The Difference between Sanctity and Purity
STUDENT SUMMARIES OF SICHOT OF THE ROSHEI YESHIVA
With gratitude and in honor of the bar
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise
Please pray for a refua sheleima for
Shimon Elimelech HaCohen ben Sima Rivka
Gilad Hillel ben Bracha Mirel
SICHA OF HARAV MOSHEH LICHTENSTEIN SHLITA
The Difference between Sanctity and Purity
The law of the para aduma (red heifer) is the quintessential chok (statute a Torah law whose rationale lies outside of our rational understanding). The opening verses of this weeks parasha, emphasizing the matter of chok and its special connection with the red heifer, provide fertile ground for midrashim concerning the nature of chukim in general, and of the red heifer in particular. Thus, for example, the midrash states:
This is the statute (chukat) of the Torah Rabbi Yitzchak taught: [What is the meaning of Shlomos statement] All this I have attempted by wisdom; I have said, I shall acquire wisdom but it is far from me (Kohelet 7), [in light of the fact that] it is written, And God granted wisdom to Shlomo and Shlomos wisdom exceeded the wisdom of all the children of the east ? [If he was so wise, what does he mean when he says that wisdom is far from him?] Shlomo said, All of this I have understood, but when it comes to the law of the red heifer I have delved and sought and examined [but in the end,] I have said, I shall acquire wisdom but it is far from me. (Bamidbar Rabba, 19)
The statute concerning the red heifer was a mystery even to the wisest of men. Any attempt to understand it seems doomed to failure.
What is so special about this law, setting it apart from other statutes? After all, there are many other laws in the Torah which we accept simply as decrees of the King; in this respect the red heifer is not unique.
Chazal provide a hint to the answer by pointing out that the strangeness of this law lies in the fact that the ashes of the heifer render impure those (in a state of ritual purity) who involve themselves with its preparation and administration, while at the same time restoring the status of ritual purity to those who have become impure. This simultaneous action in opposite directions is what sets this law apart from others. In other words, the law of the red heifer is not just a decree of the King; it is a paradox: a halakhic paradox, and even more so a metaphysical paradox. It seems to represent a contradiction of the inner logic of Halakha.
Let us therefore take a closer look at the paradox embodied in the red heifer.
Halakha perceives reality through two fundamental metaphysical categories or, more accurately, through two pairs of opposites: impure and pure; sanctified and profane. We are accustomed to the linguistic expression, kedusha ve-tahara sanctity and purity. These are not two terms for the same thing; rather, the expression reflects a combination of two fundamentally different concepts. Sanctity is one thing; purity is another.
The concepts of purity (tahara) and impurity (tuma) relate to the natural world. Tahara denotes nature in its pristine, primal state, while tuma refers to corruption of the original state of nature, through death. In fact, tahara is not a concept with positive content; rather, it is an absence: the absence of death, of corruption. The world as created by God is tahor pure. Only with the introduction of some element which damages its primal state of creation, does it become tamei impure.
The other pair of concepts kadosh (sanctified) and chol (profane) may be characterized, in metaphysical terms, as the inverse. Kedusha is a positive state. Sanctity is not the absence of the profane; it is something which is actively created. The realm of the profane is not something negative or corrupt; it is the (neutral) absence of sanctity. The profane is complete unto itself; it is not corrupt, or negative, like the impure. The sanctified, on the other hand, means something beyond the natural and neutral world of the pure but profane. It represents a world that has positive content that goes beyond the glory of Creation.
Thus, sanctity and purity are generated in different ways. Sanctity does not exist in nature. It requires, by definition, a degree of severance from nature and a transition to an artificial world of human creation. Elevating something to a level of sanctity means removing an object from its initial, neutral state, and sanctifying it by human effort. Man cannot sanctify that which belongs to the natural world; he can sanctify only that which belongs to his world. The opposite is true in the realm of purity: purification means nothing more than returning to a natural state; nature is pure. Animals cannot contract impurity; that which is rooted in the ground cannot contract impurity. Man purifies himself by descending in his natural, naked state - into a body of natural water.
In short, when the world was first created, it was in a state of chullin be-tahara, pure but profane. It was pure because death had not yet lowered it to the level of tuma. It was profane because man had not yet raised it to the level of kedusha.
is a more fundamental point here. Sanctity has as its source the concept of
standing before God, of existing in relation to the Holy One. Only man is
capable of standing before God; only he is created in the image of God, only he
had God blow the breath of life into him (see Ramban on Bereishit 2:7).
Mans ability to sanctify objects is connected to the fact that these objects
are used by him in his service of God. As the festive blessing in the
Amida prayer on the festivals concludes Blessed are You, Lord, Who
The natural world, as we have said, was created by God in a state of pristine purity. There was no impurity to be found in it but no sanctity, either. So long as the world exists in direct contact with God, there is no room for sanctity. What this implies is that impurity and purity are the more elementary stage in our assessment of Creation: we question whether Creation maintains its initial, primal state as God created it, or whether that state has been damaged. If there is the slightest blemish of tuma, the higher level of kedusha sanctity cannot be achieved. Therefore, sanctity is dependent on purity. Not because they are one and the same thing on the contrary, they are two separate and independent concepts but rather because purity represents a conduit to sanctity.
we come to the paradox of the red heifer. The ashes of the heifer are used to
purify and cleanse (spiritually) a person who has become impure through contact
with a corpse. In the Mishna, Massekhet Para is located in the section of
Taharot, and likewise in the Rambam. However, unlike the other forms of
purification, which involve a return to nature (e.g. immersion or planting), the
purification using the ashes of the red heifer is achieved by means drawn from
the realm of sacrifices: the acts of sprinkling, slaughter, and burning belong
to kodashim. In the laws pertaining to the heifer, the dimension of
Kodashim finds halakhic expression in various ways; God calls [the red
heifer] a chatat (Avoda Zara 23b). While
there is room for more in-depth study of the sugyot and the
Rishonim concerning the definition of the precise status of the category
of kodashim concerning the red heifer, this dimension unquestionably
exists. (See Zevachim 14b; Chullin 11a; Avoda Zara 23b;
Tosafot on these sources; as well as Chiddushi R. Chayyim Halevi on
Hilkhot Meila and Chiddushei ha-Griz on Hilkhot Para, and
elsewhere.) However, the red heifer is unlike the other kodashim which
are internal (i.e., within the
The reason for this is as explained above: since the essential quality of the red heifer is that is comes to purify, its procedure is therefore carried out externally, in the world of nature, and not in the bound-in world of sanctity. It is not so much a matter of a chok or decree of the King whose reason is hidden from us, but rather a chok that collides with the ground rules of such a fundamental system: it is the crossing of the line between the world of sanctity and the world of purity, between the inner world and the outer world, between the world of nature and the world of man.
Chazal express this paradox by noting that the red heifer purifies those who are impure, while rendering impure those who were pure. On the one hand, the ashes of the heifer do bring purification. At the same time, while other forms of purification involve a return to nature, and those who involve themselves with these forms clearly maintain their state of purity, when it comes to the heifer this is not so. It belongs to the world of kodashim, and we do find occasionally that those who involve themselves with kodashim become impure and are required to wash their garments.
fact, we find the law of washing garments applying to a person who is engaged in
kodashim in three contexts: the red heifer, the scapegoat, and the
burning outside the
(The scapegoat accomplishes the opposite: it procures atonement not purity by bringing a sacrifice back into nature. Again, the boundaries between the halakhic parameters of purity and sanctity have been breached, and that is why the midrash categorizes the scapegoat and the red heifer as both constituting chukim.)
(Bamidbar 19:2) writes: The reason that death imparts
impurity is because of the serpent [in Eden], for those who die through a divine
kiss do not cause halakhic impurity, as it is written, The righteous do not
cause impurity. The implication
of the Rambans statement is that the source of impurity in a dead body is sin.
I heard my grandfather, Rav
In summary, the status of the law of the red heifer as a chok that is unique among all the chukim of the Torah lies in its inherent paradox, whereby purity is attained through a process of atonement which contradicts the rules of the systems of holy and profane, pure and impure. This is its uniqueness, this is its mystery, and this is its power.
(An expanded Hebrew version of this article can be found here: