top of page

Chalal Cherev ain't Cholov

וְאִם־מִזְבַּ֤ח אֲבָנִים֙ תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לִּ֔י לֹֽא־תִבְנֶ֥ה אֶתְהֶ֖ן גָּזִ֑ית כִּ֧י חַרְבְּךָ֛ הֵנַ֥פְתָּ עָלֶ֖יהָ וַתְּחַֽלְלֶֽהָ׃


And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them.


  • Exodus 20:22


וְכֹ֨ל אֲשֶׁר־יִגַּ֜ע עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הַשָּׂדֶ֗ה בַּֽחֲלַל־חֶ֙רֶב֙ א֣וֹ בְמֵ֔ת אֽוֹ־בְעֶ֥צֶם אָדָ֖ם א֣וֹ בְקָ֑בֶר יִטְמָ֖א שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים׃


And in the open, anyone who touches a person who was killed or who died naturally, or human bone, or a grave, shall be impure seven days.


  • Numbers 19:16



Above are two verses which share two roots: ch-l-l and ch-r-v. Respectively, these roots form the basis for words like profane (as in the Exodus verse), nullify, sully, distort, and invalidate, and for words like sword, destruction, and (as in the Exodus verse) tool. The first verse comes at the end of Parashat Yitro, part of a series of commandments regarding altars which immediately follows the Ten Commandments. The second verse’s context is the parah adumah procedure, which comes at the beginning of Parashat Chukat and involves using the ashes of a red heifer to purify those who have become impure from contact with dead bodies. The two roots are used in a unique way in this verse. They form a compound word, chalal-cherev, which is translated above by JPS as “a person who was killed”, which certainly makes sense in the context of the verse. The compound word establishes that both a corpse from a natural death and a human-caused death are treated the same in terms of imparting impurity.

Before laying out a theory for the connection between these verses, I want to provide some more context. During the dramatic presentation of the Ten Commandments to the Nation of Israel, the Presence of God is obvious. When Moses ascends the mountain and receives the Law from God solo, sans thunder and lightning and earth-trembling, that Presence is much less obvious. Immediately after the Ten Commandments and before the commandments regarding altars are a few verses exhorting the Israelites not to make gods of gold and silver, to build an altar and offer offerings (but only in the place God will have His Name dwell), not to make that altar of gold or silver, and then our commandment. Later, but also at Sinai, God provides Moses instructions for the building of the Tabernacle (chronologies differ, but this quite definitely occurs at Sinai). Also keep in mind that when Moses is receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai, the people have Aaron construct the Golden Calf. In terms of the parah adumah, here is some more color on the procedure: an unblemished red cow which has never had a yoke layed upon it, along with some accouterments, is burned to ashes whole. The ashes are mixed with water and are sprinkled on somebody who has come in contact with a dead body. Without this sprinkling, that person can not become pure from the impurity imparted by the corpse. For our purposes, purity need only be thought of in terms of the following: only pure people could approach the Tabernacle, which housed the altar. Impure people who defiled the Tabernacle by their presence incurred the death penalty.

Now, onto the fun part. Here is part of what Rashi has to say about the Exodus verse:


Thus you may learn that if thou liftest up thy iron tool above it thou profanest it. The reason of this is, because the altar is created (its purpose is) to lengthen man’s days and iron has been created (one of its purposes is) to shorten man’s days, it is not right that an object which shortens man’s life should be lifted up above that which lengthens it (Mekhilta, Middoth 3:4). And a further reason is: because the altar makes peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, and therefore there should not come upon it anything that cuts and destroys.


With that in mind, I would like to attack the following question: what can we learn from the fact that the roots ch-l-l and ch-r-v appear in our seemingly disparate verses.


On a very basic level, the stones from Exodus and the body from Numbers were both cut with a swordlike metal tool. Additionally, we know that, on account of this cutting, both the body and the altar have been rendered nonfunctional. The body because it has been killed, chalaled if you will, the altar because . . . we are not sure why, but it is described as chalaled and so is legally nonfunctioning. In order to fill in that gap of what it means for the altar to be “dead”, let’s think about the essence of a person and an altar. The essence of a person is that they are alive. The ultimate malfunction of a person is death. The essence of an altar, I’d argue, is to facilitate the connection between man and God. The offerings offered on an altar are a way for human beings to maintain an active relationship with God, just like doing favors and making sacrifices for friends sustains those relationships. The death of an altar, then, would mean the cessation of its function as a medium between man and God. If an altar ceases to facilitate the feeling in man of a relationship with God, it has become a chilul.


Now let us consider the function of a body and an altar post-death. A dead body is no longer a person, because it has lost the essential element of personhood, life. It is now simply a sack of bones and decaying flesh. To regard the dead body as a person is a grave mistake; to do so distorts the essence of personhood and conveys the message that human beings are valuable on account of their physical body, and not their life/soul/whatever you want to call that. It belies a worldview in which the physical is the source of sanctity, not the Divine.

On to the altar. I am going to make a claim here which is pretty important to the picture I’m painting, so be wary. Using natural, whole stones for the altar conveys the message that the altar is ultimately just a medium, just a facilitator. It is not an end unto itself. It isn’t carved because it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is; it’s a tool. (This is all the more true if the stones are covered with some metal shell, which is how they are in the Tabernacle. To decorate the hidden inside of something is to say that that thing is worthy of effort in and of itself, even when nobody will see it, as opposed to serving a functional purpose). Throughout history, humans have created idols with much attention and care, using metal tools. To the makers, it is obvious that the object represents something beyond itself–obviously the cow you just carved (or smelted from earrings and noserings) doesn’t actually control the seasons. But over time, because of the physical, representative, image-like quality of the object, it no longer serves as a medium, something to facilitate thoughts and a relationship with something bigger, but rather becomes an idol, serving as an end unto itself. Eventually, the statue becomes the god. The physical object replaces the spiritual idea that was behind the object. If not such a dramatic change, then at least the following will happen: a finite idea, something which can be pointed to or identified, is considered an end unto itself, is considered a god. In reality, the true God is beyond anything that can be pointed to physically or even identified mentally.

If the altar were to be made of hewn stones, it might be turned into an idol of sorts. The people might have the attitude that as long as they offer sacrifices, God is happy. It doesn’t matter what they do outside. This creates the idea that God, chas v’shalom, is a reliant being which must be fed. That is a total distortion, a total chilul. The sacrifices are absolutely not for God, they are for us. God does not need anything. God is not an idol whose domain is restricted to any one space, physically or temporally. No, God’s purview is all of the universe and our entire lives, our every thought and word and deed. To think that God’s domain is only the Tabernacle, that God’s only demand on us is offerings, is a terribly distorted view. At that point, what should have been the medium for Israel cultivating its relationship with God, the altar and the offerings upon it, has become the end in and of itself. This cuts off the relationship between Israel and the true God. Idolatry cuts off connection with God, cuts it like a sword, destroys it. The altar at that point is a corpse being treated like a person. That kind of sentiment must be kept far away from the Tabernacle, because the very nature of the Tabernacle makes it ripe for distortion into idolatry and false notions of God. This is true of any institution which facilitates a relationship with God. Tefillah, for example. Tefillah is compared often to korban; it is the way we today maintain our relationship with God. But chas v’shalom we should think that God needs our tefillot, that God is appeased by them in some way. Chas v’shalom we should think that we can go around defrauding and murdering people and eating treif and it’s all good as long as we daven. The words get fetishized; it becomes about simply articulating every letter (no matter how rushed), as if that somehow magically makes God happy. It restricts God’s domain and demands on us to the synagogue. In a word, it’s a chilul Hashem. Same goes for any other aspect of Judaism, be it tzedakah or kashrut or counting the omer or whatever. Tefillah, though, as a medium which is explicitly meant to facilitate our connection with God, is especially ripe for such distortion. In fact, the very fact that the construction of the altar is regulated by God shows that His demands extend to all aspects of life and are not contained within the sacrificial system. It would kind of be like saying: you can’t run over people to get to shacharit on time. The Golden Calf was of course originally a medium, a stand-in for the absent Moshe, who was seen as a conduit for the Divine at the time. And the worship of it began as dancing in honor of a festival of Hashem that Aaron proclaimed. It was a distortion.

Now . . . why must the red heifer never have had a yoke lain upon it, and why must it be burned whole?

Farming is the realm of the physical. Its end goal is to delay death. As such, it exists in the realm of death. Perhaps we want the whole para adumah ritual to stay a far away from possible as physical centered things. That would include butchering a cow to eat parts of it. Also, the knife/sword would be suggestive of death. Also, ashes are a demonstration that our physical bodies and the physical world is nothing but dust and ashes mixed with water, and that the essence of things does not lie in the physical world.

Now, why do we KILL korbanot and the heifer? Doesn’t that seem counterintuitive?

IDK. I’ve gone too far already.


“The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost.”


AJ Heschel


2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Transcendence and Immanence (Shavuot)

Judaism’s conception of the universe is extraordinary; it presents God as completely outside nature. God is transcendent, not immanent. God creates the heavens, creates the earth, but is not in them.

2 Kings 18

In 2 Kings 18, in response to a rebellion against Assyrian rule by King Hezekiah of Judah, King Sennacheirib of Assyria destroys the province of Judah and surrounds Jerusalem, its capital, with his ar

2 Kings 23

In 2 Kings 22, the discovery of the Torah in the Beit HaMikdash prompts King Josiah of Judah to lead a national return to God and purging of idolatry. Throughout the nation, shrines and idolatrous alt

Comments


bottom of page