Hebrew In Israel | How Red Do I Need To Be? – Learn Torah

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Hebrew In Israel | How Red Do I Need To Be? – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

Numbers 19 discusses the subject of the “red heifer”, which was used to cleanse the people when coming in contact with the dead.  In this article I want to discuss the question of colour of the heifer, and what may or may not disqualify the animal from being used.

Red in the Ancient World

The Hebrew uses the word אֲדֻמָּה – Adumah which is the feminine adjectival form for this word (not to be confused with Adamah which is earth or soil).  The word is usually rendered as red, but we have to take into consideration at this point that the biblical word for red (that cannot be disputed) was ארגמן-Argaman (from Sanskrit Ragaman with a prostatic Aleph as a prefix).  Words based in the root אדם are used to describe items which are red, but in our case I think there are some points which indicate a different case.

The word Adom appears in several contexts which clearly indicate other colours than actual red:

  1. Skin or hair colour- Both Esau and David are described as אדמני Admoni which either is redhead, or ruddy skin tone.
  2. Proverbs 23:31 declares wine as red, however wine can also appear in different shades which can be pink and purple and even brown.
  3. Esau calls the dish Jacob makes red when it is a lentil dish which by most is an orange-reddish colour.
  4. Crimson is described as red (Isaiah 1:18), but historically we know it was orange and looked like fire (Antiquities of the Jews; Book 3, 183).  Work done by Dr. Zohar Amar of the Bar Illan University has confirmed that this was the colour (personal communication).
  5. In Kedari’s dictionary (Bar Illan 2007) we find an entry where he describes that Hertsberg (ZDPV 69,177, Leipzig) describes in Arabic brown houses [maybe hazelnut- Y.H.] are called “red” (Chamrah in Arabic) which are found to be sometimes a very red colour. In actual use I have heard Arabs describe ruddy colours in a spectrum of red all the way to ruddy brown.


What can be seen from all of the above is that “red” in many cases might not be the translation of Adom, and that many items which are not “red” as we call it today, are in fact red.  It seems to be that the colour in question here might be more of the brown-red variety.  Another point is that when we look at the cases we have of red heifers born the past couple of decades, we find that by most they have a brown-red shade to their skin/hair, and not red.

In a discussion I had back in 2001 with Rabbi Ariel of the Temple Institute, I was told that the words used in the Tanakh to describe colours are of a larger spectrum, and that we can find different colours under the same name.  This actually fits into the fact that Hebrew has less words, creating a reality where one word can be used for different things, allowing the word “Adom” to have more than one meaning.

Completely Red?

Another issue with the laws of the red heifer is how much red is needed, and what can disqualify the heifer.  In rabbinic sources, even two white hair or two black hairs can disqualify the heifer from being used.

ב,ה  היו בה שתי שערות שחורות או לבנות בתוך גומה אחת, פסולה; רבי יהודה אומר, אפילו בתוך כוס אחד.  היו בתוך שני כוסות, והן מוכיחות זו את זו–פסולה.  רבי עקיבה אומר, אפילו ארבע, ואפילו חמש, והן מפוזרות–יתלוש.  רבי אליעזר אומר, אפילו חמישים.  רבי יהושוע בן בתירה אומר, אפילו אחת בראשה, ואחת בזנבה–פסולה.  היו בה שתי שערות–עיקרן מאדים וראשן משחיר, עיקרן משחיר וראשן מאדים–הכול הולך אחר הנראה, דברי רבי מאיר; וחכמים אומרין, אחר העיקר.

“[If] it had two black or white hairs from one pore, it is invalid.  Rabbi Yehudah says:  even from one cup [a bump of flesh from which several hairs grow].  If they [the two hairs] are from two cups, and they prove one another [giving indication that they grew in tandem], it is invalid.  Rabbi Akiva says:  Even four or even five scattered [hairs], they should be plucked [and the cow is valid].”  Rabbi Eliezer says:  Even fifty.  Rabbi Yehoshua ben Beteira says:  Even one at its head and one at its tail invalidate it.  [If] it had two hairs whose roots are black and tips are red, [or] whose roots are red and tips are black, everything follows after the appearance [i.e. the tips], these are the words of Rabbi Meir; and the Sages say:  after the root.” (Mishnah Parah 2:5)

This interpretation of the text leads to a reality where most of the heifers are disqualified, limiting the number of cases where the animal is usable for the ritual.  In recent history several red heifers have been found, but eventually they were disqualified due to black and white hairs appearing.

A Different Reading

Though the above interpretation is the traditional understanding of the words, this interpretation depends on a very specific reading of the adjoined words in the verse.

Verse 19:2 states:

וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל

“Tell the people of Israel to bring you a young red female cow without fault or defect and which has never borne a yoke.”

The word in question is תמימה-Temimah which is an adverb indicating the unblemished state of the heifer.  The question is to what part of the statement does the word belong to.  It can be read as a second adjective to the word “red”, meaning it is completely red with no other colours such as white or black.  A different reading would qualify it as a second adjective and not a as an adjective to “red”, meaning it is a word describing a different state detached from the previous adjectival structure.

When looking at the use of ת.מ.מ in the language of Leviticus (P in the document system), it is used to indicate no blemishing which has to do with physical damage to the animal (Leviticus 22:17-25).  If this is the case, and Numbers is using the word in the same meaning, Numbers is not commanding that the heifer has to be completely red, but rather that the dominant colour is to be red.  This drastically changes the meaning, and allows the possibility of more heifers being used for the ritual.


The linguistic search of the redness of the heifer has led to the understanding that Adom is associated with many colours in a larger spectrum, allowing a much browner shade of red, and not the red we would use today.  A closer reading of the text has also opened the possibility of expanding the number of heifers which can be used, removing the Rabbinic prohibition of other coloured hairs on the animal, something which is natural and happens with most animals.


Originally Published: April 2, 2016

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