Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ashes of the Parah Adumah

In Temple times the concept of tumah and taharah [ritual purity] was a daily concern, affecting people, utensils, and food. It was given special attention at this time of year as people began preparing to ascend to the Temple for the Festival of Succos and needed to be tahor [ritually pure] in order to do so. Tumah [contamination] comes in many forms and its severity depends upon the source of the contamination. The most severe form of tumah is that which derives from contact with, or being under the same roof as, a human corpse. According to Jewish law the only way to become purified from corpse tumah is to be sprinkled with spring water which has been mixed with the ashes of a parah adumah [red cow].

Mount of Olives (Wikimedia Commons)
The preparation of the parah adumah took place on the Mount of Olives east of the Temple. After the cow was slaughtered and burned, its ashes were divided into three parts. One third of the ashes was kept in a secure location on the Mount of Olives itself, another third was kept in the Temple (see below), and the remaining ashes were distributed among the twenty-four watches of Kohanim. The leaders of these watches would take the ashes to their hometowns in order to provide purification to people in their region of the country, thereby sparing them the need to travel all the way to Jerusalem.

The ashes of the parah adumah were stored in a stone jug
just outside the gate leading into the Women's Courtyard.
The stone jug holding the ashes stored in the Temple was kept in a niche in the wall just outside the gate of the Women's Courtyard (Tiferes Yisrael to Parah 3:3 #23).


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