Red Heifer The Oral Tradition: Shedding Light on the Secrets of the Bible

The Oral Tradition: Shedding Light on the Secrets of the Bible

Although the ordinance of the red heifer is indeed a chok, a Divine statute which by its very nature defies human understanding, our Creator who is the author of that law enjoins us to expound upon His Torah, and to find as much meaning and explanation as our understanding allows... for the sake of His glory, and for the honor of His word.

We can find many, many levels of meaning even according to our limited intellect; the more we delve, the more we stand stilled and awestruck by the wondrous wisdom of the word of G-d. And even though we know that we shall never reveal the true nature of this matter, we are still commanded to explore and investigate. As many of our greatest thinkers and sages have stated, "the highest level of knowledge is to know that we know nothing at all."

When a human being can humble himself before His maker in submission and recognition of own smallness, he may begin the process of truly drawing nearer to his Creator. This very process of search, of sincerely delving into the meaning and message of the Torah for us today, helps to enrich our relationship with G-d.

We can offer some allegorical interpretations and allusions to explain aspects of the red heifer. There are many, many more which we shall not cite in these pages, for the penetrating insight of the sages of Israel knows no limit. Yet interpretations like these only help us to appreciate the wisdom of God's Torah; they do not purport to relate the real truth of the red heifer! For ultimately, the very idea that this precept is a chok means that the final explanation is not attainable by our intellect. Only Moshe, who was not subject to the limitations of human intellect, was able to reach that level of knowledge and yet remain in this world.

The greatness of Israel is her ability to adhere to laws that have no explanation, such as the red heifer. Israel lives by the word of God. The laws of kashrut, the dietary laws, are another example of a chok. No reason is given by Scripture for these rules. In recent years, many science and health experts have concurred that one who follows a kosher diet is healthier and less prone to certain diseases. This may indeed be so - yet let no one think for an instant that God gave these laws to Israel for health reasons alone. For kashrut is a chok; it is a diet of the soul.

This is the essence of the following anecdote, recorded in the Talmud:

"An idolater once confronted Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai on the issue of the red heifer, and posed this question to him: this ritual which you Jews perform, with all these details - it all just seems like some sort of superstitious, magical rite! You bring a heifer, burn and pulverize it, and save it's ashes. Then when one of you becomes impure on account of exposure to death, you sprinkle a couple of drops on him, and you say that he has become pure!"

The great sage responded: "Have you ever in your life been possessed by an evil spirit?"
"No," said the pagan.
"But have you ever seen someone who was?"
"And what did they do for him?" asked the rabbi. "What treatment was administered, to relieve his condition?"
"Well, the roots of certain plants are gathered and brought, and these are burned underneath him. Then water is thrown upon it, and the unclean spirit leaves him."

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai said to him, "let your ears hear what your mouth is saying. For the verse in Zechariah 13:2 says "and also the prophets and the unclean spirit I will cause to pass from the land." We sprinkle some of the solution on him, and it departs.

When the idolator left, the students confronted Rabban Yochanan. "Our master! You pushed him away easily by telling him a simple explanation. But what will you tell us? We want the real truth!"

Said the great sage: "By your lives, understand this well: it is not the death which renders impure, nor the waters which cleanse - it is all the word of God. So said the Holy One, "I have engraved an ordinance with no explanation - and you cannot transgress it."


One of the most important foundations of Jewish faith is the belief that G-d gave Moshe an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text. This Oral Tradition was given directly by God at the Revelation of Mount Sinai. We are taught that when Moshe was with God for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18), the Holy One taught him a set of rules and principles of the Torah which could be applied to every eventuality and situation that could arise in the course of time. God also revealed to Moshe all the details of how the commandments should be observed. Among these, He revealed many things which would not be used until much later. While Moshe was on the mount, God taught him the Written Torah during the day, and the Oral Torah at night. This is how Moshe was able to distinguish between day and night while he was with God, since "Moshe entered the cloud where the Divine was revealed" (ibid. 20:18).

Thus when we speak of the Torah, we actually refer to "two" Torahs, which are one and the same: the Written Torah, known as the Tanach (from the acronym of the Torah - the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, sometimes called the Old Testament) and the Oral Torah. Both are alluded to in God's words to Moshe: "Come up to Me to the mountain, and I will give you the Torah and the commandments" (Ex. 24:12).

This provides the explanation for the many, many instances where the Torah refers to details which are not included in the written text - as if we must be aware of these details from some other source. These details can all be found in the Oral Tradition. We shall see that in this manner many of the details pertaining to the red heifer are recorded in the Oral Tradition.

Some Other Important Examples:

The Torah states "You shall slaughter your cattle... as I have commanded you" (Deut. 12:21), which clearly implies that there is a commandment concerning ritual slaughtering. In fact, these rules comprise one of the most complicated areas of Jewish law. Yet the details concerning ritual slaughtering, the kosher method of killing animals by which Jews are permitted to eat meat, are nowhere to be found in the written text... for it is an oral commandment.

Similarly, complicated observances such as tzizit (fringes - see Num. 15:38) and tefillin (phylacteries - Deut. 6:8) are given in the Biblical verses, but no instructions for their fulfillment are listed. These details, too, were commanded and clarified within the framework of the Oral Tradition.

Even the most basic cornerstone of Jewish life, the Sabbath, does not receive any clarification within the written text as to just how it is to be kept. Yet the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments! This is why G-d said, "You shall keep the Sabbath holy, as I have commanded your fathers... " (Jer. 17:22) - meaning, as I have commanded them in the Oral Tradition.

The Oral Tradition and the Tanach Are Equally Divine

The Jewish people depend on the Oral Tradition for the interpretation of the Torah. Indeed, as we have illustrated above, the Bible simply cannot be understood without it. These examples show that the written text could even be perceived as being defective unless it is supplemented by the information contained in the Oral Tradition. This is why believing in the Divine source of the Oral Tradition is so important for the Jewish people... for if it is denied that this tradition is God-given, this can lead to the denial of the Divine origins of the written text as well. Thus, if one does not believe in the Oral Tradition, he is regarded as one who does not accept any aspect of the Torah.

Originally, this tradition was meant to be transmitted by word of mouth only, throughout the ages. It was always handed down from master to student. Since the time of Moshe, it had been passed down in this manner in every generation. This process ensured that this information was transmitted in a clear manner. Any student who had a question was always able to ask, as opposed to studying from a text which is only written - it can always be misinterpreted.

The Oral Tradition is Committed to Writing

However, during the era of the Roman empire, decrees were passed which forbade teaching the Jewish faith and spreading knowledge of the G-d of Israel. The great sages of Israel were persecuted, tortured and killed for the crime of teaching. At this time, it was feared that all those who possessed this knowledge would perish, and it was decided that the traditions could be committed to writing. This vast body of information was compiled and preserved in the Talmud and Midrashim, but this entire area of knowledge is still referred to as the Oral Tradition.

Historical Background: Pharisees and Sadducees

During the era of the Second Temple, the influence of apostasy began to make inroads in Israel. The mainstream Pharisees (who held fast to the Oral Tradition of Bible interpretation) were opposed by the cult of the Sadducees. The former upheld the performance of the commandments as they were received by Moshe at Mount Sinai, and passed down through every subsequent generation by the people of Israel. The Sadducees did not accept the traditions of Sinai; by opposing the Oral Tradition, they rebelled against G-d Himself - for it was He, in His ultimate wisdom, who decreed that this process should keep the Torah alive and bind it steadfast to His people through every generation and circumstance.

Instead, the Sadducees cut themselves off from this body of tradition, and translated and interpreted the Bible in a very literal sense. Thus, a classic example of the difference between the two groups is their opposing interpretation of the famous verse "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand... " (Ex. 21:24). The Sadducees interpret this verse, which deals with payment for personal damages, in a literal sense. However, the Pharisees received a tradition from Moshe that these words are meant idiomatically and not literally - that is, full monetary compensation must be made for the loss caused by these injuries.

The Sadducees also denied the belief that there will be a resurrection of the dead, since this important principle of Jewish faith is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, but only alluded to; like other interpretations of the Pharisees, it too is included in the Oral Tradition.

While the Pharisees could be considered the true guardians of authentic Judaism - for their influence has kept adherence to the true Biblical ways alive amongst the Jewish people to this very day - the Sadducees sought ways to undermine the former's influence, and to establish customs and practices of their own making. Because many of these men came from aristocratic families, there were periods when they succeeded in infiltrating the Sanhedrin, where they deliberately enacted legislation that changed the accepted customs which had been practiced for generations.

Moshe - and the red heifer

"Speak to the Children of Israel and have them bring you a red heifer... "

Slaughtering the Red Heifer

The oral traditions that expound upon the meaning of this verse, explain that the heifer is to be paid for with funds donated by all of Israel. In the preparation of the first heifer, made while yet in the desert, Moshe acted as treasurer: "... have them bring you a red heifer." We have learned that the precept of the heifer was given by God following the debacle of the golden calf; God decreed that since Israel made the calf out of their gold, they should bring the funds for the heifer. And how fitting it is that it should all be brought to Moshe, who acted as the "treasurer," the overseer of the project... because it was Moshe who prayed for Israel and beseeched God to forgive their sin.

The words of this first verse have even more meaning and depth, for they also allude to the singular connection that Moshe has with the precept of the red heifer:

"Said Rabbi Yose b. R. Chaninah: What is the meaning of the words "And they shall take it unto you?" G-d told Moshe, 'to you, I reveal the secret - but to all others, it is a chok, a decree with no explanation'." And let Scripture record that "they shall take it unto you" for all time; even if all the other heifers are null, yours endures forever - for all the other heifers were sanctified from the one that Moshe made, and those ashes were hidden away for the future.

How much does G-d concern Himself with our mundane world? The following teaching demonstrates that the Creator's desire is for Israel to apply His Divine laws to our physical, ordinary world... and this is more precious to Him than the mystical spheres of the angelic beings:

"Said Rabbi Acha in the name of Rabbi Yose: When Moshe ascended on high, he heard the voice of the Holy One engaged in Torah study. The Creator was contemplating the subject of the red heifer, and His book was open to that section. He was quoting a legal decision in the name of one by the name of Rabbi Eliezer. Said He: 'My son R. Eliezer says that a heifer must be at least two years old.'

Moshe was amazed by what he heard, and he spoke before G-d: "Master of the Universe! The entire universe belongs to You, all of the myriad worlds, the physical and spiritual realms, and You are busy with the study of heifers, quoting a decision in the name of a man, who is but flesh and blood?!" God told him, "All I occupy myself with is the purity of Israel."

And the Holy One answered Moshe, "Know Moshe, that in the future, a righteous scholar will rise up My world, and he will begin clarifying the issue of the red heifer. His name is Rabbi Eliezer." Moses was moved and beseeched God, "May it be Your will that he be a descendant of mine!" And G-d answered him, "Yes, by your life, he will be your descendant."

Why did Moshe desire that Rabbi Eliezer be his own scion? When Moshe ascended to G-d, the Almighty showed him a vision of all the future generations, and each leader who was destined to arise. For example, Moshe was shown the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva, martyred by the Romans during the Second Temple era. Moshe, in his own humility, was so impressed with the great knowledge of Rabbi Akiva that he exclaimed to G-d: "Master of the Universe! You have one such as this, and yet You want Israel to receive the Torah through me?!"

God acquainted Moshe with every generation that was to be, till the close of all the ages, together with the respective leaders. During this process He must have had ample opportunity to quote decisions in the name of many great rabbis; Rabbi Akiva is only one that we have mentioned. If so, why was Moshe so impressed with Rabbi Eliezer, that he specifically requested that this man be one of his own descendants?

Furthermore, Moshe's request is even stranger, and more difficult to understand, when we consider the fact that the accepted halacha, the correct decision in Jewish law, goes against the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer! For a heifer is actually not considered mature for use until it reaches the minimum age of three years... not two! And it is another rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer's contemporary Rabbi Meir, whose decision is accepted in this regard.

Should not Moshe have wanted Rabbi Meir, whose analysis brought him to the correct conclusion, for a descendant? Why should he be interested in Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion was incorrect?

But Moshe saw something special about the future Rabbi Eliezer, and his opinion. He felt an affinity with Rabbi Eliezer that made him desire a stronger bond. The answer goes back to that enigmatic statement of our sages which links the precept of the heifer to the golden calf. We have written that even though our sages did not comprehend the secret of the commandment, they alluded to it by telling us that "the mother should clean her child's filth"... the red heifer comes to atone for the sin of the golden calf.

Rabbi Meir only knew that each aspect of the heifer corresponds to an allusion of the golden calf. Therefore he maintained that she should be 3 or 4 years of age, because only then could it give birth - for the mother must give birth to the child; "the mother must clean up after her child."

But Rabbi Eliezer believed that a heifer could even be two years of age, because he had no need to find any parallel or comparison with the gold calf.

for like Moshe, he knew the actual secret of the red heifer. Obviously, he could not have known to the same degree as Moses, since we have established that no other human being knew this, not even King Solomon. But perhaps he knew on a prophetic or intuitive level. When Moses saw in his heavenly future glimpse that this Rabbi Eliezer went against the accepted reasoning of the other sages, reasoning which was based on a connection to the golden calf - he knew it must be because Rabbi Eliezer has no need for these allusions; he knows something deeper. This is why Moshe desired Rabbi Eliezer as a descendant.

The Unique Stature of Moses

One of the principles used to expound upon the Torah is the general rule that all of the episodes which are recorded in Scripture do not necessarily appear in chronological order. Since the Torah is the word of G-d, it is the most direct manifestation of His will which we have in our physical world. As such, like the Creator Himself, it is above the ordinary rules of time.

Our tradition relates that the words "... there He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them... " (Ex. 15:25) teaches us that certain laws were given at Mara, the place where Moshe sweetened the bitter waters, while the children of Israel were staying there. One of the ordinances which Israel received at this time is the ordinance of the red heifer. Yet the section of the red heifer is not recorded in Scripture until Numbers 19, where it appears after the controversy of Korach.

It may be recalled that Korach led a rebellion against Moshe (Num. 16). Korach himself was a Levite - the grandson of Kehat, and the great grandson of Levi. He expressed criticism of Moshe's leadership and Aharon's priesthood, saying, "You take too much upon yourselves! All the people in the community are holy, and G-d is in their midst. Why are you setting yourselves above G-d's congregation?"

Korach's motivation was born solely of his own arrogance and self-interest. Moshe emphasized to him that he was not acting out of his volition, but had been chosen by G-d. Moshe also tried to reason with Korach, saying that the latter should be glad G-d chose him as a Levite for the service of the Tabernacle, and for being granted the privilege of ministering as a community leader. Moshe also explained that by complaining against G-d's decisions, and by bearing grievances against Aharon as well, demanding the priesthood, Korach and his party were actually demonstrating against G-d Himself.

Our sages explain that on a deeper level of understanding, Korach's claim against Moshe was "how can one person be so many things at once? A kohen, a Levite, a king and leader... it is impossible to be all of these because they contradict each other; you could be one, but not all." Korach did not think it was possible for one human being to possess all these attributes together. Each one represents a different, contrasting spiritual power and it would be impossible for one man to include them all, since they work in opposition to each other.

It would be impossible... for anyone other than Moshe And this is the reason that the section of the red heifer appears after the incident of Korach:

For the Holy One responded to Korach, this is the secret of why Moshe is able to be all these things at the same time... with no contradiction. Because he is the only man who can understand the secret of the greatest contradiction of all, the red heifer. The great mystery, the most enigmatic contradiction of the ordinance of the red heifer, is the fact that its ashes have the effect of both cleansing and rendering impure at the same time. Why is it that only Moshe was worthy of understanding this profound knowledge?

The explanation of this secret is a level of Divine intellect, which is hidden from the grasp of man because its root, the spiritual source from which it emanates, is very high. Now Moshe's own root was also very high - so much that he himself was above all contradictions. His understanding was connected to the place of perfect Divine knowledge, above all the seemingly paradoxical situations that are manifest in our physical world. Perception that stems from such knowledge is completely tranquil, because at that high level there are no contradictions; there is only the complete unity of G-d.

Moshe's knowledge came from this level of unity with the Divine, the highest level any human being can reach. His perception was similar to the way human understanding will be in the future, rectified world... the time when "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d like the waters that cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). Indeed, our sages write that in the future, everyone will understand the mystery of the red heifer. One who possesses this knowledge realizes that in truth, there are no contradictions, because everything is pure G-dliness, and pure Godliness is pure Oneness. But in Korach's myopic view, Moshe gave the opposite impression; he appeared to be the supreme man of contradictions.

We shall return to the concept of Moshe and the red heifer again when we discuss the original ashes of the red heifer.