Finding a red heifer is like finding a needle in a hay stack. But early this week some overly industrious Jew managed to do just that in the United States of America.
This finding is all the more intriguing considering that on the coming Sabbath (Shabbat) Jews will read in the synagogues the Torah portion that begins with one of the mysterious commandment of the Red Heifer: “Tell the Israelites to procure for you a red heifer that is free from every blemish and defect and on which no yoke has ever been laid…” (Num. 19:2ff).
The Red Heifer is an extremely rare creature. According to Jewish tradition, during the two thousand years from the time this commandment was given until the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century AD, only nine red cows that met the biblical criteria were ever found.
For a cow to be a Red Heifer it has to be without blemish, one that was never put to work and completely reddish. Jewish law requires keeping the young cow under strict care until it reaches three years old. During this time, leaning on the cow, riding it even once or even putting a piece of cloth on its back disqualifies it from becoming a Red Heifer.
Strict rules also apply to its color. Two single hairs of a color other than red automatically disqualify it from becoming a Red Heifer. A Red Heifer candidate that that was discovered in 2000 was disqualified after two black hairs were found on it.
Likewise, a cow that meets all other criteria, but is older than four is disqualified. The present calf has a long way until, if at all, it will become a real Red Heifer.
In biblical times, the Red Heifer was to be completely burnt by a priest outside the Temple. Interestingly enough, the Red Heifer was burnt on the Mount of Olives, where the Dominus Flevit [The Lord Cried] Church is located today.
After being burnt, the Red Heifer’s ashes were mixed with water called the “water of remission,” which was used to purify people, especially those defiled by touching dead animals. This most serious form of defilement required Jews to undergo a ceremonial cleansing with the ash of a Red Heifer before they could again enter the Temple courtyards. In other words, without the Red Heifer, Jewish worship on the Temple Mount is not possible.
The discovery of a red calf that could potentially become a Red Heifer excites many Jews who believe that Moses prepared the first Red Heifer and Messiah will prepare the last one.
The possibility of finding a real Red Heifer prompted the Temple Institute to make the logistic preparations needed for bringing the American calf to Israel and to train priests that will perform this sacred and rare sacrificial ceremony.
At least in theory, this calf could help Jews sufficiently purify themselves to engage in real Temple activities. For now, however, believers will have to chew their nails for at least two and a half years before it will be known whether or not this import is the Red Heifer.