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Chukkat: The Ritual of the Red Heifer

Updated: 7 days ago

“Solomon said: Concerning all these [ordinances of the Torah] I have stood and investigated [their meaning], but the chapter of the Red Heifer I have been unable to fathom. When I labored therein and searched deeply into it, ‘I said, I will get wisdom, but it was far from me.” Kohelet Rabbah 7:36, Soncino Press Edition

Parashat Chukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) contains incredibly deep mysteries, from the Rock that brings forth water, the Snake upon a pole to the פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה, Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. This animal is incredibly special, as it is the necessary component to re-institute the Temple services. The word “Chukkat” itself is fascinating, referring to a class of mitzvot whose explanation and purpose are not self-evident. R’ Ari Kahn cites Rashi,

“This is the statute of the Torah: Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute (chok),” [as if to say,] I have decreed it; you have no right to challenge it. (Rashi, B’midbar 19:2)” R’ Ari Kahn, Chukat, An Enigma Wrapped in Riddle, [1]

According to the Midrash Rabbah cited above, the explanation of the Red Heifer mystified even King Solomon! We will attempt to scratch the surface of the ritual of the Red Heifer. We may ask, if King Solomon could not penetrate this concept, how could we be so arrogant to attempt such an endeavor. The answer is that we live in an era where the wellsprings of knowledge, from Above and below, are breaking forth upon the world. Moreover, we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and can peer deeper into the Scriptures than ever before, with the keys provided by the Sages. Parashat Chukkat opens,

“This is the statute (chukkat) of the law which HaShem has commanded: Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without spot, in which is no blemish, and which was never yoked. You shall give her to Eleazar the priest, and he shall bring her forth outside of the camp, and one shall kill her before his face: and Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle her blood toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times. One shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn: and the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer…” Numbers 19:1-9

A theme that is consistent throughout Chukkat is death. In this world, death appears to be the ultimate force. Death is the penalty for sin, without which death cannot operate. The Talmud says,

“R. Ammi said: There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.” Shabbat 55a, Soncino Press Edition 

This is exactly what Paul said in Romans,

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Messiah Yeshua our Lord.” Romans 6:23

The Zohar uses almost word for word language,

“R. Yesa said: Adam appears to every man at the moment of his departure from life to testify that the man is dying on account of his own sins and not the sin of Adam, according to the dictum, ‘there is no death without sin’. There are only three exceptions, namely, Amram, Levi, and Benjamin, who were deprived of life through the prompting of the primeval serpent; some add also, Jesse. These did not sin, and no ground could be assigned for their death save the prompting of the serpent, as we have said.” Zohar I:57b, Soncino Press Edition

One of the worst sins in the history of Israel, was the Egel HaZahav, the Golden Calf. The Rabbis noted a link between the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer:

“A maid’s child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: “Let his mother come and clean up her child’s filth.” By the same token, G-d says: “Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf.” Midrash Tanchuma, cited at [2]

The Mishnah relates the location of the sacrifice,

“…the priest who was to burn the cow, the cow itself and all who aided in its preparation went forth to the Mount of Olives.” Mishnah, Parah 3:6, Soncino Press Edition

The Mishnah relates a fascinating tradition, although the Red Heifer was sacrificed ‘outside of the camp’, at the Mount of Olives, the priest could see the doors of the Temple,

“All the walls of the Temple were high except the Eastern Wall, so that the priest who burnt the Red Heifer might while standing on the top of the Mount of Olives by directing his gaze carefully see the door of the Heikhal, at the time of the sprinkling of the blood.” Mishnah, Middot 2, Soncino Press Edition

The Midrash connects the Mount of Olives to the withdrawal and ascension of the Shekhinah,

“Ten journeys were made by the Shechinah: from cherub to cherub, from the cherub to the threshold of the house, from the threshold of the house to the cherubim, from the cherubim to the east gate, from the east gate to the Court, from the Court to the roof, from the roof to the altar, from the altar to the wall, from the wall to the city [of Jerusalem], and from the city to the Mount of Olives. . . The Shechinah may be likened to a king who left his palace in anger. After going out, he came back and embraced and kissed the walls of the palace and its pillars . . . Similarly when the Shechinah went forth from the Temple, it returned and embraced and kissed its walls and pillars, and wept and said, ‘O the peace of the Temple, O the peace of My royal residence, O the peace of My beloved house! O peace, from now onward let there be peace! . . . From the city to the Mount of Olives; for it is written, "And the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city (Ezek. 11:23).” Lamentations Rabbah Prologue 25, Soncino Press Edition

Interestingly, the Red Heifer has connections to the Passover Lamb,

“This refers to the statute of the Passover and the statute of the Red Heifer which are similar to one another, for in reference to the first it says: ‘This is the ordinance of the Passover, and in reference to the other it says: ‘This is the statute of the Law’ (Num. 19:2), moreover, one does not know which statute is greater than the other. It is like the case of two ladies who were walking side by side together apparently on a footing of equality. Who then is the greater? She whom her friend accompanies to her house and so is really following her. Similarly, in the case of the Passover we find ‘statute’, and in the case of the Red Heifer we also come across the word ‘statute’.Which then is the greater? The Red Heifer-for those who eat the Passover need its [purifying ashes], as it is said: And for the unclean they shall take of the ashes of the burning of the purification from sin.” Exodus Rabbah 14:2

The lamb’s blood was painted upon the doorposts using hyssop, which also forms a part of the cleansing ritual of the leper, as well as the Red Heifer,

“The hyssop, for instance, appears to man to be of no worth, yet its power is great in the eyes of God, who put it on a level with cedar in numerous cases, in the purification of the leper, and the burning of the Red Heifer; and in Egypt too He commanded a precept to be performed with hyssop, as it says: AND YOU SHALL TAKE A BUNCH OF HYSSOP. Of Solomon, also, does it say: “And he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springs out of the wall” (I Kings 5:13) - to teach you that the small and the great are equal in the sight of God. He performs miracles with the smallest things, and through the hyssop which is the most lowly of trees, did He redeem Israel.” Exodus Rabbah 17:2, Soncino Press Edition

Death of The Righteous

In our parsha, Miriam dies. Israel was provided water by the Rock in her merit, and at her death, the water (mayim) ceased. Within the name of מרים, Miriam, are the letters for מים, mayim/water. The Midrash Rabbah cites a principle from the Talmud called מיתתן של צדיקים מכפרת mitatan shel tzaddikim mekapparet, in relation to the death of Miriam,

א״ר אבא בר אבינא מפני מה נסמכה פרשת מיתת מרים לאפר פרה אלא מלמד שכשם שאפר הפרה מכפר כך מיתת הצדיקים מכפרת מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה כ סימן יב

“R. Abba b. Abina enquired: For what reason was the section recording the death of Miriam placed in close proximity to that dealing with the ashes of the Red Heifer? Simply this, to teach that as the ashes of the Heifer effect atonement, so the death of the righteous effects atonement.” Leviticus Rabbah 20:12, Soncino Press Edition, cf. Moed Katan 28a

The Zohar comments on the Red Heifer,

“Sin is red, as it says, “Though your sins be as scarlet”; man puts the sacrificial animal on the fire, which is also red; the priest sprinkles the red blood round the altar, but the smoke ascending to heaven is white. Thus the red is turned to white. The attribute of Justice is turned into the attribute of Mercy. . . R. Issac said: ‘Red (blood) and white (fat) are offered for sacrifice, and the scent ascends from both. The spices of incense are in part red and in part white – frankincense is white, pure myrrh is red – and the scent ascends from red to white.” Zohar, Volume III, Shemoth 20b, Soncino Press Edition, pg. 67

The Sacrifice of the Red Heifer, and the Original Sin:

“Mortality was the price that man was to pay for Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. Had Adam not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the human lifespan would have been endless. Because of this grave transgression, Adam and his progeny were sentenced to death. This said, the Red Cow acts to repair the world and to restore it to its former glory of before the Original Sin.” R. Zalman Baruch Melamed, A Red Cow and a Golden Calf [3]

This is the mission of Mashiach ben Yosef, as R’ Daniel Krentzman remarks,

“The need for the mission of Mashiach ben Yosef came about as a result of the sin of Adam. In theory, had Adam not sinned and brought about tremendous spiritual damage to himself and the world, there would not have been a need for the tikun olam efforts of Mashiach ben Yosef, in every subsequent generation. Mashiach ben Yosef thus comes to rectify that damage and return mankind to the state of Adam before the sin.” Yonah the Navi as Mashiach ben Yosef, Daniel Krentzman, pg. 10 [4]

Speaking of the suffering of the Messiah, the Pesikta Rabbati says,

“The Holy One, blessed be He, will tell (the Messiah) what will befall him: ‘There are souls that have been put away with you under My throne, and it is their sins which will bend you down under a yoke of iron, and make you like a calf whose eyes grow dim with suffering, and will choke your spirit as with a yoke; because of the sins of these souls your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth. Are you willing to endure such things?…if your soul is sad at the prospect of your suffering, I shall at this moment banish these sinful souls.’ The Messiah will say: ‘Master of the universe, with joy in my soul and gladness in my heart I take this suffering upon myself, provided that not one person in Israel shall perish; that not only those who are alive be saved in my days, but that also those who are dead, who died from the days of Adam up to the time of redemption; and that not only these be saved in my days, but also those who died as abortions; and that not only these be saved in my days, but all those whom You thought to create but were not created. Such are the things I desire, and for these I am ready to take upon myself whatever you decree.’ At these words, the Holy One, blessed be He, will appoint for the Messiah the four creatures who will carry the Messiah’s throne of glory.” Pesikta Rabbati 36, Yale University Press, Translated by R' William G. Braude

The commentary to Likutey Moharan says,

“The Biur HaLikutim asks: If Moshe had reached such exalted levels, why is the residual punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf spread throughout the ages? . . . even Moshe was unable to totally expiate the sin and gain full forgiveness. This level will only be attained by Mashiach, who will erase sin and its effects completely.” Commentary to Likutey Moharan 4:7, Footnote 73, Volume 1, Breslov Research Institute, pg. 139

Scarlet Robe

The book of Matthew says that Yeshua wore a scarlet robe,

“They put a scarlet robe around Him. And weaving a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Matthew 27:28-29

The Messiah takes the color red upon himself. The Book of Hebrews alludes to the Red Heifer, in application to Yeshua,

“For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside of the camp. Therefore Yeshua also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside of the gate. Let us therefore go out to him outside of the camp, bearing his reproach. For we don’t have here an enduring city, but we seek that which is to come.” Hebrews 13:11-14

The Epistle of Barnabas makes the connection,

“The calf is Yeshua: the sinful men offering it are those who led Him to the slaughter. But now the men are no longer guilty, no longer regarded as sinners. And the boys that sprinkle are those that have proclaimed to us the remission of sins and purification of heart. To these He gave authority to preach the Gospel, being twelve in number, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.” Epistle of Barnabas 7:4

The Return of the Shekhinah

The Rambam says,

“Nine red heifers were prepared from the time that the Jewish people were commanded this mitzvah until the Second Temple was destroyed. The first was prepared by Moses, the second by Ezra, and another seven were prepared from Ezra until the Temple’s destruction. The tenth heifer will be prepared by Moshiach, may he speedily be revealed, Amen, may it be the will of G‑d.” Rambam, Mishneh Torah, cited at [5]

The Prophet Zechariah speaks of the return of the Presence to the Mount of Olives,

“For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle . . . Half of the city will go out into captivity, and the rest of the people will not be cut off from the city. Then HaShem will go out and fight against those nations, as when he fought on the day of battle. His feet will stand on that day on the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two, from east to west, making a very great valley. Half of the mountain will move toward the north, and half of it toward the south.” Zechariah 14:2-4

The Prophet Ezekiel also says,

“Afterward he brought me to the gate, even the gate that looks toward the east. Behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with his glory. It was according to the appearance of the vision which I saw, even according to the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the city; and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the river Chebar; and I fell on my face. The glory of HaShem came into the house by the way of the gate whose prospect is toward the east. The Spirit took me up, and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of HaShem filled the house. I heard one speaking to me out of the house; and a man stood by me. He said to me, Son of man, this is the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever. The house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name, neither they, nor their kings, by their prostitution, and by the dead bodies of their kings in their high places…” Ezekiel 43:1-7

Isaiah speaks of this day,

“Who is this who comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? this who is glorious in his clothing, marching in the greatness of his strength? It is I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.” Isaiah 63:1

The Ramchal, R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, comments on this passage,

ועתה הנני מפרש לך סוד אחד חתום מאד והוא מה שכתוב מי זה בא מאדום וגוי [ישעיה סג, א] וכל זה הוא הצדיק, והוא משיח בן יוסף

“I will explain to you a certain sod which is completely sealed, and it concerns what is written, “Who is this who comes from Edom…’ (Yeshayahu 63:1). This is the Tzadik, and he is Mashiach ben Yosef.” Ramchal, Ma’amar HaGeulah, Secrets of the Redemption, Translated by R’ Mordecai Nissim, Feldheim Press, pg. 118

Rebbe Nachman says,

“The Rebbe said there are seventy nations and all of them are included in Esau and Ishmael: thirty-five under one and thirty-five under the other. In the future they will be conquered by two Messiahs, Mashiach the son of Joseph and Mashiach the son of David. There is one Tzaddik who is a combination of the two Messiahs. The Rebbe said a number of things over and above what was printed.” Chayyei Moharan 1:131, Tzaddik, translated by R’ Avraham Greenbaum, Breslov Research Institute, pg. 131

While Rebbe Nachman apparently applied the above to himself, this ultimately applies to Yeshua of Nazareth, the ultimate Tzaddik. The Mekhilta says,

“The people spoke against G‑d and against Moses (21:5). It is written: “They believed in G‑d and in Moses His servant” (Exodus 14:31). If they believed even in Moses, they certainly believed in G‑d! But this comes to teach us that whoever believes in the shepherd of Israel, it is as though he believes in G‑d. In the same vein, it says, “The people spoke against G‑d and against Moses.” If they spoke even against G‑d himself, than certainly they spoke against Moses! But this comes to teach us that whoever speaks against the shepherd of Israel, it is as though he spoke against G‑d.” Mekhilta Beshalach; Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a [6]

Numbers says,

“A pure man shall gather the ash of the cow…” Numbers 19:9

The Tzemach David states,

“The Holy One, blessed be He, is called “a man who is clean who shall gather the ashes of the red heifer.” The ashes which need to be gathered symbolize Israel in exile. The explanation is that “the man who is clean” is none other than King Messiah. He is made unclean by the sicknesses and strokes that come upon him to atone for the iniquities of Israel, as it is said, ‘Surely our sicknesses he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried, yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.” Tzemach David, cited in Yalkut Moshiach: Chukas 236-237, 103, citing Tanchuma Yashan 235, 101, cited in Torah Club, Shadows of the Messiah, Volume 4, First Fruits of Zion, pg. 818

The Baal HaTurim, R’ Yaakov ben Asher, also says of this connection,

“He shall gather. The masoretic note, ’ג means that this word appears three times in the Tanach: (i) here, a pure man shall gather, (ii) and the metzora shall gather (2 Kings 5:11); (iii) And he will gather the castaways of Israel(Isaiah 11:12). [The similarity of the expression here and in Kings alludes to the Talmudic statement:] A metzora is likened to a corpse (Nedarim 64b). Moreover, just as the ashes of the red cow impart purity, so too, the prayers of the righteous impart purity. [And the similarity of expression in the three verses also alludes to the time of Mashiach:] And he will gather the castaways of Israel, in the future, at which time the metzora shall gather, i.e. will be cured, as it is written, Then the lame man will skip like a gazelle (Isaiah 35:6). And at that time, they will no longer need the ashes of the red cow, as it is written, He will have swallowed up death forever. (Isaiah 25:8)” Artscroll Baal HaTurim, Bamidbar 19, Mesorah Publications, ltd. pg. 1585

Through the death of Yeshua, he has accomplished the death of death. He is the Red Heifer, who ascended from the Mount of Olives and b’ezrat HaShem will soon return. In the Amidah, the prayer for the return of the Shekhinah, may it be soon in our days,

V’techezenah eineinu b’shuvecha l’Tziyon b’rachamim. Baruch atah HaShem, hamachazir Sh’kinato l’Tziyon.

May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in compassion. Blessed are You, HaShem, Who restores His Presence to Zion.” Artscroll Siddur, Nusach Sefard, pg. 565



  1. R’ Ari Kahn, Chukat, An Enigma Wrapped in Riddle,

  2. Midrash Tanchuma, cited at

  3. Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed, A Red Cow and a Golden Calf, Parashat Chukat,

  4. Yonah the Navi as Mashiach ben Yosef, Daniel Krentzman, pg 10

  5. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, cited at

  6. Mechilta Beshalach; Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a cited at

  7. Temple Institute, Red Heifer

  8. Chukat In-Depth,

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