“And God spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: This is the governing
law that God commands, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel that they
should take for you a red cow, hardy [and] blemish free, which has never
borne upon it a yoke.”
Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) observes: One important question concerning the red
cow commandment is its placement or position among the 613 Torah commandments.
According to the Talmudic sages, the red cow commandment belongs to the body of priestly
commandments. They learn that it forms part of those commandments whose focus is the
Tabernacle service. As for the date, the sages peg the red cow mitzvah to the first of Nisan. On
that most auspicious day, ten crowns descended from Heaven. Apropos, the rabbis explained,
the red cow was ceremoniously burned. Its ashes would become a key element for the
cleansing mixture, ashes that served to rehabilitate and spiritually cleanse the Jewish nation.
Said cleansing prepared and allowed Hebrews to enter the Holy Tabernacle with proper
However, this opinion of the placement of the red cow commandment is problematic. If
the red cow commandment occurred simultaneous with the building of the Tabernacle, why
wasn’t it written in Leviticus (and not here in Numbers), where the body of Temple and priestly
commandments are provided? Second, why do we find the red cow commandment set here
among the two highly perturbing narratives covering the Korach rebels and camp complainers
or maylinim, both events taking a heavy toll on the wrongdoers.
Abravanel answers as follows. The ancient sages put forth that Moshe performed the
rites associated with the first red cow. He occupied himself with it when he served as the High
Priest in the Tabernacle. On the first day of Nisan, the Tabernacle was erected in the desert. On
that day, a red cow was ceremoniously burned, this for purposes of spiritually cleansing those
men and women who wanted to visit the holy place. Had visitors to the Tabernacle not been
ritually cleansed, they would have defiled it and profaned its sanctity.
The admixture featuring the red cow’s ashes that Moshe prepared went a long way.
Forty years. For forty years, while the Jews wandered in the desert, the prophet’s signature
batch served its purpose admirably. Temple goers took of the red cow’s ashes and purified
themselves before visiting the Tabernacle.
At the conclusion of the forty years, the Chosen People were slated to liberate Canaan.
God foresaw the Holy Land engulfed in bloody wars. Hebrew soldiers would come in close
contact with the dead, triggering their ritual defilement. Some campaigns would take place in
cities; some in open fields. Regardless of the battle’s location, the result would be the same.
Jewish warriors would be needful of red cow ashes to help them restore their ritual status.
Moshe’s batch would not suffice. For that reason, the Almighty guided and directed
Moshe and Aharon in the minutiae of the red cow commandment. As for Korach’s gang and
camp complainers, many of their followers had perished during the two respective rebellions.
Moshe’s original quantity of red cow ashes were, perforce, depleted by the loyalists handling
For these two reasons, God provided an expedient in our Torah section when He
commanded Moshe and Aharon to record this red cow mitzvah. Note, however, although we
read of the red cow’s particulars at this juncture, it would only become operational on the eve
of the Hebrews marching into Canaan.
From the forthcoming Abravanel’s World, Bamidbar Vol. II
Parashat Chukat, First Aliyah Zot Chukat (Numbers 19:1-2).