Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 2

Life-blood.  Dead ash.  Living water.  These three elements are necessary for the ritual that brings someone back into the community after encountering a human corpse.  (See Chukkat: Death and the Red Cow, Part 1.)

Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt

The one who touches any dead human being shall be tamei [for] seven days.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:11)

If a human being dies in a tent, everyone who comes into the tent and everyone who is [already] in the tent shall be tamei [for] seven days.  (Numbers 19:14)

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

tahor (טָהוֹר) = uncontaminated, ritually pure, in the correct state for approaching God, not tamei.

Anyone who is tamei is forbidden to enter the courtyard around the sanctuary, where the Israelites make offerings to God.  For a minor cause of tumah (טֻמְאָה, the state of being tamei), such as a seminal emission, one need only wash and wait until sunset to become tahor again.1  But if the tumah is due to exposure to a dead human body, the tamei person must be sprinkled with a specific mixture of ash and water on the third and seventh days after the exposure.

Then he shall clean his clothing and wash in water, and he shall be tahor at sunset.  (Numbers 19:19)

At that point he or she can rejoin the community in worship.2  Meanwhile, the man who does the sprinkling becomes tamei by that very act.

And the one who sprinkles … he shall clean his clothing … and whoever touches the water … shall be tamei until sunset.  (Numbers 19:21)

What is this liquid that makes the tamei tahor and the tahor tamei?

From blood to ash to water

The process for making the ash that goes into the sprinkling water begins with the color of blood:

“Speak to the Israelites, and they shall bring to you a cow [that is] perfectly adumah, that has no blemish, that has not had a yoke upon her.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:2)

adumah (אֲדֻמָּה) = red-brown, blood-colored.  (feminine of adom, אַדֺם.  From the same root as dam, דָּם = blood; adam,אָדָם  = humankind; and adamah,אֲדָמָה  = earth, dirt, ground.)

The blood of an animal slaughtered at the altar is sacred, reserved for splashing on the altar or inside the sanctuary.  But the blood of any other animal still belongs to God, because blood is its  life.  “The blood of any flesh you shall not eat, because the life of all flesh is its blood.”  (Leviticus 17:14)3  Thus the blood-red cow is the color of life.

And you shall give her [the cow] to Elazar the priest, and he shall take her outside the camp and [a man] shall slaughter her in front of him.  And Elazar the priest shall take some of her blood with his finger and flick some of her blood toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.  (Numbers 19:3-4)

We do not know the original purpose of flicking the blood toward the tent-sanctuary.  At the very least, the gesture emphasizes the connection between life and God.

Then [the man] shall burn the cow before his eyes; he shall burn her hide and her flesh and her blood over her intestinal contents.  And the priest shall take cedar wood and oregano and crimson yarn, and throw them down on the burning cow.  (Numbers 19:3-6)

The rest of the cow’s blood is burned along with the whole cow, the reddish wood of an evergreen tree, some yarn dyed bright red with shield-louse eggs—and oregano.

The oregano (a tall Syrian variety, origanum maru, traditionally but inaccurately translated as “hyssop”) is an aromatic herb used elsewhere in the Torah for ritual splashing and sprinkling with blood.4  All three of the items tossed on the burning cow are associated with blood, and therefore with life.

And a tahor man shall gather the afar of the cow and save them outside the camp in a tahor place.  (Numbers 19:9)

afar (עָפָר) = ash, dust.

Afar is a symbol of both birth and death.  God shapes the first human out of afar from the adamah (dust from the earth) and breathes life into it.5  Later, God tells Adam:

Afar you are, and to afar you will return.  (Genesis 3:19)

Thus the ash from the red cow signifies the border between life and non-existence, the border crossed by both birth and death.

When a person has become tamei by touching or being under the same roof as a dead human body, some of the ash from the ritual burning of a red cow is stirred into a vessel of “living water” or “water of life” (מַיִם חַיִּים): water from a naturally flowing source.6  This mixture is  sprinkled on the tamei person.

Thus the antidote for exposure to death follows a progression from the life-blood of the red cow (enhanced by other items evoking blood), to the ash of its death, to the living water.

From tahor to tamei to tahor

Humans who make or use the ash of the red cow also go through a three-stage progression in the Torah portion Chukkat.  They must be tahor to begin their work.  They become tamei during the work, and then return to a tahor state.

After the red cow has burned down to ash,

Then the priest shall clean his clothing and wash his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp; but the priest will be tamei until sunset.  And the one burning her shall clean his clothing in water and wash his flesh in water, and he shall be tamei until sunset.  And a tahor man shall gather the ash of the cow and save it outside the camp in a tahor place …  And the gatherer of the ash of the cow shall clean his clothing, and he shall be tamei until sunset.   (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:7-8)

All three men must wash and wait until sunset before they are tahor again.

The Torah warns priests to be meticulous about avoiding tumah as much as possible, even if it means staying away from their own family members who die.7  After all, they must serve God both in the courtyard and inside the sanctuary, and all tamei persons are prohibited from entering the area.

Nevertheless, at least one, and possibly three, priests8 must become tamei until sunset on the day they burn the red cow—so that those who come close to the dead can become tahor again.

Similarly, the man who sprinkles the mixture of the ash and living water makes someone exposed to a dead human tahor again, but he becomes tamei just by touching the mixture.9

Chukkat hints that people who are exposed to the dead become tamei, unfit for communal worship, because they are in an altered state of consciousness.  (See Death and the Red Cow, Part 1, for my own experience.)  Perhaps sprinkling them with the mixture of ash and living water helps them to integrate their experiences of death and life.  After seven days, including two sprinklings, they might reach a tahor state of mind.

Then why does everyone involved in the creation or application of the red cow’s ash become tamei?   I suspect the ash is so spiritually powerful (or that what it represents is so psychologically powerful) that exposure to it causes a lesser version of the altered state of consciousness in someone exposed to a human corpse.  The ash-makers and the sprinkler need not be sprinkled or wait for seven days themselves, but they must still do some ritual washing and take the rest of the day off before they are once more in the correct frame of mind to engage in the ordinary religious life of the Israelites.


Today when we are in an altered state because we have witnessed death, we have a few mourning rituals to help us.  But although Jewish tradition calls for “sitting shiva” at home for seven days after the burial, we have nothing as dramatic as the ritual with the ashes of the red cow to snap us back into a state in which we are psychologically ready to participate in life with our community.  We can only wait for the shadow of death to slowly pass by.

May we be patient with ourselves, and with others, while we wait.

  1. Leviticus 15:16-18.
  2. Contamination through touch, and washing to eliminate the contamination, remind modern readers of the germ theory of disease, which was first proposed in the 16th century C.E. and generally accepted by the end of the 19th The ancient Israelites, however, were only concerned about an abstract state of fitness for worshiping God.  They considered physical diseases either mysteries, or punishments inflicted by God, which could be avoided only through prayer, not through quarantine or washing.
  3. Later in the Torah, the people are given permission to slaughter and eat kosher livestock in their villages if God’s altar is too far away. Moses urges the Israelites: “Only be strong, so as not to eat the blood, because the blood is the life…”  (Deuteronomy 12:23)
  4. The Israelites use this oregano (eizov, אֵזוֹב) to paint blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses in Exodus 12:22, so the plague of the death of the firstborn would pass over them. Priests sprinkle blood using oregano branches in Leviticus 14:1-7 and 14:49-52 in order to convert both people and houses stricken with the disease of tzara-at from tamei to tahor.
  5. Genesis 2:7.
  6. Numbers 19:17. “Living water” includes water from a spring, a river, or a well; it excludes salt water or water from a cistern.
  7. Leviticus 21:1-4, 21:11.
  8. Leviticus 22:1-9.
  9. Numbers 19:21, translated above.

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