Shabbat Parah: Purification After Death
Power and practice of this ritual in the Jewish faith goes back to the days of Jerusalem's Holy Temple
Most people know that Jews celebrate the Sabbath (Shabbat) on Saturday. It was in Exodus 20:8 that God commanded that the day be a holy day for rest, just as He rested from creating the universe. Less well-known is that there are several Shabbats that are special in some way — and this coming Saturday is one such day.
The Shabbat Parah occurs after Purim. In the days of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, Jews were required to prepare for Passover by achieving a state of ritual purity. This Shabbat was particularly important for purification, as it was meant for those who had come in contact with the dead.
“Although the chukim [decrees that make no rational sense] of the Torah are supre-rational decrees … it is fitting to contemplate them, and whatever can be explained, should be explained.”
Humans can’t escape death. It’s a fact of nature. On the other hand, humans have free will and that is the primary rule for living on a higher moral plane as dictated by Torah. Yet how can one have freedom of action if one is also subject to the natural forces of death? What’s the point, some scholars theorized, of living a moral life if in the end, you die? This can then encourage sin, and even despair — for what’s the point of anything?
Once you sin, you become slave to your desires, lose contact with the spiritual imperative, and separate from God. Thus, seeing or being in contact with a dead person may reinforce that concept. So one needs to be ritually purified to forestall this.
For Shabbat Parah, Numbers 19 details the purification process. A red cow was to be slaughtered, although some scholars believe the actual translation suggests brown. The point seems to be that the cow should not have any streaks or spots — and it is the only sacrifice that specifically required a particular color for the animal. After the sacrifice, the blood was sprinkled in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, while the cow was burned whole along with hyssop, cedar wood, and a crimson thread.
Those who needed purification were sprinkled with the ashes of the cow, mixed with water, on the third and seventh day. Another special feature: It’s the only sacrifice that occurred out and away from the Temple area.
Except there is an odd paradox that comes to light as part of this process. Since a priest performs the ritual and effectively acts a spiritual sponge, then the priest himself would be subsequently defiled.
It doesn’t make sense — and even King Solomon said so. This is a central part of the Torah and of faith. That is, when God makes a decree, it’s a decree. End of story. God decreed what the priest should do, and there is no more. God has His reasons that transcend human thought. You can, and should, opine on why God may have made this decree — but you don’t have to understand why a decree is handed down to follow Torah.
It’s a bit like using your computer or iPhone. You may have only a vague understanding of how these devices can do all these amazing things, but you don’t need anything more in order to enjoy all the delights and benefits they bring to you.
As Rabbi Rambam wrote, “Although the chukim [decrees that make no rational sense] of the Torah are supre-rational decrees … it is fitting to contemplate them, and whatever can be explained, should be explained.”
Indeed, any rational person knows that seeing a dead body does not in itself have some magical power to make someone impure, and that sprinkling ash and water lacks the power to cleanse. It is a decree handed down by God, and it is the law. One of the powers of ritual is that, viewing it in the abstract, it may make no sense.
However, the point of ritual is that by doing it over and over, you may find enlightenment in repetition.
Lawrence Meyers writes about everything from faith and popular culture to public policy and finance.