Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1

This is the chukkah of the teaching that God has commanded, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, and they shall bring to you a cow [that is] perfectly red, that has no blemish, that has not had a yoke upon her.”  (Numbers 19:2)

chukkah (חֻקַּה) = decree, edict, prescription, obligation.  (Also chok, חֺק.)

This week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“chukkah of”), opens by prescribing a unique ritual for those who have touched a human corpse, uncovered a grave, or been under the same roof as a corpse.  The essential ingredient for this ritual is ash saved from burning a perfect red cow that has never been yoked.  (See next week’s post, Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2, for the details about how, where, and with what the cow is slaughtered and burned.)

The red cow’s ash is mixed into water whenever it is needed to decontaminate someone who has been exposed to a dead human body.

One who touches a corpse of any human being shall be tamei for seven days.  He must compensate for himself on the third day and the seventh day; [then] he shall be tahor.  If he does not compensate for himself on the third day and the seventh day, he shall not become tahor. (Numbers 19:11-12)

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure, in an unfit state for approaching God; not pure, contaminated.

tahor (טָהוֹר) = ritually pure, in the correct state for approaching God; pure, clean, uncontaminated.

Until tamei people have become tahor, they are prohibited from entering the courtyard around the sanctuary, and thus excluded from the religious life of the community.1

People who are tamei because they touched something else tamei, or had a genital discharge,  can become tahor by washing in water and/or waiting until evening.  A longer waiting period is required for a woman tamei because of childbirth, and an extra ritual is required for a person who has recovered from a skin disease.2  But people who are tamei because of a human corpse can only become tahor through the unique ritual described in the Torah portion Chukkat.

And they shall take for the tamei [person] some ash from the burning of the compensation-offering, and [a man] shall place it in living water in a vessel.  (Numbers 19:17)

A small amount of ash saved from the burning of the red cow is mixed into “living water”—water collected from a naturally flowing source rather than a well or cistern—and sprinkled on the tamei person. The same ritual is required whether someone stumbles upon an old unknown grave, or sits by the bedside of a dying family member.

Why is the mixture of red cow ash and living water the antidote to touching or being under the same roof as a human corpse?

An Inexplicable Decree

By the 12th century C.E., some rabbis were citing the ritual of the red cow as a prime example of a God-given law that humans cannot understand rationally, but must merely accept.3

“Rabbi Yosei son of Rabbi Chanina said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: To you I am revealing the reason for the cow, but for others it is a chukkah…’” (Numbers Rabbah 19:6)


Gold calf from Byblos

Other rabbis, including Rashi and Bachya ben Asher4, explained the chukkah of the red cow with a parable:  Just as a mother cleans up after her son makes a mess, the red cow corrects the sin of the golden calf.  Moses burned the golden calf, ground it into powder, added water, and made the Israelites drink it5—in order to purify them after they had defiled themselves by worshiping an idol, according to Rashi.  Similarly, the red cow is burned down to ash, water is added, and Israelites are sprinkled with it—in order to be purified after they have become defiled by proximity to a human corpse.

Rashi added that the cow must be red because sin is described as red.6  Its perfection is “an allusion to the Israelites, who were perfect, but became blemished. Let this come and atone for them so that they regain their perfection.”  The absence of a yoke reminds us that the Israelites cast off the yoke of Heaven.  The priest supervising the burning of the red cow is Elazar, not Aaron, because Aaron made the golden calf.


On a psychological level, the ritual of the red cow’s ash might carry another meaning.

What happens when you watch a human being die?  I remember my father’s death at age 87, in the nursing facility where he went after the hospital could do no more for him.  One day he no longer spoke, no longer opened his eyes—but when I held his hand and talked to him, he smiled.  The next morning he did not respond, and his breath rasped.  When I came back that afternoon, there was no breath.  His body looked the same, and when I touched his face it was still warm.  But my father was gone.

I had to go through all the business that must be done when someone dies.  I spoke calmly with my stepmother, my sister, my husband, and the employees at the nursing facility, exchanging information and making practical plans.  I returned to the motel and ate and recited prayers and slept and woke up and went through another day.  And all the time I was conscious of myself as a single point in a dim and vast universe.  I was in an altered state.

I did not feel more distant from God; if anything, I was more in awe of the divine mystery.  But I did feel distant from ordinary human company.  I finally understood the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, not leaving the house for seven days after a close family member dies.  I wished I could seclude myself.  When I got home and I was finally able to go to a service and say kaddish for my father, I slipped out quietly afterward because I could not bear to enter a room full of chattering friends eager to express their sympathy.  I was unfit to join my community in the courtyard.  Gradually I became tahor again, through the passage of time.

According to the Torah, we must not stay in the altered state of immediate knowledge of death.  To become whole and tahor human beings, we must integrate life and death.

In next week’s post, Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2, I will consider how other details in the red cow ritual describe how human consciousness can change as we focus on life, then on death, and finally on integrating the two states of mind.

  1. Numbers 19:13.
  2. Leviticus 12:1-5 addresses becoming tahor after childbirth. Leviticus 14:1-7 describes the ritual for a human to become tahor after recovery from the skin disease tzara-at.
  3. Also see Numbers Rabbah 19:8; Maimonides (12th-century rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), Mishneh Torah, Trespass 8; Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, Torah Commentary, first published in 1492; and Rabbi Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Bamidbar, translated by E.S. Maser, Mesorah Publications, 1993, p. 220-222.
  4. Rashi is the acronym for the French 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E. in Spain.
  5. Exodus 32:20.
  6. If your sins are like crimson, they can turn white as snow … (Isaiah 1:18)


3 thoughts on “Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1

  1. | | | |

    | | | Dear Melissa,Though not physically present with Susan, I very much am feeling in a state of tamei. Susan’s death was the second in three weeks of someone very close to me. I am moving through the necessary actions of life, but am altered. Today, in this Shabbos space, I walked up our river, set between two large mountains. I wondered if the waterfall was even higher that Multnomah Falls. Though the river is not pretty as it is in a constant state of gravel and sand dredging, mainly through manual labor, the energy of water and earth and air blended to give me an ease and grounding and cleansing from the darkness in my heart. I returned from my walk in a more uplifted space Shabbos space and have been quietly enjoying the “Shabbostick ” activities of reading your torahsparks, listening to a youtube on Embracing Yourself as the Wounded Healer and watching the sky. Sending love to you and Will,Elisabeth |

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