a completely red young cow." (Num. 19:2)
The Red Cow
is an allusion to the Oral Torah, the attribute of Justice in its most severe
form. This attribute is the source of ritual impurity. The reason why this chore
was given to Elazar to perform was in order that he should address the attribute
of Justice in its most concentrated form. Such thoughts should not be held against
him [seeing it stated repeatedly that all offerings are addressed to Havayah,
the attribute of Mercy], as it was slaughtered outside holy precincts and was
not considered as a sacrificial offering.
This is also the
reason this legislation was prefaced with the words "This it the statute
[in Hebrew, 'chukat'] of the Torah", as if to say: "this new kind of
legislation that the Torah has seen fit to reveal here as something to be performed
outside the precincts of the Temple is not meant to convey the impression that
it is addressed to someone other than G-d, G-d forbid. It is anchored, i.e. embedded
[in Hebrew, 'nichkakat', from the same root word as 'chukat'] in the Torah itself.
However, its origin is the Oral Torah, which is the sixth of the emanations [counting
from malchut upward].
Even though a full comprehension of
the mystical dimension of this statute is way beyond our ability to understand,
it is important to understand that the concept of ritual impurity is allowed to
spread no further [upward] than the sixth emanation, that of gevura. This is the
emanation, attribute, which is characterized by Isaac, who lay on the altar bound
by the attribute of Mercy on the outside. If the attribute of Mercy would not
have been present and active and the attribute of Justice would be allowed full
reign the world would face destruction immediately.
why the Master of Mercy provided us through this procedure with a method of turning
the attribute of Justice at its fiercest into milder form of itself. This is the
meaning of the words: "They shall take to you a cow, one that is red, and
unblemished specimen, an animal which has not been tainted by having been subservient
to any [other] master, such as the sefirot on the lower rungs of that diagram."
know that even the next lower sefira was not saved from having a "master"
impose a yoke upon it as that sefira, tiferet, has been associated with the Holy
Temple which has been destroyed and therefore has been "mastered" by
impure forces on earth.  The cherubs [on the cover of the Holy Ark] were exiled
together with the other furnishings of the Temple and we do not find that they
had been hidden, as had the Holy Ark itself as well as the Menorah. The sefirot
which are "higher" than that of tiferet are described as "the houses
of my hidden treasure" (Beitza 16)....
The reason that
this Red Cow was slaughtered outside the holy precincts of the Temple was in order
for it to be able to chase away, or diffuse, the spirit of impurity. This is why
the remains of the cow [ash] together with the water from an original source,
"living waters", would effect purification by means of the vessel within
which it was contained (verse 17). Purity is derived from an influence exerted
by the attribute of Mercy, an emanation higher than that of gevura, i.e. the attribute
of Justice, that responsible for every kind of impurity.
will need to appreciate that some Kabbalists are in doubt whether the fact that
the procedure involving the Red Cow was carried out completely outside the confines
of the Temple meant that it represented a higher degree of sanctity than that
which pervaded the Sanctuary. In other words, everything connected with the Red
Cow would have represented "Holy of Holies", whereas only a small portion
of the Sanctuary itself was designated as "Holy of Holies". If so, the
level of sanctity represented by the Red Cow as well, as its remains, would have
been superior to that of the sacrificial animals offered on the Altar inside the
precincts of the Temple, so that there was really no comparison between the Red
Cow and its counterparts inside the Holy Temple.
On the other
hand, some Kabbalists think that the reason the procedure of the Red Cow was conducted
outside holy precincts points to the fact that its sanctity was below that of
even the lowest level of sanctity inside the holy precincts and that this is the
reason that no part of it was processed inside those confines. These people then
raised the following question: assuming that the Red Cow was of such a high level
of sanctity as the levels of sanctity in the Temple, how could it possibly confer
impurity on its [uncontaminated] handlers? On the other hand, if it was of such
inferior sanctity that it had to be slaughtered and its remains kept outside sacred
ground, how was it capable of conferring purity on the previously impure?
Kabbalists answered these questions by saying that indeed the entire Red Cow was
"Holy of Holies" and that the reason it conferred impurity on its handlers
was that any pure person on earth will automatically become impure through contact
with extraterrestrial purity i.e. celestial purity [or sanctity]. This concept
is reflected in the Torah phrase "anyone touching the Altar will become holy"
(Ex. 29:37), i.e. will be burnt [as had happened to the two sons of Aaron Nadab
and Abihu]. Total terrestrial sanctity is relegated when it confronts celestial
sanctity. What applies to relative sanctity, i.e. terrestrial sanctity versus
celestial sanctity, also applies to terrestrial purity as opposed to celestial
purity. This may be the meaning of the Talmudic concept that "one category
of fire displaces, relegates, another category of fire (Yuma 21) - that the "fire"
of the Shechina displaces or relegates terrestrial fires.
Talmud there describes the penalty incurred by the angels who had opposed the
creation of Adam by saying that he did not deserve G-d's consideration. G-d is
reported as having stretched out His finger at these angels and burning them.
If differences in the quality of fire exist among the angels in the celestial
regions, it is easy to understand why terrestrial fire should be inferior to even
the lowest of the celestial fires....
According to some Kabbalists
the Red Cow was entirely in the category of "Holy of Holies". Personally,
I feel that in some respects it was holy whereas in other respects it was totally
secular in status. Seeing that the Red Cow transmits a spirit of ritual impurity,
it contains a purely secular element. Seeing, however, that the Torah refers to
it as "chatat", i.e. acting as a means to expiate, it must also contain
an element of holiness. Because of the fact that it is composed of two opposite
elements, the Torah applied stricter rules to it than apply to the animals which
serve as sacrificial offerings on the Altar, seeing no one is in doubt about their
The reason that the Torah writes here about the rules of purification
for people contaminated by impurity conferred by contact with the dead is that
the ash of the Red Cow is so crucial in the purification process of such people.
The root cause of living creatures contracting spiritual impurity dates back to
the original cause of death, the serpent in the Garden of Eden.... Nachmanides
writes that the bodies of people whose death is due to a "kiss" of G-d
do not become ritually impure. The prophet Zechariah in that verse describes the
elimination of death, the Angel of Death, etc., in the future; he employs the
simile of the "great mountain which will be flattened at that time",
describing the overcoming of the greatest obstacle in our lives on this earth
prior to the coming of the Mashiach. This is what Maimonides had in mind when
he stipulates that the Red Cow which will be burned by the Mashiach will be the
tenth and final one, as with the absence of death there will be no need for further
such means of purification.
from the seven-volume English edition of The Torah Commentary of Rebbeinu Bachya.
Translation and commnetary by Eliyahu Munk; edited for KabbalaOnline.org
by Baruch Erdstein]
Rebbeinu Bachya Rabbi Bachya ben Asher [1255-1340]
of Saragosa, Spain, was the outstanding pupil of Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (the
Rashba), a main disciple of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the Ramban).
Several books have been written about the Kabballa-based portions of R. Bachyas
Eliyahu Munk was born in Frankfurt, emigrated to England as
a young man and then to Toronto. After retiring from education and moving to Israel
in 1978, he began an extraordinary second career as a translator, publishing English
versions of the Torah commentaries of Rebbeinu Bachya, Akeidat Yitzchak, the Shelah,
the Alshich and the Ohr Hachayim.