How red do I need to be?

chukat, Chuqat, parah, red cow, red heifer, the red cow, this weeks torah portion, Torah Portion

How red do I need to be?

Yoel Halevi No Comments


The Red Heifer ritual is a cornerstone of Jewish religious tradition, meticulously outlined in the Hebrew Bible within Numbers 19:1-22. This ancient ritual involves the sacrifice of a red heifer—a young, unblemished female cow—and the utilization of its ashes in a purification process. Beyond its practical applications, the ritual holds profound symbolic and theological significance within Jewish thought, reflecting principles of purity, atonement, and anticipation of redemption.

Numbers 19

The Red Heifer ritual is a significant aspect of Jewish religious tradition, outlined in the Hebrew Bible (Numbers 19:1-22). It involves the sacrifice of a red heifer (a young, female cow that is entirely red and without blemish) and the use of its ashes in a purification process. Here’s a detailed description of the ritual:

1. Selection of the Red Heifer: The Torah specifies that the red heifer must be completely red, without any other color, and it must not have any blemishes. This stringent requirement makes finding a suitable candidate extremely rare.

2. Preparation and Sacrifice: The red heifer is slaughtered outside the camp, and its blood is collected and sprinkled by a priest seven times in the direction of the Tabernacle or Temple.

3. Burning and Collection of Ashes: The entire body of the red heifer, along with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, is burned to ashes. The ashes are then collected and stored in a ritually clean place.

4. Purification Process: The ashes of the red heifer are mixed with water. This mixture is used in the purification of individuals who have become ritually impure through contact with a dead body. The water containing the ashes is sprinkled on the impure person on the third and seventh days after their contact with death.

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 on the root אדם are used to describe red items, but in our case, I think some points indicate a different case.

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

  1. Skin or hair colour- Both Esau and David are described as אדמני admoni which either is a 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 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 that are not “red” as we call it today, are 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 in 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 fits into the fact that Hebrew has fewer 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 hairs 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 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.

Rabbinic Extras 

The rabbinic discussions surrounding the Red Heifer ritual, including the practice of isolating children and the disputes with the Sadducees, are primarily found in rabbinic literature, particularly in the Mishnah and Talmud, as well as in later rabbinic commentaries. Here’s an overview, with sources:

Isolation of Children: One aspect of the Red Heifer ritual discussed in rabbinic literature is the practice of isolating children who participated in the preparation of the Red Heifer. According to the Mishnah in Tractate Parah 3:2, children who were involved in burning the Red Heifer and collecting its ashes were required to be isolated for seven days and undergo purification. This practice aimed to prevent any accidental defilement of the children during the ritual process.

Dispute with the Sadducees: The Sadducees were a Jewish sect during the Second Temple period who held different interpretations of Jewish law from the Pharisees . One area of disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, concerned the interpretation and application of purity laws, including those related to the Red Heifer ritual. In the the Mishnah (Parah 3:7) we are given a glimpse of the Sadducee approach to purity laws. The Sadducees, much like the Qumran scrolls, held a very strict adherence to these laws and demanded that the person(s) dealing with the ritual and the ashes be compactly pure. The Pharisees on the other hand were more lenient and allowed a person who washed but has not had the sunset time requirement pass for the person to be clean (Lev 27:7) and creating a new category of law called “tvul yom” (lit. “one who has bathed in the day”). The Talmud, Tractate Yoma 19b-21b records a debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees regarding the Red Heifer ritual. The Sadducees challenged the Pharisaic interpretation of the Red Heifer ritual, arguing that only the ashes of the Red Heifer itself were necessary for purification, while the Pharisees maintained that additional elements, such as the cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet, were also essential. The Pharisaic view eventually prevailed, becoming the accepted interpretation within Rabbinic Judaism. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, also mentions the disagreement between the  Pharisees and the Sadducees regarding the Red Heifer ritual in his work “Jewish Antiquities” (Book 4, Chapter 4, Section 4). Later rabbinic commentaries, such as those found in the medieval legal codes like the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch, discuss the Pharisaic interpretation of the Red Heifer ritual and its significance within Jewish law.

Messianic Ideas 

In Jewish tradition, there is a belief that the appearance of a red heifer meeting the specific requirements outlined in the Torah will be associated with the Messianic era. While the precise details and interpretations vary among different Jewish sources, the idea generally centers around the role of the red heifer in the purification process necessary for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah. Here’s an overview of this belief with references to rabbinic sources:

Talmudic Sources: The Talmud, particularly in Tractate Yoma 39a, discusses the expectation of the appearance of the red heifer in connection with the Messianic era. It is mentioned that the ashes of the red heifer will be necessary for the purification of the priests and the vessels used in Temple worship during the time of the Messiah.

Midrashic Literature: Various midrashic texts, such as Midrash Rabba (Numbers Rabba 19:8), also touch upon the role of the red heifer in the Messianic context. They often emphasize the symbolic significance of the red heifer as a means of atonement and purification, anticipating its role in the restoration of the Temple and the renewal of Jewish worship in the Messianic age.

Maimonides (Rambam): In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides discusses the significance of the red heifer about the Messianic era. He states in Hilchot Parah Adumah (Laws of the Red Heifer) 3:4 that the tenth red heifer will be prepared by the Messiah himself. Maimonides suggests that the appearance of the red heifer and its use in purification rituals will be a sign of the Messianic age.


In summary, the Red Heifer ritual outlined in Numbers 19 holds significant importance within Jewish religious tradition, serving as a purification process for individuals who have come into contact with death. The ritual involves stringent requirements for the selection, preparation, sacrifice, and utilization of the red heifer’s ashes. The discussion surrounding the color and qualification of the heifer, as well as the rabbinic interpretations and disputes, enriches our understanding of the ritual’s complexities.

The examination of the term “Adumah” and its contextual usage in ancient texts reveals a broader spectrum of color than the modern notion of red, suggesting a nuanced understanding of the heifer’s hue. Furthermore, rabbinic discussions shed light on the meticulous criteria for disqualification, including the presence of white or black hairs, which significantly limit the number of eligible candidates for the ritual. Alternative readings of key verses, such as the interpretation of “Temimah” in Numbers 19:2, offer insights into differing perspectives on the ritual’s requirements, potentially broadening the pool of acceptable candidates. Additionally, the historical dispute with the Sadducees underscores the diverse interpretations of Jewish law during the Second Temple period. Moreover, the belief in the Messianic significance of the red heifer is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, with expectations of its appearance being intertwined with the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of Temple worship. Rabbinic sources and commentaries provide further elaboration on the role of the red heifer in the Messianic era, emphasizing its symbolic importance in atonement and purification rituals.


Baruch A. Levine. “Numbers 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary” (Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale, 2008. 

Milgrom, Jacob, The JPS Torah Commentary: NumbersPhiladelphia, 2003. 

  • “The Red Heifer: Its Ashes, Its Purification, and Its Significance”, in the Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Summer, 1991), pp. 213-227.

Regev, Eyal, The Sadducees and their Halakhah, Jerusalem, 2005.

Smith, Mark S. “The Red Heifer Ritual: Its Prehistory and Afterlife.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 120, no. 4, 2001, pp. 601-621.

Stökl, Jonathan. “Purity and Pollution in the Red Heifer Ritual: An Intertextual Analysis of Numbers 19:1–22.” Vetus Testamentum, vol. 67, no. 2, 2017, pp. 264-282.

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