our bodily desires and our spiritual aspirations.