The Bible Says What? ‘Speak to the people of Israel so they bring you a red heifer’

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

The Bible Says What? ‘Speak to the people of Israel so they bring you a red heifer’

 Mark Goldsmith takes a controversial passage from the Torah and applies a progressive response

In the middle of the Book of Numbers (Chapter 19), towards the end of instructions for the priests, there is a strange instruction.

A red heifer, to be defined later in the Mishnah Parah as a cow with no more than two hairs which are not red, is to be slaughtered and the ashes of its body used to make a solution which will be sprinkled on those who have had contact with a dead body to purify them.

Most synagogues read the instruction from the Torah on the Shabbat before the month that contains the festival of Pesach.

Rabbinic tradition considers the red heifer ritual to be a chok, that is a Jewish law that does not have rational explanation.

It is read before Pesach so that, were the Temple to be rebuilt, we would know how to make ourselves ritually pure in order to eat the Passover sacrifice.

Why then read it today?

The red heifer law says that there is such a thing as ritual purity, there is such a thing as being in the right state to do something special or holy.

When we leave a cemetery, most Jews will briefly wash their hands, not because of hygiene but rather to say that they have moved from accompanying the dead to returning to everyday life.

Many Jews ritually rewash their hands before eating challah on Shabbat or before the Seder meal. We share the symbol of ritual washing with Muslims, Hindus and many other religious cultures.

It is physical gesture that helps us to move from the everyday into the special or from the special back to the everyday.

Red heifers, however, are safe these days.

  •  Mark Goldsmith is rabbinic partner at North Western Reform Synagogue (Alyth)
Support your Jewish community. Support your Jewish News

Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.

Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.

For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.

Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.

You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.

100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...


Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.


There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.


In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.


Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish Newsalso produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.

Easy access

In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.

Voice of our community to wider society

The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.

We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.

read more: