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Title: Little Tricks

Major Focus: Interfaith Relations

Minor Focus: Cruelty and Wickedness

Abstract: The Sanhedrin was desperate to find a perfect red cow for the rites of Biblical purification. A certain mean gentile farmer had such an animal. His selfish greed and treachery ended up costing him his life.

Format: Midrash




"God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 'This is the ritual law that God has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.'"

Numbers 19:1-2


There was a time when the ashes from the last red cow were running out. The Sanhedrin was becoming desperate to find another one. Having searched everywhere, they were finally told of a certain gentile who owned a perfect red cow. Representatives of the Sanhedrin were sent to see the farmer.

The owner of the cow admitted he was willing to sell it for the right price, four-hundred pieces of gold! The leaders of the community consulted among themselves. While they agreed the price was very steep, it was not out of line for such a rare commodity as a perfect red heifer that had never worn a plow yoke. They left and told him they would return with his gold.

While they were gone, the farmer consulted with a neighbor and discovered just how desperate the Jews were to get hold of this red heifer. When the representatives of the Jewish community returned with the money, he told them he had changed his mind and would not sell the cow. They said they were willing to pay a higher price. In desperation, they offered him more and more money for his cow. He held out steadfastly until they offered him a full thousand pieces of gold!

The leaders said they would have to go back to Jerusalem to get the money. They planned to return the next day. The farmer went to the neighbor to gloat over how he had duped the Jewish community out of an extra six-hundred gold pieces. He and his friend laughed about it. They had a bit too much to drink in their celebration over the new found fortune. They decided to play a little trick on the Jews. They decided to use the cow for some plowing before it left the farm, something clearly not allowed in God's rules for a perfect red heifer.

That night, this scoundrel of a farmer, harnessed the cow up and plowed the back forty. The next morning when the representatives of the Sanhedrin arrived, they examined the cow before paying. They immediately recognized the traces of a yoke and matted down hair on the otherwise fine animal. They told the farmer to keep his animal. They would look elsewhere. The farmer, realizing that he had just lost enough money to retire on for the rest of his life, went home, cursed the God of the Jews, and hanged himself in the barn.

(Pesikta Rabbati)

Challenge Questions

  1. Was the gentile farmer being unethical in holding out for such a high price from the representatives of the Sanhedrin? Do you think his motives were prejudicial, or was he just a smart business person?
  2. Why did the farmer use the red heifer for plowing, when he knew God had expressly asked for a cow that had never worn a yoke? Was he being a tease? Was he being hateful and prejudiced? Was he being blasphemous and mocking God? Was he just an ignorant "red neck"?
  3. Do you think economic, social, or religious justice was served in this case? Do you think God had a hand in the farmer's suicide? Do you think his conscience killed him? What other explanations might there be?