Red heifer – Wikipedia

Cow mentioned in the Torah

The red heifer (Hebrew: פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה; para adumma), a female bovine which has never been pregnant or milked or yoked, also known as the red cow, was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice according to the Torah, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Tum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a human corpse, human bone or grave.[1]

Hebrew Bible (Torah)[edit]

Book of Numbers[edit]

The red heifer offering instructions are described in the Book of Numbers. The children of Israel were commanded to obtain “a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke”.[2] The heifer is then to be slaughtered and burned outside of the camp.[3]Cedar wood, hyssop, and wool or yarn dyed scarlet are added to the fire, and the remaining ashes are placed in a vessel containing pure water.[4]

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 hyssops, on the third and seventh day of the purification process.[5] The priest who performs the ritual then becomes ritually unclean, and must then wash himself and his clothes in living waters. He is deemed impure until evening.


The Mishnah, the central compilation of Rabbinic Oral Law, 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).[6] The water must be “living” (i.e., spring water). This is a stronger requirement than for a ritual bath (mikveh); 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.

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.[7]

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.[8]

The color[edit]

The heifer’s color is described in the Torah as adumah (אדומה‎), normally translated as “red”. However, Saadiah Gaon translates this word to Judeo-Arabic as صفرا (safra), a word translated to English as “yellow”.[9] In addition, the Quran describes Moses being commanded about a “yellow” cow (Surat al-Baqara 9.69).

To explain this discrepancy, Yosef Qafih (in his Hebrew translation and commentary on Saadiah’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.[10]

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. Mishnah Parah recounts them, stating that Moses prepared the first, Ezra the second, Simon the Just and Yochanan the High Priest prepared two each, and Elioenai ben HaQayaph, Hanameel the Egyptian, and Yishmael ben Pi’avi prepared one each.[11]

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 ḥok, 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.

The Temple Institute states, “Some opinions maintain that the newer ashes were always mixed together with a combination of the previous ashes. One way of understanding this, is to the view this mixture of old and new ashes as being yet another precautionary measure… Additionally, mixing in the newer ashes we have produced now with those from olden times is a way of connecting through time with the original heifer that was slaughtered and prepared by Moses. As such, in a sense, it is a way of connecting with the level of Moses himself.”[12] Since the last succession of ashes[13] of the red heifer were either hidden or lost after 70 AD[14]Vendyl Jones searched for the original ashes by following the map on the Copper Scroll that purports to tell the location, so that the old ashes can be added to the new, which serves to continue the “continuity factor.”[15]

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.[16][17] In recent years, the institute thought to have identified two candidates, one in 1997 and another in 2002.[18] 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.[19] 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.”[20][21]
In September 2022, five red cows were imported from the United States, and transferred to a breeding farm in Israel. According to the rabbis who accompanied the process, the cows are kosher for sacrifice.[22]

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.

And when Moses said unto his people: Lo!Allah (God) commandeth you that ye sacrifice a cow, they said: Dost thou make game of us? He answered: Allah forbid that I should be among the foolish! They said: Pray for us unto thy Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is. (Moses) answered: Lo! He saith, Verily she is a cow neither with calf nor immature; (she is) between the two conditions; so do that which ye are commanded. They said: Pray for us unto thy Lord that He make clear to us of what colour she is. (Moses) answered: Lo! He saith: Verily she is a yellow cow. Bright is her colour, gladdening beholders. They said: Pray for us unto thy Lord that He make clear to us what (cow) she is. Lo! cows are much alike to us; and Lo! if Allah wills, we may be led aright. (Moses) answered: Lo! He saith: Verily she is a cow unyoked; she plougheth not the soil nor watereth the tilth; whole and without mark. They said: Now thou bringest the truth. So they sacrificed her, though almost they did not.

Ibn Kathir explains that according to Ibn Abbas and Ubaydah, 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.[24]

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.[25]

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 divert Apollo’s rage, Hermes gives him the lyre he had recently invented.

Geryon, the mythical three-bodied creature slain by Heracles, had red cattle, according to Pseudo-Apollodorus,[26] which Heracles stole as his tenth labor.

Vedic rituals[edit]

The Atharvaveda, a late addition to the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, invokes sacred red bulls and red cows in several hymns, including Hymn I, 22, an incantation to cure jaundice:

Up to the sun shall go thy heart-ache and thy jaundice: in the colour of the red bull do we envelop thee!
We envelop thee in red tints, unto long life. May this person go unscathed, and be free of yellow colour!
The cows whose divinity is Rohini, they who, moreover, axe (themselves) red (róhinih)-(in their) every form and every strength we do envelop thee.
Into the parrots, into the ropanâkâs (thrush) do we put thy jaundice, and, furthermore, into the hâridravas (yellow wagtail) do we put thy jaundice.

— Atharvaveda I, 22, Hymns of the Atharva-Veda, Translated by Maurice Bloomfield, in The Sacred Books of the East, Max Muller, ed. [27]

Modern-day usage[edit]

The red heifer is the official mascot of Gann Academy, a Jewish high school located in Waltham, Massachusetts.[28]


  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 19:2
  3. ^ Numbers 19:3
  4. ^ Numbers 19:9
  5. ^ Numbers 19:18–19
  6. ^ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Para Adumah 1:7
  7. ^ Mishnayoth Seder Taharoth, translated and annotated by Phillip Blackman, Judaica Press, 2000.
  8. ^ Adler, Y. (2002). “The Site of the Burning of the Red Heifer on the Mount of Olives”. Techumin (in Hebrew). 22: 537–542.
  9. ^ See also Job 16:16 where Saadiah uses safra to describe a red-flushed face.
  10. ^ Yosef Qafih, Perushei Rabbeinu Saadiah Gaon al haTorah, footnote to Numbers 19:2.
  11. ^ Mishna Parah 3:5
  12. ^ “The Red Heifer – The Original Ashes”. The Temple Institute. Archived from the original on 2020-01-24. Retrieved November 6, 2020.
  13. ^ Pharisees and the Sadducees: Rethinking Their Respective Outlooks on Jewish Law, GR Knight – BYU L. Rev., 1993 – HeinOnline
  14. ^ The end of days: fundamentalism and the struggle for the Temple Mount, By Gershom Gorenberg
  15. ^ Browning, Daniel C. (1996). “The strange search for the ashes of the Red Heifer”. The Biblical Archaeologist. 59 (2): 74–89. doi:10.2307/3210511. JSTOR 3210511. S2CID 163185251.
  16. ^ “The Mystery of the Red Heifer: Divine Promise of Purity”. The Temple Institute. 2008-01-31. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  17. ^ “Apocalypse Cow”. The New York Times. March 30, 1997. Retrieved December 21, 2013.
  18. ^ “News Flash: Red Heifer Born in Israel!”. The Temple Institute. Retrieved 2015-06-03.
  19. ^ Zieve, Tamara (August 13, 2015). “The quest for the red heifer: An ancient commandment meets modern technology”. Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  20. ^ Dellatto, Marisa (9 September 2018). “Prophecy fulfilled after red cow is born at Temple of Israel”. New York Post.
  21. ^ “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.
  22. ^ Five red cows were flown to Israel: For 2,000 years there were no red cows here. Hamechadesh (The Innovator, Hebrew) August 1, 2022
  23. ^ Quran 2:67-71
  24. ^ “Quran Tafsir Ibn Kathir – The Stubbornness of the Jews regarding the Cow; Allah made the Matter difficult for Them”. Retrieved 1 February 2019.
  25. ^ Martin, Ernest L. (1988). Secrets of Golgotha: The Forgotten History of Christ’s Crucifixion. ASK Publications. ISBN 978-0945657774.
  26. ^ “Library of Apollodoros”. Perseus Encyclopedia. Retrieved 28 January 2015.
  27. ^ The Sacred Books of the East, Volume 42, p. 7, at Google Books, Oxford University Press, pages 7-8
  28. ^ “Teams”. Retrieved 2015-06-03.

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