After stringency upon stringency preventing even a hint of tumah at every preparatory step leading to the slaughter of the para aduma, the final step is quite surprising. The kohen gadol was deliberately made tameh. Why?
The Mishnah explains that this was motivated by a debated between the Chachamim and the Tzedukim. After one immerses in a mikvah to purify themselves from tumah, they have a status of tevul yom. The person must then wait till nightfall in order to become completely tahor68. Before that time, for example, a kohen may not eat trumah. The Tzedukim, who disregarded the oral tradition, understood that a tevul yom cannot perform the para aduma. They interpreted the pasuk, “A pure (tahor) man shall gather the ash of the cow” to mean that the kohen must be completely tahor. We however have a tradition from Moshe Rabbeinu that a tevul yom could engage in the para aduma activities. Consequently, prior to the kohen gadol beginning, he would be made tameh and immerse in the mikvah, making him a tevul yom and thereby act in accordance with the opinion of the Chachamim.
The Mishnah Achronah asks, what is to be lost if they acted stringently in accordance with the opinion of the Tzedukim? There are indeed many instances where the Chachamim rule stringently above Torah law; why should this be any different?
The Mishnah Achronah explains that there is a big difference. When the Chachamim rule stringently, they accept that the Torah law is lenient, but for the purposes of “creating a fence around the Torah” institute a rabbinic decree. In this case however, the Tzedukim disagree with the tradition we have about the Torah law itself. Consequently, he explains, we are forbidden to behave according to their opinion for the pasuk states “you shall not deviate left or right” – be that lenient or strict.
One may still ask, if those engaged in the para aduma did not submit to the opinion of Tzedukim why can they not still act in the stringent manner. The Mishnah Achrona cites a Tosefta which describes a case where R’ Yishmael ben Piabi ensured that a para aduma was performed by a kohen that was tahor and not a tevul yom. They wanted to rule that the para aduma was valid since it was already performed. The Chachamim ruled in that case that it was nonetheless invalid otherwise it would appear to be an outward demonstration that all previous parot aduma were invalid. The Mishnah Achrona explains that the Chachamim knew that R’ Yishmael’s intentions were pure and he agreed that it could have been performed by a tevul yom. Furthermore their ruling was for a case that was after the fact – bedi’eved. Ideally however we find that no matter the intention, in our case of para aduma, one cannot act stringently in order not to emulate these heretics.
68 This is provided that they do not require a korban to follow. In such a case they would have the status of a mechusar kippurim until the korban is brought. Such a person would not be able to eat from any other korbanot until their required korban is offered.
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