How Now, Red Cow
Every year, on the Shabbat following Purim, a special reading from Numbers 19, is added to the regular Shabbat Torah reading. Known as Parashat Parah, the Torah reading concerns the special purification ceremony of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) one of the most intricate and mysterious laws found in the Torah.
The process of purification via the Parah Adumah is complex and difficult even for those who have spent years studying the Torah. A simple explanation is that a pure red heifer (cow) is sacrificed, and its ashes mixed with holy water, the mixture of which was then sprinkled on those who seek spiritual purification. Most famously, the ashes of the Parah Adumah “cleanse” a person from the ritual impurity of coming in contact with a dead body. The precise process is described in Numbers 19 and in Mishnah Parah.
For the Parah Adumah, however, any-old red cow just won’t do. The animal must be a cow that is preferably three or four years old (but older than two years) and has never been mounted by a bull. Additionally, it should never have been yoked, or done any physical labor like most other domestic animals normally do.
Physically, like all sacrifices, the red heifer must be blemish free, both internally and externally. The most critical factor, however, is the definition of “red.” In order to be considered an actual Red Heifer, the animal may not have more than two hairs of a different color on its entire body!
Finding the exact specimen was so difficult that the sages recorded only eight red heifers from the time of Moses to the end of the Second Temple: “Moses prepared the first, Ezra prepared the second,… Simon the Just and Yochanan the High Priest each prepared two, and El’y'ho’aynai ben Hakkoph and Cha’nam’ayl the Egyptian each prepared one” (Mishnah Parah 3:5).
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