came across an article on the Internet about the “amazing discovery” of a red
heifer. The article made it sound like this was a portent of the messianic era.
Can you explain what the big deal is? And are red heifers really that rare?
A heifer is simply a fancy name for a young female cow that
hasn’t yet borne a calf. And the red color we’re looking for here is not ruby
red, but more of a reddish-brown, earthy color. (In fact, the Hebrew word for
“red,” adumah, is etymologically
linked to the word for “earth,” adamah.)
So if you’re asking how rare red cows are, the answer is not very.
But it’s not all that simple. First, let’s begin by
understanding what the red heifer (parah adumah, in Hebrew) was used for.
Parah Adumah—Red Heifer
nutshell, the Torah tells us that one who comes into contact
with a corpse (by touching or even being under the same roof as the corpse)
becomes impure. He cannot enter the Holy Temple or partake of the sacrificial
offerings or other sacred foods until he purifies himself.
As part of the
purification process, the priests would slaughter the red heifer and burn it on
a pyre, together with a cedar branch, hyssop sprig and crimson wool. They would
then take the ashes, mix them with spring water, and sprinkle the mixture onto
the impure person. For more on all this, see Meet the Red Heifer.
So if red cows aren’t that rare, why is it so difficult to
find a qualified red heifer? Well, the Torah gives us quite a list of criteria:
● The cow must
be, at a minimum, within its third year of life (i.e., two years plus a bit).
● It needs to
be completely red. Even two hairs of a different color next to each other or
three that are far apart disqualify it.
● All physical blemishes that disqualify sacrificial
animals, disqualify a red heifer as well.
● Any work done
with it disqualifies the cow. “Work” in this case includes even a person
leaning on it or placing a garment or cloth upon it (unless this was done to
only safeguard the animal itself).
● Placing a
yoke on the cow, even if it doesn’t actually do any work, also disqualifies it.
● If the heifer is pregnant, or even if a male has mated
with it, it is disqualified.
Finding a red heifer that fulfills all of these
specifications, although not impossible, is unusual.
That’s why people get excited when a qualified red heifer
the Messianic Age
There is, however, a common misconception about the rarity
of the red heifer. Maimonides writes:
red heifers were offered from the time that they were commanded to fulfill this
mitzvah until the time when the Temple was destroyed a second time. The first
was brought by Moses, our teacher. The second was brought by Ezra. Seven others
were offered until the destruction of the Second Temple. And the tenth will be
brought by the King Moshiach; may he speedily be revealed. Amen, so may it be
Some take these words to mean that only nine qualifying
red heifers have ever existed, and the birth of the tenth one will be a sign of
the redemption. In truth, however, the ashes of a red heifer can last for a
very long time, since only a very small amount was needed to be mixed with the
purifying waters. So the fact that only nine were ever used for purification
purposes does not mean that only nine were ever born, just that only nine were
needed or used thus far.
Redemption and the
The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out
that the above quote from Maimonides is out of character for him. In Mishneh
Torah, Maimonides simply enumerates the laws. Yet here, immediately after mentioning that Moshiach will make the tenth parah adumah, he adds,
“. . . May he speedily be revealed. Amen, so may it be
G‑d’s will.” What makes this more surprising is that Maimonides has a whole section specifically about the laws
of Moshiach, but doesn’t add this prayer there. Only here, where the main topic
is the parah adumah and Moshiach is
only mentioned in passing, does he add the prayer.
The Rebbe explains that Maimonides is actually
teaching us a halachah—that a Jew
must always yearn for the redemption, to the point that whenever Moshiach is
mentioned, even if only in passing, he or she should automatically pray that he
come speedily. If Maimonides were to only add the prayer when discussing the
laws of Moshiach, one could think that a prayer is only warranted if that is
the actual topic of discussion. By adding it when Moshiach is only mentioned in
passing, we learn that it should always be on our mind.
Taken that way, perhaps the people who see red
cows and immediately think of Moshiach are onto something . . .
May we merit the ultimate redemption speedily in