Holy cow! Will red heifer save world, cattle industry

The Boston Globe ran a story with the ominous headline, "Portent in a Pasture." London's Sunday Telegraph claimed (erroneously, it turns out), "The heifer will be slaughtered and burned, and its ashes made into a liquid paste and used in a ceremony which religious Jews believe they must undergo before they can enter the old Temple site in Jerusalem to start building a new Temple."

The sense of panic in the local media at the announcement of the birth stems from a connection made between this heifer — according to Jewish tradition and lore, the 10th since the time of Moses — as a supposed harbinger of the Messiah.

In addition, certain extremist segments of the religious community believe its appearance is a signal from God that the Jewish people must now begin to build a third Holy Temple.

Former Jewish underground member Yehuda Etzion, ringleader of a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock in the 1980s, was quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying, "We have been waiting 2,000 years for a sign from God, and now he has provided us with a red heifer."

Rabbi Mordechai Shmaryahu, a Kfar Chassidim resident and keeper of the newly born heifer, takes exception to such comments and bemoans the media's response, which he sees as hysterical and irresponsible.

"It's ridiculous to assume that the next step for us is to conquer the Temple Mount," says Shmaryahu.

"The cow is not a walking atom bomb, or whatever they called it. We're looking at this as an opportunity to teach our kids about the Holy Temple."

Although some Orthodox groups have been organizing trips to Kfar Chassidim to see the heifer, Shmaryahu plays down its significance as a miracle and now even calls into doubt the authenticity of the calf as a halachically kosher red heifer.

"When the cow was born, rabbis from Jerusalem came here with members of the press and immediately declared it a kosher red heifer," Shmaryahu says. "But after cleaning it we found a few white hairs in its tail, so we're not even sure it's the real thing. In fact, I never claimed that it was a real red heifer. The whole thing has been blown out of proportion."

So journalists and politicians wary of the heifer's potential to spark violent attempts on the Dome of the Rock can rest easy, at least for now.

They may be surprised, however, to learn that a Jerusalem-based rabbi, Haim Richman, and a Mississippi cattle rancher and Pentecostal preacher, Clyde Lott, have joined forces to create a truly kosher red heifer that, if it doesn't save the world, will at least rescue the local cattle industry.

In fact, they hope to make it the dominant breed of cattle here.

In 1989 Lott, whose specialty is the naturally reddish Red Angus cattle, decided to try to breed a genuine red heifer and bring it here. He contacted Richman, an expert on the subject who works with the Temple Institute, a Jerusalem-based organization dedicated to researching and teaching about the Temple.

Together they set out to do the breeding and ultimately bring several specimens here by importing pregnant cows.

For several years they traveled throughout the country, meeting local cattlemen who might be willing to work with them in finding a place for the cattle.

"We had to deal with a mountain of bureaucracy, as well as Israeli cattlemen who think they know everything, and convince them that we could bring them better cattle," Richman says.

"And then there was the issue of explaining my presence," he adds, gesturing to his beard and tzitzit (ritual fringes). "We learned right away that it's not good to mention the Temple and the spiritual aspects of the red heifer when dealing with cattlemen. So, I became known as Clyde's translator."

For the next two years, Lott and Richman scoured the country trying to find suitable grazing land for Lott's cows. During their investigations, they learned that the local cattle industry is in difficult straits.

"Clyde began to realize that by bringing his Red Angus cows to Israel, cows that are of particularly fine quality in terms of producing beef, he could not only provide a red heifer for spiritual purposes, but help Israel economically by eliminating the need for beef imports," Richman says.

It soon became apparent that the main obstacle to the project was the formidable cost of transporting cattle to Israel and purchasing land on which to raise them. To that end, Lott and Richman established the Tikvah Corp., an organization dedicated to raising funds for the transportation.

Although the total cost of transporting and successfully raising red heifers here remains uncertain, Lott claims that, once begun, the process of making them the dominant strain of local cattle could take less than one year.

That Richman and Lott should team up is oddly appropriate considering the mysterious and bizarre nature of that animal in Jewish lore.

One of the most enigmatic sections of the Torah, the verses referring to the red heifer are found in Numbers (19: 2-7): "Speak unto the children of Israel that they may bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke."

Although it is explained in the Talmud that the purpose of offering the red heifer as a sacrifice was to use its ashes mixed with water to purify those who had come into contact with the dead, neither the Torah nor any commenty explains why it is necessary that the cow be red.

The lack of an explantion, combined with the scarcity of such cows since the Second Temple's destruction, has added to the mystery this commandment gained in Jewish lore.

Richman has spent years researching the topic and recently completed "The Mystery of the Red Heifer." Through his work with the Temple Institute, he came into contact with thousands of non-Jews interested in the subject.

His interest in the red heifer stems from several unsuccessful attempts by the Temple Institute in the late 1980s to produce a genuine model genetically.

"Red is a very difficult color to come by when dealing with cows," Richman explains. "The rabbis established that the cow must be completely red, so unless there's a miraculous birth, the cow must be bred to that end."

A breakthrough in the institute's search for a red cow came in 1989 in the roundabout form of a letter from Lott asking if Israel needed a red heifer for spiritual purposes.

Lott says he grew interested in the red heifer while studying the Bible eight years ago.

"I was studying the chapter in the book of Genesis where Jacob receives a number of speckled and spotted cows from Laban as payment," says Lott. "I got to thinking that this cattle must have formed the basis of the Israelites' herd when they went down to Egypt. So, from a cattleman's standpoint, I started wondering how they could have gotten a pure red cow from these spotted cattle."

That speculation led Lott to draft a letter offering the state of Israel his assistance in producing a red cow. After a 90-day trek to several locations, the letter was finally forwarded to the Temple Institute, where it came to Richman's attention.

The unlikely duo struck up a fast friendship. They experimented with Red Angus cows until Lott was able to produce what Richman claims is a genuine red heifer.

Richman insists there is no contradiction between using the red heifer both as a means of ritual purification and as a source of steak and hamburger.

"It's a cow, not an angel; it doesn't have wings," he says. "It's very beautiful, actually, that one of this species could be used to prop up the economy of the state."