From the teachings of Maran Rebbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztzvk”l
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
Some Insights into the Complex Mitzvah of “Parah Adumah” – How the Observance of “Illogical” Mitzvot Save Klal Yisrael
The Parasha states, “…the following is declared to be the Torah’s decree as commanded by Hashem: Speak to the Bnei Yisrael and have them bring you parah adumah (a completely red cow), which has no blemish, and which has never had a yoke on it.” (Bamidbar 19:1-2).
They would slaughter and burn the cow. With the ash they were able to purify the impure from the impurity of contact with the dead. As a result, they were able to fulfil all of the Torah’s mitzvot, to enter the Bei HaMikdash, to offer sacrifices, to eat the Pesach sacrifice and many other mitzvot that we cannot fulfil today since we do not have the ash of the parah adumah.
But why did it have to be red? Why not another colour? Even of it had two black hairs, it was unfit. Why was this? This is a decree! A statute! “This is a statue of the Torah”, Hashem said, “I set a statute and decreed a decree, and you may not question it!” (Bamidbar Rabba 19:1).
All our mitzvot are divided into two categories. There are mitzvot that we “listen to” and “logical” mitzvot. Mitzvot that we “listen to” are mitzvot that unless the Torah had commanded them we wouldn’t have kept them, because we do not know their reason, rather they are a decree from Hashem. For example, the mitzva of sha’atnez, if there is wool and linen in a garment then it is forbidden to wear it! Yet silk and linen is permitted. Cotton and wool are likewise permitted. Only wool and linen are forbidden! Why? It is a decree, without reason. The mitzvah of parah adumah is in this category.
But there are also logical mitzvot, understood in our minds, like the mitzvah of honouring parents, as the passuk states: “Honour your father and mother” (Shemot 21:12:). This is a mitzvah that we can fathom since parents toiled for their son and daughter! Look how much they worked to bring them up. So for sure it is appropriate to honour them. Even Gentiles fulfil this mitzvah, not just Jews.
The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) says: They asked Rebbi Eliezer the Great, he is Rebbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus, how far does the mitzvah of honour parents extend? He replied to them, come and I will tell you. There was a Gentile who lived in Ashkelon, his name was Dama ben N’tina, he was a prominent army general. He had a hobby that he collected all types of pearls and precious stones, garnet, sapphire and diamond, all types of unique stones. Sometimes he would trade them for a profit.
In the Bet HaMikdash, the cohen gadol had precious stones in the choshen (breast plate) and one of them was “jasper” (yashpeh in Hebrew), the last stone in the chosen, corresponding to the tribe of Binyamin. Why was the stone called “jasper”? Because when Binyamin arrived to meet Yosef in Egypt, Yosef revealed to him first that in truth he was Yosef, but he forbade him from telling the other brothers. When the brothers left from Egypt to return to their father Ya’akov and the cup was discovered in Binyamin saddle bag, Binyamin knew that it was all pretence, but he remained silent and didn’t tell anything to his brothers. Even though he had a mouth with which to speak, he kept the secret and didn’t speak. Therefore he is alluded to in the jasper stone because in Hebrew (yashpeh) breaks into two words “yesh peh” meaning “there is a mouth”, implying but it doesn’t speak!
It once happened that the jasper stone fell out of the cohen gadol’s choshen. According to the halacha the cohen gadol may not perform the Temple service without all his garments complete, even if one stone is missing everything is pasul (unfit). Therefore the chachamim sought out this stone.
They were informed that Dama ben N’tina the general has precious stones. They arrived at his home and asked him, “Do you have this precious stone, jasper?” He replied, “Yes yes sure, I have this stone!” They asked him, “How much do you want for it?” He replied, “100,000 dollars.” They said, “Fine, show us the stone!”
Dama entered his home and saw that his intoxicated father was asleep, with his feet on the table, and in the chest of the table were the pearls! Dama knew that should he take the precious stone, he will awaken his father. So because he feared his father so much, he went out to tell the chachmei yisrael and told them, “I am sorry, I cannot give you the stone.”
The chachmei yisrael thought that surely Dama must want more money, so they said, “We will pay double! 200,000 dollars!” Dama replied to them, “I am sorry, I cannot do this now.” They increased the amount and said, “300,000 dollars!” But Dama stood his ground! And so the amount kept increasing until they offered Dama 1,000,000 dollars for the stone! But he continued to stand his ground, apologising again and again!
The chachmei yisrael left to find the stone elsewhere. After a few minutes, his intoxicated father woke up. Dama hurried taking the stone and he ran after the chachmei yisrael. He caught up with them and said, “Here’s the stone!” The chachamim examined it and agreed that indeed it is the jasper stone! They said to Dama, “Fine we will pay for it 1,000,000 dollars as we spoke.” He replied to them, “No! I will not sell my father’s honour for any amount of money in the world. I said 100,000 dollars, so just give me 100,000 dollars! They heard what he said, gave him the 100,000 dollars and went on their way.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah 3:1 and Kiddushin 20:1) further relates that Dama ben N’tina’s mother was deranged. One day when Dama sat before a thousand soldiers, his mother suddenly appeared and began to hit him on his head with her shoe, yet he didn’t say anything to her! Until the shoe fell from her hand flying away. Dama hurried, picked up the shoe and returned it to his mother so that she may continue to hit him! This is how far he went to beautify the mitzvah of honouring parents!
The Gemara says, See! How this Gentile honoured his parents! All the more so should the Jewish People who has been commanded in the Torah to honour parents! See how much they should honour their parents! Especially this logical mitzvah.
The following year, Hashem rewarded Dama ben N’tina with his reward in this world. Dama had a herd of cows, and one of them bore a parah adumah. Dama knew that they Jewish People required a parah adumah so he looked after it. The reason why the chachmei yisrael needed one then was because they ash of the previous one had been used up.
The chachmei yisrael came to Dama ben N’tina and sought from him the parah adumah. They asked him, “How much do you want for it?” He replied to them, “What I lost on this stone, 900,000 dollars, this is all I ask.” They gave him the money and purchased the cow.
This is the reward that Hashem gave Dama ben N’tina, as the passuk states: “In order that it will be good for you and your days will be lengthened,” [Devarim 22:7 and 5:15], “it will be good for you” in this world “and your days will be lengthened” in the World to Come.
Why did Dama merit specifically to this reward? Why a parah adumah? The reason is that there was an element of kitrug - negativity generated against Klal Yisrael [kitrug in Hebrew meaning that the accuser had ammunition against Klal Yisrael], for the Gentile honoured his parents to such an extent, and who behaves in such a sterling way? Therefore Hashem gave him the parah adumah, so that the chachmei yisrael will come and pay an exorbitant sum to display Yisrael’s commitment to even mitzvot that we must simply listen too, even though they may not be logical to us! So people will say look how Bnei Yisrael are meticulous about the mitzvot, that even a mitzvah that has no reason, they invest a colossal sum! Therefore, the matter transpired that they were able to purchase a parah adumah.
Hashem said about the mitzvah of parah adumah, “I set a statute and decreed a decree, and you may not question it!” But why the double expressions, “I set a statue” and “decreed a decree”?
Once the chachmei yisrael needed a parah adumah. Because until their day 8 cows had been slaughtered since the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, and now they required the ninth to be slaughtered. (The tenth one Mashiach Tzidkeinu will prepare, as the passuk says, “And there will come a further tenth, which will return and be burnt” [Yeshaya 6:13] but in their day they needed the eighth or ninth one [eighth or ninth, since it is disputed in the Mishnah Parah 3:5, how many there had been prior to then. See also Rambam, Laws of Parah Adumah 3:4].)
Until the time of the Gemara they used the ash of the parah and Yisrael were pure. Likewise, when we will be pure we will be able to eat the Pesach sacrifice, when Mashiach will come we will merit to be pure and we shall all partake of the Pesach sacrifice! Then we will all be able to ascend the Temple Mount and enter the Temple courtyard and all the laws of the Bet HaMikdash shall apply.
In these days it is forbidden to ascend the Temple Mount. Why? Because we don’t know exactly what is classed as the Temple Mount, what is the Temple courtyard and what isn’t, and there are other reasons too which prohibit us from ascending the mount. And so someone who ascends there may incur the punishment of karet (excision). There are people who consider themselves “tzaddikim” and ascend there and make a commotion with the police. But this is a mistake, they consider this a mitzvah? In truth it is a grave sin! This much be publicised. It is forbidden to ascend the Temple Mount! Someone who goes there could incur karet!
And so this Gentile, had a parah adumah. The chachmei yisrael came to him. They said to him, “We heard you have a red cow.” He replied, “Correct! Come and see!” The chachmei yisrael entered and examined it. Indeed they saw that it is indeed red, no yoke had been on it and so it is kosher for the mitzvah of parah adumah. They asked him, “How much do you want for it? He replied, “10,000 dollars!”
The chachmei yisrael agreed, but the Gentile said to them, “But not now! Return tomorrow and you shall receive your cow!” The chachmei yisrael left. The Gentile, who was an anti-Semite said to his friend, “Just see how foolish these Jews are! They want a cow for their mitzvot, therefore I will ruin it for them, I will place a yoke on it and it will become pasul (unfit), and they won’t know this!” And so the Gentile took a yoke and placed it on the cow for a few seconds.
The next day the chachmei yisrael returned. He said to them, “Here you are, take your cow and pay for it!” They replied, “Fine we’ll just check it for a moment.” They examined it and the chachmei yisrael ascertained that a yoke had been on it. And how did they know? Because Hashem placed a determining factor in their hand. Every parah adumah has eyes that look straight ahead, but from the time a yoke has been on it its eyes look around, one above and one below, like a squint. And another sign is that a parah adumah has two hairs near its horns which stand upright, however, once a yoke has been placed on it they rest back down. This is how the chachmei yisrael knew that it was pasul, that a yoke had been on it.
They immediately told the Gentile, “You wish to trick us? This cow has had a yoke on it!” The Gentile heard this, he went to the top of his roof and threw himself off to his death. This was due to his great anguish of losing so much money due to his foolish actions.
About this the Torah states, “I set a statute”, this is the sign of the eyes, “and decreed a decree”, this is the sign of the hairs. Hashem embedded these two unique signs into this animal, into the cow, so that the Bnei Yisrael may merit it.
B’ezrat Hashem may Mashiach Tzidkeinu come and perform for us all these good things, for life and goodness and may we merit to eat the sacrifices in general and specifically the Pesach sacrifices, Amen.