Chukkat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1), Rosh Chodesh

Saturday and Sunday mark the beginning of the month of Tammuz, so we read Numbers 28: 9-15 from a second scroll (sacrifices) and the Shabbat Rosh Chodesh haftarah, Isaiah 66:1-24.

Parashat Chukkat covers 38+ years in 87 verses.  Actually, it skips most of them (the years, not the verses).  According to Rashi, everything from Chapter 20 onward takes place in the final year.  We will get a travelogue in a couple of weeks, but it will be the “if it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” type.  Anyhow, there are some key events: Miriam dies.  The people kvetch about food and water (midrash: a well accompanied them as long as Miriam was alive).  Moses strikes the rock in an ill temper, and Aaron and he are told they therefore can’t enter the Promised Land.  My own feeling about this huge punishment is that Moses and Aaron were doomed once the people were condemned to wander 40 years; remember, the sentence was that everyone 20 and up would die in the wilderness except Caleb and Joshua.  Also, by the end of the journey, Aaron is 123 and Moses, 120, so it’s really time for them to step down.  And indeed, Aaron then dies.  The people complain they’re sick of manna, so there’s a plague (some things never change) of serpents halted by Moses with a copper serpent.  But we see that this generation is actually ready.  They first defeat Sihon, King of the Amorites in battle, then Og, King of Bashan.  By Chapter 22:1, the Israelites are “encamped in the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.”

The images that run through this portion concern water and purification, sometimes both.  I wrote about the water imagery last year, so I thought this year I’d look at purification, mainly Chapter 19, concerning the red heifer.  A perfect, red-haired, young, unworked heifer is sacrificed, burned entirely outside the camp, along with cedar, wood, hyssop, and tola’at shani (red bug or worm, a red dye source).The ashes are kept outside the camp.  Those involved with the preparation and gathering of the ashes need to wash their clothes and bathe and will be unclean until evening.  When needed, a small portion of ash is mixed with water, and the mixture is sprinkled on a person who needs to be purified because of contact with a dead body.

This is usually presented as an example of a chok (guttural ‘ch’, long ‘o’), a law that is simply commanded for which there is no satisfactory intellectual explanation.  Solomon himself said he couldn’t understand it (see, e.g., Sefer HaChinuch 397:1).  Similarly, in Bemidbar Rabbah 19, when a gentile scoffer compared the red heifer purification ritual to witchcraft, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai replied that the sprinkling of the purifying waters cause the spirit (demon-like) of the impurity to flee.  His students knew he’d just made that up to satisfy the sceptic and asked for his real teaching, which was:  This is a chok of the Torah.  There has been a lot of commentary (surprise).  Two approaches are presented by Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Bamidbar, pp. 233-5): from R. Joseph Bechor Shor (French, 12th c.), a rational one based on a desire to discourage association with the dead; and a more allegorical one from Sforno (Italian, 15th-16th c), which emphasizes the symbolism of the additives (see below).  Leibowitz herself goes the chok route.  Another accessible summary is found in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.  Josephus (ca. 37 CE to sometime after 100 CE) posited that Moses instituted the practice for purification after the death of Miriam.  Several commentators point out the similarity to the sacrifice of an unworked heifer to purify the land after an untraced murder (see Deut. 21:3).  The additives are also believed to been specific, known symbols: cedar for pride, hyssop for humility, and red (both the heifer and the tola’at shani) for sin.  Cedar wood and other aromatic plants were also thought to protect against harmful powers that cause death; I think this approach was used during the Black Death in the 1340’s, though not too successfully.  The most ancient element of the purification ritual is the cleansing using water; ashes were added for the most serious cases (Bähr, Symbolik, ii, p. 495.  It’s in German.).

I have a feeling that that’s more than you wanted to know about the ritual of the red heifer.  But, we read about it twice a year, the other being on Shabbat Parah, some weeks before Passover, and now maybe you’ll recall some of the more interesting ideas.

Shabbat shalom,


A man goes to his doctor because he’s been feeling very ill for days. The doctor gives him several sets of pills.

The doctor instructs; “Take the green pill with two big glasses of water when you get up. An hour later, take the white pill with another glass of water. Take the blue pill with a big glass of water after lunch. Mid afternoon, take the orange pill with plenty of water, and repeat that at dinner. Then, just before going to bed, take the red pill with several big glasses of water.”

The man is alarmed at huge volume of medicine he has been given to take, and nervously asks, “What’s the diagnosis? What’s wrong with me?”

The doctor says, “You’re dehydrated.”


A physicist, biologist and a chemist were going to the ocean for the first time. The physicist saw the ocean and was fascinated by the waves. He said he wanted to do some research on the fluid dynamics of the waves and walked into the ocean. Obviously he was drowned and never returned.

The biologist said he wanted to do research on the flora and fauna inside the ocean and walked inside the ocean. He too, never returned.

The chemist waited for a long time and afterwards, wrote the observation, “The physicist and the biologist are soluble in ocean water”.


Patient: Doctor, I think that I’ve bitten by a vampire.

Doctor: Drink this glass of water.

Patient: Will it make me better?

Doctor: No, I but I’ll be able to see if your neck leaks.


TEACHER: Donald, what is the chemical formula for water?
TEACHER: What are you talking about?
DONALD: Yesterday you said it’s H to O.

Every so often, there’s a report of the birth of a red heifer that seems to meet all the requirements to be used in a Temple-centered purification ritual.  Note: we have no Temple.  However, there are those who hope to build the Third Temple on the not-too-distant future.  Without getting into the implications of such plans, I’ll just report on the latest red heifer sighting, I think born in May, 2014 in Arkansas:


Breaking News: Red Heifer Born

From The Temple Institute·

Emblematic of the rapid unfolding of events in these crucial times of redemption, a red heifer was recently born. The owners of the red heifer contacted the Temple Institute to share the news and receive instructions concerning the proper care of the red heifer. The Temple Institute contacted a professional documentary film producer who provided this exclusive footage of the red heifer.

The ashes of the red heifer are necessary for the final preparation of the sacred vessels to be used in the Holy Temple, and for the purification of the kohanim (Temple priests) who will serve in the Holy Temple.

From 2008

Watson: Holmes! What kind of rock is this!
Holmes: Sedimentary, my dear Watson.


Also from 2008  [excerpts]

Less than four percent of the world population has naturally red hair. Most
of these exist in the U.K., the Republic of Ireland, and Australia. The highest percentage of natural redheads in the world is in Scotland (13%), followed closely by Ireland with 10%.  In the US, about 2% of the population are natural redheads.

Sixty percent of women who dye their hair do so at home. Of them thirty percent choose to become redheads. The sale of at home red dye kits has gone up seventeen percent since the year two thousand hit.

The gene for Ginger hair was discovered in 1995. Professor Jonathan Rees conducted a study of redheads at Edinburgh University. He identified the “gene for red hair” the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R), found on the 16th chromosome. He found that this single gene was responsible for red hair.

There is a belief that redheads are prone to industrial deafness. This actually could be true as the melanocytes are found in the middle ear.

A 2002 study found that redheads are harder to sedate than any other people requiring twenty percent more anesthesia. Inadequate doses cause people to wake up during surgery and have increased recall of procedures.

The perception of the color red, scientifically speaking, enhances the viewer’s metabolism and increases heart rate and respiration.

The first human redheads walked this earth about 50,000 years ago in Africa and then spread throughout Northern Europe.

The country name of Russia means “land of reds” in honor of a redheaded Viking by the name of Rurik.

Red-haired Clowns have their origins in Russia.

In the late 16th century, the fat of a redheaded man was an essential ingredient for poison.

In Denmark it is an honor to have a redheaded child.

Sometimes, the red heifer is used as a general sacrificial motif.  For example, a new opera, “The Red Heifer,” concerns a blood libel case in Hungary.  Its immediacy comes from growing overt anti-Semitism in that country. ( )

From the composer’s description of his work:


The summary of the Tiszaeszlár affair can be read here.

The main topic of the opera is not the court case itself, but rather the “psychological mystery” (Krúdy), how the conjecturers of the showcase trial won 13 year-old Móric Scharf over to be their crown witness.

Móric Scharf, who as a child had accused his father and his companions of murder, was interviewed 45 years later, in 1927. Scharf said he had been severely tortured and threatened and felt he had been used by the anti-Semitic county lords for their political purposes. After the verdict he moved abroad and returned to the Jewish religion.


The Red Heifer (or Cow) in the title carries four meanings:  A cow trod on Eszter Solymosi’s toes thus providing decisive evidence based on which the recovered body could be identified with a high degree of probability.

Krúdy wrote much about “the Red Cow Inn” in Nyíregyháza and also about its popular Jewish hostess, called by the nickname “the Red Cow”. Finally, in the “Purification” movement of the opera, a quote from the Fourth Book of Moses (Numbers) is cited on purification by the ashes of the red heifer.


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1 Response to Chukkat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1), Rosh Chodesh

  1. Pingback: Chukkat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1) | Torah Portion Humor Weekly

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