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The baraita quoted on yesterday’s daf (=page) offered a number of cases where Rabbi Shimon identified certain laws as being Rabbinic ordinances. One of the cases was the ruling that the ashes of a parah adumah – a Red Heifer – used in theTemple in purification ceremonies (see Bamidbar Chapter 19) are not subject to the laws of me’ilah, that is, there is no penalty for inappropriate, mundane use of these ashes.
The Gemara objects that according to Biblical law, me’ilah applies only to the parah adumah itself and not to its ashes. On today’s daf Rav Ashi explains that there were two separate enactments. On a Biblical level, the ashes of a parah adumahare not subject to the laws of me’ilah. When the Sages saw that people were not showing proper respect for the holiness of the ashes and were using it for medicinal purposes, they enacted a prohibition against its use. At a later time when the Sages realized that this prohibition led people to avoid using the ashes of a parah adumah in cases of a purification ceremony when the ritual defilement was unclear, they ruled that the law should revert to the original Biblical status.
Tosafot suggest that although in all cases the ashes of sanctified korbanot (=sacrifices) that have been burned are permitted for use, in this case there is need for a specific ruling allowing the ashes of a parah adumah, since the ashes themselves are meant to be used in a Temple ceremony.
In ancient times, use of ashes as a medicine in situations of skin wounds, abrasions or infections was commonplace. Topical placement of the ashes on an open wound served to stem bleeding and also limited the spread of the infection, although its application would often cause noticeable scarring. It is also likely that people were interested in using the ashes of a parah adumah for this purpose because of its holiness and their belief that it would therefore serve as a talisman for healing.