Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Massei 5768/ August 2, 2008

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,



Cities of Refuge as Rehabilitation


Rabbi Judah Zoldan

Midrasha for Women

This week’s parasha teaches that a person who has killed someone by accident may flee to a city of refuge (Numbers ch. 35).  This law does not apply to a person who has committed premeditated murderer, only  to one who was negligent and, not having taken sufficient care, unwittingly caused another person’s death.   This manslaughter, though involuntary, reveals a flaw in the person’s character, for he should have realized that the implement in his hand, which was designed to serve a beneficial purpose (such as an axe, a knife, or the steering wheel of a car), also had the potential of causing harm to the extent of loss of life, if not used with proper care and requisite attention.

The author of Sefer Ha-Hinukh suggests three reasons for a manslayer to flee to a city of refuge (positive commandment 410):

1.     “So that he regret his deed, suffering the pain of exile, which is almost like the pain of death, for a person becomes separated from his loved ones and the land of his birth, and must live out his days among strangers.”

2.     “Moreover, there is an element of improving the world … for it saves him from the blood avenger killing him when he did not willfully do wrong, for his act was unwitting.”

3.     “There is yet another benefit:  so that the relatives of the person who was killed not have to constantly see the killer in the place where the unfortunate act was committed, for all the ways of the Torah are for peace and tranquility.”

Pain and suffering reflect the emotional state of the manslayer, protecting him from the blood avenger shows concern for his safety and physical preservation, and distancing him from the relatives of the person killed brings about an improvement in society, keeping the family of the person killed from having to see the person who shed his blood, at least for a certain period of time.

Aside from these explanations, there are several other issues that should be considered:   what other understanding and view of the value of life will the manslayer have when he leaves the city of refuge, upon the death of the high priest?  What does the manslayer do with his life for the period that he resides in the city of refuge?  Does he learn and internalize a different view of the value of life and of a person’s responsibilities for his actions?  What rehabilitative process does the manslayer experience there, and under whose guidance?

The levitical cities listed at the beginning of chapter 35 also served as cities of refuge.  Living in the midst of spiritual people and educators, some regularly serving in the Temple, provided fertile ground for mending the ways of the person in whom shortcomings in values had become apparent and had taken a heavy price, namely the life of another person.   The author of Sefer Ha-Hinukh (commandment 408) says that the levitical cities were chosen as cities of refuge for the manslayer, “over the territories of the other tribes, in the hope that their sanctified soil would bring him atonement through its sanctity.   And there is yet another reason for this:  since they were spiritual people, knowledgeable in proper values and virtues, and deeply wise, it is well-known to all that they would not prevent the manslayer from taking refuge among them and would not harm him.”

Certainly there is an element of atonement in fleeing to a city of refuge, but primarily there is the association with a society (the Levites) that is prepared and willing to take in manslayers and help them to be rehabilitated.   The great tragedy in manslaughter is that not only was a person’s life taken, but also the life of the manslayer is destroyed.  Although he remains alive, he faces a tremendous personal crisis.  Another reference to cities of refuges says:   “Then Moses set aside three cities on the east side of the Jordan” (Deut. 4:41; lit. “across the Jordan, eastward towards the sun”).  Rabbi Jose b. Rabbi Hanina commented on this unusual expression, “eastward towards the sun”:  “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses:  ‘Shine the sun for the murderer’ –give him a place of refuge to which he can be exiled, so that he not perish due to the sin of taking a life, just as the sun shines on the world” (Deuteronomy Rabbah, Vilna ed., chapter 2,30). 

“That he not perish” means not only protecting him from the desire of the blood avenger to kill him, but also seeing to it that the manslayer himself not go to pieces emotionally.   Having committed something gravely wrong, he feels remorse for his actions; the aim is to rehabilitate him and restore him to normal life, after having improved his sense of values.   The spiritual support and human warmth that come from the Levites, holy and virtuous men, and the influence of living in their midst all contribute to promoting a process of spiritual and moral rehabilitation.

We can learn about the nature of this spiritual and educational rehabilitation from a unique Talmudic ruling regarding the rehabilitation of a disciple who committed manslaughter.  A plain manslayer is exiled by himself, but not so the disciple who commits manslaughter ( Makkot 10a):

Rabbi Isaac said:  What is the meaning of Scripture in saying, “He could flee to one of these cities and live” (Deut. 4:42)?   Make it such for him that he can continue to live.  We are taught:   when a disciple is exiled, his rabbi is exiled with him, for it is written, “and live;” Rabbi Ze’ira said:  From this we learn that a person should not teach a disciple who is not a decent person.

Why is the rabbi of a disciple who committed manslaughter exiled along with his disciple?   Are we to conclude from the remark by Rabbi Ze’ira that the rabbi also bears responsibility for what happened?  What is meant by a disciple who is not a decent person?  If it was wrong to have taken on such a disciple, who after the fact turned out not to be decent, why after his having sinned does his rabbi have to go to the city of refuge with him?  Maimonides, in Laws of Murderers and the Preservation of Life (7.1) explained the reason for this law:  “When a disciple is exiled to a city of refuge, his rabbi is exiled along with him, for it says, “and live”; make it so that he can live, and, without study, the life of people who have wisdom or seek it is as good as death.”

Rabbi Joseph Haviv explained further: [1]   “The Torah is life, as it is written, ‘For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure’ (Deut. 30:20); ‘They are life to him who finds them’ (Prov. 4:22).   The world of that disciple collapses around him, and his emotional plight in the wake of what happened is likely to lead him to perish spiritually, living a life devoid of reason.   He must be helped to find value and purpose to life after what he has done, so that he mend his ways.   He can be brought back to proper life in society by studying Torah, wisdom and ethics. [2]

The rabbis instructed that the process of the disciple’s correction take place under the guidance of his rabbi, and therefore his rabbi is exiled along with him. [3]   Why should the manslayer specifically learn under the tutelage of his own rabbi?  Most likely there are many people in the city of refuge from whom he could learn and acquire knowledge.  Ritba (R. Yomtov al- Ashvilli on Makkot 10a) answers this question:  “Even though there be a yeshivah in the city of refuge, not from everyone can a person necessarily learn, as was said in Tractate Avodah Zarah 13a.”  Thus we see that there must be a perfect spiritual match between rabbi and disciple.   This matter of suiting one to the other is explained by Rabbi David ben Zimra: [4]

When a person looks at someone with whom he feels comfortable, his soul awakens to perfect devotion, his mind expands and his heart rejoices, and then the spirit of the Lord rests on him as was said regarding prophecy … and therefore Rabbi Jose said:  not from everyone can a person necessarily learn Torah.

Being directly acquainted with the disciple and having the disciple trust in his rabbi will help him become rehabilitated and rebuild his life.

Another possible reason the rabbi is exiled along with his disciple is that he may not have handled that disciple properly prior to the act of manslaughter, for otherwise perhaps the manslaughter might have been prevented.  Maimonides writes about improper handling of disciples ( Hilkhot Talmud Torah 4.1):

Torah should not be taught except to a disciple who is decent and proper in his ways, or to a simpleton; but if he was going in bad ways, he is to be brought back to the better and directed to the straight and narrow, then examined, and afterwards he is taken into the bet midrash and taught.

When one sees that there is something not proper in the behavior or values of a disciple, this should be handled from the start and only after a substantial improvement is seen in him is he to be returned to regular studies.  The rabbi’s mistake lay in teaching that disciple and drumming knowledge into him without bringing him back to the right path, and as we know, “proper behavior takes precedence over Torah.”  He should have set aside further learning and recitation and instead have focused on building the disciple’s personality, sense of values, and proper behavior.  It was in this context that Rabbi Ze’ira made his remark:   “From this we learn that a person should not teach a disciple who is not a decent person.”  It is as if he had said, “Observe the sorry outcome of the disciple whose rabbi did not handle him as he ought to have,” and therefore also his rabbi must mend his ways:  he must go into exile in the city of refuge along with his disciple, and there restore him to the straight and narrow under the worst of initial circumstances, namely after the disciple had already come to the point of committing manslaughter.  Now he will work with his disciple on life, the value of life, and his attitude towards it.

Thus we see that manslayers are required to undergo a process of educational and spiritual rehabilitation in the realm of their values.  They are to be trained to behave well and responsibly, and to be considerate of others and caring for human life.   The accepted modes of punishment in our times for people who have committed manslaughter (imprisoning them, revoking their driver’s license, having them pay damages) do not always bring about a reform in the mindset of the person who killed another, taking someone else’s life, albeit unwittingly.  These punishments act as deterrents, but they contain only the element of “shunning evil,” not the positive element of “doing good.” The process of rehabilitation must be accompanied by a parallel process that affects the person’s consciousness and installs proper values; in this way a person can return to proper life in society despite all the pain and hardship. [5]


[1] In his commentary on R. Yitzhak Alfasi’s Hilkhot Ha-Rif, entitled Nimukei Yosef (Tractate Makkot 3a in the Rif).   As we know, Alfasi did not issue halakhic rulings in areas that were not of contemporary applicability, and cities of refuge were not in practice then or now.  So, indeed, Rif made almost no halakhic rulings on any of the halakhot that appear in the second chapter of Makkot, save for this rule about the student and his teacher .

[2] Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger, in his book, Arukh la-Ner (Makkot, loc. sit.) concludes from Maimonides’ remarks:  “This applies not only to the disciple for whom studying the Torah is his life, as Maimonides wrote,” but this is beside the point.   The objective is to awaken in that disciple a desire to seek divine wisdom so that he can learn to examine his own actions in order that such a grave mishap not recur, and return to proper life in society after a process of repentance and atonement and learning to take be careful in his actions.

[3] Rabbi Hayyim Jacob Goldwicht, Asufat Ma’arkhotMillei d’Avot, Part V, pp. 231-241, draws a connection between what is said in Avot 4.14 – “Be exiled to a place of Torah,” and exiling a manslayer.  Underlying the act of killing a person unwittingly is a lack of care for human life, since taking human life lightly leads to careless behavior to the extent that it may cost a person’s life. The purpose of having the manslayer reside in a city of refuge is to absorb the breadth of mind obtained through knowledge of the Torah and  thereby to strengthen recognition of the value of human life, since the cities of refuge served as houses of study for learning Torah; and therefore also his rabbi was exiled with him, in order to tailor Torah study to the manslayer in the most appropriate fashion.   See Sefat Emet, Parashat Mas’ei, 1871 and 1874.

[4] Responsa Radbaz, Part 3, par. 472.

[5] On cities of refuge as a model for rehabilitation today, see Rabbi Dr. Itamar Wahrhaftig, “ Arei Miklat be- Yameinu,” Mamlekhet Kohanim ve-Goy Kadosh, Alon Shevut 1989, pp. 263-275.