Maybe you have never heard of the Sabbath of the Cow (Shabbat Parah, שבת פרה). No, it’s not a special holiday for Jewish cowboys, and it’s not the anniversary of the sin of the golden calf. Shabbat Parah is part of getting ready for Passover.
Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Cow, comes three weeks before Passover. It’s one of the four special Sabbaths that come before the month of Nisan: Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and HaChodesh. The Mishnah explains that on the Sabbath after Purim, we add a special Torah reading to the regular Sabbath readings in the synagogue:
On the third of the four special Sabbaths, they read the section of the Torah about the Parah Adummah (“Red Heifer,” פרה אדמה). (m.Megillah 3:4)
On Shabbat Parah, we replace the last reading from the Torah (the maftir) with a special reading of Numbers 19, the section of the Torah that explains the mysterious ceremony of the red heifer. Numbers 19 contains the laws that introduce the concept of ritual contamination through contact with a human corpse and purification by means of sprinkling with water and the ashes of the red heifer. That’s why it’s called Sabbath of the Cow. Because we read the laws about the ceremony of the red heifer.
Why do we read Numbers 19 at this time of year? Why not wait until we get to the book of Numbers later this summer in the annual Torah cycle?
In Temple times, the special reading of Numbers 19 reminded those in attendance at the synagogue that they needed to prepare for Passover. They needed to undergo the ritual purification with the ashes of the red heifer prior to Passover. Otherwise they would not be ritually fit to eat the Passover sacrifice. The purification process takes seven days. Shabbat Parah is a three-week notice to plan accordingly.
The Gospel of John mentions the tradition of arriving in Jerusalem early, a week before Passover, to undergo ritual purification with the ashes of the red heifer:
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. (John 11:55)
Because the ritual purification involved sprinkling with the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the sages designated Ezekiel 36:16-38 as the appropriate haftarah passage for Shabbat Parah:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. (Ezekiel 36:25)
In the haftarah portion, Ezekiel predicts the ingathering of the children of Israel from among the nations. He predicts Israel’s return to the Holy Land. He predicts miraculous fertility, population explosion, and agricultural prosperity in the land. According to Ezekiel, the redemption will be more than just a physical return to the land of Israel. Ezekiel foresees a spiritual component to the redemption as well. He predicts that God will spiritually cleanse the children of Israel, transform their sinful nature, pour out His Spirit upon them, and enter into a new covenant relationship with them.
Since the destruction of the Temple, there is no altar, Passover sacrifice, or ashes of the red heifer. Nevertheless, the synagogue’s annual lectionary has retained the Temple-era custom of reading Numbers 19 and Ezekiel 36 on the Sabbath after Purim.
Even though we can no longer prepare for the festival of Passover with the sprinkling waters of the ashes of the red heifer, the weeks leading up to the festival are an auspicious time for us to seek the spiritual purification of our hearts. To the extent that we do, we lay hold of the promise of the Messianic Era when God will sprinkle clean water upon us and cleanse us from every spiritual defilement:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:13-14)