Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Matot-Masei 5762/ July 6, 2002

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.
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Parashat Matot-Masei 5762/ July 6, 2002

Go'el Haddam--The Blood-Avenger

Dr. Yair Barkai

"The blood-avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; it is he who shall put him to death upon encounter" (Num. 35:19). Parashat Masei mentions the blood-avenger several times, in the context of premeditated murder as well as manslaughter. The entire concept is not foreign to modern society, but is universally considered to be outside the law. How are to we understand the Torah's attitude towards the avenger?[1]

Let us begin with basic definitions of the term: Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman's commentary on Deuteronomy 19:6 explains the concept of the blood-avenger (Heb. goel ha-dam) as follows: the primary meaning of the root g-a-l is to demand restitution of something one possessed before the loss. Scripture uses this expression to refer to a claim on someone's blood (cf. "doresh damim," Ps. 9:13), i.e., to avenge. Thus, goel ha-dam is a relative who avenges the blood of someone in his family.

Now revenge, or nekamah, which is the act of the avenger, is defined as exacting punishment by grieving someone for causing harm or insult; an inner drive to get back at someone for an evil deed. Indeed, a parallel passage on this subject in Parashat Shoftim indicates the motive: "Otherwise, ... the blood-avenger, pursuing the manslayer in hot anger, ..." (Deut. 19:6).

The roots of this commandment to avenge the blood go back to Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed." The balanced parts of this verse show that avenging blood contains an element of atonement for the moral wrong that was done to the murdered person. The need for atonement is emphasized in Scripture several times, the first being after Abel's murder: "Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground" (Gen. 4:10). Hence comes the oft-repeated expression, "his blood will be on his head" (e.g., Josh. 2:19; Ezek. 33:4-5; Lev. 20:9). If human beings do not perform the responsibility that has been placed on them, then the Lord will avenge the blood (e.g., Gen. 9:5; Deut. 32:43; II Kings 9:7; Ezek. 33:6).[2]

From its earliest appearance in Scripture, however, the notion of blood-avenging is viewed with reservation. In his commentary on Genesis, M. D. Cassuto noted:

These passages conveys a special teaching, which is the main innovative idea they seek to convey, namely a protest against the practice of blood-avenging (emphasis in the original; Y. B.). [3]
The laws of the Torah show a tendency towards reducing and minimizing this: the blood-avenger becomes practically nothing more than the person who carries out the sentence of the entire community, and in cases of manslaughter the law provides cities of refuge instead of blood-avenging.

In this spirit Cassuto interpreted the words, "if anyone kills Cain, ..." (Gen. 4:15):

Blood-avenging is forbidden. Here the Torah voices its opposition to the practice of blood-avenging that was common in the ancient Near East. The Lord alone is Judge of the entire earth. The right to pass sentence on murderers belongs to the human judges who judge in His name, not to the relatives of a murderer, acting in hot anger.[4]

Likewise in his commentary on Exodus 21:13, "If he did not do it by design, but it came about by an act of G-d, I will assign you a place to which he can flee:"

The Torah wishes to amend the ancient practice of blood-avenging and also to express its opposition to the system reflected in the Laws of Hammurabi, sect. 229, by which whoever causes the death of another person, even without intent, shall be put to death (p.188).

Why, if the Torah does not take a positive view of the practice of blood-avenging, did it establish such a commandment? Of course the stimulus for this question is our uncomfortable feeling about the entire "institution" of the blood-avenger. The task of judgment is placed in the hands of judicial institutions, and if after proper legal proceedings it turns out that the case is one of deliberate murder, the court is authorized to execute the murderer. Why, then, according to Torah law, does the blood-avenger carry out the sentence passed by the court? Is he to be permitted to shed blood simply because of the assumption that he is in "hot anger"?

Shadal,[5] in his commentary on Numbers 35:12, touches on this question:

In early generations, before people were organized under kings, officers, judges and magistrates, every family avenged its loss from the next family, and the closest relative of a murdered person had to avenge his death. The Torah established judges and magistrates, and took avenging out of the hands of individuals, placing it in the hands of the entire community. In case of premeditated murder, the avenger could be assuaged by saying to him: Let the judges handle the matter; they will investigate, and if he deserves to die, they shall put him to death. But in cases of manslaughter, the avenger could not be assuaged and forced to countenance the person who had killed his father or brother going unpunished, for it would seem to him and to all those who knew him that he did not love his father or brother, since he was not avenging their death. Such a view could not be eradicated all at once, therefore Divine Wisdom perceived that if the blood-avenger were to be punished by death for avenging the blood of a relative killed by manslaughter, still this would not prevent all blood-avengers, nor even the majority of them, from avenging their relatives. Thus there would be many people pointlessly killed. Therefore, what did the Torah do? While permitting the blood-avenger to avenge the death of a relative, it established a place of refuge where the manslayer could flee and the avenger could not come and kill him.

From his remarks it follows that the Torah, recognizing that human beings are not easily weaned from habits they have long adhered to, initiated a process of gradual education to wean people in stages. First people had to become accustomed to the existence of legal institutions and to accept their jurisdiction and authority to carry out sentences. One was not entitled to touch a "manslayer" who killed unintentionally, unless the manslayer, who had been exiled to a city of refuge for killing a person, failed to fulfill the Torah's command not to leave the city of refuge until the day when the High Priest died, his death atoning for sins committed unintentionally.

The restrictions that the Torah placed on the commandment of blood avenging appear to be didactic stages in freeing human beings from the primitive practice of blood-avenging. The allowance made for the blood-avenger is temporary, until human beings reach a stage where they can be weaned of their desire to kill as a need for revenge.

The ancient practice stemmed from natural human sentiments. The Torah permitted human beings to translate their feelings from theory to practice, but placed restrictions on human beings to help them understand that the Torah finds this way hard to accept and that it is better to free oneself from the need to express one's feelings in this undesirable way.

In like manner we can understand the commandments regarding "a beautiful woman" (Deut. 21:10 ff.), a Hebrew slave (Ex. 21:1 ff), "the urge to eat meat" (Deut. 12:20 ff.);[6] and in Maimonides' opinion, also the commandments on sacrifice (see Guide for the Perplexed, III.32). They are all examples of "concessions" made by the Torah in a gradual process of education towards goals.4

Nehama Leibowitz, in Studies in Devarim (p. 138-139), puts it as follows:

It will perhaps sound odd to the reader to learn that the commandments of the Torah are not absolute. Surely it is one of the fundamental principles of the Torah that it will never be changed! ... These dispensations, concessions to human frailty that they are, so long as man has not yet achieved the ideal of "all of them shall know Me," constitute the greatness of the Torah.

Here she quotes Rabbi Kook, Talelei Orot, chapter 8:

In this lies the virtue of a morality anchored to its Divine source, in that it knows the correct timing for every design. Sometimes it withholds its impetus in order to husband its strength for a later period. But this the impatience of a morality divorced from its source cannot abide. (Leibowitz, p. 139)

She explains Rav Kook's remark thus:[7]

An autonomous ethic (divorced from religion) cannot feel its way gradually and cautiously and even sometimes make concessions. It does not possess the authority to make concessions. It knows only the categorical imperative, whereas the Torah knows graduated rules.

In other words, the Torah reduced the practice of blood-avenging to the smallest possible dimensions by empowering the avenger to carry out the sentence in cases of deliberate homicide and in cases of unintentional manslaughter, should the manslayer leave the city of refuges, thus providing a deterrent to the manslayer against leaving the place to which he was sent by the court. The Sages reduced the biblical formulation, so that Mishnah Makkot 2.1 does not mention the need to flee to a city of refuge, but replaces the idea of fleeing with the notion of punishment by exile: "these are they who go into exile." This leads Nehama Leibowitz to conclude that "the cities of refuge were no longer needed as a protection against the angry pursuer since the blood-avenger no longer pursued his victim. This instinct of personal vendetta had been blunted" (loc. sit., p. 193).

A similar development[8] can be noticed regarding the other commandments mentioned above. For example, the numerous restrictions placed on the owner of a Hebrew slave led the gemara in Tractate Kiddushin 20a to conclude: "Buying a slave is like buying oneself a master." This trend towards minimizing is prominent in two other passages: a city that has been subverted to worship other gods (Deut. 13:13-19), and a wayward and defiant son (Deut. 21:18-22), of whom the Talmud says (Sanhedrin 71a): "There never was, and never will be, a wayward and defiant son."

In conclusion we cite Rashi on the verse, "When ... you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife" (Deut. 21:11). On the basis of the Talmud in Kiddushin 21b, and the Tanhuma on Parashat Ki Tetze, Rashi explains why the Torah permitted those who went to war to marry women whom they desired:

The Torah was simply speaking against the evil inclination, for if the Torah did not permit [marrying her], he would marry her in violation of the law. But if he marries her, in the end he will hate her, as in the verse that follows, "If a man has [two wives, one loved and the other unloved]" (v. 15), and in the end he will beget from her a wayward and defiant son.

The Torah, as a Teaching for Life, was given to human beings, with all their shortcomings and weaknesses. Taking into consideration human ability or inability to cope with one's desires, the Torah to some extent went along with these desires, but at the same time placed restrictions and limitations on them.[9] All this was to educate, step by step, towards achieving the ideal of moral perfection.

[1] For a discussion of its halakhic aspects, see goel dam in Encyclopedia Talmudit; Aharon Shemesh, "Al Arei ha-Miklat," Mahanayim 13, 1996, and "Mi Goleh le-Arei Miklat," Perot ha-Ilan, Bar Ilan University, p. 505; Menahem ben-Yashar, "Al Ta'am Arei Miklat," Perot ha-Ilan, Bar Ilan University, p. 506; Itamar Wahrhaftig, Tehumin 11, 1990, p. 326ff, and his article in Hatzofe, 14 Tishre 5746 (1986); also see Moshe Reiss, Hamodia, 6 Av 5752 (1992).
[2] Several tales grew up in the writings of the Sages on the basis of this commandment. For example, the story about the blood of the prophet Zechariah, Sanhedrin 96b. On this story and parallel variants, see Joseph Heineman, Aggadot ve-Toldoteihen, Jerusalem 1974, p. 31ff. There he cites the following story from Deuteronomy Rabbah 2.25: "Once there were two brothers, of whom one killed the other. What did their mother do? She took a cup and filled it with his blood and placed it in the tower. Every day she came in and saw that the blood was bubbling. One day she came to look and found that the blood was still. At that moment she knew that her other son had been killed."
[3] Commentary on Genesis I, Jerusalem, 1961, pp. 184-5.
[4] Ibid., p. 225.
[5] Samuel David Luzzato, 1800 Trieste – 1865, Padua. Biblical exegete, historian and philosopher, literary scholar, educator and poet, one of the founders of the Wissenschaft movement.
[6] See Rav Kook's famous remarks in Talelei Orot, chapter 8.
[7] Loc. sit., p. 130. See her comments on cities of refuge, p. 187ff., which provide the underlying ideas in this article.
[8] On this trend and its moral implications, see my article, "Hebetim Musariyim be-Parshiyot Hilkhatiyot ba-Torah," Mayim mi-Dalyav, Lifshitz Teacheers' Institute, Jerusalem 2000, p. 7ff.
[9] Some want to rationalize tahe Torah's attitude towards all the above cases by citing the Sages' saying, "Scripture speaks of that which is prevalent (dibber hakatuv bahoveh)." In my opinion this is incorrect for two reasons: one, because this saying is a halakhic term which Bacher, Erkhei Midrash, defines thus: "Scripture spoke of one, usual circumstance, but the intention is to all cases which fall into that category." It seems to me that the questions discussed in this article do not suit such a definition. Second, our point was to group all the questions discussed together, as a category for which the Torah establishes restrictions with respect to the commandment involved, out of its displeasure at the practice. Thus the saying of the Sages cited above is not appropriate to these cases.