Para Aduma – the Red Heifer



The actual burning of the red heifer needs to be done “outside the camp”. [21] When the red heifer was prepared in Jerusalem, it was slaughtered outside of the walls of the city, an area defined as "outside of the camp of Israel". [22] Despite being performed outside the city of Jerusalem, the ceremony must be done in sight of the Sanctuary. For, as the Torah says, [23] the blood must be sprinkled “toward the front of the Tent of Meeting,” or, in this case, the Sanctuary.

Therefore, there was a special place prepared for the burning of the red heifer on the Mount of Olives - the ‘Mount of Anointment’ - east of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, so that the kohen (priest) could see the entrance to the Sanctuary and sprinkle the blood in its direction. [24] For this reason, they the eastern wall of the Temple Mount was built lower in height than the other walls to enable the kohen to see the entrance to the Sanctuary. [25]

The kohen that was designated to perform the burning of the red heifer exited the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives by the eastern gate. A special ramp was prepared that connected the Holy Temple to the Mount of Olives for this occasion. The bridge was made in such a way that it contained cavities and arches - “arches upon arches”, so that in the event that there was a forgotten grave under the bridge, the people walking on it would not become impure, as the space of air between the arches blocks the impurity from affecting them. [26]



The first red heifer ritual was performed in the Sinai Desert in the time of Moshe. Elazar, the son of Aharon the kohen (priest), who was the deputy high priest, was appointed to slaughter and burn the red heifer. [27] However, when the red heifer is prepared throughout the following generations, opinions are divided whether it must be performed specifically by a Kohen Gadol (High Priest) or may also be performed by a regular kohen.[28]

It appears that, during the Second Temple, the red heifers were prepared by High Priests. [29]

The following actions in the preparation process must be performed by a kohen: Receiving the blood, sprinkling of the blood, the burning of the red heifer, and throwing the cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool into the fire.

Authorities are divided on whether it is a requirement for a kohen to be the one to slaughter the red heifer. [30] According to the majority of opinions, the leading of the red heifer to the site of its preparation does not have to be done specifically by a kohen.[31]

As with regard to the clothing that the kohen preparing the red heifer should wear, regardless of him being a Kohen Gadol (High Priest) or a regular kohen, he is to wear only the four standard garments of a regular kohen during this ritual. [32]

Before commencing the ritual, this kohen must sanctify his hands and feet by washing them. [33]



The kohen (priest) that led the red heifer would exit the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives along with an entourage of the elders of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish judicial high court. When the group arrived at the mountain, the sages would intentionally render the kohen ritually impure and instruct him to immerse in the mikveh (ritual purity bath) located on site, so that he would be of the status of someone that immersed on that day (Hebrew: tvul yom) when he prepared the red heifer.

A large pile of wood would be prepared in advance at this location. On this large pile, the red heifer was positioned with its head to the south and its face to the west, in the direction of the Sanctuary.

There is an allowance to add to the pile of firewood as much wood as desired, in order to increase the final amount of ashes.

The kohen stands in the east and faces the west. Standing in this position, he slaughters the red heifer with his right hand and collects some of its blood in his left hand. Then the kohen dips his right finger into the blood held in his left hand and sprinkles it in the direction of the entrance to the Sanctuary. He repeats this process seven times.

After the sprinkling process, the kohen wipes the remaining blood from his hands onto the body of the red heifer to ensure that all the remaining blood would burn, along with its body.

The kohen then descends from the pile, ignites the fire, and waits until the fire consumes a majority of the red heifer’s body. The red heifer’s body is to be burnt in its entirety, including its skin, without stripping or dissecting it at all.

Afterwards, the kohen takes cedar wood, hyssop, and wool dyed crimson, binds them together, and throws them into the fire, along with the burning red heifer.

The actions listed above must be done during the day and not at night. [34]

Thus the role of the kohen who burns the red heifer is completed. [35]



After the burning process is completed, the ashes of the red heifer and wood from the pile are beaten with sticks to turn it all into fine ashes. A sieve is used to sort out the parts that did not burn. [36] The ashes are gathered and are divided into three parts:

      1. One part is kept in the ‘cheil’ - the perimeter between the ‘soreg’ fence and the external wall surrounding the courtyards of the Holy Temple
      2. The second part is left on the Mountain of Anointment, for safekeeping in a sealed pit under the place where the red heifer was burned. [37]
      3. The third part was subdivided and distributed among the 24 priestly shifts, and kept in their location of residence in the Land of Israel. The kohanim (priests) use these ashes to purify those who reside in their vicinity from ritual impurity due to contact with a corpse. [38] According to this opinion, the People of Israel could undergo the purification process in their area of residence and then ascend to Jerusalem in purity.

Another opinion states that the third part of the ashes was distributed and kept in the 24 stations which were guarded by the kohanim and the Levites in the Holy Temple. A person who needed to undergo purification would go to one of these stations and the kohanim would purify him. [39] According to this opinion, the People of Israel would ascend to Jerusalem in advance to allow ample time to complete the purification prior to their entrance to the Holy Temple.



To purify those that came in contact with a human corpse, water must be drawn from a natural water spring, referred to in the verses on the Torah as “live water,” and placed in a vessel. Then a small portion of the red heifer ashes must be placed onto the spring water in the vessel. This action is called ‘kiddush’, or sanctification. And, thus, the water of the red heifer is ready to be used.

The impure person must take care not to become re-exposed to this impurity for seven consecutive days. On the third day of this count he comes to the purification point. A pure person dips a hyssop branch into this water and with it sprinkles a drop onto the body of the impure person. On the seventh day of the count this procedure is repeated. After which, the person immerses in a ‘mikveh’ - ritual bath, and becomes completely pure at nightfall. [40]



Those involved in preparing the red heifer, such as the one who prepares the ashes and the one who prepares the water for sprinkling, must purify themselves specially for this action, even if they were completely pure to begin with. Additionally, in the event that they touched a person or a vessel that weren’t purified specially for the red heifer ritual - it is considered that they became impure.

To illustrate this point, our Sages relay the story of a kohen by the name of Yochanan, the son of Godgedah, who had a practice to constantly maintain a stringent level of purity which qualified him, at all times, to partake of the offerings. Even so, he had to undergo a purification process in order to participate in the preparation of the red heifer. [41]

However, the Oral Torah law teaches that there is a certain lenience in regard to the level of purity. The red heifer may be prepared by one who is on the level of purity of a ‘tvul yom’, meaning, he immersed in a ‘mikveh’, ritual bath, on that day and the new day (starting from nightfall) has not yet begun.

However, the Seduccees, a sect of Judaism that disputed the legitimacy of the Oral Law, did not agree with this precept. In order to strengthen the adherence to Oral Law, the Sages instituted that the red heifer would be prepared specifically by a kohen who was on the level of purity of ‘tvul yom’.[42]

At the same time, the Sages also instituted more stringent practices pertaining to the purity level of those who were involved in preparing the red heifer.

These are the following:

Firstly, seven days prior to the burning of the red heifer, the kohen designated to burn it quarantines in a special room within the Holy Temple, the ‘Chamber of the Stone House’. It was called this because within this chamber the only vessels that were used were made of stone, as stone is not susceptible to contracting or transmitting impurity.

Second, during these days of isolation, the kohen that is appointed the job of the burning of the red heifer is purified with the the ashes of previously burnt red heifers, lest he had become impure before entering the Holy Temple compound by walking over an unmarked grave deep in the ground, called a “grave of the abyss.” [43]

It is forbidden to purify a person with the ashes of the red heifer on the Sabbath, therefore the kohen who would prepare the red heifer would go into quarantine on a Wednesday. This way his fourth day of isolation would fall on the Sabbath and the fourth day does not require the sprinkling of the ashes.  [43a]

Lastly, an additional stringency added was that those who purified the kohen who was to prepare the red heifer were children who were raised from birth in a constant state of purity. These children grew up in a compound protected from impurity - a courtyard dug into bedrock. This eliminated any concern that there may be a grave underneath. These children were brought to the Siloam wellspring (‘Shiloach’) while sitting upon a wide board attached to the back of a bull. The wide cavity of the ribs of the bull, together with the board on top, would block impurity from a forgotten grave from affecting the rider, in the case that they should ride over it. At the Siloam spring the children could dismount from the bulls, as it is not the practice to dig graves adjacent to springs. The children drew the water and brought it up to the Temple Mount, while riding on these bulls. There they could dismount and walk freely, as the entire complex of the Temple Mount is protected from impurity. [44] These children added the ashes of previous red heifers to the spring water and sprinkled it upon the kohen who was to prepare the next red heifer.