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Chukat | The Difference Between Sanctity and Purity

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
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With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzva,
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



Translated by Kaeren Fish




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 week’s 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 Shlomo’s 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 Shlomo’s 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” (tum’a) relate to the natural world. Tahara denotes nature in its pristine, primal state, while tum’a 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 tum’a.  It was profane because man had not yet raised it to the level of kedusha.


There 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). Man’s 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 sanctifies Israel and the appointed times” – meaning, God sanctifies the appointed times through Israel; is it they who perform the acts that are required to elevate the festivals to their sanctified status.


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 tum’a, 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.




Here 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 Me’ila 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 Temple); it represents a type of kodashim which is “external” (i.e., brought outside the Temple).


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.


In 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 Temple of certain “internal” chatat offerings. These share a common denominator – they are all “external” kodashim. Bringing kodashim out of their sanctified place, into the natural world outside, causes the person who deals with them to become impure. This law of impurity symbolizes the paradox of the red heifer: it brings purification to the impure, but since its method of purification entails kodashim being brought outside of their sanctified framework, it renders impure those who are involved in it. The ability of the ashes of the heifer to purify although it is a chatat offering is wondrous and mysterious, and it is to this that Shlomo referred when he said, “I said, ‘I shall acquire wisdom’ – but it is far from me.”


(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.)


Ramban (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 Ramban’s statement is that the source of impurity in a dead body is sin. I heard my grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l,  explain the connection between the well-known midrash concerning the red heifer – that the heifer comes as atonement for the sin of the golden calf – and the above comment by the Ramban. According to the Ramban, he explained, the Midrash is referring not only to the sin of the golden calf; it applies to the primal sin of Adam. The red heifer comes as atonement for the sin of Adam, and the essence of its purifying effect lies in its ability to atone for the underlying sin which is the source of the impurity. This represents an explanation at the deepest level for the connection between sanctity and purity – sin causes the impurity of death, and sanctity counteracts sin.


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:

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