Parashat Hukat / Battles of Animals – and Wits

Rabbi Simeon refutes the argument by Rabbi Tarfon, who then drops out of the debate. Rabbi Yossi refutes Rabbi Simeon, who also drops out. Then Rabbi Akiva refutes Rabbi Yossi’s argument, and emerges as victor.

Goat!

Chapter 8 of the Book of Daniel presents the following vision: “And I lifted up mine eyes, and saw, and, behold, there stood before the stream a ram which had two horns; and the two horns were high; but one was higher than the other, and the higher came up last. I saw the ram pushing westward, and northward, and southward; and no beasts could stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and magnified himself. And as I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west over the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground; and the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes.

“And he came to the ram that had the two horns, which I saw standing before the stream, and ran at him in the fury of his power. And I saw him come close unto the ram, and he was moved with choler against him, and smote the ram, and broke his two horns; and there was no power in the ram to stand before him; but he cast him down to the ground, and trampled upon him; and there was none that could deliver the ram out of his hand” (Daniel 8:3-7).
 
The meaning of this vision is made clear to Daniel later on, when the angel Gabriel reveals himself to him and explains that it foretells the war that will take place between the Persian and Greek empires, out of which Greece will emerge triumphant.

This week’s Torah portion (Parashat Hukat: Numbers 19:1-22:1) also features an animal, the red heifer, which is much gentler than the animals in Daniel’s vision. The red heifer’s ashes are mixed with water and the mixture is sprinkled on persons who have come into contact with a dead body; this process purifies them ritually.

The two powerful animals in Daniel’s vision are referred to in a rabbinical dispute over the laws concerning the red heifer. Whereas the impure person on whom the water is sprinkled becomes ritually pure, the person who does the sprinkling becomes impure. A dispute emerges over the issue of a cow that drinks the purifying water: “The flesh of a cow that has consumed the red heifer’s purifying water is ritually impure for a period of 24 hours. But Rabbi Judah says the impurity disappears the moment the water enters the cow’s intestines” (Mishna, Tractate Parah 9:5).

According to the first view, expressed by an anonymous Talmudic scholar, the cow’s flesh is impure for a day and if it is slaughtered within that period, anyone who consumes its flesh also becomes ritually impure; only after 24 hours have elapsed is the water fully digested in the animal’s intestines, and its flesh, after slaughter, will not render those who consume it impure. But Rabbi Judah argues that the moment the water enters the animal’s intestines, the cow is immediately purified from the ritual standpoint.

This point in Jewish religious law becomes the subject of a vigorous debate between celebrated scholars: “If a cow consumes the red heifer’s purifying water and is slaughtered within 24 hours from the time the water was consumed, the cow’s flesh is ritually pure, says Rabbi Yossi the Galilean – and ritually impure, according to Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Tarfon assisted Rabbi Yossi. Rabbi Simeon, son of Nanas, assisted Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Simeon refuted Rabbi Tarfon’s argument, Rabbi Yossi refuted Rabbi Simeon’s argument, and Rabbi Akiva refuted Rabbi Yossi’s argument.

“Rabbi Yossi asked permission to raise the subject again. Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘Generally, once a debate has been concluded, the academy does not permit the subject of the debate to be renewed. However, since you are Rabbi Yossi, we will make an exception.’ Rabbi Yossi replied, ‘It is written: “and it shall be kept for the congregation of the Children of Israel for a water of sprinkling” (Numbers 19:9). In other words, the reference is to water in a proper state of safe-keeping, not to water consumed by a cow.’ Thirty-two elders cast their ballots ... and they pronounced the person [who had eaten the flesh of the cow in question] ritually pure” (Tosefta, Tractate Mikvaot 7:11).

Although it does not reveal the content of the debate, which no doubt included an analysis of the verses relating to the laws concerning the red heifer, the Tosefta on this Talmudic passage does describe the dynamics of the debate itself. Rabbi Simeon refutes the argument by Rabbi Tarfon, who then drops out of the debate. Rabbi Yossi refutes Rabbi Simeon, who also drops out. Then Rabbi Akiva refutes Rabbi Yossi’s argument, and emerges as victor.

After some time, however, Rabbi Yossi requests permission to reopen the debate so that he can present a new argument. Although the rabbinical court’s protocol prohibits reopening of a debate that has been resolved, Rabbi Akiva makes an exception – and Rabbi Yossi offers an interpretation of one verse from Parashat Hukat, which sums up the laws concerning preparation of the purifying water containing the red heifer’s ashes: “and it shall be kept for the congregation of the Children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification from sin” (Num. 19:9).

According to Rabbi Yossi, the reference is to water that is in a state of safe-keeping; only in this state can it be considered fit for purification. However, if the water is not sufficiently protected and if, because of negligence, it is consumed by a cow, it cannot be used in purification – and obviously is no longer capable of rendering anyone ritually impure.

Rabbi Yossi’s support for Rabbi Judah’s position in Tractate Parah, Mishnah 9:5, leaves no room for doubt. This point of Jewish religious law has now been securely anchored thanks to evidence from the Torah. Thirty-two elders cast their ballots in a rabbinical court and pronounced the person (who had eaten the flesh of the cow in question) to be ritually pure.

Had the tale stopped at this point, it would have simply been a story about one of the legal debates held in Rabbi Akiva’s academy. However, the Tosefta, commenting on this Talmudic passage, adds: “At this point Rabbi Tarfon cited verses from the Bible, saying: The verse ‘I saw the ram pushing westward, and northward, and southward; and no beasts could stand before him, neither was there any that could deliver out of his hand; but he did according to his will, and magnified himself,’ refers to Rabbi Akiva.

“The verse ‘And as I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west over the face of the whole earth, and touched not the ground; and the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes,’ refers to Rabbi Yossi and his response. The passage, ‘And he came to the ram that had the two horns, which I saw standing before the stream, and ran at him in the fury of his power. And I saw him come close unto the ram, and he was moved with choler against him, and smote the ram, and broke his two horns,’ refers to the arguments presented by Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Simeon.

“The words, ‘and there was no power in the ram to stand before him,’ refer to Rabbi Akiva. The words, ‘but he cast him down to the ground, and trampled upon him,’ refer to Rabbi Yossi. Finally, the words, ‘and there was none that could deliver the ram out of his hand,’ refer to the 32 elders who voted in the rabbinical court and pronounced the individual ritually pure.’”

Rabbi Tarfon thus disconnects Daniel’s vision in Daniel 8:3-7 from its political  meaning, as represented by Gabriel, and uses it to describe the debate in Rabbi Akiva’s academy. The ram’s two broken horns refer to Rabbi Akiva and the person supporting him, Rabbi Simeon. In Rabbi Tarfon’s description, the debate takes on the character of a mythological, almost biblical, battle. In carrying out this displacement, he symbolizes the historical move made by the sages, who internalized the mythological might of the political reality in which they lived, and transferred their world’s center of gravity to the world of the Talmudic academy.