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Red Heifer

RED HEIFER (Heb. פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה), the animal whose ashes were used in the ritual purification of persons and objects defiled by a corpse (Num. 19). While the English term heifer means a young cow that has not had a calf, the Bible (Num. 19:2) speaks simply of a cow (Heb. parah). The Bible prescribes that the red cow be without blemish (Heb. temimah), that it should have no defect (Heb. mum), and that it should never have been yoked (Num. 19:2). The first of these requirements applies also to burnt offerings (Lev. 1:3, 10), peace offerings (Lev. 3:1, 6), and sin offerings (Lev. 4:3). The second regulation, which applies to all sacrifices (Lev. 22:19, 21; Deut. 17:1), is explained in Leviticus 22:22. The third stipulation applies also to the calf whose neck is broken to atone for the bloodguilt of the unidentified manslayer (Deut. 21:3).

Unlike ordinary sacrifices, which could be slaughtered only at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Lev. 17:5), the red heifer was to be slaughtered outside the camp (Num. 19:3). Not slaughtered in the camp are likewise the scapegoat (Lev. 16:10), the calf whose neck is broken (Deut. 21:4), and the birds used in the purification of the recovered leper (Lev. 14:7). The red heifer was more like an ordinary sacrifice than these, however, in that some of its blood was sprinkled seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting (Num. 19:4). In the other two rites there was no sprinkling of blood at the sanctuary. The red heifer ritual resembled the purification of the recovered leper in that cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop were used in the preparation of the purificatory substances in both rites. While it was the blood of a bird that was mixed with these in the purification of the leper, these were combined with the ashes of the red heifer in the purification of persons and objects defiled by a corpse. Like the bull used in the induction of Aaron and his sons (Ex. 29:14; Lev. 8:17), the bull for the sin offering of the anointed priest (Lev. 4:11), and the goat and the bull for the sin offering of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:27), the red heifer was burned outside the camp along with its flesh and dung. In the red heifer ritual the greater part of the blood as well was burned outside the camp (Num. 19:5). In all of these rituals the performance of certain acts outside the camp clearly indicates a degree of ritual impurity that somehow threatens the holiness of the sanctuary itself. If the scapegoat which assumed Israel's impurities had to be removed from the camp, and if the birds which revived the leper from his temporary symbolic death (cf. Ned. 64b) had to be subjected to the appropriate ritual outside the camp, it is logical that the ritual purification of those in contact with death itself, the source of the highest degree of ritual impurity (cf. Kel. 1:4), should be performed outside the camp. In the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy the Israelite community is often pictured as an armed camp. Wherever the camp is located God's Presence is found. The area outside the camp is the sphere of uncleanness to which lepers, gonorrheal persons, and those defiled by contact with the dead are sent (Num. 5:2), as are men who have had nocturnal emissions (Deut. 23:11 [10]). Excrement likewise was to be buried outside the camp (Deut. 23:14 [13]). The stoning to death of the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath also took place outside the camp (Num. 15:35). The Book of Leviticus (Lev. 14:45) speaks of the domain of the unclean as "outside the town" rather than as "outside the camp" but there is no practical difference, since the camp of the wilderness period actually represents the towns of the settled period.

The law of the red heifer addressed to Moses and Aaron (Num. 19:1) prescribes that the slaughtering and burning of the animal be carried out by Eleazar (19:4), Aaron's heir apparent (after the death of his two older brothers; Lev. 10:1–3, 12). Some modern commentators suggest that Eleazar was given the role so as not to defile Aaron the high priest. The ashes were gathered by a ritually clean man (Num. 19:9) and placed outside the camp in a ritually pure place (cf. Lev. 6:4). The gatherer of the ashes could evidently be a layman as could also the slaughterer of a freewill offering (Lev. 1:5). Both the priest and the gatherer became unclean until evening, as did a person who carried the carcass of an animal from a species that is forbidden for food and as did a person who ate or carried the carcass of a permissible animal that was not properly slaughtered (Lev. 11:28, 39).

The ashes of the red heifer were combined with spring water (Heb. mayim ḥayyim) in a vessel (Num. 19:17) to produce a mixture called "water of lustration" (Heb. me niddah). The mixture was applied by dipping into it and sprinkling (19:18) on the third and seventh days after defilement (19:19). This defilement was acquired by touching a corpse, a grave, or a human bone, or by being under the same roof with any of these. That the priest, the gatherer of the ashes, the sprinkler (19:21), and the one who touched the water of lustration (19:22) became unclean until evening has been explained both as uncleanness attached to the handling of sacred objects and as contamination by association. The second explanation means that the red heifer caused uncleanness because of its association with death. The first explanation finds its analogy in the defiling of the hands by sacred scrolls (Yad. 3–4), while the latter has no analogue. In addition, the red heifer has not yet come into contact with the dead during the time of its preparation. Furthermore, the assumption that the red heifer defiles because of its association with human death ignores the distinction between the seven days of uncleanness consequent on contact with the dead (Num. 19:14) and the shorter period noted for the priest, the gatherer of the ashes, the lustrator, and the one who touched the water of lustration according to the law of the red heifer.

Baumgarten elaborates on the first explanation by showing that normality results from equilibrium. On the one hand, the dead are the most potent source of defilement. On the other hand, the ashes of the heifer with their ability to reverse that defilement are equally potent. As a result, those who come into contact with the ashes, which are especially holy, have subverted the equilibrium required for normality and are therefore impure. The apparent paradox as to how the red heifer purifies the defiled and defiles the pure is no paradox. Too much sanctity is dangerous and leads to impurity. The same conception underlies Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai's explanation (Yad. 4:5–6) that sacred Scripture defiles the hands because of their precious character. The ancient of sanctity though, conveys a lesser impurity than corpse contagion. The uncleanness of the red heifer is only until evening, but it affects the priest, the gatherer, the lustrator, whoever touches the water of lustration, and indeed the man who is purified by it from the more severe defilement. Thus, after his purification from the latter by the application of water of lustration, he, like the lustrator, must wash his clothes, bathe in water, and remain unclean until evening (Num. 19:19b).

The burning of the red heifer with its blood, the crimson that was combined with it, and the red color of the animal itself may allude to the power of blood to overcome the power of death which threatens both the sanctity and the existence of the Israelite camp (cf. Ex. 12:22–23). While blood is mostly a source of purity, innocent blood that has been shed is a pollutant. In such a case, the red of the heifer might be seen as symbolic of the sin (cf. lsa. 1:18) that caused the death, which is banished from the camp.

[Mayer Irwin Gruber / S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

In the Talmud

The entire tractate *Parah is devoted to the laws of the red heifer. The accepted opinion in talmudic law is that a cow which has been mounted by a bull may not be used for the ritual (Par. 2:4). The Mishnah specifies that the cow be at least three or four years old; younger than three is termed "calf " (Heb. eglah) rather than "cow" (Par. 1:1). Furthermore, R. Meir asserts that theoretically the animal may be aged. In practice, he explains, a younger one is more likely to fulfill the other biblical specifications (Par. 1:1). Since the red heifer is called a sin offering (Ḥattat; Num. 19:9), the rabbis applied to it the laws appertaining to this offering. The mixture of the heifer's ashes with water is called consecrated water. Some of the rites connected with the red heifer were instituted by the Pharisees in order to refute the view of the Sadducees. The Sadducees claimed that only those who were in a state of complete ritual purity were entitled to burn the heifer. According to the Pharisees, however, even a tevul yom (an unclean person who has already undergone ritual immersion but still has to wait until sunset to be declared clean; see *Tevul Yom ) is qualified to burn it. As a result, the priest who was assigned to burn the heifer was deliberately rendered unclean and afterward immersed himself (Par. 3:7–8). This procedure was not carried out without opposition. One tradition tells about a Sadducean high priest who attempted to burn the red heifer according to the ritual of his faction and was prevented by *Johanan b. Zakkai , who told him to immerse himself. The priest answered rudely, and the story continues that as a punishment the Sadducee died three days later (Tosef., Par. 3:8). In reference to another law, R. Yose recommended being less strict, saying, "Do not give the Sadducees an opportunity to cavil at us" (Par. 3:3; cf. Tosef., Par. 3:3). According to the Mishnah, only the high priests could be qualified (Par. 4:1; cf. Yoma 42b). Some talmudic authorities (Yoma 42b; Sif. Num. 123) insist that the assistant to the high priest be in charge; others suggest that it may be any priest.

According to R. Meir in all of Jewish history only seven heifers were burned, but according to the rabbis there were nine (Par. 3:5), and the tenth and last will be prepared by the Messiah (Yad, Parah Adummah 3:4). If two hairs of the animal were not red, it was invalid. As a result, the red heifer was rare and costly, and several stories are told in the Talmud about the exorbitant price demanded for it (TJ, Pe'ah 1:1, 15c; Kid. 31a). Although it was impossible to prepare the ashes of the red heifer after the destruction of the Temple, its use did not cease with the destruction, since there was still a supply of the ashes. As late as the amoraic period, those who had become ritually unclean through contact with the dead still used to cleanse themselves with it (see Nid. 6b, Y. Gilat, Mishnato shel R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus (1968), 252; Neusner (1987), 146ff.; and Sussmann, 306–16).

Even after it ceased entirely, however, the rabbis still regarded its regulations as of importance in teaching a profound lesson. With its contradictory "regulations" rendering the unclean clean and the clean unclean, it was regarded as a classic example of a ḥukkah (i.e., a statute for which no rational explanation can be adduced, but which must be observed because it is divinely commanded). It is one of the laws about which "the evil inclination and the gentile nations" deride the Jews and weaken their religious loyalties (Num. R. 19:5–6). Even Solomon, the wisest of men, was baffled by it (Eccles. R. 7:23 no. 4). Similarly, although an aggadah relates that Rabban Joḥanan b. Zakkai once replied to a gentile that the sprinkling of the holy water of the heifer's ashes can be compared to exorcising a demon from a person (Num. R. 19:8), it goes on to tell that he nevertheless told his students that he was merely "putting him off with a straw," and that in truth the law of the red heifer should be understood as a ḥukkah which must not be questioned (ibid.). It is even stated that the reason was not revealed to Moses himself (Eccles. R. 8:1 no. 5). Several homiletical interpretations of the red heifer are given, one being that it was to atone for the sin of the golden calf, so that the mother – the red heifer – should purify the defilement caused by her offspring, the golden calf (PR 14:65a and see the whole chapter). Nevertheless, the rabbis of the talmudic period never really solved these problems (Urbach, see bibl.). The portion of Parah constitutes the reading of the third of the four special *Sabbaths , and one of the reasons given is that an unclean person could not celebrate the paschal sacrifices without first being purified by the consecrated water of the red heifer.

[Arie Strikovsky]


G.B. Gray, Numbers (ICC, 1903), 241–56; N.H. Snaith, Leviticus and Numbers (1967), 270–4. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary Numbers (1990), 438–43; S.D. Sperling, in: ABD I, 761–63; D. Wright, in: ABD III, 115–16; G. Anderson, in: ABD V, 870-86; A. Baumgarten, in: VT 43 (1993), 442–51; B. Levine, Numbers 120 (AB; 1993), 457–79; J. Jaech, "A Socio-Political Study of the Role of the Biblical Red Heifer in Tannaitic and Amoraic Literature" (unpublished rabbinic thesis, Hebrew Union College, 2003). IN THE TALMUD: E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal; Pirkei Emunot veDe'ot (1969), 333; S.H. Kook, in: Sinai, 30 (1952), 29–34. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Sussman, "Babylonian Sugiyot to the Orders of Zera'im and Tohorot" (Heb., Ph.D. diss., 1969), 306–16; J. Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Laws of Purities, vol. 9–10 (1974–77); idem, From Mishnah to Scripture (1984), 59–66; idem, The Mishnah Before 70 (1987), 143–68; idem, The Philosophical Mishnah, 3 (1989), 63–74; idem, Purity in Rabbinic Judaism (1994), 157–69.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.