Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat 5770/ June 19, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Parah at Marah: a Red Herring?


Dr. Ephraim Yitzhaki


Department of Talmud


The beginning of this week’s reading deals with the commandment of the red heifer.  Exactly when this commandment was given to the Israelites has been widely discussed. [1]   Rashi notes on the verse, “There He made for them a fixed rule, and there He put them to the test” (Ex. 15:25):  There He made for them – at Marah, He gave them some of the portions of the Torah in order that they might engage in the study thereof, including the Sabbath, the red heifer, and the administration of justice (Talmud Sanhedrin 40).”  This discussion does not actually appear Sanhedrin 40, but in Sanhedrin 56b.   Apparently there was a scribal error, and the letters nun (=50) followed by vav (=6) were misread as mem (=40). [2]

Interestingly, however, Sanhedrin 56b also makes no mention of the red heifer:

The Israelites were given Ten Commandments at Marah, the seven that the descendents of Noah had accepted, and an additional three:   the administration of justice, the Sabbath, and honoring father and mother.  Administration of justice, as it is written, “There He made for them a fixed rule,” the Sabbath and honoring father and mother, as it is written, “as the Lord your G-d has commanded you” (Deut. 5:16); Rabbi Judah said:  as He commanded you, meaning at Marah. [3]

Indeed, Rashi interprets Deuteronomy 5:12:

Observe … as [the Lord your G-d] has commanded you – prior to the giving of the Torah, at Marah; as [the Lord your G-d] … has commanded you – at Marah they were also commanded to honor father and mother, as it says, “There He made for them a fixed rule.”

In other words, when the Ten Commandments were given one could truly say, “as He has commanded you,” since these things had been spoken before the giving of the Torah, namely at Marah.  But there is no mention of the phrase, “as He commanded you,” in conjunction with the commandment of the red heifer that appears in this week’s reading.   So how did Rashi conclude that they were commanded regarding the red heifer at Marah?

Tractate Gittin 60a reads:

Rabbi Levi said:   Eight passages were spoken on the day the Tabernacle was erected, and these are they:  the passage on the priests, the passage on the Levites, the passage on the impure, the passage on sending off the impure, the passage “after the death,” the passage on drunks, the passage on lights, and the passage on the red heifer.

Rashi explains:

"The passage on the red heifer," since the red heifer was burned on the next day so that they could purify themselves for the Passover sacrifice.   Prior to then they could not have prepared the ashes of the heifer, since it was necessary to “sprinkle it [the mixture of ashes and water] seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 19:4) [and if the Tent was first erected on the first of Nisan, the red heifer ceremony could not have been performed any earlier]. Indeed, in Tractate Megillah we are told that the Tabernacle was erected on the first of Nisan, and on the second of the month the red heifer was burned.

It is clear from Rashi’s explanation that he was familiar with the discussion in Gittin, so that one cannot say an error had somehow worked its way into the Talmud.  The discussion there explicitly states that the passage on the red heifer was given on the day the Tabernacle was erected, i.e., on the first of Nisan, approximately ten months after the giving of the Torah, which certainly occurred after Marah.  Also in the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael(ch. 1) we find:

There He made for them a fixed rule [or a statute and an ordinance].   “A statute,” that is the law about the Sabbath.  “And an ordinance,” that is the law about honoring father and mother – these are the words of Rabbi Joshua.   Rabbi Eleazar ha- Modai says “a statute [hok],” meaning the laws against incestuous practices, as it is said:   “not to engage in any of the abhorrent practices” (Lev. 18:30), “and an ordinance,” meaning the laws about robbery, laws about fines, and laws about injuries.

Once more, Parah at Marah is not mentioned. All these sources strengthen the question many have asked of Rashi above: [4]   Why did Rashi conclude that the commandment of the red heifer was given at Marah?  The Maharal of Prague, in his commentary Gur Aryeh, even attacks Rashi (33a):

Rashi’s commentary is most perplexing, for he diverged from the Mekhilta and from the gemara in Sanhedrin  His remarks are surprising, for he should have interpreted Scripture as the Sages did, and not given an interpretation appealing to the heart…  Pondering the controversy of the Sages in the Mekhilta or what is mentioned in the gemara, one sees that there is a wonderful and deep sense to their choice, all with wisdom and understanding, but this is not the place to go into further detail about the Mekhilta’s interpretation.   Rashi diverged from the words of the Sages, adding to them and thereby greatly detracting.

Rabbi Barukh Epstein, author of Torah Temimah, suggested an original solution:

Examining Rashi’s commentary … on the red heifer, exegetes have sought in vain to find a source for his words.  In my opinion it is clear that a small scribal error has occurred in what he said, for it must have been written “Sabbath” and “administration of justice” and kaf”alef (abbreviation for kibbud av, or honoring father and mother), as in the gemara and the Mekhilta, except that the kaf somehow became a peh, and some copyist later compounded the error by spelling out parah adumah (= red heifer).

This view is hard to accept, since Rashi himself says explicitly in his commentary on Exodus 24:3:

Moses went and repeated to the people – that very same day; all the commands of the Lord – the commands concerning their keeping apart from women and setting of bounds at Mount Sinai; and all the rules – the seven commands given to the offspring of Noah, and the laws regarding the Sabbath, honoring father and mother, the red heifer, and the administration of justice, given them at Marah.

Note that here Rashi includes both the red heifer and honoring father and mother.

Some have questioned Rashi on another aspect of the question. The assertion that the laws of the red heifer were given at Marah contradicts other homilies of the Sages, which imply that the red heifer was intended primarily to atone for the sin of the golden calf. If so, then the law of the red heifer must have been given after the sin of the golden calf, hence after Marah.  Rabbi Mordecai Yoffee, author of Levush ha-Orah, may be correct in saying, “Therefore I say that Rashi surely must have found some homily which was current then but has been lost to us.”

In Seder Olam Zuta we read: [5]

At Mara some of the passages of the Torah were given to the Israelites so that they might engage themselves in the study thereof, among them the administration of justice, the Sabbath, honoring father and mother, and parah (= heifer) they journeyed to Elim [u- parah nas'u le- Elim], as it is written, “They set out from Marah and came to Elim.”

The problem is that there are many manuscripts of Seder Olam Zuta in which the word parah does not appear, and therefore it might be that someone added it actually following Rashi, and not that Rashi copied from Seder Olam Zuta.

Another solution was suggested by my colleague and friend, Prof. Hayyim Milikovsky.   In Seder Olam Rabbah (Leiner edition) 5, s.v.kol shiv`at ha- yamim,” it says: [6]   “At that time the Israelites added the Sabbath, the administration of justice, and honoring father and mother.   From Marah they journeyed on to Elim, as it is written, ‘They set out from Marah and came to Elim’ (Num. 33:9).”

It seems that someone erred, copying u-farah (= and [red] heifer) instead of mi-Marah (= from Marah).  Perhaps this error even predated Rashi, so that Rashi actually copied it from Seder Olam Zuta.



[1] Cf. H. Milikovsky, “Parah Adumah lifnei Sinai – Mesoret Kedumah o Ta`ut Soferim,” Iyyunim be-Sifrut Haza”l ba-Mikra u- ve-Toledot Yisrael, in honor of E. Z. Melamed, Jerusalem 1982, pp. 268-276.

[2] This has been corrected in some newer editions of Rashi.

[3] Rashi says on this: “As the Lord your God has commanded you – this refers to the latter commandments, with respect to the Sabbath and honoring father and mother.”

[4] Such as Bekhor-Shor, R. Abraham Bakarat in Sefer Zikaron, and others.

[5] Seder Olam Zuta mi- Bereshit ad le-Mar Zutra ha-Sheni (520), an anonymous work from the early Middle Ages.

[6] Seder Olam Rabbah mi- Bereshit ad Mered Bar- Kokhba, attributed to Rabbi Yose ben Halafta.   Mentioned in the Talmud.