Wait Until the Cows Come Home
BY Rabbi Shawn Zell
Residents of Cowtown have every right to be sensitive to Shabbat Parah or the Sabbath of the Red Heifer, one of the four special Sabbaths on the Jewish calendar, that begin prior to Purim and conclude prior to Pesach. Our venerated sages were onto something when they opined that the Red Heifer ritual – one of purification – could be seen as setting matters straight. “Let the mother cow come and clean up its child’s filth” suggest our esteemed rabbis of the Midrash (Tanchuma chapter 8). Implied, was that the ordinance of the Red Heifer is read in close proximity to or even in tandem with the debacle of the Golden Calf, as is the case this year. Yet, the Red Heifer with its purification powers described in Numbers 19, deserves to be understood in a far greater light.
Cows are first mentioned by name by Pharaoh. Melodramatic comments aside, the Emperor of Egypt “had a cow” after dreaming about emaciated kine dining on corpulent cattle. By all accounts, Joseph was most adept at interpreting this “nightmare of the Nile”. All the same, Joseph might very well have overlooked the fact, that cows restrict their diets to grass and grain. Differently stated, cows do not eat their own. As much as this nightmare presaged seven years of famine following seven years of feasting, it also delivered an ominous message: Never think that the unthinkable cannot happen. Just as the emaciated cattle suddenly developed a voracious appetite for its own, no less, so too would the time come when a world superpower be relegated to a pile of pyramids.
The very first act of hospitality in the Torah, was when Abraham invited his uninvited guests for lunch. Arguably, cows played a significant role in that episode as well. “And Abraham ran to the cattle and took an offspring of cattle viz. offspring of a cow, and had his butler transform that bovine creature from grazing in the grass to gracing the table. Noticing that butter and milk were also set before the wayfarers, any number of commentators took it upon themselves to explain the dilemma of dining on dairy and meat at the same repast. Here too, our sages appear to have overlooked a most salient point when it comes to cows. The very same animal that provides us meat also provides us with dairy. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch or Code of Jewish Law addresses how cow udders are to be prepared for kosher consumption, in that once upon the time, these udders served as a dainty dish to set before diners. In a culture that eschews drinking goat milk and sheep milk, it appears that the cow is the sole provider of foods that are both kosher but are prohibited from simultaneous consumption.
A paradox is typically defined as a contradictory statement or occurrence that nevertheless holds true. More than a few rabbis however have defined a paradox as the Red Heifer. The Torah (Numbers 19) commands that the ashes of an unblemished, red cow that has yet to be placed under a yoke, are to be sprinkled upon an individual who has come into contact with a corpse. The paradox is that the Kohen who administers this purifying potion to the compromised individual also becomes ritually impure – albeit a totally different type of ritual impurity – requiring self-imposed isolation until evening. So taken by this paradox, our sages of old devoted an entire Mishnaic tractate of 12 chapters dealing with the laws of the Red Heifer.
At the risk of coming across as impudent, I see no reason for such consternation on the part of the rabbis. Placing the episodes of Pharaoh’s dream. Abraham’s hospitality and the Red Heifer’s antidotal properties, one can deduce that the cow evokes a number of lessons. The cows of Pharaoh’s dreams remind us that before relegating any event to the unthinkable, think again. The cows of Abraham’s hospitality teach us that the cow, a most kosher of creatures, appears to be the sole provider for dairy and meat, a prohibition so serious, that the Torah finds it necessary to state it three times. The cow appearing in rare Red Heifer form reminds us that when it comes to Judaism and Jewish history, paradoxes are what we as a people are all about. The next time you come across the statement “wait until the cows come home”, you would do well to realize, that in Judaism, the cows have been home since biblical days. We simply hadn’t noticed.