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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Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
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
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
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).
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
(emphasis in the original; Y. B.).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
A similar development
noticed regarding the other commandments mentioned above. For example, the
numerous restrictions placed on the owner of a Hebrew slave led the
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
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.
All this was to educate,
step by step, towards achieving the ideal of moral perfection.
For a discussion of its
halakhic aspects, see goel dam
in Encyclopedia Talmudit
Shemesh, "Al Arei ha-Miklat
1996, and "Mi Goleh le-Arei Miklat
, 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,
, 6 Av 5752 (1992).
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
, 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."
 Commentary on
I, Jerusalem, 1961, pp. 184-5.
Samuel David Luzzato, 1800
Trieste – 1865, Padua. Biblical exegete, historian and philosopher,
literary scholar, educator and poet, one of the founders of the Wissenschaft
See Rav Kook's famous
remarks in Talelei Orot
, chapter 8.
 Loc. sit.
, p. 130.
See her comments on cities of refuge, p. 187ff., which provide the underlying
ideas in this article.
On this trend and its moral
implications, see my article, "Hebetim Musariyim be-Parshiyot
," Mayim mi-Dalyav
Teacheers' Institute, Jerusalem 2000, p. 7ff.
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,
, 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