Hamas has cited Israel’s purchase of a few red heifers as one of the factors purportedly justifying its attack of October 7. The terrorists claim to have feared that one of the American-bred bovines might have met the criteria of an ancient prophecy, portending destruction for Jerusalem's main Muslim shrines: the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Here the plot thickens: some Israelis, hoping for exactly this outcome, imported the cows for that very purpose.
The last sacrifice
Sacrifice as a political act
Hamas vs. Cows
The last sacrifice
Ritual sacrifice was a crucial element of ancient Judaism — both in mythology and in practice. Disembarking from the ark after the Biblical flood, Noah built an altar and almost immediately took to burning several of the animals he’d worked so hard to save from the natural disaster. Abraham offered sacrifices multiple times during the long journey to the Holy Land from his father's home, located somewhere in the modern Iraqi territory. When cleansing the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus not only expelled the money changers, but also chased away the livestock that believers had bought to slaughter and burn on the altar.
Traditionally, sacrificial animals were small: lambs, goatlings, or pigeons. Wealthy Jews could afford to offer an entire ox. However, the most desirable sacrifice was a young virgin cow – “a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect, and on which no yoke has been laid.” Since the dawn of time and until the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the 1st century AD, only nine such animals were sacrificed. Finding an animal that meets all of the criteria set out in the Talmud is no small feat: a heifer that would please God is described in immense detail, and even the slightest deviation from the manual deprives the potential sacrifice of its special value.
Finding the right sacrificial heifer is no small feat: even the slightest deviation from the manual deprives the potential sacrifice of its special value
The Talmud also reads that the tenth slaughter of a red heifer will be the last one. Once a suitable heifer is found and prepared for the ritual, the Jewish Messiah will present himself, take the animal to the Mount of Olives, slaughter it, burn the body, mix the ashes with water, and wash the believers with this water. After the believers are ritually purified, the Messiah will take them to the Temple Mount to rebuild the Holy Temple — its demolition over 2,000 years ago marked the end of sacrificial practices in Judaism.
However, a lot has changed over the past two millennia. For instance, the site of the ancient Jewish temple is occupied by two Muslim shrines: the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Islamic world’s third most important house of prayer after the mosques in Mecca and Medina, and the Dome of the Rock, a pavilion built over the Foundation Stone, from which Muhammad is believed to have begun his Night Journey to Heaven. Rebuilding the Jewish Temple would inevitably require taking down the Muslim shrines.
As whimsical as it may sound, this is not some old-timer’s anecdote or an obscurantist sectarian fantasy. The promise of the prophecy is the perceived reality for many thousands of people inhabiting the Holy Land, Jews and Muslims alike. The former await the emergence of a perfect red heifer with hope; the latter dread it. Religious Jews do what they can to hasten the slaughter of the animal, while Muslims are prepared to go to extremes to prevent Jews from encroaching upon their holy places.
Sacrifice as a political act
Religious Jews are not simply waiting for the right animal to appear— they are sparing no effort to ensure the heifer is sacrificed as soon as possible. Calls have been made to genetically engineer the right cow, tweaking its DNA so that it meets all of the criteria in the Talmud. However, many see this approach as cheating and prefer looking for the heifer in a traditional way.
Israel has an entire religious organization called the Temple Institute, which has as one of its objectives (currently at least) to look for the heifer described in the Talmud. Although the institute is not a public entity, it enjoys protection from high-ranking officials and is even partially funded by Israel's Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Thanks in part to this funding, the Temple Institute can afford to buy land to build an altar on the Mount of Olives, perform trial sacrifices, travel the world in search of the right cows, and bring them to Israel. The team of rabbis from the institute brought the last batch of prospective heifers from Texas in 2022. To be certified as “perfect,” every animal has to undergo a complete and intensive inspection by knowledgeable rabbis, and the rabbis themselves are growing increasingly certain that the long-awaited ceremony will soon take place, thus making it possible for the Messiah to reveal himself.
The cow-themed hysteria that occasionally engulfs Israeli media — along with the fact that the last batch of heifers has reached the prescribed age for the sacrifice — makes Palestinian Muslims increasingly nervous. Of course, they hardly believe that the Jewish Messiah will appear on Earth to take down their shrines – such a belief contradicts the Islamic doctrine – but they do have some concerns about the security of Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, and the threat they perceive is not out of this world.
The cow-themed hysteria makes Palestinian Muslims nervous: they have concerns about the security of Al-Aqsa
After all, Jewish religious extremists could attempt to destroy the shrines without waiting for the Messiah, sacrificing the heifers in his absence and using the ashes for the purification ritual that is the prerequisite for rebuilding the Temple. The concerns are even more valid considering that in the 1970s and 1980s, ultra-religious Jews were toying with the idea of hastening the Messiah’s advent by blowing up the Dome of the Rock.
Many Palestinians believe that the Jewish terrorists were not acting on their own but enjoyed support and guidance from Israeli leadership. The conspiracy theory suggesting that the Israeli government is plotting the destruction of Jerusalem's Muslim shrines is fairly widespread among Palestine’s Muslims. Another popular conspiracy theory argues that the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem never actually existed in historical fact — that it is a modern myth concocted by Jews to justify their claims to the Holy Land.
Muslim guides in Jerusalem earnestly tell tourists that Israeli archaeologists working in the Old Town bury artfully created fakes by night, only to dig them out in broad daylight and present them to the world as proof of the long history of Jewish presence in the city. Even the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat contributed to spreading this misconception. Trying to convince U.S. President Bill Clinton that Arabs had far more rights to Jerusalem than Jews, Arafat himself insisted in the year 2000 that the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had never existed.
Islamic religious leaders make even more radical claims, saying that Al-Aqsa has marked the center of Jerusalem since the creation of the world, thus inviting the logical conclusion that its destruction will cause the world to end. In other words, the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, as Muslims call it, has been a seat of tension for ages.
Meanwhile, the maturing heifers are giving Palestinians a new reason to worry. And Hamas seized the day.
Hamas vs. Cows
The terrorist group positions itself — among other things — as the guardian of the Muslim shrines of Jerusalem. Its leaders have promised to spill a sea of Jewish blood in response to ultra-religious Jews merely voicing the intention to say their prayers next to Al-Aqsa. Officially named the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas always puts religion at the core of its rhetoric, justifying even the most barbaric of its acts by the need to protect Islamic shrines and customs (in addition to safeguarding the political independence of Palestine’s Gaza Strip, where Hamas has ruled with authoritarian zeal since the last elections were held there in 2006).
Texan red heifers — or, at least, their potential to become highly significant sacrificial victims — pose a material threat to both Hamas priorities. Consequently, there was no irony in Hamas claiming that its October 7 attack on Israel had been, at least in part, provoked by the animals.
Abu Obaida, the official spokesperson of Hamas’ military wing, known as the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, presented a list of grievances against Israel in justification of the war that broke out. Some of the items were unsurprising, including the persecution of Palestinian activists and the prevalence of Israeli settlement activity on land they do not legally own. Still, the red heifer’s inclusion on the list offers an almost unbelievable reminder of just how tragically tangible the real-world results of belief can be.