Parashat Chukat begins with the law of the para aduma – the red heifer whose ashes were mixed with water to prepare the mei chatat, the special waters needed to purify people and utensils which had come in contact with a human corpse. The Torah commands slaughtering the heifer, burning it, and then mixing the ashes with water.
Targum Yonatan, in translating the Torah’s instructions (19:3), writes that after the para aduma was slaughtered, it must be inspected to assure that it does not have any of the eighteen simanei tereifa – fatal medical conditions that render an animal forbidden for consumption, and invalid as a sacrifice. As the para aduma was a quasi-sacrifice, it needed to be checked to ensure it was suitable, and thus the carcass was dissected and inspected before it could be burned for the preparation for the mei chatat.
Many writers noted that Targum Yonatan’s comments appear to directly contradict the Gemara. In Masekhet Chulin (11a), the Gemara points to the burning of the para aduma as one of the Biblical sources for the concept of rov – the rule that allows us to rely on a statistical majority for halakhic purposes. The Gemara notes the halakha requiring burning the para aduma whole, indicating that it may not be dissected before it is burned. Accordingly, there is no possibility of inspecting the cow for simanei tereifa before burning, and yet, the ashes are nevertheless presumed valid for preparing the purification waters. The Gemara thus invokes the law of para aduma as a Biblical source for the concept of rov, as the Torah allows us to follow the statistical majority to presume that the para aduma is not a tereifa (terminally ill animal). The Gemara’s discussion clearly works off the assumption that a para aduma does not have to be inspected to ascertain the absence of simanei tereifa – in direct contradistinction to Targum Yonatan’s comments in translating the laws of para aduma presented here in Parashat Chukat.
Several different approaches have been taken to reconcile Targum Yonatan’s comments with the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Chulin. Rav Yehosef Schwartz, in his Divrei Yosef – Rosh Ha-shani, posits that in truth, there was no requirement that the para aduma be burned whole. The Mishna in Masekhet Para (4:3) writes explicitly that if the para aduma was dismembered after its slaughtering, it remains valid. When the Gemara in Masekhet Chulin speaks of burning the cow whole, Rav Schwartz asserts, it means that one has the option of doing so, not that this is required. The Gemara draws proof to the rule of rov from the fact that the Torah allows burning the para aduma whole, which precludes the possibility of inspecting it for simanei tereifa. However, it is perfectly acceptable to dissect the para aduma before burning it. It stands to reason, Rav Schwartz writes, that although Halakha accepts the validity of a para aduma that was burned without being checked for simanei tereifa, in practice, inspections were made. The Talmud elsewhere speaks of the extreme care that was taken to ensure that the ashes of the para aduma would be perfectly valid without any doubts or suspicions, and we might therefore speculate that it was also thoroughly checked for simanei tereifa. As such, Targum Yonatan’s comments are perfectly consistent with Halakha.
Others, however, offered different explanations, following the conventional understanding, that the para aduma was to be burned whole, even though the ashes are valid if the cow was first dismembered. Rav Hersh Yaar, in his Chamudei Tzvi (Shemot, pp. 484-5), answers by noting the berayta cited by Tosefot in Masekhet Shabbat (22b) stating that during the period of Benei Yisrael’s travels in the wilderness, the cloud hovering over the Mishkan produced a supernatural light with which Aharon was able to see through utensils to identify their contents. Conceivably, then – as far-fetched as this might sound – the original para aduma prepared in the wilderness could have been inspected with this supernatural light, without dissection. Rav Yaar writes that although Halakha permits relying on the statistical majority, one is required to verify halakhic validity when this is possible without great inconvenience, and so in the case of the original para aduma, the animal was inspected through supernatural means to ascertain the absence of simanei tereifa.
A simpler answer is proposed by Rav Gavriel Zinner, in the introduction to his Nitei Gavriel – Hilkhot Nisuin (vol. 2, p. 12). He suggests that a stricter standard of certainty was required for the first para aduma, because there is great value to maintaining especially high standards whenever one begins something new. Beginning a new process at a high standard sets an example of excellence that will, hopefully, leave an imprint on the entire process. And thus although the para aduma generally does not need to be inspected for simanei tereifa, the first para aduma was dissected and checked so that the mitzva of para aduma would begin at an especially high standard.