Jewish Rituals, Sacrifices and the Red Heifer

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Noah's sacrifice

Paul Mendes-Flohr wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: As symbolic acts meant to endow life with holiness, Jewish rituals are generally derived from biblical commandments determining a person's relationship to the divine. This relationship is most often expressed ritually and ranges from the donning of tefillin to the manner of washing one's hands before eating, from the symbolic gestures and prayers with which one greets the Sabbath to the Habdalah (separation) ceremony at the end that marks the division between the day of rest and the remainder of the week. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

Jewish ritual life embraces both the home and the synagogue, where the rituals are woven into the liturgy, and virtually all festivals are celebrated in both through prescribed rituals and prayers. This is especially true of the three "pilgrimages" specified in the book of Deuteronomy (16:16): "Three times a year — on the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover], on the Feast of Weeks [Shabuoth], and on the Feast of Booths [Sukkoth] — all your males shall appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose." The place of God's choice was the Jerusalem Temple, but with its destruction the pilgrimages came to be enacted symbolically through rituals. Some Jewish communities make pilgrimages to the graves of saintly rabbis.

In Judaism births, marriages, and deaths are noted with prescribed liturgies and rituals. All of these are rich in symbols. Davening is the traditional practice of rocking back and forth while praying. The swaying and chanting performed by many conservative Jewish men when they pray is not all that different from what Muslims do when they recite passages from the Koran and shaman do before they go into a trances.

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research ; Jewish Museum London ; Jewish History: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; ; Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish

Sacrifices in Judaism

Regarding Jewish beliefs around sacrificing.... the Jews do not believe in transubstantiation; ie., their sins being “transferred” to something else. Being “freed from sin” involved asking forgiveness 3 times from the person to whom you trespassed or sinned against (person to person or person to self sin), and if forgiveness was not granted, you ask it from G-d directly, who in all His Mercy, grants it every time. That’s the nutshell. A sacrifice for some things may be advised, but there was no understanding or fear that G-d would not forgive unless you gave him something- He is G-d Almighty-- in need of nothing petty or material. The sacrifices were never understood as a way to get into heaven (which of course, would make the “Jesus as the perfect sacrifice to atone for all sins, so you can go to heaven” argument very, very unnecessary and dare I say reckless from a Jewish perspective). Jews always have understood that they will be returned to heaven, or their spiritual state within G-d’s Majestic Kingdom. [Source: Jennifer Kapel]

Regarding offering “an unblemished life,” and an animal not being capable of sin (already covered why the current rendering online is not as accurate as I see you’re trying for).... an animal being considered ritually clean, or unblemished, meant that the animal had no visible defect, and is in good health. Psychology or emotional capability as far as being sin-free has never been a part of this.

An aside, ritual purity has nothing to do with being “sinless” as sin is understood in the western Christian model. Ritual impurity is a temporary state, which ONLY meant you could not bring a sacrifice into the temple, which you noted was not a frequent occurrence; outright, if the people were going to the temple, many people would do a ritual purification that largely involves bathing oneself in a live body of water and possibly saying a blessing.

Ancient Jewish Animal Sacrifices

high priest offering the sacrifice of a goat

Animal sacrifices were common occurrences among the ancient Israelites. The book of Leviticus describes how they were to be done and the book of Numbers lists off the animals slaughtered at the dedication of a temple (36 oxen, 144 sheep and lambs, and 72 goats and kids over a 12 day period). Some 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were sacrificed at the dedication of Solomon's temple.

During the three major festivals of the year — Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth — when Jews were obligated to make visits to The Temple to make animal sacrifices as many as 250,000 visitors poured into the city. A lamb was sacrificed for Passover. A bull was sacrificed for Yom Kippur. Two doves were sacrificed to celebrate a birth and circumcision.

Traditionally, the animal’s neck was cut at a special altar and the gushing blood was collected in a basin and then sprinkled or poured out on or near the altar. Part s of the animals were immolated for God. The rest was eaten and shared by the pilgrims. For some people meat from the sacrificed animals was the only meat they ate the entire year.

Animal sacrifices were a way that Jews purified themselves, cleansed themselves of their sins and sealed their covenant with God. Eating the animal was regarded as symbol of the union of the people making a covenant. The historian W. Robert Smith observed in Biblical times, "people could never eat beef or mutton except as a religious act."

Jewish sacrifices involved offering an unblemished life and were intended to remove defilement and enable man to get closer to God. Among the problems with this set of beliefs is the fact that animals are unblemished because they incapable of sin, they did not submit willingly and were not on a human level. Christians would later argue that Christ’s death was a true sacrifice.

Rabbis reportedly gave up the practice of sacrificing animals after the destruction of Jewish temple in A.D. 70.

Life at Jewish Temple in Ancient Times

During the pilgrimage season at The Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times tens of thousands of thousands of visitors visited the Temple. Around the entrance were baths for ritual purification, small shops and vendors who sold animals for sacrifices. The moneychangers outside the Temple, whose tables were overturned by Jesus, exchanged the foreign currency of pilgrims for local silver shekels.

20120504-Solomon TempleBrazen_Sea_of_soloman_From_Jewish_Encyclopedia.jpg
Brazen Sea of Solomon Temple
Some historians have speculated that this area was like Speakers Corner in London, a place where crazies and wannabe Messiahs could stand on the equivalent of a soap box and rant and rave. The pilgrims often camped out in the hills around the temple. Festivals were regarded as festive occasions and no doubt people partied and sang and drank heavily. Money spent by pilgrims, believers and visitors supported a large economy.

Rituals and animal sacrifices at the Temple were performed by priestly class that purified themselves with ashes of a red heifer. The high preist was a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron. Jewish men, Jewish women and Gentiles were all allow to enter the Temple but each group was segregated to a specific area. Roman soldiers had a post set up to maintain order.

The historian Paul Johnson wrote: “The place was as vast as a small city. There were literally thousands of priests, attendants, temple soldiers and minions. Dignity was quite lost amid the smoke of the pyres, the bellows of terrified beasts, the sluices of blood, the abattoir stench, the unconcealed and unconcealable machinery of tribal religion.”

Early Jews were required to take ritual baths before they entered The Temple in Jerusalem. The homes of the wealthy had their own ritual baths. Incense was commonly burned at the Temple. The smoke was considered symbolic of prayer. The word scapegoat come from the Jews. During the ancient Israeli Day of Atonement the High Priest took the sins of his the people and cast them on a goat, which was then allowed to escape.


Yemenite Jew with shofar (Sabbath Horn)
The shofar is the horn of a ram, and is used to mark major religious occasions in Judaism. Leo. Rosten wrote in “The Joys of Yiddish”: A shofar is an instrument made from the horn of a ram or other kosher animal. It was used in ancient Israel to announce the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) and call people together. It was also blown on Rosh Hashanah, marking the beginning of the New Year, signifying both need to wake up to the call to repentance, and in connection with the portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 22) in which Abraham sacrifices a ram in place of his son, Isaac. Sources: Rabbi Scheinerman's homepage; Rosten, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. NY: Pocket Books, 1991, Jewish Virtual Library =|=]

“Today, the shofar is featured most prominently in the Rosh Hashanah morning services. It is considered a commandment to hear the shofar blown. There is a great deal of symbolism tied in with the legal requirements for what constitutes a proper shofar. The shofar of Rosh Hashanah, whose purpose it is to rouse the Divine in the listener, may not be constructed of an artificial instrument. It must be an instrument in its natural form and naturally hollow, through whom sound is produced by human breath, which God breathes into human beings. This pure, and natural sound, symbolizes the lives it calls Jews to lead. What is more, the most desirable shofar is the bent horn of a ram. The ram reminds one of Abraham's willing sacrifice of that which was most precious to him. The curve in the horn mirrors the contrition of the one who repents.” =|=

In the Talmud, we read: Rabbi Abbahu said: “Why do we sound the shofar? Because the Holy One, blessed be God, said: Blow me a ram's horn that I may remember to your credit the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and I shall account it to you as a binding of yourselves before Me. The Torah tells us: Abraham look up and behold, he saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns [Genesis 22:13]. This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be God, showed our ancestor Abraham the ram tearing himself free from one thicket and becoming entangled in another. Said the Holy One, blessed be God, to Abraham: Thus are your children destined to be caught in iniquities and entangled in misfortunes, but in the end they will be redeemed by the horns of a ram. Therefore the prophet Zechariah said of the time of redemption: And the Lord shall be seen over them, and his arrow shall go forth like the lightning; and the Lord God shall blow the shofar, and shall move in stormy winds of the south [Zechariah 9:14]. [Rosh Hashanah 16a] =|=

According to Leo Rosten, “The bend in the shofar is supposed to represent how a human heart, in true repentance, bends before the Lord. The ram's horn serves to remind the pious how Abraham, offering his son Isaac in sacrifice, was reprieved when God decided that Abraham could sacrifice a ram instead. The man who blows the shofar is required to be of blameless character and conspicuous devotion; he must blow blasts of different timbre, some deep, some high, some quavering.” =|=

Red Heifer and the Temple

Rambam portal
“Without the Temple there is no way to fulfill many of the religious obligations such as ritual sacrifices, that the Torah requires. In Orthodox theology, that means that all Jews are stuck in a state of impurity, and are therefore unable to be in the presence of God.

According to laws set forth by Moses, God decreed that men who come in contact with the dead must be purified with the ashes of a red heifer, butchered in her third year. Ritual purification with these ashes was a requirement for anyone entering the Temple of Jerusalem. According to the Bible anyone who fails to be purified “shall be cut from among the congregation, because he hath defiles the sanctuary of the Lord.” [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, July 20, 1998]

Accord to Jewish law all Jews are impure through direct or indirect contact with the dead. Simply walking on the ground can cause indirect contact with the dead. Many Orthodox Jews believe that the only way they can be pure again is to be sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer. The commands involving the red heifer are some of the mysterious passages in the Bible. Even Solomon, who was said to understand the meaning of all things, was stumped by God’s choice of a red heifer for such as an important purpose.

Only nine cows in all Jewish history have met the standards to be red heifer. None have qualified for around 2000 years. The last batch of ashes ran out around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. The absence of ashes has been one of the obstacles to the reconstruction of Temple.

The slaughter of the red heifer has to be done by a ritually pure priest who has never been in contact with a dead body, or has been purified with ashes of a red heifer. The carcass is burned with cedar wood, kyssop and scarlet wool. The ashes of a red heifer are mixed with water taken from the pool of Shilom and applied to anyone wishing to be purified.

In Numbers 19, the Lord commanded Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel that they bring there a red heifer without a spot, wherein is no blemish, and which never came a yoke.” This has been interpreted as meaning that for a cow to qualify as a red heifer it must be immaculately red, a virgin and never used for any kind of work. A single blemish or more than one white hair technically disqualifies her.

Red Heifer and the Coming of the Messiah and Jesus

Inside the Clean Place for the Red Heifer
Some Jews believe that the arrival of a red heifer will herald the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple. The reasoning for this is that for Jews to rebuild the Temple they need to be purified with the ashes of the red heifer. Some Christian believe that the red heifer is the key to the second coming of Jesus. The reasoning for this is that the prophets predicted that before Jesus returns the Jews will rebuild their Temple and for that happen they need a red heifer.

A cow name Melody was born on a fam in northern Israel in 1996. Many Jews thought that she met the requirements for the red heifer. Some Jews heralded her as a sign from God that the Messiah would be coming soon. A member of the Temple Mount Faithful told the New York Times, “I see this cow as a sign from the heavens...for 200 years the Jewish people didn’t know what a red cow was, and suddenly she is born, right in our backyard, so I see it as a sign, a flash of light, that we’ve come close to redemption.”

Some Muslims and secular Jews worried that Jewish extremists would try to destroy the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount to clear the way for the construction of the third Jewish temple which is supposed to take place when the second messiah comes.

In the end Melody didn’t meet the standards. She grew a white tail and had white on her udder, white whiskers on her snout, and eyelashes that were white on one end and red on the other. Many people who saw her said at best she was auburn, and looked more brown than red. Many were happy by this development. A columnist in the Israeli newspaper Haarz wrote, “The potential harm from this heifer is far greater than the destructive properties of regular terrorist bombs.”

Clyde Lott, a Mississippi cattle rancher and Pentecostal preacher, has joined forces with the Jerusalem -based rabbi Haim Richman to breed a true red heifer. Lott has bred Red Angus with only a few blemishes and white hairs using artificial insemination and the latest animal husbandry technology on a 3,000-acre ranch in Nebraska. His aim is not only to produce a red heifer but an entire herd of them. Promising cows are sent to Israel because the red heifer has to be born in Israel.

Lott told the New Yorker, “In God’s timing we know that all Bible Prophecy will be fulfilled...Our calling is simply to begin the actual bringing of the red cow, and at the same time to work, as much as Christian people can, with the Jewish people for this restoration.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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