Ashes for Beauty

by James D. Long

The Ashes of the Red Heifer and their special role.


Worldwide press coverage greeted the arrival of a red calf in Israel with much wild speculation. Israel's comically left-wing press reacted with typical hand-wringing and expectations of full scale militant right-wing operations. The commotion has, thankfully, subsided since the calf sprouted white hairs, thus rendering it unfit for use. The birth has drawn attention to the work of Vendyl Jones Research Institutes. It is no secret that, for the past thirty years, Professor Jones has been searching for such Biblical treasures as the Ark; the vestments of the High Priest, including the breastplate; the Tabernacle and a vessel known as the K'lal. The latter holds the Ashes of the Red Heifer. The spate of stories surrounding the birth of a red calf has raised the question: why are we looking for the ashes of previous red cows? First of all, The Siddur, (Four Parshiot, Parah) states, “The hiding place of its ashes will be revealed…” (The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Mesora Publications Ltd.)

The ritual of purification using the Ashes of the Red Heifer is one of the least understood of Hashem's commandments. Though these ashes were necessary to cleanse anyone entering the Temple, even the wise Solomon confessed that this was a riddle far from him. [According to the Midrash (Numbers Rabba 19:3), when King Solomon wrote, "Amarti achakhema vehi rechokah mimeni -- I said I would acquire wisdom, but it is far from me" (Ecclesiastes 7:23), he was alluding to his inability to comprehend some of the profound paradoxes involved in the commandment of the Red Heifer. This connection is verified in his use of the words vehi rechokah, which have the same gematria (441) as the words parah adumah, red heifer!]

The Hebrew text reveals why the practice is so shrouded in mystery. More than a commandment, this is a chukah, an ordinance that is to be followed without question or understanding. From the Talmudic commentaries we can glean that only Moses fathomed the physical and spiritual properties of the process.

The Jewish Sages do offer a hint to this puzzle by linking the Red Heifer with the sin of the Golden Calf. The idol was burned and pulverized. This powder was poured into water and the Israelites were forced to drink it. Also of note are the continual references to burning the red cow, since the Golden Calf was not sacrificed but burned. It is the powdered form of the Red Heifer, the ashes, that is mixed with water to purify the children of Israel. And red is the color of sin is as alluded to in Isaiah 1:18,

"Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow..."

There may be another intriguing clue in the apocryphal Book of Enoch. In chapter 84, section 17, he tells his son Methushela of a dream. Its prophetic imagery portrays the key figures of biblical history as animals:

"I saw a vision in my bed; and behold, a cow sprung forth from the earth; and this cow was white. Afterwards a female heifer sprung forth; and with it another heifer: one of them was black, and one was red. The black heifer then struck the red one, and pursued it over the earth. From that period, I could see nothing more of the red heifer."

In Enoch's dream the black cow symbolizes Cain and the red cow represents Abel. After the elder slays the younger, we read in Genesis how the blood of Abel cried out from the ground. Apparently Cain had also buried the body of his brother.

Not only does the Torah detail the first homicide in history, but it also records the first ritual defilement. And that's the initial purpose of the purification process: to cleanse one after coming in contact with the dead. Could this first murder of an innocent be the origin of a perplexing but sacred rite?

We are introduced to the ordinance of the Red Heifer halfway through the Book of Numbers, in chapter 19. According to Seder Ha Olam, it was actually instituted on the the second day of the first month (now called Nissan), in the second year of the Exodus (2449 from Adam). The previous day had seen the first services of the newly completed Mishkan (Tabernacle). The following day, Moses was instructed to have a perfect red cow led outside the camp by Eliezar. There, it was to be slaughtered. The animal was then burned with a mixture of cedar, hyssop and scarlet coloring. A minute amount of the finely sifted ash was thrown into water. It could be a vessel or even a large body of water. Purification occurred only if the surface of the water was disturbed upon contact with the ashes.

In the Mishnah, Tractate Parah, we learn that there have been a total of nine perfectly red cows burned. The first was under the supervision of Moses; the second was prepared by Ezra; two by Shimon Ha Tzaddik; Yochanan, the High Priest also sacrificed two; Eliehoenai, the son of Ha-Kof was the seventh. Hanamel, the Egyptian burned the eighth. The ninth Red Cow was sacrificed by Ishmael, son of Piabi. The tenth Red Heifer will be burned in the time of Mashiach.

In that same tractate, Mishnah 5, we discover a vital condition of any purification preparations in the future. The ashes of any subsequent Red Heifer must be mingled with those of the previous nine. In the days of the First and Second Temples, the ashes were divided into thirds. One portion was given to the Levites guarding the entrance to the Temple. Another part was stored in the Anointment Hill (Mount of Olives). That share was used to purify the priest. It was deemed necessary should the priest need to burn another red heifer. The remaining third was placed in a wall known as the chail which faced the Women's Gallery of the Temple. A portion of these ashes were to be undisturbed as implied by Numbers 19: 9-10, "as a keepsake for Israel." .

For three decades, Vendyl Jones has struggled in the heat of the desert to uncover the K'lal, according to the Copper Scroll, this vessel holds the precious ashes from Moses’ Red Cow. Professor Jones believes that it is vital for the restoration of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). This is an opinion held not only by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe but also by such important rabbinical figures as Adin Even Israel Steinsaltz and Reuven Grodner, formerly of Hebrew University. Menachem Burstin, a botanist and expert on Biblical chemistry, has stated that he has isolated all of the necessary ingredients for preparing the water of purification, except the ashes of the Red Cow.

It is our hope that all of Vendyl's efforts will soon prove fruitful in this regard. As you have read many times in these pages, the Copper Scroll reveals that "under the spices, is the purification." The enigma of this purification ritual is not in its preparation, but its effects: the unclean person was cleansed and the clean person was rendered unclean.

The Prophet Hoshea likened Israel to an adulterous woman because of infidelity towards HaShem. (The similarity of sound between the English words "adultery" and "idolatry" is based on this.) Much of modern Israel would stand accused of being "adulterous" in respect to the Creator. And it also goes without saying that the nations are jealous of this "wife", Israel. That's why it is so essential to find the Ashes and create the water of purification. We can look to another wife accused of adultery in Numbers 5:11. She could drink the waters of purification and be found innocent. She then conceives.

Once the Ashes are found, the righteous of Israel will be purified, found guiltless and bring forth a child called Mashiach. The impact of this rite, even on the Jewish people of today, is so significant that the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated that "the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer represents the totality of the Torah."