White button-down shirts aren’t something that you normally see at Israeli dairy and beef farms. But for the past few years, a number of rabbis have rolled up their tzitzit and stepped into rubber boots in a quest to create the ideal farm for a small herd of holy red heifers, called in Hebrew parah adumah.
Red heifers were slaughtered as sacrifices in the Temple and the ashes were used in purification rituals, especially for people who had become impure through contact with dead bodies.
The Temple Institute is a 28-year-old organization that has built more than 70 artifacts that can be used when a Third Temple is built. Its latest project is to import frozen embryos from Red Angus cattle in the United States to create a herd of kosher red heifers in Israel.
“People have this understanding that the red heifer is something otherworldly or it is really rare,” explained Rabbi Chaim Richman, the international director and co-founder of the Temple Institute. “But really there are hundreds or even thousands of red-colored cattle of different species that would qualify.”
What has made a modern-day red heifer an impossibility thus far lies in this description in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 19: “This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.”
Cows that are raised on commercial dairy farms are subjected to all sorts of blemish-causing conditions, including ears pierced with a numbered tag, cuts or bruises from roughhousing with other cows or contact with broken fences, and ulcers from ingesting metal accidentally mixed into cheap cattle feed. Even a vaccination could count as a blemish. Additionally, cows on commercial farms are used for work, which that is forbidden according to the red heifer criteria.
“Ultimately, in order for there to be a kosher red heifer, it must be arranged from birth,” explained Richman. “The animal must be supervised, watched, and cared for.”
The Temple Mount is in the process of importing frozen embryos from Red Angus cows in the United States – deemed most likely to create progeny that are completely red – in order to create the first herd of red heifers for ritual use in Israel. It is called a “red heifer” because the cow must be female, but it can never have given birth.
In order to create an environment that will sufficiently protect the cows and safeguard their ritually kosher status, Richman and his supporters toured a number of farms in Israel, ironing out the details of the layout and infrastructure to minimize the possibility of harm.
The project isn’t cheap. The Temple Institute recently launched an Indiegogo fundraising campaign to raise more than $125,000 in donations. Each frozen embryo costs approximately NIS 3,000 ($800). Thus far, implanting embryos in cows in Israel has had about a 30 percent success rate. The Agriculture Ministry does not allow the importation of live cattle due to the threat of cattle-borne diseases such as hoof and mouth or mad cow disease, so any farmer who wants to raise a breed of cow not available in Israel must use frozen embryos.
Richman said that the organization’s focus on building ritual objects ready for use in the Third Temple does not have a messianic agenda and does not aim to hasten an eschatological end of days. Richman points out that one-third of the 613 commandments of Judaism are related to the Temple.
“Our motivation for doing this is the same motivation for keeping Shabbat, which is because God commanded us to do it,” he said. “The idea is to do our best to fulfill the mandate of the Jewish people.”
More than one million people have visited the Temple Institute’s exhibition of the 70 ritual objects it has built according to specifications in the Torah. Richman said these objects, including the future red heifer, are not models but rather are fully kosher for use in the Third Temple.
“Jews don’t wait on the eve of the Sukkot holiday for a sukka [booth] to come down to them,” he said.
The Temple Institute’s most well-known object is a candelabra, or menorah, that stands in a plaza of the Old City near the Western Wall.
But the Temple Institute is note alone in planning for a red heifer. There are reports of red heifers all the time. The latest big splash was in the Jewish community in Lakewood, New Jersey. According to articles in the ultra-Orthodox press and Jewish blogs, the farmer, Herbert Celler, is the son of Holocaust survivors. Richman said that the fact that this story spread like wildfire attests to the Jewish community’s yearning for a connection with this concept.
“The red heifer is the exclusive antidote to the issue of tumat met, which is classically translated as impurity caused by exposure to a dead body,” said Richman. “But there’s also a holistic concept that has to do with spiritual imbalance, a disconnect from the reality of presence of God. The antidote is this process of connection through a red heifer.”
The Temple Institute has already had a small success, with the birth of a few completely red cows from the frozen embryos. There was only one problem: they weren’t red heifers. They were red bulls.