Red-Heifer

A fully red cow on a small farm outside Lakewood, New Jersey is attracting worldwide attention in orthodox Jewish circles and various movements with a Messianic or “End of Days” bent. Let me explain why.

In the Biblical Book of Numbers (19:2-13) it stipulates that the only way to purify oneself after contact with the dead is to be sprinkled with water that is a mixture of hyssop, cedar-wood, scarlet and the ashes of a red heifer or cow – in Hebrew, “Parah Adumah” – sacrificed on the altar of the Holy Tabernacle. Put differently, according to Biblical law, to overcome the impurity of death, one needs a kosher red heifer for a sacrifice in the Temple. For a red cow to be “kosher” it must be totally red. A mere two black or white hairs, in close proximity to each other, disqualifies it. After the Biblical Exodus, the Tabernacle that Moses built served the Israelites for 40 years in the Sinai desert. Then there were two Temples that stood in Jerusalem for about a thousand years, from the 10th century BCE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Since then, there has been no Temple and, as far as we know, no kosher red cow – until now.

Many believe that kosher red cows will once again appear when the Temple in Jerusalem – the House of God – is about to be rebuilt. The ingathering of the Jewish people and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 has been seen by believers as signs of the impending arrival of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple and the inauguration of the “Kingdom of God” – a qualitatively new phase in human history. For believers, the sudden appearance of a red heifer could be interpreted as a sign of the impending Messianic age.

And now it seems that such a red heifer – two years old and unblemished – has appeared in Howell, New Jersey. The red cow was born to two black bovines on the farm of Herb Celler, the son of Auschwitz survivors. Rabbis are presently arriving from various locations around the world and, so far, the cow has passed the kosher test with flying colors – so to speak. Mr. Celler said he was offered one million dollars for the cow. He turned down the offer, however, and plans to send the red heifer as a gift to Israel.

But why a red heifer? It is said that this is the only mystery that stumped even King Solomon. I think my daughter Ziva has a plausible explanation. In Rabbinic tradition, the ashes of the red heifer are also seen as an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Meaning, the Bible says that after the Exodus some Israelites sinned by worshipping a golden calf. The sacrifice of the red heifer, therefore, was a way of saying sorry to God. We usually think of the Golden Calf as yellow, but Ziva points out that copper is often mixed with gold to strengthen it, and that in ancient days such mixtures were called “red gold”. In other words, the red heifer may be an atonement for the sin of the Red-Gold Calf.

Depending on where you stand on this issue, the arrival of the cow in Jerusalem could be bad news or good news. On the one hand — coming at a time of genocidal nuclear threats against Israel from Iran – the cow could be seen as a sign of Apocalyptic times. On the other hand, it could also be seen as a sign of the imminent arrival of the Messiah whose task it is to defeat the forces of evil and inaugurate an era of peace.