Yesterday, we noted the debate among the Tanna’im in the first Mishna of Masekhet Para regarding the minimum age requirement for the para aduma – the red heifer that was slaughtered and burned to ash, which was then used for purification. Today we will look at the next part of the Mishna, where it addresses the issue of the maximum age at which a cow may be used for this purpose.
The discussion begins with the Tanna Kama stating that a cow in its third or fourth year may be used as a para aduma. Rabbi Meir then comments, “Even five,” adding that an elderly cow is theoretically qualified for use as a para aduma, but this should not be done due to the concern that its red hair might change colors. The para aduma must be entirely red, without any black-colored hair, and thus if such a cow is found, it should be slaughtered as a para aduma in its youth and not allowed to grow older, as some of its red hair may change color with time. Thus, even though an older cow is qualified, in practice, this should not be done.
The Rishonim debate the question of whether this final remark was said only by Rabbi Meir, or represents the consensus. The Rash Mi-Shantz, among others, explains that this was spoken by all Tanna’im – meaning, according to all views, an elderly cow is qualified for use as a para aduma but should preferably not be used. Rabbi Meir and the other Tanna’im disagree as to the age at which this halakha takes effect: Rabbi Meir maintains that a cow may be used through the end of its fifth year, whereas the other Tanna’im maintain that it may be used only through the end of its fourth year. They all agree, however, that even beyond the maximum age – whatever age that is – the cow is technically suitable, but it should preferably not be used due to the concern mentioned above. This is the position taken by the Rambam, who rules (Hilkhot Para 1:1) that a cow may be used as a para aduma in its fourth year, adding that beyond the fourth year it is still suitable, but the slaughtering of a red cow should preferably not be delayed until such a late age.
Others, however, including the Rosh, in his commentary to the Mishna, and the Ra’avad, in his commentary to Torat Kohanim (Dibura De-chova, 3:6), explain differently. In their view, the comment about an elderly cow being fundamentally suitable as a para aduma was made by Rabbi Meir, and does not represent the view of the majority. According to the other Tanna’im, a cow past its fourth year may not be used as a para aduma, and even after the fact, if it was slaughtered, it is disqualified. The reason is either because using an older cow for this mitzva is disrespectful (Ra’avad), or due to the aforementioned concern of some hair changing colors due to age (Rosh). In any event, according to these Rishonim, as opposed to the Rambam, the majority view – which is accepted as Halakha – does not allow the use of a para aduma after its fourth year, even after the fact.
Already the Rash Mi-Shantz noted the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Sota (46a) where it states explicitly that old age does not disqualify a cow as a para aduma, seemingly providing an explicit basis for the first view cited above. However, the Rash Mi-Shatz himself responds that this might refer to the level of Torah law, as opposed to the level of Rabbinic enactment. All agree that as far as Torah law is concerned, an older cow is accepted as the para aduma; the debate is whether the Sages disallowed the use of such a cow only preferably, or even after the fact. Therefore, the Gemara’s remark there in Sota has no bearing on the debate at hand.