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For Real, How Rare Is a Red Heifer?

For Real, How Rare Is a Red Heifer?


I recently 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

In a 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).1

● 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.2

● All physical blemishes that disqualify sacrificial animals, disqualify a red heifer as well.3

● 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).4

● Placing a yoke on the cow, even if it doesn’t actually do any work, also disqualifies it.5

● If the heifer is pregnant, or even if a male has mated with it, it is disqualified.6

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 is discovered.

Misconceptions and the Messianic Age

There is, however, a common misconception about the rarity of the red heifer. Maimonides writes:

Nine 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 G‑d’s will.7

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 Red Heifer

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.8

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 our days!

See Numbers 19:2; Mishnah Parah 1:1; Maimonides, Laws of Parah Adumah 1:1.
See Numbers ibid; Mishnah Parah 1:5; Maimonides, Laws of Parah Adumah 1:2-4.
Numbers ibid.
Maimonides, Laws of Parah Adumah 1:7.
Maimonides Laws of Parah Adumah 3:5.
See Likutei Sichot vol. 28 p. 135.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Yehuda Shurpin (Author) March 24, 2017

Re Indeed, the law of the red heifer is called in the Torah “the chok of the Torah,” it is considered to be more mysterious and supra-rational than any other law in the Torah containing within it many paradoxes (for more on that see Meet the Red Heifer)

As for Rabbi Kook, he actually writes that there will be animal sacrifices in the Messianic era (see Iggrot HaReiyah, vol. 4 [Jerusalem, 1984], 23-5, letter 994). In fact, the prophet Ezekiel says as much in end of the book of Ezekiel. Reply

Malka Libe Brockton March 23, 2017

Red Heifer Karen I disagree with you with you . In the area where I live there are no Red Heifer's Have visited many farmers great distances and not seen a Red Heifer . What about the lamb G-d has commanded to be sacrificed as an offering . In my eyes the meat we eat is also sacrificed . There many different view points from this article that are very educational to learn . Were taught that touching or being in the same room with the corpse we be come impure . Reply

Kbret Getaneh Toronto March 21, 2017

This is very interesting and insightful point. To my understanding of G-d's plan which is given and written for us through the prophets and way before that through the symbolical layout of the Tabernacle, the laws, the annual ceremonial activities, and through the clothing of the high priest, I don't think the Moshiach will offer a Red Heifer in order to atone His people Israel; for as it is clearly stated in Isaiah 53, He will offer Himself not an animal sacrifice. There is no one single verse in the Scriptures where it says He will offer animal as the sin/guilt offering, but through the symbolical messages of and the confirming messages of the prophets it surely gives a precised and indisputable testimony how the Moshiach will come and what He will offer in His coming. What is written is G-d's Word.


Newt H Scott SR Hedley March 17, 2017

In all honesty red cows and bulls are not that rare. We have a red santa gertudis bull and half dozen red angus he breeds to every year. having said that, they are not the most common, but are not rear most cows breed in the second year. Reply

M. Diane Flushing, NY March 17, 2017

Yes, Dallas Jim - Sefira's art ROCKS! You are so right about Sefira's art!! You know that piece that currently on the home page of Chabad with the key? It's the art that goes with "The Day the King Woke up." (or something like that). But when I clicked on the article to see the art better, there is not that same piece!!! I really would love to see that whole piece. I think we can only see a part of that painting on the home page. I love that one! I love all her art! Reply

Anonymous CA March 17, 2017

Amazing how much this Rabbi packed into a few paragraphs using simple language and basic sentence structure. Thanks. Reply

jim dallas March 17, 2017

sefira deserves way more attention... she is a fine artist and adds considerably to this chabad site, i commend you all, and give thanks.
good info on the red cow, good info on moschiach..may he be soon! Reply

Don Knoxville, TN March 17, 2017

The Red Heifer Thank You for confirming what I was taught about the Red Heifer. I appreciate it. I am joyful when I find my understanding is correct and also when I discover there are holes in understanding so they can be corrected. Reply

Anonymous Arizona March 16, 2017

Red Heifers on cattle ranch/ranches in central Texas My deceased husband was a "gentleman rancher" in Central Texas. He was Jewish and his family was from France. He raised cattle for meat and among the cattle there was a substantial number of Red Heifers. In my opinion, they were beautiful specimens. Granted, we did not attempt to look for three white hairs or blemishes.... We belonged to Chabad in Arizona and mentioned the Red Heifers to our Rabbi. I am surprised that our Rabbi showed no interest in researching this further. We had the cattle, and it might have been an opportunity?

Just thought that I would mention this fact, for there are a lot of red cattle...... Reply

Hersh Goldman Swampscott, MA 01907 March 16, 2017

How Rare Is a Red Heifer? If we use the standards of those who say the red heifer can not have three hairs that are not red, I would say it is probably rarer than a two headed cow. I would guess that finding a bright red-orange cow or even a brown cow that looks monochromatic to the casual viewer is hardly something to challenge belief. But to find a red cow (or a cow of any color) that has less than 3 hairs of a second color is something I would call a miracle. I think chances of finding a 2 headed cow are better than the chances of discovering the rabbinical description of a red heifer. There's eyelashes, lip hairs, tail tuft, ear hairs, underbelly, etc. Get real! I'm not a farmer but I would love to see what a dairy farmer thinks about the chances of finding (or breeding) a totally red heifer. Reply

Anonymous Honolulu, Hawaii March 16, 2017

Question Is this so? The purification process cleansed the person who came in contact with the corpse. However, those priests involved in the purification process became ritually impure. Reply

Stuart Kaplan Chapel Hill, NC March 16, 2017

Santa Gertrudis and Red Angus cattle Both of these cattle breeds should be a source of red heifers. I suggest going to the Oklahoma State University web site and search for both "santa gertrudis" and "red angus" in their search window if you want more information on these breeds. (I'd post the links myself but this is not allowed by this website.) Indeed, the Santa Gertrudis breed should perform very well in Israel given its genetics. Reply

Karen Silver Yonkers March 16, 2017

Red heifer The point taken is comprehensible but the whole story strikes me as off the mark. We are no longer sacrificing animals so what is the big Deal? Yes, we are to hope for Moshiach but let's not slide into mythology. Reply

Marie Mcgraw March 16, 2017

Thank you! Reply