This week’s double parasha (in the diaspora), Chukat-Balak, begins with a description of the purifying parah adumah, the “red heifer”. The Mishnah devotes an entire tractate, Parah, to explore the subject. It gives a short history of all the red cows that had been prepared up until that point (3:5). The first was, of course, prepared by Moses in the Wilderness. According to the Mishnah, this one jar of ashes lasted nearly a millennium, throughout the period of Judges and the entire First Temple era! (Only a pinch of red heifer ashes was needed to make a large amount of purifying liquid.)
The second red heifer was prepared by Ezra at the conclusion of the Babylonian Exile and the return of the Jews to the Holy Land. After that, there were seven more to span the Second Temple era. Shimon haTzadik, the last of the Great Assembly, prepared the third and fourth red cows. (For more on the identity of Shimon haTzadik, see ‘Who Was the First Rabbi in History?’) Recall that the Great Assembly, Knesset HaGedolah, was a council of 120 prophets and sages that helped to re-establish Judea following the Babylonian Exile. They are credited with canonizing the Tanakh, and putting together the first formal prayer texts of Judaism.
The fifth and sixth red cows were prepared by the kohen gadol Yochanan. He is an intriguing figure who, according to the Talmud, served as high priest for a whopping 80 years! (Berakhot 29a) Nonetheless, the Talmud uses him as proof for the teaching: “Do not be sure of yourself until you die!” This is because, despite serving as high priest for 80 years, Yochanan ultimately became a Tzduki, a Sadducee that denied the Oral Torah and rabbinic tradition.
The exact identity of Yochanan is subject to debate. According to Seder haDorot, he is the father of Matityahu, who was of course the leader of the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid Greeks and father of the Maccabees. When we say “Matityahu ben Yochanan” in our prayers, we are referring to this Yochanan. The Rambam, however, held that Yochanan Kohen Gadol was the son of Matityahu, who was probably named after his grandfather Yochanan. We know that one of the five sons of Matityahu was indeed named Yochanan. A third possibility, more in line with historical sources like Josephus, and with the Book of Maccabees, is that he was the son of Shimon, son of Matityahu. So, Yochanan Kohen Gadol is the same person as John Hyrcanus. (“John” and “Yochanan” are the same name.)The latter opinion makes the most sense. It explains why Yochanan would have to prepare a red heifer after the recapture and repurification of the Temple, which had previously been defiled by the Greeks. It also explains his unusually long tenure, because he would have served during the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted about 100 years altogether. Moreover, we know that there was great conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees precisely during the Hasmonean period, with King Alexander Yannai at one point persecuting and expelling the Pharisees, including the likes of his brother-in-law Shimon ben Shatach and contemporaries like Yehoshua ben Perachia. So, the Yochanan Kohen Gadol of the Talmud is most likely the High Priest John Hyrcanus of historical sources. And, because he served so long, he merited to prepare two red heifers.
See the video above to learn more about the fascinating era of Pharisees and Sadducees
The next three red heifers were prepared by mysterious figures: Elyeho’enai ben HaKof, Hanamel the Egyptian, and Ishmael ben Piavi. The latter two seem to have been mentioned by Josephus. Hanamel is called Ananelus by Josephus, and he was appointed high priest by King Herod. He was replaced by a Yehoshua ben Piavi, which may be the same person as the Mishnah’s Ishmael ben Piavi. So, the last two red heifers were prepared in the time of King Herod (who reigned roughly between 37 and 4 BCE). This takes us pretty much to the end of the Second Temple era.
That leaves just one more, tenth, red heifer to the be prepared by Mashiach for the Third Temple. Although the Mishnah above doesn’t say that, the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) does in his Mishneh Torah, writing that “the tenth will be brought by the king Mashiach; may he speedily be revealed—amen, may it be God’s will!” (Sefer Taharah, Hilkhot Parah Adumah 3:4) The Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out that the Rambam does not add a prayer for the coming of Mashiach anywhere else in the Mishneh Torah, not even in the Laws of Kings where he actually relays the halakhot of Mashiach! So, there is a particularly strong connection between the red heifer and Mashiach. It may be because Mashiach himself is thought to have a ruddy complexion, like King David his progenitor, or because some hold Mashiach will come from Edom, the “red” Western world, as per Isaiah 63:1 and other sources.
Another possibility is that the presence of a perfectly kosher red heifer in Israel would be an especially auspicious sign of Mashiach’s impending arrival. In recent years, a number of such red heifers have indeed been spotted. Jerusalem’s Temple Institute is always on the lookout for the ideal parah adumah, and has even sought to breed their own. Last year, five perfectly good red heifers were delivered to the Temple Institute from a farmer in Texas. So, we have the red heifers already. Now, all we need is Mashiach.