Cities of Refuge: Punishment or Protection?

  • Rav Amnon Bazak




Mazal Tov to Rav Ezra and Dr. Etta Bick, Rav Avia and Dr. Elisheva HaKohen, Yedaya HaKohen and to the entire Bick and HaKohen families on the upcoming marriage of Shraga Bick to Tafat HaKohen.  May they be zokheh to build a bayit ne'eman be-Yisrael!


The VBM wishes a warm mazal tov to Rav Amnon and Anat Bazak on the bat mitzva of their daughter Rinat!



Parashat SHOFTIM



Cities of Refuge: Punishment or Protection?  

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish


One of the subjects addressed in our parasha is the institution of cities of refuge.  These were locations (six in total) where a person who killed another person unintentionally would remain until the death of the kohen gadol.


There are two ways of relating to someone who killed another person unintentionally. The first possibility is to regard him as a killer who, owing to various mitigating circumstances, is placed in custody instead of suffering the punishment that he rightfully deserves – i.e., death. The other possibility is to regard him as a person who did something with no forethought and no control over his actions, and who must therefore be sent to a city of refuge – not as a punishment, but rather as a measure to protect him from the “avenger of blood” (the relative of his victim).


The Torah relates to these two different perspectives in two places where it discusses the cities of refuge.


In Sefer Bemidbar, parashat Mas’ei, we read that the reason the court sends the killer to a city of refuge is, “that the congregation may save the killer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge… and he shall remain there until the death of the kohen gadol" (Bemidbar 35:25). In the event that the killer leaves the confines of the city of refuge and the avenger of blood finds him, then “if the avenger of blood kills him, he is not guilty of blood” (literally, “he [the unintentional killer] has no blood”; ibid., v. 27).


This description makes it clear that the role of the court is to “save” the killer from the fate that he deserves – death – and to keep him in custody in the city of refuge until the death of the kohen gadol. If the killer leaves the city of refuge at any time, he is “escaping from custody”; hence, from the point of view of the court, if the avenger kills him, the latter is not liable for murder.


In contrast, when our parasha discusses the law of a person who has killed unintentionally, the text emphasizes twice that “he did not hate [the victim] in time past" (Devarim 19:4, 19:6), and the reason for sending him to the city of refuge is not for the purposes of incarceration, but rather to save him, “lest the avenger of blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot… although he is not deserving of death" (Devarim 19:6). In other words, contrary to the depiction of the unintentional killer in parashat Mas’ei, where the avenger is not liable for murder if he comes across the killer, here the Torah states explicitly that “[the killer] is not deserving of death."


To explain this discrepancy, let us consider of significance of blood in the Torah.


In Sefer Bemidbar, the Torah teaches that in the event of murder, “the earth cannot be cleansed for blood that is spilled in it, except by the blood of him who spills it" (Bemidbar 35:33). In other words, if a person is killed and his blood is spilled upon the earth, the land itself is defiled, and the only way of “cleansing” the land is by the blood of the killer. Thus, “the blood," in Sefer Bemidbar, is the means for cleansing the land.


In Sefer Vayikra, in parashat Acharei Mot, we read: “And he shall slaughter the ram that is the guilt offering… and bring its blood… and sprinkle it upon the covering… and cleanse the Sanctuary from the impurities of Benei Yisrael and from their transgressions, for all of their wrongdoings" (Vayikra 16:15-16). In Vayikra, too, the blood serves to cleanse – not the land, but rather the altar, i.e., the Mishkan.


Sefer Devarim describes no special use of blood; moreover, in contrast to Sefer Vayikra with its commandment to cover the blood (after slaughtering animals), in Devarim we read the complete opposite: “You shall pour it upon the earth like water" (Devarim 12:16 and elsewhere).


These differences may be explained by the fact that Sefer Bemidbar speaks about the land and the obligations related to it; Sefer Vayikra speaks about the Mishkan and the service that takes place within it; and Sefer Devarim speaks about the obligations of the nation. On the basis of this general categorization it becomes clear that from the point of view of the defilement of the land, it makes no difference whether a person was killed accidentally or intentionally.  From this perspective, the perpetrator is theoretically liable for the same punishment in either case, except that the court is more lenient with the unwitting killer and sends him to a city of refuge.


However, from the point of view of the nation, there is clearly a difference between an unwitting killer and a murderer who kills with intent.  Therefore, from this perspective the congregation will act to save the former rather than punishing him with death.


Clarifying the perspective of each Sefer also serves to explain its attitude towards blood. In Sefer Vayikra, the blood is a means of purifying the Mishkan, and therefore it has intrinsic importance; it must be covered if it is spilled. In Sefer Bemidbar, which discusses the land, ordinary blood has no special significance, and therefore there is no need to cover it. The blood of a murderer, however, is important for cleansing the land of the blood of the victim. In Sefer Devarim, which deals with the nation, there is no need to cover the blood, for it has no special importance for either the atonement of the people or for the cleansing of their sins. Therefore, it may be spilled “like water."



[This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Shoftim 5762 (2002).]