The Red Heifer
What is the significance of the red heifer? How was it different from all the other sacrifices? What role does it play in Messianic Times and the Third Temple?
As rare as it may be, the birth of a red heifer is a natural event, not a metaphysical one. There is no source in Jewish tradition that sees the birth of a red heifer as a sign of the arrival of the Mashiach.
According to the Torah, someone who comes into contact with a dead body becomes halachically “impure”. The Torah describes a very specific process that enables a person to purify himself. This process involves slaughtering a heifer that is completely red, burning it and mixing its ashes with water. Some of this “purifying water” is sprinkled on the impure person twice, over a seven-day period.
This had great practical importance during Temple times, because all participants in the Temple service needed to be ritually pure, and the entire nation needed to purify themselves for the Passover, Shavuot, and Succot festivals. It will have practical significance again when the Temple is rebuilt.
Maimonides writes that from the time of Moses until the destruction of the Second Temple, only nine red heifers have been used to prepare the “purifying waters”. The tenth red heifer, says Maimonides, will be prepared by the Mashiach.
This can easily be misunderstood. It does not mean that there existed only nine red heifers in history, and that the tenth and last one to be born will be used by the Mashiach. It simply means that the ashes from each heifer lasted a long time, and there was never a need to prepare more than nine. The tenth red heifer process will take place in the times of the Mashiach.
Some years ago, a red heifer born in Israel caused a flurry of interest and speculation about its portending the coming of Mashiach. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a very great halachic authority of the time, was not overly-impressed. He reasoned, “One of the requirements of the red heifer is that it be at least two years old. What if the Mashiach were to come tomorrow? Would we have to wait two years in order to become pure? No, rather, when Mashiach comes, they’ll find a red heifer that’s two-years old!”
The reason underlying the commandment of the red heifer is considered the deepest secret in the Torah. Even King Solomon, the wisest scholar who ever lived, was unable to fathom the full depth of its meaning. According to the Midrash its meaning will be revealed in the era of the Mashiach.
- Bamidbar (Numbers) ch. 19
- Mishna Parah 3:5
- Rambam, ibid. 3:4
- Bamidbar Rabbah 19:4