Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Matot-Massey

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-Massey 5759/1999

Who Runs to a City of Refuge?

Dr. Aharon Shemesh

Naftal-Yaffe Dept. of Talmud

In this week's portion, we are told of the laws of the cities of refuge. Already in Exodus (21:12-14) the Torah stresses that "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." However, "when a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death."(ibid.) How shall we know who killed by mistake and who with intent, who shall be exiled and who put to death? Our parasha gives a detailed description of both sorts of killers, beginning with the murderers:

Anyone, however, who strikes another with an iron object so that death results, is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death.

If he struck him with a stone tool that could cause death, and death resulted, he is a murderer; the murder must be put to death.

Similarly, if the object with which he struck him was a wooden tool that could cause death, and death resulted, he is a murderer; the murder must be put to death.

The blood-avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; it is he who shall put him to death upon encounter.

So, too, if he pushed him in hate or hurled something at him on purpose and death resulted, or if he struck him with his hand in enmity and death resulted, the assailant shall be put to death; he is a murderer.

The blood-avenger shall put the murderer to death upon the encounter.

(Numbers 35:16-21)

This description of intentional murderers is divided into two groups; each concludes with the instruction that "the blood-avenger shall put the murderer to death." The act of killing in the first group is identical: the killer strikes (Heb. hikka) the victim with a metal object, a stone, or a wooden implement. In the second group, the Torah uses three different verbs -- to push, to hurl, to strike. In addition, here we are told that the act was done in hate, on purpose, with enmity.

It seems that sometimes -- in the first set of cases-- the way the killing was done proves that it was with intent and forethought, such as hitting someone with an implement that clearly could kill. But sometimes the modus operandi does not prove anything. In these cases, it is necessary to have additional knowledge before we can decide. For example-- the second set-- if we know the killer and his victim were enemies, we will conclude that these acts constitute murder, but if "he was not an enemy of his and did not seek his harm" (Num.35:23) then we may assume that the killing was accidental. Such a decision must be made where no deadly implement was used, but rather one man pushed the other or threw something upon him or even hit him with his bare fist but not hard enough to kill.

Indeed the description of accidental killings is quite similar to the second set above:

But if he pushed him without malice aforethought

or hurled any object at him unintentionally,

or inadvertently dropped upon him any deadly object of stone, and death resulted--

though he was not an enemy of his and did not seek his harm--

in such a case the assembly shall decide between the slayer and the blood-avenger.

(35:22-24)

Here too the Torah uses the different verbs "to push, to hurl, to drop," but the verb "to strike" which appears in the intentional killings is not used here. We may learn from the various Bible translations that to hurl and to drop an object are synonymous: The Aramaic Onkelos translates both by one word, rema (to throw). Pseudo-Jonathan uses telaq for both. Thus the three verbs of action boil down to two kinds of acts, with one common denominator: The common denominator in the accidental cases is that the victim was killed by the force of gravity, whether he himself was pushed and fell, or a heavy object fell upon him and killed him.

These conclusions are strengthened by the midrashic exposition of Sifre Numbers. The Midrash deals with the verses describing intentional murder, but its comments relate to the accidental cases as well. Commenting on the language "Anyone, however, who strikes another with an iron object so that death results," (35:16) the Midrash asks, "I know only [that he is culpable ] if he strikes him with a metal object, but if he threw upon him blocks of metal, how do we know that he is guilty? That is why the verse adds, 'He is a murderer; the murder must be put to death'". In similar form , the Midrash inquires after the remaining verses, "If he struck him with a stone tool that could cause death... Similarly, if the object with which he struck him was a wooden tool that could cause death"(35:17-18), "What if he rolled over him a large stone, or cast wooden logs at him?"

It is therefore possible to kill someone with a metal object in two ways: By striking him with an object, even one as small as a pin, or by throwing a heavy bar of metal at the person. So too with objects of stone and wood, which may be small but deadly items in the hands of the assailant, or large and heavy ones which are cast at the victim. In the latter case of throwing, we must indeed determine, as the Torah points out, if there was a motive of enmity and hate or if the pushing, hurling, and dropping were indeed accidental, in which case the killer must run to the cities of refuge to be saved.

Reading our parasha in this way sheds new light on the Mishna at the beginning of the second chapter of tractate Makkot, which enumerates the various accidental killers who are to be exiled to the cities of refuge:

These must escape into exile: If a man killed a soul unwittingly--if he was rolling [the roof] with a roller (ma'agila) and it fell on a man and killed him, or if he was letting down a jar [from the roof] and it fell on a man and killed him, or if he was coming down a ladder and he fell on a man and killed him--he must escape into exile.

But if he was pulling up a roller and it fell on a man and killed him, or if he was drawing up a jar and the rope broke and it fell on a man and killed him, or if he was going up a ladder and fell down on a man and killed him, he need not escape into exile.

This is the general rule: he [that causes death] in the course of his coming down must escape into exile, but if not in the course of his coming down, he need not escape into exile.

The rolling-pin (ma'agila) in the Mishna was made from a heavy stone, elongated and rounded, which was used for smoothing out ("tarring") roofs. It is thus identical to what the Sifre had in mind when it asked, "What if he rolled over him a large stone?" and therefore was chosen as the Mishna's illustration for the verse "or inadvertently dropped upon him any deadly object of stone, and death resulted" (35:23). The barrel is the object illustrating the previous verse, "or hurled any object at him unintentionally". Finally, the man who fell from the ladder is, apparently, an enlargement of the Torah's description of the first case, "But if he pushed him without malice aforethought" (35:22). There is no basic difference whether the killer pushed his victim off the roof unintentionally or accidentally fell off himself and killed someone. In both cases, the death resulted from a fall without the medium of an object

A careful look at the verses and the principles behind each one has shown that the cases in the Mishna, which at first glance seem far removed from the simple meaning of the Torah, are in fact rooted in the Midrash Halakha (Sifre) exposition of those verses.

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