The Atonement of the Egla Arufa

  • Harav Yaakov Medan





Parashat shoftim

sicha of harav yaakov medan shlit”a


The Atonement of the Egla Arufa

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“And all the elders of that city, who are closest to the slain person, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the ravine. And they shall answer and say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood, nor did our eyes see. Grant atonement to Your people, Israel, whom You redeemed, Lord; do not allow innocent blood to be charged to Your people, Israel.’ And the blood shall be atoned for them.” (Devarim 21:6-8)


For whom and for what does the blood of the egla arufa atone? We may offer several explanations.


1) Most simply, the egla arufa may be viewed as taking the place of the killer. Since the killer cannot be identified, there is no possibility of sentencing him to death; the egla arufa is killed instead. Indeed, Ramban writes in his commentary (on the end of verse 8): “In my view the reason is similar to the matter of the sacrifices that are offered outside [of the Temple precincts], namely, the goat that is sent to its death [on Yom Kippur] and the red heifer.”


            There are some similarities between the egla arufa and regular sacrifices, but there is also a fundamental difference. The egla arufa is not slaughtered, and its blood is not sprinkled. Why? Because the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrifice comes to atone – and the egla arufa does not atone for the killer. It is killed only because there is no possibility of sentencing the killer to death. If and when the killer is located, he will be put to death.  In the meantime, the heifer takes the place of the killer because we have to perform some action to cast out the evil from our midst; it is unthinkable that an act of murder will engender no response. But in no way does the heifer atone for the killer.


            In this context, it is important to keep in mind the Gemara in Keritut 26a, with its discussion of the “asham talui” (the guilt offering for a questionable transgression). There we are told that Yom Kippur atones for those transgressions for which this sacrifice is prescribed – and thereafter there is no need for a guilt offering. The Gemara then raises the question of whether this also applies in the case of an egla arufa – i.e., if it was not beheaded before Yom Kippur, perhaps it is no longer necessary afterwards. To this Abaye responds that it is still necessary because the assailant himself knows that he is guilty. Rabba provides a different reason why the offering is still required after Yom Kippur: he cites the verse, “The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is spilled in it, except by the blood of him who spilled it.”


            2) On the other hand, we may view the egla arufa as coming to atone for the elders of the city and its inhabitants. The Hizkuni explains (on verses 4 and 6): “The heifer is a symbol and sign. Just as the heifer is innocent of any wrongdoing, and the ground is virgin ground (as specified in the verse: ‘a rough ravine which is neither ploughed nor sown’ – Devarim 21:4), so we are innocent of the killing…. ‘They wash their hands’ – as a sign: Just as our hands are clean, so we ourselves are clean [innocent] of this slaying.” According to this interpretation, it would seem that in the absence of the egla arufa ceremony, the elders and inhabitants of the city would bear a certain degree of responsibility. Hence, the egla arufa comes to atone for them.


            3) However, there is a third possibility, according to which the heifer is neither a symbolic punishment for the murderer nor symbolic atonement for the elders and inhabitants of the city, but rather atonement or cleansing for the blood of the victim, which has soaked the ground.


            For what sort of victim is an egla arufa required? One who is “slain in the land,” “lying in the field.” Where is the heifer’s neck broken? In a “nachal eitan which is neither ploughed nor sown.”


            Rashi interprets nachal eitan as a rough, rocky ravine where sowing is impossible. In his view, the holding the ceremony at this site is a statement on the part of the participants that the blood of the victim must not be drawn into the ground, to be absorbed and forgotten. The corpse should really remain exposed as a sign and never be buried, in order to serve as a permanent reminder for the people to continually examine themselves and their degree of responsibility for the murder. Since in practical terms this would violate the dignity of the dead, the Torah prescribes the egla arufa as a “compromise” – but its blood must not be absorbed in the ground. It is killed in a rough, rocky ravine.


            The Chizkuni offers a different interpretation of the expression nachal eitan. He understands it to mean a strong river, which flows with water throughout the year. This would be a fertile area, with fields suitable for cultivation. But once the egla arufa is brought here – “it shall not be ploughed, nor sown.” When the murder was perpetrated, the ground absorbed the victim’s blood. A sin was committed against the ground: it was used, so to speak, in the course of a despicable act. It is for the sin against the ground that the egla arufa is brought, and this ground will no longer cooperate in bringing forth produce.