Monday, August 25, 2014

Preparing the Red Cow on the Mount of Olives

The Torah requires that the preparation of the red cow [parah adumah] be carried out facing the opening of the Sanctuary. While the Tabernacle was still in use as the Jews wandered in the wilderness, the red cow would have been prepared off to the east of wherever the Tabernacle happened to be situated at the time. During the First and Second Temple eras, the procedure was carried out on the Mount of Olives, east of the Temple.

Mount Moriah and the Mount of Olives were separated by the Kidron Valley, and to allow the Kohanim to easily reach one from the other a walkway was constructed starting from the eastern gate of the Temple Mount. This walkway was supported by two levels of arches, with the columns of the upper level located over the airspaces of the lower level (Parah 3:6). This arrangement ensured that anyone standing on the walkway would be completely protected against the tumah of a grave that might be present in the ground below (see this post for more details).
The 71 members of the Great Sanhedrin line the walkway to greet the Kohen bringing the red cow to the Mount of Olives (see Parah 3:7 with Tiferes Yisrael §53).

One of the key requirements in the preparation of the red cow is that the Kohen carrying out the procedure not only be located east of the Temple but he also must be able to see the opening of the Sanctuary as he sprinkles the blood of the slaughtered cow. The elevations of the Temple were such that, in order to see the opening from his vantage point in the east, he must look over the wall of the Temple Mount, through the gate leading into the Women's Courtyard, through the Nikanor Gate, and then into the Sanctuary.
Sight line from the Mount of Olives to the entrance of the Sanctuary.
Since the walkway which traversed the Kidron Valley was even with the floor of the Temple Mount, and assuming that it ran parallel to the ground and did not slope upward, when it reached the Mount of Olives it was still more than 20 amos below the top of the Temple Mount wall. To bring the Kohen up to the needed elevation a large structure was built on the Mount of Olives which, like the walkway, was supported by a two-level network of arches to protect it against tumah (Tosefta Parah 3:5; Tiferes Yisrael to Parah 3:7 §54). A mikveh was located here so that all those involved in preparing the cow could immerse and purify themselves (Parah 3:7 with Tiferes Yisrael). This structure also housed a storage container where a portion of the ashes from the red cow would be kept (Parah 3:11).

The large structure where the red cow was prepared. The archway in the front leads to the mikveh.
[According to Rashi (to Menachos 7b), however, it was only the sprinkling of the blood which was carried out at a height of 20+ amos above the walkway, while the slaughtering and burning of the cow was performed at ground level. The description in the previous paragraph follows the views of Rash, Rambam's Hilchos Parah Adumah 3:2, and Tiferes Yisrael §76.]

The Mishnah (Parah 3:10, 4:2) refers to this structure where the cow was prepared as a גת, winepress, since at its top was a depression in which the cow would be burned. Within this depression they built a large pyre, wide on the bottom and narrower on top, like a tower (Parah 3:8 with Rav). The cow would be slaughtered atop the pyre, its blood sprinkled toward the Sanctuary, and then the pyre would be ignited. After the fire had burned out, all of the ashes would be collected and then used as needed to purify people or utensils which had contracted corpse tumah.
The Kohen prepares the red cow on the pyre.

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