The lunisolar Hebrew calendar contains up to 54 weeks, the exact number varying among years. In years with more weeks (for example, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016), parshah Chukat is read separately. In years with the fewest weeks (for example, 2009), parshah Chukat is combined with the subsequent parshah, Balak, to help achieve the needed number of weekly readings.
Jews also read the first part of the parshah, in addition to the regular weekly Torah portion, on the Sabbath after Purim, called Shabbat Parah. On Shabbat Parah, a reader chants the regular weekly Torah portion first, and then a reader chants the chapter of the red cow (parah adumah). Shabbat Parah occurs shortly before Passover, and sets out the procedure by which the Israelites could purify themselves from the contamination caused by a corpse, and so prepare for the pilgrimage festival of Passover.
One who touched the corpse of any human being was to be unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days, the person who had touched the corpse was to cleanse with the water of lustration and then be clean. One who failed to do so would remain unclean, would defile the Tabernacle, and would be cut off from Israel. ()
When a person died in a tent, whoever entered the tent was to be unclean seven days, and every open vessel in the tent was to be unclean. In the open, anyone who touched a corpse, bone, or a grave was to be unclean seven days. ()
A person who was clean was to add fresh water to ashes of the red cow, dip hyssop it in the water, and sprinkle the water on the tent, the vessels, and people who had become unclean. The person who sprinkled the water was then to wash his clothes, bathe in water, and be clean at nightfall.
Anyone who became unclean and failed to cleanse himself was to be cut off from the congregation. The person who sprinkled the water of lustration was to wash his clothes, and whoever touched the water of lustration, whatever he touched, and whoever touched him were to be unclean until evening. ()
Then the Israelites marched on, and King Og of Bashan engaged them in battle. The Israelites defeated his forces and took possession of his country. The Israelites then marched to the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan River from Jericho. ()
Rabbi Tanhum son of Rabbi Hannilai taught that was one of two sections in the Torah (along with on corpse contamination) that Moses gave the Israelites in writing that are both pure, dealing with the law of purity. Rabbi Tanhum taught that they were given on account of the tribe of Levi, of whom it is written (in ), “he [God’s messenger] shall purify the sons of Levi and purge them.” (Leviticus Rabbah 26:3.)
Rabbi Joshua of Siknin taught in the name of Rabbi Levi that the Evil Inclination criticizes four laws as without logical basis, and Scripture uses the expression “statute” (chuk) in connection with each: the laws of (1) a brother’s wife (in ), (2) mingled kinds (in and ), (3) the scapegoat (in ), and (4) the red cow (in ). In connection with the red cow, the Mishnah noted the paradox that the garments of all those who took any part in the preparation of the red cow became defiled, but the cow itself made garments ritually clean. (Mishnah Parah 4:4.) And applies the term “statute” to the red cow. (Numbers Rabbah 19:5.)
Similarly, a midrash taught that an idolater once asked Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai about the red cow, likening its procedures to witchcraft. Rabbi Johanan asked the idolater what he had seen done for a man possessed by a demon of madness. The idolater explained how in such a case, they would bring roots, make them smoke under the madman, sprinkle water on the man, and the demon would flee. Rabbi Johanan told him that the red cow dealt similarly with the spirit of uncleanness, as says: “And also I will cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to pass out of the land.” Rabbi Johanan told him that when they sprinkled the water of purification on the unclean, the spirit of uncleanness fled. But when the idolater had gone, Rabbi Johanan’s disciples told Rabbi Johanan that they saw that he had put off the idolater with a mere makeshift, and asked him what explanation Rabbi Johanan would give them. Rabbi Johanan told his disciples that the dead did not defile nor the water purify; God had merely laid down a statute, issued a decree, and commanded that we not transgress the decree, as says: “This is the statute of the law.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:8.)
Expounding upon the commandment of the red cow in Rabbi Jose ben Hanina taught that God told Moses the reason for the commandment, but to everyone else it would remain merely a statute. (Numbers Rabbah 19:6.)
All other communal sacrifices were of male animals, but the red cow was of a female animal. Rabbi Aibu explained the difference with a parable: When a handmaiden’s boy polluted a king’s palace, the king called on the boy’s mother to clear away the filth. In the same way, God called on the red cow to come and atone for the incident of the golden calf. (Numbers Rabbah 19:8.)
Rabbi Eliezer ruled that a red cow that was pregnant was nonetheless valid, but the Sages ruled it invalid. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that the red cow could not be purchased from Gentiles, but the Sages ruled that such cow could be valid. (Mishnah Parah 2:1.) If the horns or the hoofs of the red cow were black, they were chopped off, and the red cow was then valid. The cow’s eye, teeth, and tongue could cause no invalidity. And a dwarf-like cow was nonetheless valid. If the red cow had a sebaceous cyst and they cut it off, Rabbi Judah ruled the cow invalid, but Rabbi Simeon ruled it invalid only if no red hair grew in its place. (Mishnah Parah 2:2.) A red cow born by a caesarean section, the hire of a harlot, or the price of a dog was invalid. Rabbi Eliezer ruled it valid, for states, “You shall not bring the hire of a harlot or the price of a dog into the house of the Lord your God,” and the red cow was not brought into the Temple. The Mishnah taught that all blemishes that caused consecrated animals to be invalid as sacrifices also caused the red cow to be invalid. If one had ridden on the cow, leaned on it, hung on its tail, crossed a river with its help, doubled up its leading rope, or put one’s cloak on it, the cow was invalid. But if one had only fastened it by its leading rope or made for it a sandal to prevent it from slipping, or spread one’s cloak on it because of flies, it remained valid. The general rule was that wherever one did something for its own sake, the cow remained valid; but if one did something for the sake of another purpose, it invalidated the cow. (Mishnah Parah 2:3.) If a bird rested on the cow, it remained valid. If a bull mounted it, it became invalid; but Rabbi Judah ruled that if people brought the bull to mate with the cow, the cow became invalid, but if the bull did so on its own, the cow remained valid. (Mishnah Parah 2:4.) If a cow had two black or white hairs growing within one follicle, it was invalid. Rabbi Judah said even within one hollow. If the hairs grew within two adjacent follicles, the cow was invalid. Rabbi Akiba ruled that even if there were four or even five non-red hairs, if they were dispersed, they could be plucked out. Rabbi Eliezer ruled that even as many as 50 such hairs could be plucked. But Rabbi Joshua ben Bathyra ruled that even if it had only one non-red hair on its head and one on its tail, it was invalid. If the cow had two hairs in one follicle with their roots black and their tips red or with their roots red and their tips black, Rabbi Meir taught that what was visible determined validity; but the Sages ruled that validity followed the root. (Mishnah Parah 2:5.) Rab Judah reported in Samuel’s name an account of the rarity of completely red cows: When they asked Rabbi Eliezer how far the honor of parents extended, he told of a heathen from Ashkelon named Dama son of Nethinah. The Sages offered Dama a profit of 600,000 gold denarii (or Rab Kahana said 800,000 denarii) in exchange for jewels that he had that the Sages could use in the ephod, but as the key to the jewels lay under Dama’s father’s pillow, Dama declined the offer so as not to trouble his father. The next year, God rewarded Dama by causing a red heifer to be born in his herd. When the Sages went to buy it, Dama told them that he knew that he could ask for all the money in the world and they would pay it, but he asked for only the money that he had lost in honoring his father. (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31a.)
A midrash noted that God commanded the Israelites to perform certain precepts with similar material from trees: God commanded that the Israelites throw cedar wood and hyssop into the Red Heifer mixture of and use hyssop to sprinkle the resulting waters of lustration in God commanded that the Israelites use cedar wood and hyssop to purify those stricken with skin disease in and in Egypt God commanded the Israelites to use the bunch of hyssop to strike the lintel and the two side-posts with blood in (Exodus Rabbah 17:1.)
Rabbi Isaac noted two red threads, one in connection with the red cow in and the other in connection with the scapegoat in the Yom Kippur service of (which Mishnah Yoma 4:2 indicates was marked with a red thread). Rabbi Isaac had heard that one required a definite size, while the other did not, but he did not know which was which. Rav Joseph reasoned that because (as Mishnah Yoma 6:6 explains) the red thread of the scapegoat was divided, that thread required a definite size, whereas that of the red cow, which did not need to be divided, did not require a definite size. Rami bar Hama objected that the thread of the red cow required a certain weight (to be cast into the flames, as described in ). Raba said that the matter of this weight was disputed by Tannaim (as explained below). Abaye objected (based on Mishnah Parah 3:11) that they wrapped the red thread together with the cedar wood and hyssop. Rabbi Hanin said in the name of Rab that if the cedar wood and the red thread were merely caught by the flame, they were used validly. They objected to Rabbi Hanin based on a Baraita which taught that if the thread caught fire in midair, they brought another thread to prepare the water of lustration. Abaye reconciled the two opinions by interpreting the Baraita to speak of a flame that blazed high above the cow, and interpreting Rabbi Hanin to speak of a subdued flame that consumed the thread near the burning cow. Raba explained the dispute among Tannaim about the weight of the red thread in connection with the red cow. Rabbi taught that they wrapped the cedar wood and hyssop together with the red thread so that they formed one bunch. Rabbi Eleazar the son of Rabbi Simeon said that they wrapped them together so that they had sufficient weight to fall into the midst of the burning cow. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 41b.)
When Rav Dimi came from the Land of Israel, he said in the name of Rabbi Johanan that there were three red threads: one in connection with the red cow, the second in connection with the scapegoat, and the third in connection with the person with skin disease (the m’tzora) in Rav Dimi reported that one weighed ten zuz, another weighed two selas, and the third weighed a shekel, but he could not say which was which. When Rabin came, he said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan that the thread in connection with the red cow weighed ten zuz, that of the scapegoat weighed two selas, and that of the person with skin disease weighed a shekel. Rabbi Johanan said that Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta and the Sages disagreed about the thread of the red cow, one saying that it weighed ten shekels, the other that it weighed one shekel. Rabbi Jeremiah of Difti said to Rabina that they disagreed not about the thread of the red cow, but about that of the scapegoat. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 41b–42a.)
The Mishnah taught that seven days before the burning of the red cow, they removed the priest who was to burn the cow from his house to a room called the stone chamber facing the north-eastern corner of the Temple. The Mishnah taught that troughout the seven days, they sprinkled on the priest a mixture of all the sin-offerings that were there, but Rabbi Jose taught that they sprinkled only on the third and the seventh days. And Rabbi Hanina the deputy high priest taught that on the priest who was to burn the cow they sprinkled all the seven days, but on the one who was to perform the service on Yom Kippur they sprinkled only on the third and the seventh days. (Mishnah Parah 3:1.) To protect against defilement from contact with the dead, they built courtyards over bedrock, and left beneath them a hollow to serve as protection against a grave in the depths. They used to bring pregnant women there to give birth and rear their children in this ritually pure place. They placed doors on the backs of oxen and placed the children upon them with stone cups in their hands. When the children reached the pool of Siloam, the children stepped down, filled the cups with water, and then climbed back up on the doors. Rabbi Jose said that each child used to let down his cup and fill it from on top of the oxen. (Mishnah Parah 3:2.) When the children arrived at the Temple Mount with the water, they got down. Beneath the Temple Mount and the Temple courtyards was a hollow, which protected against contamination from a grave in the depths. At the entrance of the court of the women, they kept a jar of the ashes of the sin-offerings. (Mishnah Parah 3:3.) If they did not find the residue of the ashes of seven red cows, they performed the sprinkling with those of six, of five, of four, of three, of two or of one. (Mishnah Parah 3:5.)
Rabbi Meir taught that Moses prepared the first red cow ashes, Ezra prepared the second, and five were prepared since then. But the Sages taught that seven were prepared since Ezra. They said that Simeon the Just and Johanan the High Priest prepared two each, and Eliehoenai the son of Hakof, Hanamel the Egyptian, and Ishmael the son of Piabi each prepared one. (Mishnah Parah 3:5.)
The Mishnah taught that they bound the red cow with a bast rope and placed it on the pile with its head towards the south and its face towards the west. The priest stood on the east side facing west. He slaughtered the cow with his right hand and received the blood with his left hand. But Rabbi Judah said that he received the blood with his right hand, put it on his left hand, and then sprinkled with his right hand. He dipped his finger in the blood and sprinkled it towards the Holy of Holies seven times, dipping once for each sprinkling. When he had finished the sprinkling, he wiped his hand on the body of the cow, climbed down, and kindled the fire with wood chips. But Rabbi Akiba said that he kindled the fire with dry branches of palm trees. (Mishnah Parah 3:9.) When the cow’s carcass burst in the fire, the priest took up a position outside the pit, took hold of the cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, and said to the observers: “Is this cedar wood? Is this hyssop? Is this scarlet wool?” He repeated each question three times, and the observers answered “Yes” three times to each question. (Mishnah Parah 3:10.) The priest then wrapped the cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool together with the ends of the wool and cast them into the burning pyre. When the fire burned out, they beat the ashes with rods and then sifted them with sieves. They then divided the ashes into three parts: One part was deposited on the rampart, one on the Mount of Olives, and one was divided among the courses of priests who performed the Temple services in turn. (Mishnah Parah 3:11.)
Rabbi Akiba interpreted the words “and the clean person shall sprinkle upon the unclean” in to teach that if the sprinkler sprinkled upon an unclean person, the person became clean, but if he sprinkled upon a clean person, the person became unclean. The Gemara explained that Rabbi Akiba’s view hinged on the superfluous words “upon the unclean,” which must have been put in to teach this. But the Sages held that these effects of sprinkling applied only in the case of things that were susceptible to uncleanness. The Gemara explained that the Rabbis’ view could be deduced from the logical proposition that the greater includes the lesser: If sprinkling upon the unclean makes clean, how much more so should sprinkling upon the clean keep clean or make cleaner? And the Gemara said that it is with reference to Rabbi Akiba’s position that Solomon said in “I said, ‘I will get wisdom,’ but it is far from me.” That is, even Solomon could not explain it. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 14a.)
(Maimonides. Mishneh Torah, Positive Commandment 113. Cairo, Egypt, 1170–1180. Reprinted in Maimonides. The Commandments: Sefer Ha-Mitzvoth of Maimonides. Translated by Charles B. Chavel, 1:125. London: Soncino Press, 1967. ISBN 0-900689-71-4.)
(Sefer HaHinnuch: The Book of [Mitzvah] Education. Translated by Charles Wengrov, 4:159–71. Jerusalem: Feldheim Pub., 1988. ISBN 0-87306-457-7.)