The promise of the red heifer

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“From all food in it which may be eaten, upon which water comes, shall be impure.”

The needle that first appeared in yesterday’s reading has haunted me and disturbed my sleep. Last night I dreamed of a red heifer that was grazing high up on a hill. The animal’s ruddy-brown coat glistened in the pale rays of a late afternoon sun. It was a peaceful scene until I noticed a needle protruding from its abdomen. I woke up at that moment in the middle of the night and could not go back to sleep.

If the red heifer represents purification, the needle represents the virus that is menacing the planet through the spread of human droplets. Yesterday’s Daf Yomi told us that the needle has no consciousness and no voice and “no knowledge.”But if the needle had a voice, it would tell a tale of the coronavirus which has created so much destruction in its silent path.

Today’s Daf Yomi returns to a discussion of impurity. We are told that if the needle is entirely ingested by the red heifer, and is found in the secretions of its stomach, its meat is pure, as is the knife and hands that come into contact with it. Here is where I am stuck, as I was yesterday: Rav Ashi said that the secretions under discussion are “offensive” and offensive liquids do not transmit impurity. Wouldn’t foul smelling offensive liquids by definition be impure and transmit impurity? Or is this a case of if you have side-effects from medicine or a vaccine, you know its effective?

We are provided with an explanation that could be a metaphor for spreading coronavirus through degrees of impurity: “the carcass of a creeping animal transmits impurity to liquids, the liquids transmit impurity to a vessel, the vessel transmits impurity to foods, and the foods transmit impurity to liquids.” The text tells us that this represents three degrees of impurity while the Gemara notes that it is four, which is what my rudimentary mathematical skills tell me is the case. There is some debate about the transmission of impurity to a vessel, which at one-point Rabbi Yehuda says cannot occur in conflict of his earlier determination. Without the vessel we have three levels of impurity, and Rabbi Yehuda is free to change his mind.

Today’s Daf has a special treat for beer drinkers, which I personally have never developed a taste for. I find it too murky of a drink and do not understand the beer commercials that present it as something refreshing to reach for on a hot day. I am more of a wine drinker and there was something in the text for me today as the Talmud turned back a few days and revisited the barrel mishap that resulted in teruma wine being mixed with ordinary vino. But for the beer drinkers today, we are told that the production of beer can be used as a mnemonic for understanding levels of impurity: first there is the securing of a vessel, then the placement of the barley (which is characterized as “the food”), and then the water. We are told that this somehow provides elucidation of levels of impurity: vessel-barley-water.

We are provided with another example of how impurity can spread: if the carcass of a creeping animal finds its way into an oven, the oven is impure with first-degree impurity, which it transmits to the bread within it. If an earthenware vessel is placed in an oven with a a creeping animal, the bread becomes impure through the “airspace of the oven even without making contact with it.” 

What has been so frightening about the coronavirus, in addition to the outward signs of disease, is the silent spread through airspace. There are silent super-spreaders among us who do not display outward symptoms of disease but can pass on the virus through multiple levels of contamination. Sally who is just home from university and appears perfectly healthy can visit with her great-aunt Joan and pass the virus on to her through invisible droplets. Aunt Joan can then become very sick and require hospitalization, but before she realizes that she has been contaminated she can infect her housekeeper who comes on Wednesdays and her doctor who she visits for renewal of her heart medicine. If there has been any relevancy in the days of discussion of degrees of impurity, it is in how the coronavirus can spread through degrees of human interaction.

We are almost a year into the pandemic, and a year into the start of this Daf Yomi cycle. There have been so many lessons learned from the text that shape how I think about private and public domains, time and place, and contamination and ritual purity. And the red heifer up on the hill that I dreamed about symbolizes the miracle of science. I am writing this against the backdrop of an announcement that a vaccine has been approved by a panel of scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and is only days away from being distributed to the US states. At the same time, new records are being established every day of the numbers of sick and dying. There is still a needle protruding from the side of the red heifer high up on the hill. But there is hope.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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