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Red heifer

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A Red Angus cow which is grown by the Temple Institute for the red heifer sacrifice and burning in the reconstruction of the Third Temple in Jerusalem, Israel.

The red heifer (Hebrew: פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה, romanizedparah adumah), a heifer which is never pregnant, milked, yoked, also known as the red cow, is a heifer sacrificed by the priests as a sacrifice to Yahweh in the Torah, Bible, Quran. Its ashes after being sacrificed and burned were used for the ritual purification as a prelude to building their temple.[1]



The red heifer offering instructions are described in Numbers 19. The Israelites and Moses were told by Yahweh to obtain a red heifer without spots, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke, was never milked, never pregnant and sacrifice it as in a purification ritual. The red heifer is then slaughtered and burned outside of the camp. Cedarwood, an herb called ezov, and wool dyed scarlet are added to the fire, and the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure spring water.

To purify a person, water from the vessel is sprinkled on them using a bunch of ezov, on the third and seventh day of the purification process.[2] The Kohen who performs the ritual then becomes ritually impure and must then wash himself and his clothes in spring waters. He remains impure until the evening of the day he sprinkled the water of lustration.



The Mishnah, the central compilation of the Oral Torah in Rabbinic Judaism, the oral component of the Written Torah, contains a tractate on the red heifer sacrifice and burning, which is the tractate Parah ("cow") in Tohorot, which explains the procedures involved. The tractate has no existing Gemara, although commentary on the procedure appears in the Gemara for other tractates of the Talmud.

Details of the law


According to Mishnah's tractate Parah, the presence of two black hairs invalidates a red heifer, in addition to the usual requirements of an unblemished animal for sacrifice. There are various other requirements, such as natural birth (The caesarian section renders a heifer candidate invalid).[3] The water must be "living" (ie., spring water). This is a stronger requirement than for a mikveh or 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 the complete ritual purity of those involved, 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 halakha 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.

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 into contact with a grave.[4]

According to the Mishnah, the ceremony of the sacrifice and burning of the red heifer took place on the Mount of Olives. A ritually pure kohen slaughtered the heifer and sprinkled its blood in the direction of the Temple seven times. The red heifer was then burned on a pyre, together with wool dyed scarlet, hyssop, and cedarwood to ashes. In recent years, the site of the sacrifice and burning of the red heifer on the Mount of Olives has been tentatively located by archaeologist Yonatan Adler.[5]

Color of the heifer


The heifer's color is described in the Torah as adumah (אדומה‎), which is "red". However, Saadia Gaon translates this word as Judeo-Arabic: صفرا, romanized: safra, a word translated to English as "yellow".[6] In addition, the Quran shows Moses being told about a yellow heifer (Al-Baqara 2:69).

To explain this discrepancy, Yosef Qafih in his Hebrew translation and commentary on Saadia's work argues that the Bible requires the heifer to be red in color, which he says is the normal color of a heifer. He says this color is in general described as אדום‎ in Hebrew and yellow in Arabic, resolving the discrepancy in the color words. He explains the Biblical requirement to mean that the heifer be entirely of this color, and not have blotches or blemishes of a different color.[7]

Jewish traditions


A red heifer that conforms with all of the requirements imposed by halakha is practically a biological anomaly. For example, the heifer must be entirely brownish red (a series of tests listed by the sages must be performed to ensure this) and the hair of the cow must be absolutely straight (to ensure that the cow had not previously been yoked, as this is a disqualifier). In Jewish history, only nine red heifers were actually slaughtered and burned in the period extending from the time of Moses to the destruction of the Second Temple. Mishnah's tractate Parah recounts them, stating that Moses prepared the first, Ezra prepared the second, Simeon the Just and Johanan the High Priest prepared the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and Elioenai ben HaQayaph, Ananelus, and Ishmael ben Fabus prepared the seventh, eighth, ninth.[8]

The extreme rarity of the red heifer, 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 paradigm of a ḥoq, a Jewish law for which there is no 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 Jewish 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 sacrifice and burning. However, multiple candidates have been disqualified and multiple candidates were found at the same time also for the sacrifice and burning.

Also, all red heifer ashes were still in use as late as the time of Jeremiah (III) in the fourth century CE and then were exhausted completely.[9]



The second and the longest Surah (chapter) in the Quran is named "Al-Baqara" (Arabic: البقرة "the heifer") after the heifer as the law is related in the surah.

Quran, Al Baqara, Verses 67-71

Remember when Moses said to his people, “God commands you to sacrifice a heifer.” They replied, “Are you mocking us?” Moses responded, “I seek refuge in God from acting foolishly!”

They said, “Call upon God to clarify for us what type of heifer it should be!” He replied, “God says, ‘The heifer should neither be old nor young but in between. So do as you are commanded!’” They said, “Call upon God to specify for us its color.” He replied, “God says, ‘It should be a bright yellow heifer—pleasant to see.’” Again they said, “Call upon God so that he may make clear to us which cow, for all cows look the same to us. Then, God willing, we will be guided to the correct one.”

He replied, “God says, ‘It should have been used neither to till the soil nor water the fields; wholesome and without blemish.’” They said, “Now you have come with the truth.” Yet they still slaughtered and burnt it to ashes hesitantly!


Ibn Kathir explains that, according to Ibn Abbas and Ubayda ibn al-Harith, it displayed the doubtful questioning of the Israelites, who asked multiple questions to Moses without readily following any law from Yahweh; had they slaughtered a heifer, any heifer, it would have been sufficient for them - but instead, as they made the matter more specified, Yahweh made it even more specified for them.[11]



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 his crucifixion and death in Calvary.[12]

Modern day red heifers


The Temple Institute, an organization dedicated to the reconstruction of the Third Temple in Jerusalem, Israel, has identified red heifer candidates consistent with the requirements of Numbers 19:1–22 and Mishnah's tractate Parah.[13][14] In recent years, the institute thought to have identified two candidates, one in 1997 and another in 2002.[15] The Temple Institute had initially declared both blemishless for sacrifice and burning but later found to be defective and were removed from sacrifice and burning. The institute has been raising funds in order to use modern technology to produce a red heifer that is genetically based on the Red Angus cattle.[16] In September 2018, the institute announced a red heifer candidate was born, saying the heifer is currently a viable candidate and will be examined to see whether it possesses the necessary qualifications for the red heifer.[17][18] In September 2022, five red heifers were imported from the United States and transferred to a breeding farm in Israel for the sacrifice and burning. Rabbis have found the cows blemishless for sacrifice and burning.[19]

See also



  1. ^ Carmichael, Calum (2022). The Book of Numbers: a Critique of Genesis. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 103–121. ISBN 9780300179187.
  2. ^ Numbers 19:18–19
  3. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Parah Adumah 1:7
  4. ^ Mishnayoth Seder Taharoth, translated and annotated by Phillip Blackman, Judaica Press, 2000.
  5. ^ Adler, Y. (2002). "The Site of the Burning of the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives". Techumin (in Hebrew). 22: 537–542.
  6. ^ See also Job 16:16 where Saadiah uses ṣafrā to describe a red-flushed face.
  7. ^ Yosef Qafih, Perushei Rabbeinu Saadiah Gaon al haTorah, footnote to Numbers 19:2.
  8. ^ Mishnah's tractate Parah, verse 3:5
  9. ^ Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot 6:1, according to Or Yesharim commentary and Rome manuscript where בי חנוותא is replaced by מי חטאתה
  10. ^ "Al Baqara". Quran.com.
  11. ^ "Tafsir Ibn Kathir on Al Baqara, Quran - The doubtful questioning of the Israelites regarding the red heifer; and Yahweh made the matter specified for them". www.qtafsir.com. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  12. ^ Martin, Ernest L. (1988). Secrets of Golgotha: The Forgotten History of Christ's Crucifixion. ASK Publications. ISBN 978-0945657774.
  13. ^ "The Mystery of the Red Heifer: Divine Promise of Purity". templeinstitute.org. The Temple Institute. 2008-01-31. Archived from the original on 2020-02-23. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  14. ^ "Apocalypse Heifer". The New York Times. March 30, 1997. Retrieved December 21, 2013.
  15. ^ "News Flash: A red heifer is born in Israel!". templeinstitute.org. The Temple Institute. Archived from the original on 2020-02-23. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  16. ^ Zieve, Tamara (August 13, 2015). "The quest for the red heifer: An ancient law meets modern technology". Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  17. ^ Dellatto, Marisa (9 September 2018). "Prophecy fulfilled after a red heifer is born at the Temple of Jerusalem, Israel". nypost.com. New York Post.
  18. ^ "Apocalyptic heifer: Does the first red heifer born in Israel portend evil news for us all?". walla.co.il (in Hebrew). Walla. 15 September 2018. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  19. ^ Five red heifers were flown to Israel: For 2,000 years there were no red heifers here. Hamechadesh (The Innovator, Hebrew) August 1, 2022