the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Cities of Refuge
Dr. Michael Helinger
Department of Basic Jewish Studies
The Torah and First Prophets mention the cities of refuge no less than five times, giving the subject more attention than most other biblical topics receive:
A. The subject arises for the first time in Parashat Mishpatim: “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” (Ex. ).
B. In today’s parasha, Parashat Masei, the subject appears fully detailed (35:9-34), as part of the commandments that have to do with entering the promised land, settling it, and apportioning it among the Israelite tribes.
C. Cities of refuge (‘arei miqlat) are mentioned again when Moses delivers his last and comprehensive speech to the Israelites. Moses reviews the history of the Israelites under his leadership, and takes the occasion to relay to the people the Lord’s commands that deal with conquering the land of Israel, settling it, and organizing the public and religious life in the land (Deut. 19:1-13).
D. Deuteronomy (4:41-44) mentions that Moses set aside three cities to serve as cities of refuge, an act that he was not explicitly commanded to do, for in this commandment the Lord said to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge” (Num. 35:9-10).
The last mention of the subject is in Joshua (20:1-9). Joshua was
commanded to designate cities of refuge for those who kill a person by
mistake. Indeed, we are told that Joshua
and the Israelites set aside three cities of refuge on the western side of the
The large number of passages dealing with the subject indicates the great importance attached to safeguarding life (even if it be the life of someone who has slain a person by mistake). Examining the above passages in Scripture reveals an interesting development, beginning with the initial command and continuing through its actual implementation.
Not every settlement in the
These cities should be neither small strongholds nor large cities, rather medium-sized towns; and they should not be set up except where there is water, and if there is no water there then water should be brought there; and they should not be set up except where there are markets; and they should not be set up except in a populated area.
It follows from this passage that in order to establish and set aside a place as a city of refuge one had to see the area, check whether it is appropriate, and do what is necessary to prepare the city for its special purpose. Perhaps this will help us understand the many passages dealing with the subject, as well as their order.
The general principle is mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim: someone who kills a person by mistake is not subject to death, but exile, therefore “I will assign you a place (makom) to which he can flee” (Ex. 21:13). Note that it says ‘a place’ and not ‘a city of refuge’. The names of the places chosen for this purpose are not yet given, nor are the details of the laws associated with selecting the place and making it appropriate, for the time had not yet come to deal with these details that are dependent on conquering the land and settling it.
This week’s reading,
which deals for the most part with the theme of settling the land according to
its boundaries, seems the natural place for commanding in detail the laws
concerning cities of refuge. The weekly
reading tells how the Reubenites and
Gadites received consent from Moses to settle on the
eastern side of the
After the eastern realms of the
Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan … Bezer, in the wilderness in the Tableland, belonging to the Reubenites; Ramoth, in Gilead, belonging to the Gadites; and Golan, in Bashan, belonging to the Manassites (Deut. 4:41-43).
Moses took this action even though these cities of refuge
would not take in manslayers until after the cities on the other side of the
In addition to the six cities that were set aside as cities of refuge and that took in manslayers who killed a person by mistake, another forty-two cities were given to the Levites out of the inheritance of the rest of the tribes: “The towns that you assign to the Levites shall comprise the six cities of refuge that you are to designate for a manslayer to flee to, to which you shall add forty-two towns” (Num. 35:6).
According to Abaye, there is a difference between the ability of the six cities of refuge to take in people and the remaining forty-two towns of the Levites: “Abaye said: These [the six] take in [manslayers] whether deliberately or undeliberately, and those [the remaining forty-two] take in deliberately, but undeliberately they do not take in” (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 10a).
The six cities of refuge take in the manslayer whether he arrived with the intention of fleeing there to find refuge from the blood avenger, or whether he arrived there by chance. The blood avenger is forbidden to kill him, and if he should happen to kill him them he himself must pay with his life. In contrast, the cities of the Levites take in and protect a manslayer who killed someone by mistake only if he knew that that city takes in manslayers. He had to arrive there with the intention of rescuing himself from the blood avenger. Maimonides adds that a manslayer who lives in one of the six cities of refuge does not pay rent, whereas in the other Levite cities the manslayer pays rent (Hilkhot Rotze’ah u-Shmirat ha- Nefesh, 8.10).
In choosing the cities of refuge several factors were taken
into account, the central objective being to create a refuge that would provide
optimal protection for a person who had killed someone by mistake.
It should be noted that one of the
considerations in choosing the location of the city was the frequency of
manslayers in the area: where there were
many manslayers, more cities of refuge were to be set aside.
To the wonderment expressed by the Sages of
the Talmud regarding the asymmetry in the number of cities of refuge in the
Six was not the final and absolute number for cities of refuge. Maimonides writes that in the future it will be necessary to add another three cities of refuge (Hilkhot Rotze’ah u-Shmirat ha-Nefesh, 8.4): 
In the days of the Messiah another three cities will be added to these six, for it is written, “then you shall add three more towns to those three” (Deut. 19:9). Where are these cities to be added? In the towns of the Kenites, the Kenizites and the Kadmonites, who were included in the covenant with Abraham but had not yet been conquered; of them it says in the Torah, “And when the Lord your G-d enlarges your territory.”
 Cf. also Midrash Tanna’im on Deuteronomy, 19:9: “Whence is it said that the cities of refuge have neither ascents nor descents, neither orchards nor workshops? For it says ‘that he shall live,’ and ‘live’ indicates that nothing was there but markets for livelihood.”
 Cf. also
loc. sit.: “‘Then you shall add
three more towns’ – Scripture refers to the time of the Messiah.”
Similarly in the