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:
● 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
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 ibid; Mishnah Parah 1:5; Maimonides, Laws of Parah Adumah 1:2-4.
Maimonides, Laws of Parah Adumah 1:7.
Maimonides Laws of Parah Adumah 3:5.
See Likutei Sichot vol. 28 p. 135.
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