Lonely Man of Cake

January 17, 2007

I Love Sects, Part I

Filed under: General — lonelymanofcake @ 9:58 am

One of the many topics that I am studying is assessing sectarian controversies from the Second Temple period, and particularly being sensitive to the ramifications of sectarianism when approaching rabbinic sources (e.g., Mishna, Talmud).
It is a popular notion in scholarly circles to “write off” rabbinic law as sectarian polemics. In other words, there are those who contend that Hazal were not speaking for themselves; their formulation of law was always fighting off their opponents. In the few places where there is an intersection of rabbinic and sectarian literature, we can test this approach.

The case of the Red Heifer is of particular importance when discussing the contentious sectarian debate. The Sadducees were notoriously more stringent than the Pharisees (=Hazal) when it came to matters of ritual purity. As is apparent from Tractate Parah, even Hazal took enormous precautions when it came to the preparation of the Red Heifer to distance all of the parties involved from even the most remote possibility of becoming ritually unclean. These are just two of the provisions:
(1) The Kohen Gadol was sequestered for seven days, and sprinkled with the ashes of the previous Red Heifer on every day in order to ensure his ritual purity (Parah 3:1);
(2) Pregnant women were brought to a special colony in Jerusalem which was built in such a way that dead bodies buried underneath could not contaminate the above occupants. Children were born, isolated, and raised there specifically to fulfill the task of delivering the water from the Shilo’ah Spring which was mixed with the issues in order to facilitate their sprinkling (Parah 3:2).

Thus it is somewhat audacious to find that the priest responsible for cremating the Red Heifer was deliberately made impure by the elders before he undertook his task (Parah 3:7). This is astonishing, considering the aforementioned precautions, not to mention the litany of others! Why was this done? In order to show up the Sadducees, who, in holding with their general stringencies in all purity related matters, required that the priest responsible for cremating the the Red Heifer complete his personal purification process, which necessitates ritual immersion and sunset. Without the sunset, one who has only performed ritual immersion is considered a טבול יום, a status which is between purity and impurity and shares the leniencies and strictures of each respectively. The Sadducees, apparently, had the cremating priest wait until after sunset in order that he be unquestionably pure. The Pharisees/Hazal, on the other hand, would deliberately contaminate the priest, who would then immerse himself, and he would perform the ceremony as a טבול יום.

Still interested? There’s more to come…


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