Red Heifer: Understanding Biblical Purity

Red Heifer Grazing

Understanding the Concept of Biblical Purity: An Idea that Defies Translation

One of the aspects of life during the era of the Holy Temple which is perhaps most difficult for contemporary man to relate to is the concept known as "cleanness" or "purity" and its opposite, various states of "impurity" or "uncleanness." We arbitrarily assign these terms as translations for the original Hebrew, but a precise translation is impossible to achieve.

G-d told Moshe and Aharon, "you must warn the Israelites about their impurity, so that their impurity does not cause them to die if they defile the tabernacle that I have placed among them" (Lev. 15:31). This verse thus indicates that the laws of purity apply to the tabernacle and the Holy Temple. For this reason, many of these rules have less bearing on our day-to-day lives nowadays (however, all who are ritually unclean are still forbidden to enter the sanctified area of the Temple Mount, even today). But even so, those knowledgeable and observant kohanim (the priests; all those who are descendants of Aharon) amongst the Jewish people do abide by some of these guidelines even today - as they are required by the word of G-d, for all generations.

In the context of the Temple, purity and impurity are not mere words, but vast concepts. They defy literal translation because this purity or its lacking has no connection with physical cleanliness. It is a spiritual, ethereal state; a unique Torah law. To be impure in this state is most certainly to be "unclean" in a sense, yet it is not rooted in the realm of hygiene or the like at all - for it is not a physical state, but a condition of the soul; a spiritual lacking.

Causes of Impurity

Torah law teaches that impurity can be caused by a variety of factors. Certain types of impurity are more serious - meaning more difficult to cleanse - than others. The most severe of all is that which is brought on by exposure to death; indeed, although there are many types of impurity, the state which Torah law is most commonly concerned with is generally associated with some aspect of death, either of a human being or another life form; or with sickness. We shall see that this concept has a vital relationship to the subject of life in the Holy Temple.

Impurity Retards and Repels Holiness

This illusive impurity is in diametric opposition to the state of holiness, man's intended and desired aspiration. Thus one who is impure is forbidden contact with anything holy: he cannot eat of that which is sanctified; neither can he touch that which is holy. He cannot enter a sanctified area; for this reason an individual who has been exposed to death is forbidden to enter the sanctified area of the Temple Mount until he undergoes the proscribed process of purification... sprinkling by the ashes of the red heifer. Impurity indicates a spiritual imbalance, and the Temple is the place which restores this balance.

The Highest Levels of Sanctity

The sanctity of Jerusalem in general and the Holy Temple in particular is greater than any other place on earth. Because of this, these places are governed by special laws of purity mandated by the Bible. While the priests must generally be on their guard against any form of defilement, they must exercise particular care to guard themselves from contact with the most stringent form of impurity of all: that which is caused by exposure to death. This is why they are instructed not to become defiled "by the dead among his people," with the exception of the close blood relatives who are mentioned. This applies to the ordinary priests, but the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) may not even come into contact with these.

The entire notion of ritual impurity is difficult enough to understand. But the most severe form of this state, contact with death, brings about a state of defilement so aggressively uncompromising in its spiritual hold, that it cannot be rectified except for purification through the ashes of the red heifer. This topic encompasses an entire world-view so enigmatic that an individual seeking to fathom its implications will almost inevitably encounter confusion - and possibly, grave misunderstandings as well.

The very fact that this concept is a chok precludes complete understanding. Still, by attempting to scratch the surface so that we might have some idea of even a modicum of its significance, we will be able to gain a more correct insight into the Torah's view of death itself.

Just what is it about death that causes such impurity? Is this a throwback or remnant of some deep-rooted, tribal taboo; a superstitious practice recalling the earliest, most base and primordial fears of man?

Nothing can be further from the truth, for the very essence of Jewish religious teachings is that the sanctity of life is above else.

Then why must the tribe of Aharon stand back from contact with the dead?

In reality, within the answer lies the core of what distinguishes Judaism, the faith of the One G-d of Israel. For while ancient heathenism paid tribute to gods of death, who claimed everything and everyone as their own, and overpowered all - Judaism pays no heed to death. While other religions viewed - and still view - life as a preparation for death, and thus center their lives around death as the main event in the human experience, Judaism is a celebration of life.

A G-d of Life, Not Death

For the masses, religious matters are associated with death. Judaism does not concern itself with death, nor with thoughts of death. While others view death as a manifestation of a God who sends death so that men should fear Him, the G-d of Israel declares through His Torah that He is the G-d of life.

The foremost place of the Jewish priests is not around the dead and dying. They are emissaries of the G-d of life, who manifests Himself by giving life and the promise of eternal life. The commandments of the Torah concern themselves not with how one is to die, but how one is to live in the sanctification of that G-d of life. In order to really live a life of dedication to Divine purpose, one must conquer death... the death in life of those who are enslaved by their own physical urges and moral weaknesses. "The righteous are called 'alive' even after they have died; but the wicked are called 'dead' while they yet live" (BT Berakhot 18:A).

The Debilitating Illusion of Death

Yes, death is a reality, and very much a part of life. But when others must busy themselves with acts of lovingkindness for an empty body whose soul has been removed by G-d, the priests must keep their distance... for that body is now devoid of life. This is the secret of why a dead body defiles! For only life is holy. Once life has departed, it is not the stuff of death itself which renders impurity - but the absence of G-d-given life. And faced with death, the priests who serve before the eternal G-d must occupy themselves with thoughts of what life really is, and not allow themselves to succumb to the morbid illusions of despair which the vision of death invariably causes for others.

Those illusions, those thoughts of death, are not the truth; the priest must not allow the truth of the Infinite Creator, who has no beginning and no end, to be overpowered by human frailty's fear of death. And that truth is that as long as man has free will, and uses his days on earth to live in accordance with his Creator's will, he creates eternal life from death, and proves that death is not the end, but merely a graduation. Death itself is merely an indication that the power of life is so great, it cannot be contained in physical form forever, but must expand and surpass.

Thus the kohanim who serve in the Temple, itself the source of eternal life - for it is the place of the Shechinah, the Divine Glory of G-d - must distance themselves from the deception of death. For the impurity rendered by death is the contamination of a false vision, a lie. What men call "death" is nothing more than the bonds of transitory life breaking forth and giving way to eternal life. But in our limited vision and understanding, we view this bleakly and oppressively as death. It is a myopic outlook, but it is also a facet of the human condition that cannot be undone until the day that "death will be destroyed forever, and the Lord G-d will wipe the tears from every face... " (Isaiah 25:8).

In the meantime, the kohanim are exhorted to ignore this ruse. They are sanctified, and their innate holiness simply prevents them from paying any mind to such falsehood. With the exception of extending the last possible acts of love for his closest relatives, itself a duty of life, the kohen's calling mandates that he ignore the morose and debilitating cycle of our misleading world, and his eyes may not look upon that vision which makes such an erroneous and damaging impression upon the soul of man. Were the priests of the Temple to pay any attention to the evanescent image of human death, they would be committing an even greater offense to the honor due life... they would be killing the truth.

Because of the elevated status of the kohanim, a status which raises them aloft of the flitting shadows of ephemeral, earthly death - they are commanded: "They shall not make baldness on their head... nor make any cuttings in their flesh" (Lev. 21:5).

Damaging the body was done to effect a permanent sign of loss that one feels because of the death of a loved one. The ancients, faced with death, sought to make atonement for themselves and give honor - by damaging their own bodies - to their gods, whom they perceived as essentially hostile to life. They offered a tribute to the god of death.

Although these actions are prohibited to all of Israel, their prohibition is repeated for the priests, whose need for distance from all things relating to the false fears of death is even greater. They are warned again not to bear any outward symbol of death. Their mandate is to teach and live the example of the force of life, not the power of death.