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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The Red Heifer (Hebrew, parah adumah), was the cow whose ashes were used in the purification rites for one who had been contaminated through having come into contact with a corpse.
As described in the book of Numbers (19:1-22), the cow had to be slaughtered outside the Israelite camp and its blood sprinkled in the direction of the holy of holies in the Tabernacle (in Temple times, the holy of holies in the Temple). The cow was then burned whole together with cedar wood, a crimson thread, and hyssop. The ashes were mixed in a vessel containing spring water.
The person contaminated was sprinkled on the third and seventh day of his defilement and he was then allowed to enter the sanctuary. This rite was followed in the Temple.
The Talmud states that the red heifer was a rarity since it had to be completely red. But Milgrom has suggested that the word adumah, translated as ‘red,’ really means ‘brown’ and the rarity consisted in it having to be completely brown without any white or black streaks or spots.
There is some evidence that ashes of a parah adumah were preserved for centuries after the destruction of the Temple. These ashes are no longer available and since, according to Maimonides, the site of the Temple still enjoys its sanctity and since everyone has come into contact with a corpse or with one who has, Orthodox Jews, nowadays, do not enter the Temple site and a notice appears at the entrance to warn them off.
Defiling the Pure
The great paradox of the whole rite is that the priests who performed the purification became themselves defiled. This mystery, that the parah adumah purified the defiled and yet defiled the pure was, for the Rabbis, the supreme example of the unfathomable in connection with some of the divine commands, which the devout were obliged to accept unquestioningly.
Even the wise King Solomon, say the Rabbis, was unable to explain the rite. Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai is reported as saying, when a heathen accused the Jews of practicing sorcery in observing this rite:
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