Red heifer

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A red cow

The red heifer (Hebrew: פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה, romanizedpārā ʾăḏummā), a female bovine which has never been pregnant, milked, or yoked, also known as the red cow, was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice according to the Torah. Its ashes were used for the ritual purification of corpse uncleanness caused by an Israelite coming into contact with a human corpse, human bone, or grave. [1]

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The red heifer offering instructions are described in Numbers 19. The Israelites were commanded to obtain "a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke". The heifer is then to be slaughtered and burned outside of the camp. Cedar wood, an herb called ezov, and wool or yarn 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 him 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 living waters. He remains impure until evening


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, Tractate Parah ("cow") in Seder Tohorot, which explains the procedures involved. The tractate has no existing Gemara, although commentary on the procedure appears in the Gemarah for other tractates of the Talmud.

Details of the commandment[edit]

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. 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 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 into contact with a grave.[4]

According to the Mishnah, the ceremony of the 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 crimson dyed wool, hyssop, and cedarwood. 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.[5]


The heifer's color is described in the Torah as adumah (אדומה‎), normally translated as "red". However, Saadia Gaon translates this word as Judeo-Arabic: صفرا, romanized: ṣafrā, a word translated to English as "yellow".[6] In addition, the Quran describes Moses being commanded about a "yellow" cow (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 cow to have a ruddy light-brown color, which he says is the normal color of a cow. 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 cow be entirely of this color, and not have blotches or blemishes of a different color.[7]

Jewish tradition[edit]

A red heifer that conforms with all of the requirements imposed by halakha is practically a biological anomaly. For example, the animal must be entirely of one color (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 would be 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. Mishna Parah recounts them, stating that Moses prepared the first, Ezra the second, Simeon the Just and Johanan the High Priest prepared two each, and Elioenai ben HaQayaph, Ananelus, and Ishmael ben Fabus prepared one each.[8]

The extreme 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 paradigm of a ḥoq, a 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.

Apparently, red heifer ashes were still in use as late as the time of Jeremiah (III) in the fourth century.[9]


The second and the longest sura (chapter) in the Quran is named "al-Baqara" (Arabic: البقرة "the cow" or "the heifer") after the heifer as the commandment is related in the sura.

Surah Al Baqarah Ayah 67-71

And ˹remember˺ when Moses said to his people, “Allah commands you to sacrifice a cow.” They replied, “Are you mocking us?” Moses responded, “I seek refuge in Allah from acting foolishly!”

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

He replied, “Allah 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 it hesitantly!

— Quran (translation by Dr. Mustafa Khattab), Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah), ayat 67–71]]


Ibn Kathir explains that according to ibn Abbas and Ubayda ibn al-Harith, it displayed the stubbornness of the Children of Israel, who asked unnecessary questions to the prophets without readily following any commandment from God; had they slaughtered a cow, any cow, it would have been sufficient for them - but instead, as they made the matter more difficult, God made it even more difficult 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 the crucifixion.[12]

Modern-day usage[edit]

The red heifer is the official mascot of Gann Academy, a Jewish high school located in Waltham, Massachusetts.[13]

In the 2013 South Park episode "Ginger Cow", a red heifer is the centre of the plot.

Temple Institute[edit]

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.[14][15] In recent years, the institute thought to have identified two candidates, one in 1997 and another in 2002.[16] The Temple Institute had initially declared both kosher but later found each to be unsuitable. 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.[17] 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 possess[es] the necessary qualifications for the red heifer."[18][19] In September 2022, five red cows were imported from the United States and transferred to a breeding farm in Israel. Rabbis consider the cows kosher for sacrifice.[20]

See also[edit]

  • Akabeko, a red cow in a different tradition


  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 Para 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. ^ Mishna Parah 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. ^ "Surah Al Baqarah".
  11. ^ "Quran Tafsir Ibn Kathir - The Stubbornness of the Jews regarding the Cow; Allah made the Matter difficult for Them". 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. ^ "Teams". Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  14. ^ "The Mystery of the Red Heifer: Divine Promise of Purity". The Temple Institute. 2008-01-31. Archived from the original on 2020-02-23. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  15. ^ "Apocalypse Cow". The New York Times. March 30, 1997. Retrieved December 21, 2013.
  16. ^ "News Flash: Red Heifer Born in Israel!". The Temple Institute. Archived from the original on 2020-02-23. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  17. ^ Zieve, Tamara (August 13, 2015). "The quest for the red heifer: An ancient commandment meets modern technology". Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  18. ^ Dellatto, Marisa (9 September 2018). "Prophecy fulfilled after red cow is born at Temple of Israel". New York Post.
  19. ^ "Apocalyptic cow: Does the first ref heifer born in Israel portend bad news for us all?". (in Hebrew). Walla. 15 September 2018. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  20. ^ Five red cows were flown to Israel: For 2,000 years there were no red cows here. Hamechadesh (The Innovator, Hebrew) August 1, 2022

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