One of the most enigmatic mitzvahs in the Torah is the parah adumah, the red heifer, which was used for ritual purification. There have been only nine such heifers in history, and our tradition tells us that there will be one more in the future. Here is an overview of the mysterious red heifer, which left even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, scratching his head in wonderment.

What Was It Needed For?

Before we can discuss the actual red heifer, we need a bit of background information on the biblical laws of ritual purity. There is a common misconception that the biblical notion of impurity implies filth or susceptibility to infection. Maimonides writes, however, that it’s a gezeirat ha-katuv, a supra-rational mandate of the Torah—it has no rationale that we can comprehend.1

One form of impurity is contracted by touching, or being under the same roof as, a corpse. Once defiled, one could not enter the Holy Temple or partake of the sacrificial offerings or other sacred foods. In order to be purified, one had to be sprinkled with a special mixture of spring water and ashes from the burned remains of the red heifer.

The Ritual

The laws of the red heifer are presented at the very beginning of the Torah portion of Chukat:

This is the statute of the Torah which the L‑rd commanded, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.”2

The sages infer that the red heifer must be completely red—even two black hairs would render it invalid. And it must not have done any work in its lifetime—even having a yoke placed on its back, or having mated, would disqualify it.

Once a candidate was found, and there was need for more purifying ash water, the cow would be slaughtered and burned on a pyre, along with a cedar branch, hyssop sprig and crimson wool. The ceremony took place on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple Mount.

The ashes would then be mixed with carefully guarded water drawn from the Shiloach spring. Those who came in contact with the dead would be sprinkled with the ash water on the third and seventh days after their defilement. On the seventh day, they would immerse in a mikvah, and that night they would revert to their original pure status.

Since there is no longer a Temple in Jerusalem, the rituals of the red heifer—as well as most of the laws surrounding ritual purity—will be applicable only in the messianic era.

Does It Make Sense?

When introducing this mitzvah, the Torah states, “This is the statute of the Torah.” The word “statute,” chok, denotes a law that defies reason.3 Since the Torah prefaces the mitzvah by calling it “the chok of the Torah,” it appears that this mitzvah must somehow be more mysterious and supra-rational than any other law.

Rashi elaborates: “Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, ‘What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?’ therefore the Torah uses the term ‘statute.’ ‘I have decreed it; you have no right to challenge it.’”4

In reference to the red heifer, King Solomon famously stated, “I had said I would become wise—but it is far from me.”5 The Midrash expounds, “With all other [laws of the Torah] I held my footing, but when it comes to the teaching of the heifer, I analyzed, I asked and I researched [without understanding].”6

There are other laws in the Torah that do not have a comprehensible rationale. What is so strange about this particular law?

The red heifer presents a great paradox: the priest who is involved in the preparation of the heifer himself becomes impure through the process. Strange indeed.

But that leads us to a greater puzzle. Why would G‑d give us a law that no one can understand? Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if He would give us a mitzvah that resonates with our mortal minds, so that we could fulfill it with deep appreciation?

Chassidic philosophy answers thusly: We do the mitzvahs not because we understand them, but because they are His will. And this also extends to the mitzvahs we think we understand: we need to do these mitzvahs simply because they are G‑d’s will, not because they make sense to us.

Conversely, the Midrash also tells us that G‑d did reveal the secret of the red heifer to Moses.7 Why? Because we are intelligent beings who crave understanding. The very knowledge that someone out there understood these laws makes them more palatable to us and allows us to appreciate them as much the mitzvahs we ourselves understand.

The Quest for the Red Heifer

It appears that finding an appropriate heifer was quite challenging. For example, the Talmud tells the story of a gentile named Dama who dealt in precious gems. At one point, the sages of Israel approached him to purchase a replacement gem for the breastplate of the high priest. Since in order to retrieve the stone Dama would need to wake his sleeping father, he refused to show them the stone. Even when the sages raised the price, he did not budge. Eventually, his father woke up, and Dama made the sale (insisting on the original, lower price). As a reward for the exemplary lengths he went to honor his father, Dama merited to have a red heifer born in his herd, which again fetched him a pretty penny from the Temple treasury.

Even today, one occasionally hears of the birth of a perfectly red cow, and speculation is raised as to whether it is a harbinger of the messianic era. After all, Maimonides himself codifies the following as Jewish law:

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.8

Further Research

Okay, now that we’ve sparked your interest, you may want to learn more about this mysterious mitzvah. Here are some places for further research:

  • The Torah portion that discusses this mitzvah can be found here.
  • Maimonides codifies the laws of impurity imparted by the dead here, and those of the red heifer here.
  • And if you want to read more about the mysteries of the red heifer, we’ve got a wealth of good stuff indexed here.