What precisely does the demise of righteous people atone for, and who gets the atonement?


In Parshat Chukath - במדבר פרק-כ - we learn from Rashi that the demise of the prophetess Miriam was juxtaposed to the chapter of the Red Heifer to teach us that both of these atone.

The Pasuk says:

וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם


ותמת שם מרים. למה נסמכה מיתת מרים (ל) לפרשת פרה אדומה, לומר לך, מה קרבנות (מ) מכפרין, (ס"א כמו שפרה אדומה מכפרת) אף מיתת צדיקים (נ) מכפרת (מועד קטן כח.):‏

Why was Miriam's death juxtaposed to the Red Heifer? To teach us that just as sacrifices atone (alternate reading: just as the Red Heifer atones) so too does the demise of the righteous atone.

Rashi is quoting the Gemara in Mo'ed Katan 28a - which has the alternate reading's text.

Tosafos there explains - מה פרה אדומה מכפרת פירוש על מעשה העגל וכדאמרינן במדרש משל לבן השפחה שטינף פלטירין של מלך - that the Red Heifer atones for the sin of the Golden Calf, as per the Medrash that the maidservant (Heifer) is expected to clean up her child's (Calf's) mess in the palace.

The שפתי חכמים elaborates:

ל) פירוש דאין כאן מקומו שהרי בשנה ראשונה ליציאת מצרים עשו העגל ובשנה שנייה שרפו פרה אדומה ומיתת מרים היתה בסוף מ' שנה ליציאת מצרים:‏

That is: The first RedHeifer was done soon after the Mishkan was erected - it should be in the Chumash around Tazria-Metzora. Miriam's demise happened 38 years later; the Red Heifer is put here - some 38 years after it happened - to teach us something.

He continues:

מ) ואם תאמר וכי קרבן היתה הפרה אדומה והלא לא היו מקריבין ממנה כלום. ויש לומר לפי דבר אחר שפירש"י לעיל שקראה הכתוב חטאת לומר שהיא כקדשים ליאסר בהנאה שמע מינה שהיא כקרבן: ‏

That is: Even though the Red Heifer was not a real sacrifice, (it was done outside the Temple and no part of it was brought on the altar), Rashi already explained that it has some of the laws of a sacrifice, as it's called a חַטָּאת (ibid 19:9) ולפי הלכותיו קראה הכתוב חטאת, לומר שהיא כקדשים להאסר בהנאה - in that one is forbidden to derive personal benefit from it, [besides for its stated purpose. (As per שפתי חכמים there- ויש מפרשים כקדשים שבאין לכפרה כך האפר בא לטהר מי שצריך ואין שום הנאה אחרת ממנה).]

He concludes:

נ) ואם תאמר לפי זה היה לו לסמוך גבי קרבנות ממש. ויש לומר לכך נסמכה לפרה לפי שהם דומים להדדי לפי שמיתת צדיקים אינן קרבנות וגם הפרה אינה קרבן ממש ולמדנו מהדדי כמו שזה מכפר גם זה מכפר:‏

That is: Miriam's demise was juxtaposed to the Red Heifer, and not to a regular sacrifice, to highlight that neither are real sacrifices, yet they both atone.


What precisely does the demise of righteous people atone for, and who gets the atonement?

I'm asking, as the concept the death of the righteous atones is often quoted at funerals, implying that it's a Korban Tzibur - a general atonement for the public.

Sources and novel ideas are welcome.

  • I think I read in a Rabbi Jonathan Sacks commentary recently that Para Aduma was "moved" into that section to be close to the deaths of Aharon and Miriam (for the reason Rashi states), when in reality it should logically be somewhere around Tazria-Metzora
    – CashCow
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 8:54
  • It's in Chukas but Tazria-Metzora is the natural place to put it where the Torah deals with other laws of personal Tuma/Tahara
    – CashCow
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 15:30
  • @CashCow- My apologies; I now realise you meant that Chukas is in the wrong location. I have edited the question. Thanks! Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 6:44

4 Answers 4


According to R' Samson Raphael Hirsch's commentary on these sections of the Torah,1 the Red Heifer and the death of the righteous both accomplish the same spiritually educational mission: curing people of the illusion that they are solely physical beings without free will.

R' Hirsch explains his understanding of the meaning of every aspect of the Red Heifer procedure in an extended comment following Numbers 19:22. This comment is an interpretive masterpiece that will reward the reader who studies it in full with a wealth of insight. I'll do my best to summarize some of the main pertinent points here.

The Problem of Contact with Death

The point of the Red Heifer process is to cure people of the טומאה‎2 that comes from contact with death. According to R' Hirsch, this טומאה is a sort of moral depression that comes from contemplating a dead human body and drawing the mistaken conclusion that the whole human being ends with death. The person in the thrall of this materialistic idea has trouble believing in human free will - if humans are just matter, then human behavior is compelled by the laws of physics just like the behavior of all matter is. This person is then unfit to participate in the service of God, which requires free-willed devotion of oneself.

... then altogether nowhere is there place for the moral "thou shalt" next to the physical "thou must".

The Red Heifer Solution

The Red Heifer process teaches that the essence of humanity is that the physical body, which is indeed bound by the laws of physics, is joined with an immortal soul, which has the Godly ability to freely choose between good and evil and the charge from God to choose good. The heifer itself represents the uncontrolled physicality, in that it is fully grown, red like blood, and has never in its life been bent to a higher purpose. When the heifer is burnt to ashes, we see the physical body returning to the dust whence it came. But before it's burnt, the heifer is slaughtered by a kohen opposite the Temple, and the life-blood that comes out is sprinkled toward the Temple, representing the one aspect of a person that does not return to dust, the immortal soul. Later, the ashes, representing pure physicality, are combined with "living water," another representation of the free-willed soul. When people are sprinkled with this mixture, they are reminded of the true, dual nature of humanity and enjoy restored confidence in their freedom to choose service over sin.

... although thou art "earthly ashes" nevertheless thou art מים חיים, life drawn from the source of immortality.

The Death of the Righteous

At the end of his comment on Numbers 20:1, R' Hirsch cites the same explanation in Mo'ed Katan that Rashi does for the juxtaposition of the laws of the Red Heifer with the stories of the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, and uses what he has taught us about the former to show a lesson for us in the latter.

... just as the [Red Heifer] institution teaches immortality and the moral freedom of will of the godlike nature of Man, so does the death of the righteous directly teach both.

Anyone who sees the physical remains of a righteous person can see, intuitively, that they do not comprise the totality of the individual who, until now, was constantly making free-willed choices to do good. It is clear that

Just as their work here below lives on in immortality in all the succeeding generations of the nation, so their own real selves did not die, but went back out of earthly transience into eternity to God, the source of all life.

Like one who has been sprinkled with the lesson in free-willed humanity that is the Red Heifer water, one who sees the death of the righteous returns from the spiritual depression that regular human death brings, newly empowered to choose dedication to the service of God.3

1. Fourteen pages in the Isaac Levy translation.
2. Often translated as "impurity." Its meaning according to R' Hirsch is summarized here.
3. This answer was posted soon after the death of R' Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, ZT"L. May we contemplate this exemplary man and his immortal legacy of myriad students and teachings, and be inspired to attempt to emulate his "towering goodness."

  • About R' Hirsch's understanding of another kind of טומאה: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7535
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 3:56
  • 1
    Nice! This fits in nicely with the various sources my friend sent me that require some sort of Teshuva by the individual for this Kapara to work. (goo.gl/0slqmO) Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 7:27

The Baal Haturim points out that Shom, there, is mentioned twice. Miriam died there and was buried there. The gematria of Shom is 300+40 = 340, the gematria of atones mechaper is 40+20+80+200 = 340. This is the hint that there is a connection between 'atonement' reflected in the Red Heifer and 'there' repeated superfluously in connection with Miriam's death, the death of a righteous person. So we can expound that the red Heifer atones and similarly the death of the righteous.

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya, Dean, and thank you for your source! I hope you enjoy looking around MY, and maybe you'll find something else to answer. :)
    – Scimonster
    Commented Apr 14, 2015 at 17:02
  • Nice! but what precisely does the demise of righteous people atone for, and who gets the atonement? Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 8:07

See Tanya Iggeres HaKodesh Epistle 28. As summaries in Lessons In Tanya:

To revert to the question concerning the juxtaposition of the two passages, the Alter Rebbe explains that an offering connoted an “arousal from below,” from the soul of the animal that derives from kelipat nogah. This, in turn, elicited a reciprocal “arousal from Above,” drawing down a finite order of Divine light that can permeate the finite world and be integrated and ingested within it. (This characteristic explains why offerings are referred to as the “food of the altar.”) Being finite, this contracted order of Divine light was only able to effect atonement of unwitting sins, those that derive from undue domination by the animal soul which derives from kelipat nogah.

The Red Heifer, by contrast, produces the “sanctifying purification waters” (Kiddush mei chatat); i.e., it draws down an illumination from the most supremely sanctified levels of Divinity (Kodesh HaElyon) that utterly transcend this world. This intense illumination can transform the darkness of Tohu into the light of Tikkun, and secure purification for even the harshest degree of impurity (Avi Avot HaTumah), which is far lower than kelipat nogah.

In the same way, the passing of a tzaddik draws down a Divine illumination that transcends the world, deriving as it does from that element within the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which is called the Tikkun of Notzer. The name of this Tikkun, which comprises the same letters as Ratzon, brings about an et ratzon, “an auspicious time,” and secures atonement for the sins of the generation, even those that are committed willfully and that derive from the three completely impure kelipot.

In this regard, the passing of a tzaddik is thus more akin to the Red Heifer than to a sin-offering.

  • +1 - though I have not a clue what most of these things mean. Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 8:26

The phrase in Shabbos 33b and brought in Rashi on Ksubos 8b is בזמן שצדיקים בדור, צדיקים נתפסים על הדור.

Rashi goes on to quote a drasha he apparently had in Shabbos which quotes Yechezkel 9 6 וממקדשי תחלו.

In turn, see Rashi on Yechezkel there who quotes the gemara in Shabbos 55a "don't read ממקדשי rather ממקודשי from those separate to me. These are those upon whom I engraved the Tav so as to protect them from death, now start the killing with them, for they had the opportunity to chastise, but did not".

So what comes out is that although talking about the death of holy people as a kapara seems to placate people and make them feel good, as if to say the death of the Tzadik wasn't a useless act and therefore hard for us to understand, in reality it is basically announcing that the Mashchis has been given permission to punish [the haters of] Yisroel, and that the punishment has begun.

Of course if Hashem is satisfied at stage one, or it's alternative the death of children mentioned in Shabbos 33b, than we have been spared, just like the miturgaman's solice given in Ksubos 8b. But in any event the death of Tzadikim should be a call to the rest of us to repent from what is obviously angering Hashem, it is not a time to wax poetic and to sit back happy that we got a freebie.

  • OK. But how does this answer the question: "What precisely does the demise of righteous people atone for, and who gets the atonement?" Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 8:09
  • Whatever sins we did which warrant our destruction. Us.
    – user6591
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 9:53
  • Why would a tzaddik suffer or die for our sins, when Hashem can just make it easier for people to repent (but leave the choice in their hands)? Also, I would think that the suffering and early death of the righteous would make people question God's justice and would push people away from Him. Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 17:54
  • 1
    @Emet Your first question is addressed in this answer: given their position, they had the opportunity to correct the rest of us but did not. This falls under Arvus, the cosigner's duty, the vow which was taken on the plains of Moav. As for your second question, granted that can happen. In fact there is a Medrash that says Eisav left religion after seeing Avraham die. He said if even a great tzadik can die, surely there is no point in following God or his religion. However, as the Talmud says those who wish to e pure are helped, those who wish to be impure, the door is opened for them.
    – user6591
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 18:02
  • @Emet How a decent person will react to the death of a tzadik can be found in the answer given by Isaac
    – user6591
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 18:04

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