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18 Adar 5764 - March 11, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Complete Purity: Understanding Parshas Poroh and Poroh Adumoh

by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis

A Change of State

King Solomon remarked about himself that all of the gates of Divine wisdom had been opened to him, with the exception of one: he did not know why the Poroh Adumoh (red heifer) purifies the impure yet at the same time contaminates the individuals who are involved with its preparation. Although we cannot hope to shed light on an issue which was unclear to the wisest of all men, perhaps we can try to fathom why Hashem chose this particular area of Torah to be left beyond the grasp of our intellect.

Ten miracles took place daily within the walls of the Beis Hamikdosh. Even non-Jews who were privileged to get a glimpse of what transpired there left feeling overwhelmed by the sheer power of their encounter with sanctity. A person couldn't just stroll into the Temple in the hope that he would be able to grasp its holiness. He would literally need to change his world outlook to be able to appreciate this magnificently spiritual realm.

How did this transformation take place? Employing a means of purification whose interpretation eludes the intellect taught the pure and impure alike that the experience of entering the Beis Hamikdosh similarly reaches way beyond the limited confines of human comprehension. Considering the process of the Poroh Adumoh helped all who entered the Temple internalize this idea, and prepared them to appreciate the unparalleled sanctity that awaited them.

Pesach Preparation

In the times of the Beis Hamikdosh, a crucial activity before the month of Nisan was to insure the availability of the ashes of the Poroh Adumoh. Anyone who had touched a corpse could not enter the Beis Hamikdosh, and consequently could not bring a korbon Pesach. The ashes of the Poroh Adumoh were placed in water, and this mixture was sprinkled on someone who was impure, as part of the process of making him tohor and it becoming permissible for him to enter the Temple.

In order that this mitzvah should be fresh in our mind, prior to the arrival of Pesach we are obligated to read Parshas Poroh, the verses that describe the Poroh Adumoh process. The Shulchan Oruch writes that the reading of Parshas Poroh is a Torah-based commandment (146:2; 685:7). However, most authorities disagree, contending that Parshas Poroh in only a rabbinically required reading (Mishnah Berurah 685:15). Some explain that the Torah obligation to read these verses only applied while burning the ashes of the Poroh (Meshech Chochmoh, Parshas Chukas).

Many authorities write that even according to the Shulchan Oruch, women are not required to hear the reading of Parshas Poroh, since they were not involved with the preparation of the ashes (Moadim Uzmanim 2:168). Furthermore, since the obligation to read Parshas Poroh is relevant only once a year before Pesach, it is considered a time bound mitzvah, which women are exempt from fulfilling (Hilchos Chag BeChag p. 25).

Red All Over

As implied by its name, one of the primary qualifications of the Poroh Adumoh is that it must be completely red. All its hairs must be red, and even two black or white hairs growing from the same source are enough to invalidate it. One isolated black or white hair would not disqualify the heifer.

If the nails or horns of the Poroh are black, they can be cut off. So too if there is black in its eyes, teeth or tongue the animal remains kosher, even without removing them. However, a wart disqualifies the Poroh, even if it was later cut off (Bartenura, Poroh 2:2,5).

Hair Splitting

Because of the very exact qualifications of the Poroh Adumoh, it was a very rare commodity. Before purchasing one for the Beis Hamikdosh, the heifer was checked over extremely carefully to insure that it was in fact completely red. If the animal was found to fit this qualification, and it met the other requirements of a Poroh Adumoh, it was worth a small fortune.

How far did this requirement go? If two hairs were half red and half black would the hairs still be considered red? Our Sages said that the status of the hairs is determined by the color of root of the hair. If the roots of the hairs are red then the heifer is deemed a kosher Poroh Adumoh.

Even if the roots of the hair are red, the Poroh Adumoh is not kosher unless a substantial amount of the hair itself is red. If there is not enough red hair to cut with a pair of scissors then the Poroh is not considered kosher. If the red root is long enough, then the black section was cut off, and the heifer was kosher (Bartenura 2:5).

Other Blemishes

"You should take a perfectly red heifer that has no blemishes . . ." (Bamidbar 19:2). All blemishes that render a sacrifice unfit for use, also disqualify a Poroh Adumoh. Not every divergence is considered a blemish, and size deviations did not render the heifer unfit (Meleches Shlomo, Poroh 2:3).

Dogs are considered especially brazen creatures. Since the whole purpose of bringing a sacrifice is to humble oneself before his Creator, an animal used in connection with purchasing a dog cannot be "brought into the house of Hashem to be offered as a korbon" (Devorim 23:19). Similarly a heifer used in an exchange for acquiring dogs was unfit for a Poroh Adumoh (Rambam, Hilchos Poroh 1:7).

As with other mitzvos, using a beautiful heifer was considered to be an enhancement of the mitzvah. If there was a choice of two poros, the more beautiful one was chosen. In the case where preparations of the less attractive heifer had already begun, the animal was redeemed, and the better-looking one was used (Rambam, Hilchos Poroh 1:10).

Forbidden Labor

There are more stringencies relating to the Poroh Adumoh than to other sacrifices. The Poroh may not have been used for work whether strenuous acts such as being ridden on, or simple things like being used to lean on. Transporting an object by tying something to its tail also disqualifies the heifer.

An expectant mother knows that carrying a child is no easy task. Since the fetus is considered a separate entity from the mother, the halochoh views it as though she is literally carrying the baby. In this vein, any heifer which is or was once pregnant is disqualified from use as a Poroh Adumoh.

Our Sages teach us that only an act of labor which is desired by the owner disqualifies the Poroh Adumoh. But what kind of labor, however useful, would be worth losing the small fortune that the Poroh Adumoh was worth? Our Sages tell us that the halochoh does not take into account the value of the heifer in determining whether an act is desirable to the owner (Tosafos Bava Kama 98a).

Absolute Purity

The halochoh is that when a Jew passes over a Jewish grave, he becomes tomeh, impure. Our Sages wanted to make certain that preparations for the Poroh Adumoh would be done without even the slightest chance of becoming impure. We can only react with amazement when we hear the incredible precautions that they took in order that this process should be performed in absolute purity. These steps were taken because there was a controversy with the Tzedukim about Poroh, and the one who prepared it was actually tomeh to a low degree -- deliberately so to contradict the Tzedukim.

Special courtyards were built in Yerushalayim, designed in a way that ensured that a person could never become impure there. These areas were constructed on bedrock, which clearly had no grave in it. Houses were designed in a particular way that even if a corpse were to be buried underneath them, it could not contaminate its inhabitants because it was built on vaults that blocked tumah.

Expectant mothers would come to these special courtyards to give birth, in order that their infants should never set foot into an environment where they could possibly become tomeh. These children were raised there until they were seven or eight years old, the age at which they would go and collect the water for the preparation of the Poroh Adumoh.

When they were ready to perform this task, special big- bellied cattle were brought into these courtyards, to transport the children to the Shiloach spring. The huge stomachs of these animals ensured that the child's feet would not pass over ground that could potentially contain a corpse. Wooden doors were affixed to the backs of these animals, as a further precaution against the child passing directly over a grave.

When they got to the banks of the Shiloach they drew the water in stone vessels, which could not become defiled by tumah. Most opinions agree that at this point they did not need to take precautions for becoming tomeh, since corpses are usually not buried in a river. They were able to dismount from the cattle, and draw the water directly. They would remount the heifers, and bring this water to Har Habayis to be used in the preparation of the Mei Chattos for sprinkling on those people who had become impure from a corpse.

Seven days before burning the ashes of the Poroh Adumoh, the Cohen who would perform this procedure was separated from his home and wife. This would ensure that he didn't become impure before engaging in the preparation of the Mei Chattos. Every day, the Cohen was sprinkled with ashes from red heifers -- poros adumos of earlier generations, including the one made in the time of Moshe Rabbenu in the desert.

Beyond the Law

The rishonim point out that even after all of these precautions were taken, it was not possible for these children to completely avoid any impurity. Every child becomes impure at birth, and for this reason these children too had to purify themselves before starting this procedure (Tosafos Succah 21a). Why then, was it necessary to put so much effort into making sure that impurity was avoided?

As explained previously, entering the Beis Hamikdosh was different from entering any other building in the world. It required a person to change his perspective on life, and to realize that in the dwelling place of Hashem anything was possible. To achieve such an outlook required complete purity in every single step of the process. Once again we went beyond the letter of the law, in order that our entrance into Hashem's Home should be in a way that found favor in His eyes.

Throughout our history, a total of nine Poroh Adumas were burned and made into Mei Chattos. The tenth will be prepared by Moshiach, may he come speedily in our days. In the merit of reading about the Poroh Adumoh may we be successful in arousing Divine mercy to end this long golus, so that we will once again be able to celebrate Yom Tov in its proper form, with the Beis Hamikdosh rebuilt (Mishnah Berurah 685:1).

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