Parshat Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah
March 14, 2009
18 Adar 5769
This week I want to veer from the normal course of discussing the haftarah to discuss an interesting halachic issue regarding the special Torah reading for this Shabbat. This Shabbat we read the third of the four special maftir readings which precede Pesach. This reading, Parshat Parah (Numbers 19:1-17), deals with the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer needed for ritual purification rites in Temple times. It was read before Pesach to remind people of the need for ritual purity in the offering and the eating of the special Pesach offering.
According to most halachic authorities, last week\’s special reading, Parshat Zachor, about the commandment to remember the wicked deeds of Amalek and to blot out his memory, is a mitzvah mandated by the Torah (deoraita) because the special Torah reading includes the command to remember. The Rishonim (the sages who lived during the middle ages) debated whether this same status applied to the special reading for Parshat Parah as well. Rabbi Joseph Karo ruled in the Shulhan Aruch (Orach Hayim 685:7) that the Torah requires the reading of both Parshat Zachor and Parshat Parah and mandates that those who live in communities where public Torah reading is not possible should spend Shabbat in a place where they will be able to hear the Torah reading. A number of authorities disagree with this ruling, questioning both the veracity of the sources which included Parshat Parah in this obligation, and further citing as a reason that there is no special mention of its significance in the Talmud. (See Magen Avraham and the famous Gaon of Vilna among others.) The sources which these authorities found questionable have been found to be both authentic and numerous, rendering the added significance given to Parshat Parah a valid position.
The outcome of this debate is ultimately academic but a number of modern authorities who side with elevating the significance of the special Torah reading for Parshat Parah pose some interesting arguments to bolster its importance. One explanation, while legally a bit farfetched, nevertheless offers a significant religious message. Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (19th century Eastern Europe), in his halachic work \”Artzot Hahayim\”, linked the ritual of the Parah Adumah to the sin of the Golden Calf which we read about in this week\’s parashah. He asserts that since the Golden Calf was a stain on the character of the Children of Israel, God wanted Israel to remember the sin of the Golden Calf but did not want to remind them directly of this sin. Instead, he reminded them of this sin through the commandment that ritually serves as atonement for this sin – the ritual of the red heifer. (Cited by R. Ovadiah Yosef in Hazon Ovadiah Purim p. 16 note 18 and by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg in Tzitz Eliezer 10:28 end.)
This innovative explanation offers a valuable lesson. It is never a bad thing to remember the wrong paths that we have taken in life even after we have remedied them. It constantly gives us a means of perspective and grants us the ability to avoid them a second time.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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