Every year, on the first or second 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. Parashat Parah will be read this Shabbat.

The process of purification via the Parah Adumah is complex and difficult to understand 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 are mixed with holy water. The mixture is 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.

Since Jews would be required to come to the Temple for Passover to offer their paschal offerings in just a few weeks, this Torah portion is reviewed at this particular point. Only those cleansed of ritual impurity could enter the precincts of the Temple and offer their paschal sacrifices. While some forms of spiritual impurity can be cleansed with water, and others by immersion in a mikveh, ritual pool, coming in contact with human remains requires seven days of purification and sprinkling with the water of the ashes of the Red Heifer.

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, at least, older than two years), and has never been mounted by a bull. Additionally, it should never have been yoked or have been engaged in 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 period: “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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