The Spring holiday season on the Jewish calendar can rightly be said to begin two weeks before Purim, when we read the first of the four special Torah readings, parashat Shekalim. This is followed by parashat Zachor (Devarim 25:17-19), recounting the mitzva to destroy Amalek and which is read on the Shabbat before Purim; parashat Parah (Bamidbar 19:1-22), which speaks about the Parah Adumah, or red heifer, whose ashes were used to purify those who become impure through contact with a dead body and is read two Shabbatot before Nissan begins; and finally parashat HaChodesh (Shemot 12:1-20), which speaks about the mitzva of sanctifying the new moon and of some of the basic laws of Pesach and is read the Shabbat before Nissan begins.

As we are reading parashat Parah this week, it will be our focus. What is interesting about parashat Parah is that there is a debate as to the status of this practice. Several versions of Tosafot on Berachot 13a (although not the version found on our standard printed page of the gemara), along with Rashba, Ritva, and the Terumat HaDeshen (#108) all hold that it is a mitzva d'oraita, a Torah-ordained positive commandment. If this is the case, then it would be comparable to parashat Zachor, and it would be imperative for each individual to hear the reading of parashat Parah.

The notion that parashat Parah is d'oraita is brought down by the Shulchan Aruch in two places. In O.C. 685:7, he writes that "there are those who say that parashat Zachor and parashat Parah are d'oraita, and thus those people who live in villages (where it presumed that there would be no minyan) are required to come to a place where there is a minyan on these Shabbatot." In O.C. 146:2, the Shulchan Aruch writes this without any reservations. In discussing the laws about talking during the reading of the Torah, he notes that any leniencies that normally apply during the reading of the Torah (such as the permissibility of fulfilling the obligation of shnayim mikra v'echad targum) do not apply for Zachor and Parah since they are both d'oraita. In this instance, the Shulchan Aruch does not present this law as being the view of an anonymous "there are those who say," but rather treats this obligation as if it is the true law.

Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of this position is the GR"A, who notes in O.C. 685 that there is no statement of Tosafot that supports the d'oraita nature of parashat Parah, and thus the statement of the Shulchan Aruch must be the result of a corrupted text (we have already noted that this statement is not in the regular Tosafot, but rather in other versions, such as Tosafot HaRosh and Tosafot Rabi Yehuda HaChassid). Additionally, Taz cites Tosafot Shantz as holding the view that only parashat Zachor is d'oraita, and the Be'eir Heitev cites Maharil and Shlah who share this opinion.

What is going on here? What lies at the heart of this issue? At first glance, it does not seem that the participants in this discussion are split either by geographical distribution (there are both Ashkenazim and Sefardim who claim that this is a mitzva d'oraita), nor according to chronology (there are both Rishonim and Acharonim who follow both opinions). Those who feel that parashat Parah is not mandated by the Torah seem to have a fairly good argument - nowhere in the twenty-two verses that make up parashat Parah are we commanded to remember the commandment of the sprinkling the ashes of the red heifer onto those who were impure. By contrast, Devarim 25:17 begins by saying "Remember that which Amalek did to you" - a clear commandment for future generations! As such, Rambam lists remembering what Amalek did to us among his collection of 613 mitzvot (positive commandment #189). Given this contrast, GR"A and those who side with him would seem to have a strong case against instituting parashat Parah as a mitzva d'oraita.

What about the Shulchan Aruch and the host of Rishonim in whose footsteps he follows? Interestingly, none of them offer a reason as to why they feel that the reading of parashat Parah is a Torah-ordained commandment! Despite this glaring omission, the Shulchan Aruch and others confidently assert that there is a d'oraita aspect to this law. Simply stated, why should we believe them? The battle lines of this issue seem to be clearly drawn, and one side has failed to produce any evidence for their position!

Fortunately, the Aruch HaShulchan provides at least a hint within the Torah to support the view of the Shulchan Aruch and others. He notes that the mitzva of the ashes of the red heifer are described as being a "chukat olam" (an eternal ordinance), and the Sifri claims that this means that it would be practiced forever. Even after the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, there were still those who kept the practice of the ashes of the red heifer alive. The gemara in Chagigah 25a (cited in Nidda 6b as well and explained there by Rashi) notes that there were people in the Galil (northern Israel) who kept the ashes of the red heifer on hand in case Eliyahu HaNavi should happen to come and there would be a need to purify themselves. Furthermore, notes the Aruch HaShulchan, parashat Parah refers to this practice as a "chukat olam" a second time, which he claims teaches us that we should read about this commandment even when it no longer is in practice.

What is the final word on this matter? To determine the answer to this question, we will look at one particular aspect of this law. What happens if a community does not read parashat Parah on time? Do they have to make it up the next week? By parashat Zachor there is no issue, since one can fulfill the commandment to remember what Amalek did either by hearing Megillat Esther or by hearing the Torah reading on Purim morning that recounts the battle between Amalek and the Jews in the desert. However, what would be the case by parashat Parah? If it is a d'oraita, then perhaps it should be made up, much as Zachor is essentially made up. On the other hand, if it is merely a d'rabbanan (Rabbinically mandated law), then perhaps once the opportunity is missed then it can never be made up.

Interestingly, there is both an Ashkenazi and a Sefaradi poseik who claim that there is a need to make up parashat Parah. The Tzitz Eliezer (14:66) raises the idea that if parashat Parah is not read on time then it should be read the next week before parashat HaChodesh. In a similar vein, Rav Ovadiah Yoseif (Yechaveh Da'at 3:52) writes that since the point of reading parashat Parah is in preparation for Pesach, it can theoretically be read at any time before Nissan begins (at which point people began their pilgrimages to Yerushalayim). Thus, he advises that it be read the next week, although it should be read after parashat HaChodesh, which is read at the proper time and thus takes priority. Rav Moshe Harari notes that the Ashkenazic custom is to follow the Mishna Berura, who claims that there is no makeup day for parashat Parah, while the Sefardic custom is the subject of debate. The safest approach, obviously, is to try as hard as possible to hear parashat Parah when it is read during Adar.

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