Red Heifer The Ceremony

Red Heifer Preparation

The Ceremony

The Bridge

On account of the principle already familiar to us that impurity from below rises up, a special bridge was erected which led out from the eastern gate of the Holy Temple, and connected with the "Mount of Anointment" - that is the spot on the Mount of Olives, directly facing the gate and aligned with the entrance to the Sanctuary, where the purification process was conducted.

This bridge was especially constructed of arches which overlapped one atop the other, so that there were hollow spaces under the path which the priest tread. In this manner contact with impurity was stopped, as detailed in Biblical law. It was by this same bridge that the scapegoat was taken out of the Temple and into the desert on the Day of Atonement.

The heifer, the officiating priest who will be burning it, and all those who will be aiding or assisting in the ceremony, make their way over this bridge to the appointed location on the Mount of Olives.

Deliberate Contamination - To Undermine the Influence of the Sadducees

Meanwhile, the elders of Israel left the Temple earlier, and already reached the place on the Mount of Olives prior to the arrival of the priest and his entourage. They embarked across the bridge by foot, as opposed to riding, to demonstrate how much they cherished the commandment of G-d.

At the Place of Burning, they await the arrival of the procession. The Mishna records that an unusual procedure took place once the priest reached them: After the entire week during which he was so carefully guarded from the slightest shadow of impurity, the elders would deliberately contaminate him! Once again, this was done on account of the serious dispute between the Sages and the Sadducees. The traditional Mosaic law which states that immersion is sufficient purification for the attending priest, and that it is unnecessary for him to wait until after sunset, was not accepted by the Sadducees. By not accepting any traditional laws, the Sadducees declared war on the system established by the G-d of Israel Himself. In order to prove and maintain the authority and authenticity of these laws, the sages were careful at such an important and public occasion as the burning of a new heifer, to undermine the seditious Saduccean influence with the greatest publicity, and in the most ostentatious manner, as possible.

"My Master, the Kohen Gadol!"

The sages of Israel placed their hands upon the kohen's head. (Some opinions hold that it was by this laying of the hands that they made him impure; other authorities maintain that they touched him with some other source of impurity). To facilitate the purpose of immediate purification from this contamination (so that he could burn the heifer directly, without waiting, as per the prevailing opinion of the sages), there was a special mikveh built at this spot for the kohen to immerse himself before beginning his task. With their hands upon his head, the elders declared: "My master, the Kohen Gadol! Immerse yourself once!"

The kohen descended into the Chamber of Immersion and purified himself, and came up and dried himself. Through this act of contamination and purification, witnessed by a large assembly in the presence of the elders of Israel, the influence of the Sadducees and their illicit, unfounded rulings was silenced. At the same time, with the exception of this necessarily deliberate device which had its emphasis on the one specific halachic point of not waiting until sunset, the hallmark of the entire procedure was purity in the highest degree. The most elaborate precautions had been taken for that purpose, as we have seen throughout.

A singular altar is erected at this spot. The wood arranged on the altar is preferably made up of cedar, pine, cypress and fig, for these are generally free from knots and holes. The fire will be ignited from its western side, the end facing the Temple. The wood is placed in the shape of a small tower, wide at the bottom and narrower towards the top. Small spaces are made in the pile to let the air circulate.

The heifer is bound to the altar with cords made from reed-grass, which do not become impure. It is placed on top of the wood arrangement with its head on the south side, and its face westward - towards the Temple. The kohen stands on the eastern side, also facing west.

Red Heifer Fire

Returning to Numbers 19, we recall that G-d's instructions state "... And you shall give her to Eleazar the kohen, and he shall have it brought outside the camp. And she shall be slaughtered in his presence... " At the time this commandment was decreed, Eleazar was assistant to his father Aharon, the Kohen Gadol. These words teach us that the actual slaughtering of the heifer is performed outside the Temple, and that it can be carried out by a lay kohen; it is not a required exclusively of the Kohen Gadol (though in reality the Kohen Gadol always guarded the honor zealously within their own ranks).

The priest stands atop the altar and slaughters the heifer. He uses his right hand for the act, then gathers the blood, not in a vessel, but in his left hand. With his right index finger he sprinkles from it seven times, standing opposite the entrance to the Holy Temple, facing that direction all the while and looking towards the entrance, as the verse states: "towards the front of the Tent of Meeting."

He descends from the altar and lights the fire, then the heifer is placed on the fire. He takes up the three ingredients required by the Torah to throw into the fire: cedar wood, hyssop, and wool dyed with scarlet.

Publicly Acknowledging Our Adherence to Scripture

Lifting each item, the priest faces all those assembled and asks aloud:

"This cedar? This cedar? This cedar?"
"This hyssop? This hyssop? This hyssop?"
"This crimson dye? This crimson dye? This crimson dye?"

He asks for confirmation of the identity of these particulars, repeating the question three times for each thing. To which the entire congregation gathered there responds resoundingly: "Yes! Yes! Yes!" for each.

This was done because there are many variations of these things; of the cedar tree alone, there are seven different varieties. There are four species of hyssop, and the scarlet dye which is used is obtained from a particular type of worm, though it can be produced from other sources as well. The priest publicly acknowledges and displays that these are the types which are required by Scripture.

He wraps the hyssop together with the cedar inside the crimson wool, and throws it into the belly of the heifer - as it is written, "and he shall throw it into the fire of the heifer." These words teach us that the ingredients must be cast into the fire while it is burning; that is, he must wait until the majority of the heifer has been consumed, but he also must not wait until the entire mass has been reduced to ashes.

After the fire is finished and all has been completely burned, everything there is ground down and pulverized - including the wood, and all parts of the animal. The entire black mass is beaten with rods and sifted, and these are the ashes which will be saved and used for purity.

The ashes would be divided into three portions. One share was watched for safe keeping in the Holy Temple, within the wall in front of the Women's Court. Another portion was kept at the burning station on the Mount of Anointment, and the third was divided for use between all the priestly shifts serving in the Temple. The attending priests would then use their respective portions to purify the country folk and the impure, while the allotment that was on the mount, was to be used for the priest who came to burn a new heifer.

The third portion that was kept within the wall in the Holy Temple was not used at all - it was placed there as a remembrance, as the Holy One commanded: "and it shall be for the congregation of the Children of Israel for a remembrance."

The Sprinkling of the Ashes

How the Process of Purification is Conducted

The Torah established that one who has had contact with the dead is impure for seven days. During the course of that week, on the third day and on the seventh day, the individual would be sprinkled with the waters of sanctification, in the following manner.

A vessel is filled with "running waters," which is water flowing from a natural source, like a spring. Some of the ashes are flung into this same vessel, and this mixture of ashes and water are sprinkled on the body of the man on his third and seventh day, after sunrise. It was also sprinkled on clothing or vessels that became impure by having been within the same tent (or any enclosure) that contained a body.


How Was the Sprinkling Done?

The waters were administered by one who was already pure. This was not done by hand; he who purifies the others ties a bundle of three stalks of hyssop. Each twig must have one bud, and he dips the tops of the buds into the solution in the vessel. He then uses the hyssop to sprinkle the water onto the persons or the vessel.

Sprinkling the Ashes

It is not necessary for a large amount of the sanctified waters to come in contact with the impure. As long as a slight amount of the water touches him, it is sufficient to purify. Even if a tiny drop touched only his fingertip or lips, it would be enough.

All the people who are involved with the heifer and its preparation, from beginning to end, become impure from contact with it. The same applies to their garments. They were required to immerse themselves and wash their clothing in order to be reinstated. And it is this concept - that the pure are rendered impure by the very same agent which brings purity to those who are lacking it - that is the mystery of the commandment, beyond the grasp of all understanding. For this is a profound paradox, that the same instrument can have opposite effects.