Numbers 19:2 – Para Aduma

Chapter 19 in the Book of Numbers is about the enigma of the para aduma, the red cow of Israel.

What is Para Aduma?

The Hebrew word “para” can be translated as cow or heifer. The Hebrew word “aduma” (sometimes spelled adumah) is the color red.

God declares the para aduma to be “the decree [Hebrew: chok] of the Torah.” A chok is a command from God that may not have a discernible rational reason.

Here is the basic outline of this topic.

The body of a deceased person has the highest level of tumah / uncleanness. A person who comes into contact with a body also has a high level of tumah.

For reasons that God has not revealed, there is only one way for a person who contacted a dead body to regain the status of of being tahor / clean. That person must be sprinkled with the ashes of the para aduma mixed with spring water.

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Some Verses

Let’s start by looking at some verses which contain an unusual phrase.

Here are the first 3 verses about para aduma:

Numbers 19

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,
2. This is the decree of the Torah which the Lord has commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring to you a red heifer without spot, which has no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke;
3. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may bring it forth outside the camp, and one shall slay it before his face.

Here are two verses from the recitation of the 10 Commandments by Moses in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy Chapter 5

12. Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the Lord your God has commanded you.

16. Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you; that your days may be prolonged …

God commanded Moses to prepare the Levites to serve in the Tabernacle:

Numbers 8

5. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
6. Take the Levites from among the people of Israel, and cleanse them.
7. And thus shall you do to them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle purifying water upon them, …

5 Questions

1. In Numbers 19 and Deuteronomy 5, what is meant by the phrase “as the Lord your God has commanded you”?

2. In Numbers 19, why are verses 1 and 3 addressed to Moses and Aaron, but verse 2 only to Moses?

3. What is the “purifying water” that Moses is to sprinkle on the Levites?

4. When was the first para aduma prepared?

5. Why are the details of para aduma presented in Numbers 19?

Levites Sprinkled

Before the tribe of Levi could serve in the Tabernacle, they needed to become tahor / clean. Since some of them had been in contact with dead bodies, God decreed that they should all go through the required process to become tahor.

The “purifying water” mentioned in Numbers 8:7 is the ashes of the para aduma mixed with spring water. But para aduma is not commanded until Numbers 19!

This answers question #3 above, but introduces a new issue about the order of events in the Torah.

The Bitter Waters at Mara

Shortly after leaving Egypt the Jewish people could not find any water. They came to Mara where they found only bitter water.

Exodus 15

25. And he [Moses] cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, he threw it into the waters, and made the waters sweet; there He gave them a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested them.

What is this decree and ordinance that God gave to the Jewish people?

Rashi explains that God gave them some sections of the Torah: Shabbat, para aduma (red heifer), and some monetary laws. They were not yet commanded to observe these laws, but they were to be studied.

Rashi’s source is the midrash Seder Olam Zuta 4. A similar midrash, Mechilta DeRabbi Ishmael, adds that God also gave them the laws of honoring father and mother.

Moses Repeats the Ten Commandments

As we all know, Shabbat and honoring parents are included in the 10 Commandments. They were given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 20.

Near the end of his life, Moses spoke to the generation that was about to enter the Land of Israel. Part of what he shared with them was the 10 Commandments.

After the commandments about Shabbat and honoring parents there is the added phrase as the Lord your God has commanded you.

This states clearly that these commandments had already been given.

When did this happen?

We might think that Moses is referring to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. If so, then this phrase should have been repeated after every one of the Ten Commandments, but it’s not.

According to Rav Yehuda (Gemara Shabbat 87b) this was what God commanded the Jewish people at Mara.

Second Time Adds Details?

There does seem to be problem. The phrase “as the Lord your God has commanded you” only appears in Deuteronomy. It’s not included in the giving of the 10 Commandments in Exodus.

Several commentators deal with this issue and make the case that the first set of tablets also included this phrase.

This article is not the place to go into those details.

After the Giving of the Torah

We saw above that at Mara God gave the Jewish people “an ordinance.” This is understood to be a general reference to monetary and civil laws.

After the giving of the Torah, Exodus 21 begins like this:

Exodus 21

1. And these are the judgments which you shall set before them.
2. If you buy a Hebrew slave …

Note that this verse does not follow the usual pattern of “And God spoke to Moses, if you buy a Hebrew slave …”

That is because the principle concepts of judgment and justice had already been given at Mara. Now in Exodus 21 and the following chapters, God is explaining to Moses details about that topic.

This is also what was meant at Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah. God again mentioned Shabbat and honoring parents. These were commandments that He had already given to the Jewish people at Mara. He hints at the repetition using the phrase “as the Lord your God has commanded you.”

Let’s use these ideas to understand more about the commandment of para aduma.

parah adumah - red cow red heifer

Para Aduma Commanded

This is how the section of para aduma begins:

Numbers 19

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,

Usually, God spoke only to Moses, but here He is addressing both Moses and Aaron. But the next verse says:

Numbers 19

2. This is the decree of the Torah which the Lord has commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring to you a red heifer without spot, which has no blemish, and upon which never came yoke;

In this verse, the “to you” is Moses. It’s clear in the Hebrew that “you” is a masculine, singular pronoun.

But the very next verse states:

Numbers 19

3. And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, that he may bring it forth outside the camp, and one shall slay it before his face.

In this verse, “you shall give” is plural masculine. It is a reference to both Moses and Aaron.

Why is the Torah flipping between the plural and the singular?

Mentioned at Mara, Details Later

In Numbers 19:2 we have the phrase “which the Lord has commanded, saying…”

Numbers 19:2 is making reference to the event that occurred earlier at Mara.

The verse continues and adds a detail about what God said to Moses at Mara: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring to you a red heifer…”

As Exodus 15:25 makes clear, at Mara God spoke only to Moses.

In Numbers 19 He teaches Moses and Aaron more details about the para aduma, saying to them (verse 19:3): “And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest…”

Let’s recap:

  • Numbers 19:1 God is speaking “now” to Moses and Aaron.
  • 19:2 is a bit of a flashback to what was said at Mara.
  • Verse 19:3 comes back, as it were, to the present and reverts to the plural.

Para Aduma Not Yet Needed

When God taught Moses about para aduma at Mara, there was no expectation of performing the commandment at that time.

Also, after the giving of the Torah, there was no need to explain more of its details right away.

The para aduma was not needed and, in fact, could not be observed until the Tabernacle was erected.

We see this from this verse:

Numbers 19

4. And Eleazar the priest shall take of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle of its blood directly before the Tent of Meeting seven times.

It was not possible to sprinkle the blood “before the Tent of Meeting” until it was assembled and dedicated.

The Tabernacle was erected and started full operation on the first day of the first month, Nisan, at the start of the second year after the Exodus (see Exodus 40:17).

It was on that day that God spoke to Moses and Aaron and gave them the details about the para aduma.

This is stated explicitly in the Gemara:

Gemara Gittin 60a-b

R. Levi said: Eight sections were given forth on the day on which the Tabernacle was set up. They are these sections:

  • about the priests (Leviticus 21)
  • about the Levites (Numbers 8:5-26)
  • about the unclean*
  • about the sending of the unclean [out of the camp] (Numbers 5:1-4)
  • commencing ‘After the death’ (Leviticus 16)
  • about the drinking of wine [by priests] (Leviticus 10:8-11)
  • about the lights [of the candlestick] (Numbers 8:1-4)
  • about the red heifer (Numbers 19)

* There are several opinions as to which verses are meant.

The next day, Nisan 2, Moses and Aaron directed and supervised Eleazar in the preparation and burning of the first para aduma.

After that was completed, the Levites were sprinkled with the “purifying water” as recorded in Numbers 8.

No Order in the Torah

The commandment of para aduma is relevant to the daily operation of the of the Tabernacle.

If so, why was the commandment stated in Numbers 19? It should have been recorded in the early chapters of Leviticus.

The Gemara from Gittin quoted above makes it very clear that the Torah does not always follow a chronological order. Four of those eight sections are recorded in Numbers, long after the first of Nisan.

In such cases, it’s very worthwhile to search for a lesson based on the order of the sections.

Death of Miriam

Numbers 20 begins with the death of Miriam. She died at the beginning of the 40th year in the wilderness.

As I wrote above, Numbers 19 relates to the 2nd year in the wilderness.

In the Gemara (Moed Katan 28a) Rabbi Ami says that the these 2 events are placed next to each other to teach a lesson about atonement. The death of a righteous person can serve as an atonement just as offerings can provide atonement.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains this concept in his Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume 2 section 20:40.

Korah’s Rebellion

There is a different reason given in Midrash Lekach Tov (Numbers 19:2). This midrash says that Korah mocked the purification process the Levites went through. As mentioned above from Numbers 8:7, they were sprinkled with the “purifying water” made from the ashes of the para aduma.

Korah did not realize the significance of the para aduma. Therefore his incident and its aftermath was presented immediately before Numbers 19.

Further Reading

This article is based on Rabbi Sorotzkin’s first comment on Numbers 19:1 in his book Oznaim L’Torah in Hebrew.

I also suggest reading Rashi’s comments at the end of Numbers 19. After his regular commentary on the chapter, he quotes another commentary to examine some of the symbolism of the para aduma.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
Click here to grab your copy of my free ebook How to Learn Chumash with Rashi.

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