This week’s Parsha is Vayakhel-Pekudei. In addition, we read a special Parsha this week, all about the Red Heifer, called Parshat Parah. The main Torah portions of this week mostly repeat stuff I have written about in previous posts. So I thought it would be interesting to do a tour in Jerusalem focused on the Red Heifer from the extra parsha of Parah. Let’s get started!
Heifer is just a fancy word for a young, female cow. Numbers 19 describes in great detail how one can be ritually purified after being defiled by contact with a dead body. They had to be sprinkled with special water mixed with ashes from a Red Heifer. The Red Heifer had to be completely red and without blemish. It was slaughtered and burned whole outside the complex of the Mishkan or Temple. Cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet were cast into the fire together with the burning cow. When the whole thing was done burning, the ashes were gathered, and mixed with spring water and this was sprinkled on the person who desired to be purified.
There is an entire tractate of the Mishnah, Tractate Parah, dedicated to the details of the Red Heifer and its preparation. With these two texts in hand let’s start our tour!
Where was the Red Heifer Prepared?
What better place to visit on a tour of Parshat Parah, than the very place where the Red Heifer was prepared?! But where was that? With a little searching in the Talmudic sources we might be able to figure it out!
The Parsha tells us that the Red Heifer was given over to the priest and then brought ‘outside the camp’ to be burnt. The Mishnah describes exactly how this was done in the Temple times:
A bridge was made from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives…whereby the priest who was to burn the cow, the cow itself and all those who aided in its preparation went forth to the Mount of Olives.
Once they got to the Mount of Olives there was a flat area which was hollow underneath. (The hollow area underneath served as a protective buffer to stop impurity from any graves which might be below the site.) The site also had a Mikvah allowing the priest to immerse before burning the cow.
A big pile of wood was prepared. The cow was tied to the pile and then slaughtered by the priest. The priest would slaughter with one hand, and collect the blood in a vessel with the other. Then he would would dip his finger in the blood seven times, each time flicking blood in the direction of the Temple. Then the whole thing was set on fire.
The Talmud tells us that the priest had to be able to see the opening of the Heichal when flicking the blood. The Mishnah in Tractate Middos tells us that the eastern wall of the Temple mount was built especially low so that the priest could see the Heichal when flicking the blood from the Mt. of Olives.
So if we know where the Heichal was located, we can do some simple calculations to figure out where on the Mt. of Olives the Red Heifer was prepared. If we look there and find a flat area which is hollow underneath, we have struck the jackpot. Luckily for us a Rabbi named Yonatan Adler did these calculations about ten years ago and published his findings in the Torah journal Techumin.
He based his calculations on the most commonly held opinion that the Holy of Holies stood where the Dome of the Rock stands today. I will not go into all of the detailed mathematic calculations (those who read Hebrew can see the original article here) but he concluded that there was an area of not greater than 40 by 40 meters where one could stand on the Mt. of Olives and see the opening of the Heichal. So let’s go there and see what we can find!
The Dominus Flevit Church
Right smack in the middle of the 40 by 40 meter area calculated by Rabbi Adler stands a Catholic church built in the 1950’s called Dominus Flevit. (I don’t generally discuss Christian holy sites on this blog, but suffice it to say that the church commemorates the site where they believe Yeshu looked upon Jerusalem and wept.) The church is built on the ruins of a Byzantine church which stood in the same place. The courtyard of the church stands over a huge hollow area which at one time served as a cistern. This site not only works based on the mathematical calculations, but it is also a flat area with is hollowed out beneath, just as mentioned in the Talmud!
As a religious Jew, I do not enter churches, but from pictures taken inside the church, you can see the perfect, straight view of the Dome of the Rock across the valley. The courtyard of the church is open to the public. There are different opinions in Halacha regarding whether one may enter the courtyard of a church so consult with your Rabbi before you go.
The Shiloach Pool
The Mishnah also tells in great detail about how the spring water water was drawn to be mixed with the ashes. A special living compound was built in Jerusalem in a place that had no possibility of ritual impurity. Pregnant women were brought there to give birth and the children were raised in this compound in a state of purity so they would be ready for the day when the water was to be drawn.
These children would be transported on oxen to the Shiloach pool. They were seated on top of doors since a large flat vessel like a door creates a barrier for any impurity they may pass over on the way. When they got to the Shiloach pool, they would fill special stone vessels with the spring water and then they would be transported to the Temple Mount where the mixing would take place.
Today we know exactly where the Shiloach pool is located. It is at the bottom of the City of David national park. It was discovered a few years ago when construction workers were moving a large drainage pipe and struck some stones underneath. The archaeologist who was supervising the work in this sensitive area understood that there was something that needed to be checked out. When they dug they found the Shiloach pool! The same pool that was built by King Hezekiah in preparation for the Assyrian siege and was later used by visitors to the Temple in the Second Temple period.