Red heifer

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A red cow

The red heifer (Hebrew: פרה אדומה‎; parah adumah), also known as a red cow, was a sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, the ashes of which were used for the ritual purification of an ancient Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse.[1]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

According to Numbers 19:2: "Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke".

The Book of Numbers stipulates that the animal must be red in color, without blemish, and it must not have been used to perform work (Numbers 19:2). The heifer is then ritually slaughtered (Numbers 19:3) and burned outside of the camp (Numbers 19:3–6). Cedar wood, hyssop, and wool dyed scarlet are added to the fire, and the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure water (Numbers 19:9).

In order to purify a person who has become ritually contaminated by contact with a corpse, water from the vessel is sprinkled on him, using a bunch of hyssop, on the third and seventh day of the purification process (Numbers 19:18–19).

The priest who performs the ritual then becomes ritually unclean, and must then bathe himself and his clothes in a ritual bath. He is deemed impure until evening.

Book of Daniel[edit]

In the Book of Daniel is a reference to a Red Heifer. In Daniel 12:10, God tells Daniel that in the last days, "many shall be purified and made white"; a reference to the purification ritual of the Red Heifer, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isa 1:18, Num 19:6). The analogy appears to relate to a partner of the returning End Time messiah.


The Mishnah, the central compilation of Rabbinic Oral Law, contains a tractate on the Red Heifer, Tractate Parah ("Cow") in Sefer Taharot, which explains the procedures involved. The tractate has no existing Gemara, although commentary on key elements of the procedure is found in the Gemarah for other tractates of the Talmud. According to Mishnah Parah, the presence of two black hairs invalidates a Red Heifer, in addition to the usual requirements of an unblemished animal for sacrifice.

Details of the commandment[edit]

There are various other requirements, such as natural birth.[2] The water must be "living" i.e. spring water. This is a stronger requirement than for a ritual bath. Rainwater accumulated in a cistern is permitted for a mikveh, but cannot be used in the Red Heifer ceremony.

The Mishnah reports that in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, water for the ritual came from the Pool of Siloam. The ceremony involved was complex and detailed. To ensure complete ritual purity of those involved, enormous care was taken to ensure that no-one involved in the Red Heifer ceremony could have had any contact with the dead or any form of tumah, and implements were made of materials, such as stone, which in Jewish law do not act as carriers for ritual impurities. The Mishnah recounts that children were used to draw and carry the water for the ceremony, children born and reared in isolation for the specific purpose of ensuring that they never came into contact with a corpse:

There were courtyards in Jerusalem built over [the virgin] rock and below them a hollow [was made] lest there might be a grave in the depths, and pregnant women were brought and bore their children there, and there they reared them. And oxen were brought, and on their backs were laid doors on top of which sat the children with cups of stone in their hands. When they arrived in Shiloah [the children] alighted, and filled [the cups with water], and mounted, and again sat on the doors

—Mishna Parah 3:2

Various other devices were used, including a causeway from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives so that the Heifer and accompanying priests would not come in contact with a grave.[3]

According to the Mishnah, the ceremony of the burning of the red heifer itself took place on the Mount of Olives. A ritually pure kohen slaughtered the heifer, and sprinkled of its blood in the direction of the Temple seven times. The Red Heifer was then burnt on a pyre, together with crimson dyed wool, hyssop, and cedar wood. In recent years, the site of the burning of the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives has been tentatively located by archaeologist Yonatan Adler.[4]

Jewish tradition[edit]

The existence of a red heifer that conforms with all of the rigid requirements imposed by halakha is a biological anomaly.[clarification needed] The animal must be entirely of one color, and there is a series of tests listed by the rabbis to ensure this; for instance, the hair of the cow must be absolutely straight (to ensure that the cow had not previously been yoked, as this is a disqualifier). According to Jewish tradition, only nine Red Heifers were actually slaughtered in the period extending from Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple. Mishnah Parah recounts eight, stating that Moses prepared the first, Ezra the second, Simon the Just and Yochanan the High Priest prepared two each, and Elioenai ben HaQayaph and Hanameel the Egyptian prepared one each (Mishna Parah 3:5).

The absolute rarity of the animal, combined with the detailed ritual in which it is used, have given the Red Heifer special status in Jewish tradition. It is cited as the prime example of a ḥok, or biblical law for which there is no apparent logic. Because the state of ritual purity obtained through the ashes of a Red Heifer is a necessary prerequisite for participating in Temple service, efforts have been made in modern times by Jews wishing for biblical ritual purity (see tumah and taharah) and in anticipation of the building of The Third Temple to locate a red heifer and recreate the ritual. However, multiple candidates have been disqualified, as late as 2002. (See the "Temple Institute" section below.)

Temple Institute[edit]

Main article: Temple Institute

The Temple Institute, an organization dedicated to preparing the reconstruction of a Third Temple in Jerusalem, has been attempting to identify Red Heifer candidates consistent with the requirements of Numbers 19:1–22 and Mishnah Tractate Parah.[5][6] In recent years, the institute thought to have identified two candidates, one in 1997 and another in 2002.[7] The Temple Institute had initially declared both kosher, but later found each to be unsuitable but currently claim that they have a third candidate.

Christian tradition[edit]

The non-canonical Epistle of Barnabas (8:1) explicitly equates the Red Heifer with Jesus. In the New Testament, the phrases "without the gate" (Hebrews 13:12) and "without the camp" (Numbers 19:3, Hebrews 13:13) have been taken to be not only an identification of Jesus with the Red Heifer, but an indication as to the location of the crucifixion. This is the thesis of Ernest L. Martin in his 1984 book Secrets of Golgotha.


Some Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ cannot occur until the Third Temple is constructed in Jerusalem, which requires the appearance of a red heifer born in Israel. Clyde Lott, a cattle breeder in O'Neill, Nebraska, United States, is attempting to systematically breed red heifers and export them to Israel to establish a breeding line of red heifers in Israel in the hope that this will bring about the construction of the Third Temple and ultimately the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.[8]


The Qur'an mentions the story of the Cow in the chapter Al-Baqara (The Cow), in verses 2.67–2.73. The story provides the name of this sura, the longest of the Qur'an. The Cow required at first was just a "cow". During the story, more restrictions were given, and the color of the cow is required to be yellow after Moses was needlessly asked by the errant people of Israel to give details on how old it was, then on its colour, and then what it was used for, showing much reluctance to obey the command to sacrifice an animal as valuable as "a cow".

According to Ibn Abbas and other scholars: An old man from among the children of Israel was very rich, and he had some nephews and he was killed by one of them. His corpse was placed in by his brother's door. Then disputes ensued and they asked prophet Musa (Moses) for help. When they found the yellow cow per Musa's command, he instructed them to slaughter the cow and struck part of it on the deceased. The dead old man came back to life. The prophet Musa asked who killed him and he said his nephew and he died again.

Ancient Greek mythology[edit]

The red heifer was also considered sacred to the Greek god Apollo.[citation needed] They are featured in many myths, including that of the creation of the lyre. In it Hermes steals Apollo's red heifers and then hides them. To escape Apollo's rage, Hermes creates the lyre.

Geryon, the mythical three-bodied creature slain by Heracles, had red cattle, according to Pseudo-Apollodorus,[9] which Heracles stole as his tenth labor.

In popular culture[edit]

  • A conspiracy to fulfill the prophecy using genetic engineering is a plot thread in the Michael Chabon 2007 novel The Yiddish Policeman's Union.
  • A plan to fulfill the prophecy using selective breeding is a plot thread in the Robert Charles Wilson 2005 novel Spin.
  • In the 2012 movie "Branded" the main character supposedly performs the red heifer ceremony which gives him new insight on the nature of advertising.
  • The 2013 South Park episode "Ginger Cow" revolves around a fake red heifer.
  • The 2015 series Dig begins with verses from Numbers 19 and with the birth of a red heifer, which later becomes a major plotline.

Modern-day usage[edit]

The red heifer is the official mascot of Gann Academy, a Jewish high school located in Waltham, Massachusetts.[10]


  1. ^ Carmichael, Calum (2012). The Book of Numbers: a Critique of Genesis. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 103–121. ISBN 9780300179187. 
  2. ^ (Caesarian section renders a Heifer candidate invalid)
  3. ^ Mishnayoth Seder Taharoth, translated and annotated by Phillip Blackman, Judaica Press, 2000.
  4. ^ Y. Adler, "The Site of the Burning of the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives", Techumin, 22 (2002), pp. 537–542. (Hebrew)
  5. ^ Temple Institute: Red Heifer
  6. ^ "Apocalypse Cow". New York Times. March 30, 1997. Retrieved December 21, 2013. 
  7. ^ Red Heifer born in Israel Temple Institute, 8 April 2002
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Library of Apollodoros". Perseus Encyclopedia. Retrieved 28 January 2015. 
  10. ^

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