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Written by Stephen Langfur
 
  
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Red Heifer


The Red Heifer

This term designates a cow with a reddish coat. As ordained in Numbers 19, its ashes  (mixed with spring water, cedar wood, crimson stuff and hyssop) provided ritual purity to Jews who had entered a cemetery or otherwise made contact with corpses. (It was a religious duty to wash, attend and bury the dead, but the act rendered one impure for visiting the Temple.) Purification took a week. A priest would sprinkle you with the mixture on the third and seventh days. Then you would take a ritual bath and be pure.

The red heifer had to be without defect (Numbers 19:2). The Rabbis were quite specific about features that could disqualify it. According to Tractate Parah ("Cow") of the Mishnah, no more than nine were sacrificed from the time of Moses till the Temple's destruction in 70 AD. Today none exists, and attempts to breed it have failed. All Jews who have been in some kind of contact with a cemetery or corpse are ineligible, therefore, to enter the precinct of the Temple. Since the Temple precinct, according to a ruling by Maimonides, retained its holiness after the destruction, the ineligibility applies today.

There is another restriction as well. Only the High Priest, if there were one, would be allowed to enter the area of the Holy of Holies. But no one is sure where it was.

Thus the non-existence of a perfect red heifer and our archaeological ignorance contribute to the peace of the sacred precinct.

That said, as of July 2014 there is a movement among a minority of orthodox Jews to prepare for the day of the temple's rebuilding. They do enter the Haram, but most remain on the lower platform, apparently in the belief that the holy place would have been on the upper. Their entry has become a source of friction with the Muslims, who see it as the harbinger of an Israeli  takeover.