The Red Heifer: Purity through a Gentile

Here’s the ironic twist. HaShem brought forth from among the Gentile nations a heifer that purifies Israel.


Sabbath, TorahJun 28, 2017

TorahJun 28, 2017


    Free-range red angus cattle on pasture. (Image: © Bigstock)

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In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we learn about the statute of the red heifer. This is the mysterious ritual where an unblemished red heifer is sacrificed and burnt outside of the Temple.

Its burning corpse is then combined with cedarwood, hyssop, and scarlet yarn. The ashes are then used to purify those who have been contaminated with a corpse. But the ironic thing is that the one who burns the red heifer and the one who gathers its ashes are themselves made unclean. Confused? How could something that purifies also make someone unclean? How do the ashes of the heifer purify someone in the first place? The sages themselves say that this is why the Torah calls this a chukkat. A statute for which there is no logical explanation.

The sages also say the laws surrounding the red heifer apply only to the Jewish people. Gentiles from the nations cannot become unclean through corpse contamination. Therefore, the ashes of the red heifer are traditionally applicable only to the children of Israel. Keep in mind that the sages do not have the words of Yeshua and the apostles, and there is much discussion that needs to take place as to whether the laws of clean and unclean will apply to Gentiles in Messiah when the Third Temple is built. But for now, we’ll stick with the traditional interpretation.

This brings us to the story of how a red heifer was brought to Israel through a Gentile named Dama son of Nethinah of Ashkelon. The sages use the non-Jewish Dama as the ultimate example of how far one should go in honoring one's parents. Here’s how the story goes:The sages use the non-Jewish Dama as the ultimate example of how far one should go in honoring one's parents. Here’s how the story goes:

It was propounded of Rabbi ‘Ulla: How far does the honor of parents extend?—He replied: Go forth and see what a certain heathen, Dama son of Nethinah by name, did in Ashkelon. The Sages once desired merchandise from him, in which there was six-hundred-thousand gold denarii profit, but the key was lying under his sleeping father, and so he did not trouble him. (b.Kiddushin 31a)

The sages continue to extol Dama’s praises with another story:

Rav Judah said in Samuel's name: Rabbi Eliezer was asked: How far does the honor of parents extend?—Said he, Go forth and see what a certain non-Jew, Dama son of Nethinah by name, did in Ashkelon. The Sages sought jewels for the ephod, at a profit of six-hundred-thousand gold denarii—Rabbi Kahana taught: at a profit of eight-hundred-thousand—but as the key was lying under his father's pillow, he did not trouble him for his father was sleeping. (b.Kiddushin 31a)

Such an incredible respect for his father! To Dama, the honor of his father was worth far more than any treasure. What does this have to do with the red heifer? Let’s find out how HaShem rewarded Dama for his piety toward his father:

The following year the Holy One, blessed be he, gave him his reward. A red heifer was born to him in his herd. When the Sages of Israel went to him to buy it, he said to them, “I know you, that even if I asked you for all the money in the world you would pay me. But I ask of you only the money which I lost through my father's honor.” (b.Kiddushin 31a)

How did God honor Dama for honoring his father? By causing a perfect, unblemished red heifer to grow up in his herd. In turn, he got back all the money that he lost by not disturbing his father. But here’s the ironic twist. HaShem brought forth from among the Gentile nations a heifer that purifies Israel. It goes along with the dichotomy of the red heifer, which makes some clean and others unclean. The method of purity was brought forth not from within Israel but from the outside, from the unclean, so to speak. In this way, although the mitzvah of the red heifer does not traditionally apply to Gentiles, HaShem allowed them to participate with Israel in this most important mitzvah. It also goes to show us that very often HaShem brings forth his blessings from the most unexpected places, like from a small town in Nazareth or from a Messiah who has largely been misinterpreted as a Gentile Christian for almost two thousand years.

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About the Author: Toby Janicki is the director of the 12-21 youth initiative, as well as a teacher and writer for First Fruits of Zion. He contributes regularly to Messiah Journal and has authored several books including God-Fearers and a comprehensive commentary on the Didache titled: The Way of Life. More articles by Toby Janicki

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