Talmud pages

Sukkah 21

Red heifer babies.

Let’s be honest — parenting is hard. Parents need to ensure that their children are fed, clothed, educated and physically and emotionally healthy. On top of all of these things, a few select parents in the time of the Temple had an additional high-wire parenting challenge: ensuring that their children were ritually pure from birth! 

There’s a whole complicated reason a parent might do this. The problem that these parents were trying to solve was the fact that there might be dead bodies deep in the ground that no one knows about — and they might be anywhere. Anyone who passes over this ground will become ritually impure with death impurity, the most severe kind of impurity. The only way to really guard against contracting death impurity is to create a platform above the ground, with a space between the ground and the platform, to interrupt the upward flow of death impurity. (Some impurities travel through airspace, but this one does not.)

Today’s daf explains: 

Courtyards were built in Jerusalem atop the rock, and beneath was a space due to the concern lest there is a grave in the depths. And they would bring pregnant women, and they would give birth there in those courtyards. And they would raise their children there.

It all sounds very strange and confining. Keeping a kid on a platform for years? Why go to all this effort? 

The Gemara explains that all of this effort was “for the red heifer.” The Torah lays out the ritual of the red heifer in Numbers 19. In order to purify someone of death impurity, the ashes of a completely red heifer must be mixed with pure water and sprinkled on the ritually impure person after a series of days of purification.

Here’s the problem: Since most people are ritually impure with death impurity (after all, an unmarked grave could be anywhere!) anyone who draws the water to mix with the ashes is going to immediately transmit the impurity to the water. So in order to complete the ritual of the red heifer, which is designed to remove death impurity, you need to have someone who is already free from death impurity to draw the water. Enter the children born and raised on these platforms: 

And the priests would bring oxen there. And they would place doors on the backs of these oxen, and the children would sit upon the doors and they would hold cups of stone (which are not susceptible to ritual impurity) in their hands. When they reached the Siloam pool, they descended into the water and filled the cups with water, and ascended and sat themselves on the doors. Rabbi Yosei says: Each child from his place on the door would lower the cup with a rope and fill it with water due to the concern lest there is a grave in the depths.

The Gemara goes on to discuss the logistics of sitting squirmy children on doors balanced on oxen. (Parents will relate to this challenge.)

I started this piece talking about parents making choices about how to raise their kids, but in truth it doesn’t seem to have been the parents — or at least not the mothers — making this choice. The Gemara says “they would bring pregnant women.” Who is they? Probably the priests. What did the pregnant women think about spending their pregnancies and years of their lives living on platforms? The Gemara doesn’t say. 

The Gemara’s brief discussion of the extraordinary efforts that went into the ritual of the red heifer is fascinating. It sheds light on how the rabbis think about the challenges of the red heifer ritual, and their creative solution. But for careful readers, it also hints at the high cost of ritual purity: Both the financial cost of building and maintaining these platforms and, far more significantly, the profound human cost for parents and children.

Read all of Sukkah 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 28th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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