Torah Animals and Death Practices: The Scapegoat, the Red Heifer, and the Broken-necked Heifer

September 23, 2015

Rambam says that some rules are “Supra-rational” – these are rules that appear irrational and beyond our logical understanding. He gives as examples three practices regarding animals – the Azazel, the Parah Adumah, and the Eglah Arufah. But is there any rationality, maybe some common themes, and possibly even some important lessons from these three special animals?

1.      “The Hebrew word Azazel means 'dismissal' or 'entire removal'. It is the ancient technical term for the entire removal of sin and guilt of the community, that was symbolized by the sending away of the goat into the wilderness.” – Dr. J.H. Hertz.  In the Azazel story Aaron puts his hands on the head of the goat. The sins of the people are acknowledged and transferred to the Azazel, sometimes called the scapegoat. The twin goat is killed, but the Azazel runs off into the desert. Sort of like Tashlich with a goat. Casting sin away.

2.    Parah Adumah means red heifer. In Biblical times, when someone has come into contact with a dead body, ashes from the red heifer are combined with water and spices and are used to anoint and purify the person.

3.    Eglah Arufa means broken neck heifer. When a person was found dead outside the city, the elders traveled to that spot and killed a special heifer to show that the community was not responsible for the death.


Irrational? These three rituals seem very rational to me. And these three steps of acknowledging and casting away sin; purification; and communal responsibility are very similar to the approach of the Chevra Kadisha.


First, we note the deaths of these three animals (and the life of the other) were not part of the normal Temple sacrifice system. Just like when there is a death in a family, their life is turned upside down. When the Chevra Kadisha is called on, we stop our normal lives and work in a very different mode.


Second, we can see parallels in each of the biblical rituals to our work. Aaron removes sins from the people and transfers it to the Azazel. The Tahara team does a ritual purification and removal of sin. Like the red heifer ritual, the Tahara team’s purification ritual is intricate and wrapped in mysterious origins. Instead of purifying with ashes, water and spices, the metaherim (washers) ritually purify the met/a (body of the person who died) with water (and spices in the Sephardic and Muslim community).


Third, the town elders were required to undergo an elaborate ritual ending with breaking the heifer’s neck. We know that the town elders, after just a few trips out of town dragging along a heifer, would soon recognize their communal responsibility to stem deaths outside their town. In the same way, the Chevra Kadisha is not limited to washing a dead body. Their work should expand beyond care for the dead and comfort for the families, to a dedication to support life and the help the poor.


References for Special Torah Animals and Traditional Jewish Death Practices


Azazel – Scapegoat – Vayikra (Lev.) 16:10, 21-22

10. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before the LORD, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.

21. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. 22 And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.


Parah Adumah – Red Heifer – Bamidbar (Num.) 19:2-9

2 This is the statute of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer, faultless, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke. 3 And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, and she shall be brought forth without the camp, and she shall be slain before his face. 4 And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times 5 And the heifer shall be burnt in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall be burnt. 6 And the priest shall take cedar-wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer. 7 Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even. 8 And he that burneth her shall wash his clothes in water, and bathe his flesh in water, and shall be unclean until the even.. 9 And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification from sin.

            Eglah Arufah – The Broken-necked Heifer – Devarim (Deut.) 21:1-7
            If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him; The elders and                         magistrates from the town nearest the corpse are to take a heifer that has never been yoked or worked. At a wadi that never runs dry, they are to break its neck from                 the back (with a hatchet according to the Rabbis, thus not a sacrifice) and wash their hands over it (rather than laying them upon it, thus no scapegoat). At which                     point the elders are required to declare publicly that they were not party to the crime either as perpetrators or bystanders: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did             our eyes see it done.”

The Mishnah elaborates. Is it conceivable that we might suspect a court of law of committing murder? Hardly. The intent of the confession is to exonerate the elders of facilitating the travesty by their indifference. “We did not send him away without provisions nor let him go unaccompanied” (Sotah 9:6). That is, we know the victim; he approached us and we did help him. We do not bear even an indirect responsibility for his death. Only then can the elders complete this rite of purgation by beseeching God to absolve “Your people Israel whom You redeemed and do not let guilt for blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel” (Deut. 21:8).


David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.




[Editor’s Note: The theme of this piece, Death Practices, connects seamlessly both the this High Holy day season, and to the recently released ELI talk (9/9/15) by Dr. Michael Slater. ELI talks present innovative ideas and inspiring concepts exploring Jewish engagement, literacy and identity. All of them, including the one featuring Dr. Slater, can be accessed at  




October 2015:

Chevrah Kadisha: History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE). Classes weekly Tuesdays from October 13th to December 29th, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST (12 sessions), with an online orientation session Monday October 12th (same hours). REGISTER NOW!

The course is an examination of the evolution of the institution of Chevrah Kadisha, starting from Biblical and Talmudic source texts, examining medieval development including the establishment of the “modern” Chevrah in Prague (1626) and on, through history and geography, as the institution was imported to  North America, including a focus on major developments beginning in the latter part of the 20th century. We will look at how the Chevrah has changed over time, with readings that include text study and emphasize history, sociology, politics, government, and many other factors.

Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This courses will run from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST (12 sessions), with an online orientation session Monday October 12th (same hours). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course looks as well at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Includes spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


We are considering the options of offering a course mid-day (East Coast time) or morning (West Coast time) as a convenience to those who have scheduling issues with the evening times now in use (including those overseas), or providing links to the recorded sessions of the evening classes (to be viewed at the student’s convenience). This is anticipated to be the same online format and material as the courses that have been offered in past, but at a time that works better for some than the evening (Eastern Standard).

If you are interested in these options, please be in touch by November 1st 2015 to let us know: we need to assess the level of interest as we determine whether to incorporate these options.  


Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization receive a 20% discount. There are clergy discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


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