Chukat: Parah Aduma - What's a Chok?

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

What does the phrase CHUKAT HA'TORAH (19:2) mean? Usually, the word TORAH is understood as 'the entire Chumash', while CHOK is understood as a 'law without reason'; and hence - the laws of Parah Adumah become the example 'par excellance' of a CHOK that doesn't make any sense - correct?

In the following shiur we suggest an alternate definition for the words CHOK and TORAH that will help us not only make sense out of the complex details of these laws, but will also help us uncover a deeper understanding of this enigmatic opening phrase.


Recall our explanation of the word Torah in our study of Parshat Tzav. In that shiur we concluded that the word TORAH (at least in Sefer Vayikra) refers to a PROCEDURAL law - i.e. a set of actions that must be taken in order to complete a certain process. For example, in Parshat Tzav, "zot TORAT haMincha..." (see 6:7-10) is translated: "this is the PROCEDURE for offering the korban mincha" - for it details HOW the kohanim are to offer it. Similarly, TORAT HaCHATAT introduces the laws of HOW the "korban chatat" is to be offered (see 6:18 and 7:1).

In a similar manner, we can explain the word TORAH in Parshat Parah! Therefore, we will begin our shiur by identifying the specific procedure that TORAH refers to in Bamidbar chapter 19, i.e Parshat Parah.

Two Procedures in the Laws of Tumat Meit

For those of you who are not familiar with the basic laws of "tumat meyt", let's review a few basics. According to Jewish law, if a person touches (or is in the same room with) a dead body, he becomes "tamey" [spiritually unclean], and hence he is not permitted to enter the Temple courtyard. To rid himself of this "tumah", a special procedure is required. He must be sprinkled by a solution of spring water mixed with the ashes of the "para adumah". This sprinkling must take place after three days, and then again on the seventh day. At sunset of that seventh day, he becomes "tahor" and is then permitted to enter the Temple.

As we will soon explain in more detail, there are two distinct procedures [and hence TOROT] that are required in order to complete this ritual of "tahara" from "tumat meyt":

  • PROCEDURE #1 - Making the 'ashes' of the parah adumah. [as detailed in 19:2-9!)
  • PROCEDURE #2 - Sprinkling these ashes (mixed with water).[as detailed in 19:17-19!]

Before we take a closer look at these pesukim to show how these two procedures contain many CHUKIM as well, we must first explain what a CHOK" is.

What's a Chok?

Actually, let's first explain what a CHOK isn't! In contrast to popular opinion, a CHOK (by definition) is not a law that doesn't make sense. [As we will see, the fact that a CHOK doesn't always make sense may be a characteristic, but certainly not a definition.]

To clarify this, let's take an example from a law that you are all familiar with: the Korban Pesach. Everyone knows why we offer the Korban Pesach - to commemorate how God saved Am Yisrael from the Tenth Plague. Certainly, this mitzvah makes a lot of sense, but to your surprise - the Torah refers to this law as a CHOK and gives a reason! Let's take a look:

"... and you should keep this commandment (of Korban Pesach) as a CHOK for you and your children for ever. When you come into the Land that God shall give you... keep this ritual. And when your children will ask: What is this ritual for you? Tell them it is the Pesach offering, for God passed over the houses of Bnei Yisrael when He smote the Egyptians..." (Shemot 12:24-27!)

In fact, not only Korban Pesach, but ALL of the Jewish Holidays are defined as CHUKIM (in Parshat Emor - see Vayikra 23:14,21,31 & 41), in regard to the fact that they must be kept forever during the cycle of the year!

The reason why is quite simple. The word "chok" describes a fixed law or statute. In fact, Chumash even uses the word "chok" to describe statutes that are not mitzvot. For example, when Sefer Breishit describes how Yosef purchased of the land from the Egyptians, we are informed that he cannot acquire the land belonging to the priests - because:

"... it is the CHOK of the priests by Pharaoh, that they eat their portion [lechem CHUKAM] that Pharaoh had given them..." (See Breishit 47:20-22 and its context)

For a similar reason, when Bnei Yisrael are required to produce a certain daily output of bricks, Sefer Shemot describes this set quota as a CHOK:

"...and the taskmasters of Bnei Yisrael scolded them saying - Why did you not complete CHOK'CHEM [your quota] to make bricks as before..." (see Shemot 5:14 and its context)

Note also how Yirmiyahu refers to the laws of astronomy, i.e. the constant and unchanging cycles of the sun and moon around the earth, as "CHUKOT shamayim v'aretz" (see Yirmiyahu 33:25 and even better, see Yirmiyahu 31:35-36!).

For this reason, the holidays in Parshat Emor are referred to as CHUKIM for they celebrated on a REGULAR basis, once a year based on the solar (agricultural) calendar. Once again, a "chok" implies something constant that doesn't change - a statute.

Therefore, in regard to "tumat meit" - the law that a person who touches a dead body becomes "tamey" for seven days should definitely be considered a "chok"  - for it is a law that never changes - it remains constant.

[In modern Hebrew we find a similar use, where the 'laws of nature' are called CHUKEI ha'TEVA. Take for example Newton's laws of motion - they are set by definition, and don't change.]

Based on this definition, a CHOK can be logical, but it doesn't have to be! Certain CHUKIM may be beyond our comprehension, however many other CHUKIM can actually make a lot of sense. Therefore we find some "chukim" that are quite logical, while others are not - however, an 'unlogical law' does not define a CHOK!

In contrast, a MISHPAT, as its name implies, is a JUDGEMENT - based on reason. The very concept of a MISHPAT relates to a decision or judgement that must be made between two claims. Hence, the Torah refers to the entire set of civil laws relating to damages etc. in Shemot chapters 21->23 as MISHPATIM (see Shemot 21:1 & 24:3).

With this  background, let's read through Parshat Parah and attempt to identify more precisely where we find a TORAH and where we find a CHOK, and how they relate to one another. As we read, we will notice how the chapter neatly divides into two halves, according to the two procedures that we mentioned above.

[As a teacher's note - to explain this concept of TORAH as a procedure, take the word 'recipe' as an example. A recipe demands a certain procedure to attain a certain goal, i.e. a sponge cake recipe requires that we take 4 eggs, flour, water, sugar; mix them into a batter, and bake it etc. The result - a cake - and hence the recipe card is titled: Sponge cake. In a similar manner, the Parshat Parah informs us of the proper 'recipe' [i.e. the TORAH] to make the ashes for "efer parah"!]

Procedure #1 & its Chukim

Recall that our first PROCEDURE [TORAH] defines how the "efer ha'parah" (the ashes that will later be used for sprinkling) are to be prepared. Note how 19:2-6 describes the first set of necessary procedures [or recipe] to make this "efer parah":

19:2-3 Take a red heifer (one without a blemish) and give it to Elazar (the deputy high priest) who must slaughter it outside the camp.
19:4 Sprinkle the blood of the heifer seven times opposite the entrance to the Ohel Moed.
19:5-6 Burn the carcass of the heifer together with branches from both a hyssop and cedar tree, etc., until in turns into ashes.

Now that the 'ashes' have been prepared, the Torah informs us of two special CHUKIM that accompany this process:

19:7 The kohen who PERFORMS this procedure becomes "tamey" [that's a CHOK], therefore he must wash his clothes and remains "tamey" until the evening ["tumat yom"].
19:8 The kohen who BURNS the animal becomes "tamey" [that's also a CHOK], and must wash his clothes etc.

Then we continue with the final stages of this procedure:

19:9 A clean person must COLLECT the ashes and stores them outside the camp. This is actually the final stage of the procedure [i.e. part of the TORAH].
19:10 This person who collects the ashes also become "tamey" [just like the other two]. That's yet another CHOK!

Hence, we find that this specific procedure of making the "efer" is accompanied by several special CHUKIM. Note how these CHUKIM, even though they are not an integral part of the procedure, they are a direct consequence - and therefore should be defined as related "chukim" [statutes], but not an integral part of the TORAH.

[If we use again our "mashal" from the cake recipe, the person mixing the batter must later wash his hands, but that does not affect how the cake comes out!]

To prove these definitions, let's take a more careful look at this last pasuk, as it explains the purpose of this procedure. i.e. for these ashes must be used for the CHOK of "tumat meyt":.

"The person who collects the ashes must wash his clothes, and [these ashes] are to be [used] for Bnei Yisrael for a CHUKAT OLAM - an everlasting statute [i.e. the CHOK of:] - One who touches a dead body becomes "tamey" for seven days. If he is sprinkled upon on the third & seventh day, he becomes "tahor"; if not he remains "tamey"... and should he enter the Mikdash, he is to be cut off from Israel." (see 19:10-13)

These pesukim end the first section of Parshat Parah. Now that the "efer" is prepared, we are ready to discuss the second TORAH [procedure] found in this chapter, i.e. the precise details of this 'sprinkling process' - known in Hebrew as "torat ha'haza'ah".

Procedure #2 and its Chukim

Let's take a look now at 19:14. Note how this pasuk (at first glance) seems to contradict our definition of a TORAH:

"And this is the TORAH - a person who dies in a tent, everything in the tent becomes tamey [unclean] for seven days. And any open vessel... it too becomes tamey..." (19:14-15)

Based on our above definitions of CHOK & TORAH, this law [of how one contracts "tumat meyt"] should be considered a "chok" for it describes a set law that never changes! Why then does 19:14 introduce this law as a TORAH?

The answer is quite simple. If one reads the next set of pesukim carefully, it becomes clear that the phrase "ZOT HA'TORAH" in 19:14 is INTRODUCING the procedure that is defined later on 19:17-19. Or, in other words, we need to add the word 'for' in 19:14 [i.e. a "lamed" after "zot ha'torah L'adam asher yamut b'ohel..." [which is implicit based on the context]. In this manner, 19:14-16 should be translated as follows:

"This is the TORAH  - FOR:

  1. The case when a person dies in a tent, then everything in the tent becomes "tamey" (19:14), [and for...]
  2. Any open vessel in that tent (19:15), or
  3. Any person who touched a dead body in the field or bone or grave (who also becomes "tamey" (19:16)

THEN: for any of these "tamey" persons or objects, we must take from the "efer" [the ashes of the heifer] and put it into a vessel with water (see 19:17) in order to perform PROCEDURE #2 [i.e. "torat ha'za'ah"], as explained in the next set of pesukim:

"A person who is TAHOR [clean] shall take an hyssop branch, dip it in the water [mixed with the ashes], and then sprinkle it on (either) the tent and vessels, or on the person who touched the bones... or who touched a grave..." (see 19:18).

This procedure, as described in 19:18, was first introduced by the phrase "zot ha'TORAH" in 19:14. The next pasuk (19:19) informs us that this procedure must be repeated on both the third and seventh days (see 19:19).

The Chukim of Procedure #2

This second procedure, just like the first procedure, is also accompanied by certain consequential "chukim":

  1. He who sprinkles the water becomes "tamey" (19:21);
  2. Anyone who touches this water also becomes "tamey" (19:22).

[i.e. "tamey for one day, he must wash his clothes and then he becomes "tahor" at sunset.]

Note how both Procedures #1 and #2 carry with them very similar consequential CHUKIM, i.e. anyone who is involved in this process of either making the "efer", or sprinkling it on someone else, becomes "tamey".

Chukat HaTorah

Based on these definitions, we can suggest an explanation for the opening phrase "CHUKAT ha'TORAH" that introduces these laws (see 19:1). As we have shown, this chapter contains many special CHUKIM that relate to the TORAH (procedures) of "tahara" from "tumat meyt", i.e. (1) making the ashes and (2) sprinkling the "mei chatat" - water w/ashes.

Each of these two procedures carry special "chukim" that accompany these procedures: The special chukim all have one common denominator. Anyone involved in these procedures for cleansing one who is "tamey" - he himself becomes "tamey". This strange CHOK that by making someone else TAHOR you become TAMEY is an inherit 'statute' [CHOK] of this 'procedure' [TORAH]. Hence, this may be the technical meaning of this introductory phrase "chukat ha'torah", i.e.

  • The CHOK that everyone involved becomes "tamey" in
  • The TORAH [procedure] required to cleanse "tumat meit".

Clearly, this CHOK appears to negate all logic - for why should the person involved in the process of making someone else TAHOR become TAMEY? For this reason, this specific CHOK becomes a classic example of a law that doesn't make sense, HOWEVER, this does not mean that the definition of a CHOK is a law that doesn't make sense! As we explained above, a CHOK is a set law. CHUKIM don't have to make sense, but certainly it is OK if they do.

The Rambam

A similar explanation of CHUKIM is found in the Rambam in his concluding section of Sefer Avodah in Hilchot Meilla. Note how Rambam differentiates between CHUKIM and MISHPATIM:

"... the MISHPATIM are laws whose reason is evident ["taamam geluyah"] and the benefit for keeping them is apparent in this world, e.g. the prohibition to steal or to murder, or honoring one's parents; while the CHUKIM are laws whose reason is not evident ["taamam eino geluyah"]... and the laws of Korbanot fall under category of CHUKIM..." [see Hilchot Meilah 8:8]

Note the examples that Rambam uses for Mishpatim - stealing, murder, and honoring one's parents. Even though these are mitzvot in the Torah, they are based on a very obvious rational. Even without the Torah, most societies establish similar laws for they are based on common sense. In contrast, CHUKIM are divine decrees and as such do not necessarily need to be based on any obvious reason. Nevertheless, note how Rambam demands that we make every effort to understand God's reason for the CHUKIM as well:

"It is fitting that one should contemplate the laws of the Torah to understand their reasoning to the best of his ability. But should he find a law that he does not understand (or does not make sense to him)... he should not conclude that they are any less important, rather he must keep them and treat them with the utmost respect... (see Meilah - beginning of 8:8)

Even though CHUKIM (by their very nature) don't have to make sense ["ein taamam glu'yah"], nevertheless Rambam implores that we make every effort to try to understand them, Should one be unable to find a reason for a  certain CHOK, he must relate this lack of understanding to his own inability to grasp God's infinite wisdom rather than conclude that the CHOK has no purpose.

[Note for example how Ramban mentions if this final halacha that "korbanot" are a classic example of CHUKIM, yet in his MOREH NEVUCHIM he makes effort to explain the reason and logic for each and every type of korban! In fact, Rambam claims that if we were aware of all the various types of Avodah Zarah that existed in the time of Yetziat Mitzraim, we would be able to understand the reason for ALL of the CHUKIM of korbanot! [See Moreh III, the closing two paragraphs of chapter 49.] In fact, one could consider Rambam's attempt in Moreh Nevuchim to provide a reason for the various laws korbanot an example of what he suggested in Hilchot Meillah 8:8 - i.e. that we attempt with the best of our ability to understand the reasons for CHUKIM as well.]

This dialectic, where on the one hand we must 'blindly' accept each and every one of God's CHUKIM, even though we may not understand them, yet at the same time we are encouraged to make every intellectual effort to attempt to comprehend their reason - is a beautiful example of the challenge of our faith in God. In Judiasm, our faith in God can only be enhanced by our constant quest for reason and truth.