Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mattot-Masei 5767/ July 14, 2007

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



On the Religious Significance of Shedding Blood


Dr. Michael Avioz


Department of Bible


The laws of manslaughter, murder, and cities of refuge are to be found in Parashat Masei (Numbers 35).   These subjects are also discussed in Exodus (21:13-14) and Deuteronomy (4:41-43; 19:1-13). [1]   Here we shall discuss the religious significance of shedding blood both in the narrow context of Parashat Masei and in the wider context of all of Scripture.

The Torah

In Genesis 9:6 the Lord commands Noah and his sons:   “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G-d make man.”   This verse is expounded as follows:   “Rabbi Akiva says:   anyone who sheds blood nullifies the image [of G-d in man], as it is said, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed’” (Tosefta Yevamot 8.4).   In Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, injury to a human being is like injury to G-d Himself, since human beings are created in the image of G-d.  This notion is well put by Moshe Greenberg: [2]

A precise and adequate formulation of the jural postulate underlying the biblical law of homicide is found in Genesis 9:5f.: “For your lifeblood I shall require a reckoning; of every beast shall I require it. . . . Whoever shed the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God was man made.” The meaning of the passage is clear enough: that humans were made in the image of God--the exact significance of the words is not necessary to decide here—is expressive of the peculiar and supreme worth of humankind. Of all creatures, Genesis 1 relates, humans alone possess this attribute, bringing them into closer relation to God than all the rest and conferring upon them the highest value. . . . The guilt of the murderer is infinite because the murdered life is invaluable; . . . An absolute wrong has been committed, a sin against God that is not subject to human discussion.

The distinction between commandments concerning relations between one person and another and commandments concerning relations between a person and G-d may mislead us into thinking that the last five commandments in the Decalogue, which include “Thou shalt not murder”, refer to transgressions which are solely of a societal nature (Maimonides, Hilkhot Rotze’ah 4.9). [3] In fact, viewing murder as a religious transgression goes back to the Mekhilta:   “It says in Scripture, ‘I the Lord am your   G-d,’ and as against that it says, ‘You shall not murder,’ thereby indicating that whoever sheds blood, Scripture views as having diminished from the image of the King” (Mekhilta, Tractate de-ba-Hodesh 8). [4]



The Early Prophets

It follows from many passages in Prophets that murder is considered a religious transgression.  For example, the prophet Nathan says to David after the Bathsheba affair:  “Why then have you flouted the command of the Lord and done what displeases Him?   You have put Uriah the Hittite to the sword; you took his wife and made her your wife and had him killed by the sword of the Ammonites” (II Sam. 12:9). [5]   Another sharp response to murder is voiced by the prophet Elijah in the story of Naboth the Jezreelite (I Kings 21:19).  In his testament, David commands Solomon to kill Joab:  “Thus the Lord will bring his blood guilt down upon his own head, because, unbeknown to my father, he struck down with the sword two men more righteous and honorable than he” (I Kings 2:32).   In the description of the sins of Manasseh, the author of Kings concludes: “and also because of the blood of the innocent that he shed.  For he filled Jerusalem with the blood of the innocent, and the Lord would not forgive” (II Kings 24:4).

The punishment for premeditated murder is death, putting an end to the life of the murderer.  But even if a person sinned unintentionally, his life is not a life, for he is vulnerable to the wrath of the family of the victim, whose members are likely to invoke the law of avenging the murdered person’s blood, should they manage to capture him before he reaches the city of refuge.   In this manner, one murder leads to an unending chain of bloodshed.  This is how the wise woman of Tekoah presents things to David, who is angry at his son Absalom for murdering Amnon (II Sam. 14:6-7):

Your maidservant had two sons.  The two of them came to blows out in the fields where there was no one to stop them, and one of them struck the other and killed him.  Then the whole clan confronted your maidservant and said, “Hand over the one who killed his brother, that we may put him to death for the slaying of his brother, even though we wipe out the heir.”   Thus they would quench the last ember remaining to me, and leave my husband without name or remnant upon the earth. [6]

Her words are based on the assumption that only the king can put an end to the cycle of bloodshed.

The cycle of bloodshed that results from a murder can lead ultimately to exile from the land and the destruction of the Temple. [7]   The reason for this is that the blood which is shed defiles the soil of the land of Israel, so that the Lord can no longer continue to have His Presence abide there. [8]   Thus it says in this week’s reading:  “You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people” (Num. 35:34).

The Latter Prophets

This notion also reverberates in the words of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The objective of these prophets was to make it clear that living in the land of Israel is contingent on the people’s behavior, and when they violate the commandment, “You shall not murder,” they transgress the covenant. This may lead to the Lord abandoning His people and removing His protection from them.   In his oration in the Temple (ch. 7), Jeremiah stresses that even the Temple’s continued existence depends on the people’s behavior and there is no guarantee that the Temple will protect them (Jer. 7:6-9):

… if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt – then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time.  See, you are relying on illusions that are of no avail.   Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced …?

The phrase “in this place” refers sometimes to the Temple, sometimes to the land of Israel. [9]   The deeds that are done there, which include bloodshed, are likely to lead to its destruction.  Coming to the Temple with one’s hands full of blood (literally or metaphorically) divests the Temple of its sanctity, until it becomes a den of thieves, a hiding-place for lawbreakers (Jer. 7:9). [10]

Ezekiel (11:23) describes how, in view of the grave deeds described in chapters 8 and 9 of his book, the Divine Presence was withdrawing from the area of the Temple and Jerusalem. [11]   Only after the land is purified of its defilement, would the people be able to return to it from exile.   Ezekiel dubs Jerusalem a “city of blood” and lists bloodshed among the sins for which Jerusalem was destroyed (see Ezekiel 18 and 22). [12]

It is the traditional view that because of our sins, we now live in Israel without a Temple.   Nevertheless, Judaism has not become divested of its values, as we see from the homily in Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (Version A, ch. 4):

Once, Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem and Rabbi Joshua was going after him, and he saw the Temple in ruins.  Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that it is destroyed – the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel.”  He (Rabban Johanan) responded, “Son, do not despair.  We have another means of atonement which is as good.   What may that be?   Doing good deeds, as it is said: “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).

[1] An anthology of Jewish sources on this subject can be found in Rabbi Yehuda Copperman’s book, Parashat Shofetim, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 297-372.

[2] M. Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” in M. Greenberg, Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought, JPS: Philadelphia, 1995, pp. 31-32; see also Y. Lorberbaum, Zelem Elohim:   Halakhah ve-Aggadah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 2004, pp. 358-370.

[3] Parashat Kedoshim as well (Lev. 19) breaks the dichotomy between commandments between Man and his fellow man and commandments between Man and G-d.   We find “You shall each revere his mother and his father” next to “and keep My Sabbaths,” and the repetition of the formulation, “I am the Lord your G-d,” even after commandments bein adam la-havero, between Man and Man.  Cf. Baruch J. Schwartz, Torat ha-Kedushah:   Iyyunim ba-Hukkah ha-Kohanit she-ba-Torah, Jerusalem, 1999, pp. 246-247.

[4] See the discussion in Lorberbaum (note 2, above), pp. 301-306.

[5] Pamela Barmash believes that in this story a distinction should be drawn between responsibility and culpability.   David is only accused of taking Bathsheba but not of causing the death of Uriah.   Cf. P. Barmash, “ The Narrative Quandary: Cases of Law in Literature”, Vetus Testamentum 44 (2004), pp. 8–10.  Not everyone, however, agrees with this distinction.

[6] On the woman of Tekoa, see Zeev Weisman, Am ve-Melekh ba-Mishpat ha-Mikra’i Tel Aviv, 1991, pp. 42-77, and the references given there.

[7] See Tosefta Kippurim 1.12:  “Hence it is said:  for the sin of shedding blood the Divine Presence leaves and the Temple becomes defiled.”  Also cf. Mishnah Yoma 2.2; Mishnah Avot 5.9; Yoma 9b; Shabbat 33a; Sifre Numbers 161; Numbers Rabbah 7.10.   Of course the motives for murder are not related solely to what devolves from avenging blood.   They can also stem from hatred or jealousy (Joseph and his brothers; Saul and David), revenge, a desire to seize control of property (the Naboth affair), or to seize control of the government (the political murders in the book of Kings and the murder of Gedaliah).

[8] For greater detail, see Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “Pollution, Purification, and Purgation in Biblical Israel”, in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman (ed. Carol L. Meyers and M. O’Connor), Winona Lake 1983, pp. 105–128.

[9] Compare “For they … have forsaken Me, and have made this place alien [to Me]; they have sacrificed in it to other gods whom they have not experienced and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent” (Jer. 19:4).   For an analysis of Jeremiah’s oration in chapter 7, see Saul Zelevsky, “Ne’umo shel Yirmiyahu be-Sha’ar Beit H’ (Jer. 7:1-16),” Bar Ilan Annual 16-17 (1979), pp. 9-31.

[10] I Chron. 22:8, David draws a connection between bloodshed and his not being the one to build the House of the Lord:  “you shall not build a House for My name for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.”  For a commentary on this explanation, see M. Avioz, Nathan’s Oracle (2 Samuel 7) and Its Interpreter, Bern 2005, pp. 144-149.

[11] See J. Milgrom, “ The Purification Offering,”  Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, 1991, pp. 253-261; R. Kasher, Yehezkel im Mavo u-Ferush, Vol. 1, Jerusalem 2004, p. 440.

[12] Moshe Weinfeld maintains that in Ezekiel the term bloodshed refers not to actual murder, but to actions of rulers that lead to murder.   See his article, “Asseret ha-dibrot – yihudam u-mekomam bi-mesoret Yisrael,” in B. Z. Segal (ed.), Asseret ha-Dibrot be-Re’i ha-Dorot, Jerusalem 1986, p. 15, note 59.  It is not clear on what he bases his opinion.