Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mattoth 5760/2000

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 Mattoth-Mas'ei 5760/ 29 July 2000

Three Who Are Partners in Man

Dr. Hayyim Borgansky

Department of Talmud

The Torah has three passages dealing with cities of refuge: Parashat Mishpatim in Exodus (21:13), Parashat Shofetim in Deuteronomy (19:1-13), and Parashat Mas`ei in Numbers (35:9-34). From the very names of these weekly readings we note that this week's portion is exceptional, for unlike the other portions -- Mishpatim or Laws, and Shofetim, Judges -- it does not deal with legal matters, but primarily with apportioning the land (from chapter 33, verse 50, on). This puts the subject of cities of refuges in a new and different context.

To understand the function of cities of refuge we must clarify who are the "interested parties" opposing the murderer and demanding that he be punished for his action. A look at Scriptures shows that first and foremost is the "blood-avenger," the next of kin wishing to avenge the blood of his relative. This week's reading states several times that the murderer is to be put to death by the avenger: "The blood-avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; it is he who shall put him to death upon encounter" (Num. 35:19, and similarly in verse 21).

In Deuteronomy 19:11-12 we read: "If, however, a person who is the enemy of another lies in wait for him and sets upon him and strikes him a fatal blow and then flees to one of these towns, the elders of his town shall have him brought back from there and shall hand him over to the blood-avenger to be put to death." The idea here appears to be that the blood-avenger, as the representative of the murdered person's family, or perhaps even as the representative of the murdered person himself, has a right to the murderer's life. [1] Perhaps that is why he is literally called go'el ha-dam, the "blood-redeemer," i.e., the one who sets the blood of the murdered person to rest by shedding the blood of the murderer, a sort of retribution "measure for measure." [2] Apparently this is also the sense of the Lord's command to Noah: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6).

In this respect, the purpose of the city of refuge is to protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger. Indeed, this purpose is mentioned in the three passages of the Torah that discuss cities of refuge:

Exodus 21:13 reads: "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"; this week's reading says: "The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer may not die unless he has stood trial before the assembly" (v. 12); and, likewise, Deuteronomy 19:6-7: "Otherwise, when the distance is great, the blood-avenger, pursuing the manslayer in hot anger, may overtake him and kill him; yet he did not incur the death penalty, since he had never been the other's enemy."

Note that the Torah does not forbid the blood-avenger to kill the manslayer, for the blood of the slain person may be claimed whether it is a case of premeditated murder, whether manslaughter. The Torah is only offering protection for the manslayer, to guarantee due legal process in avenging blood. [3] According to the legal system of the Torah, a manslayer does not incur the death penalty; but if the killer leaves his city of refuge, he loses his right to protection, and then if "the blood-avenger kills the manslayer, there is no bloodguilt on his account" (Num. 35:27).

Thus far we have discussed the theme of blood-avenging which is common to all three sources. The new element added in this week's reading concerns the role of the land as an "interested party" in the legal proceedings against the murderer: "You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it" (v. 33).

This astounding verse introduces us to the land as an entity that is injured (polluted) by blood being shed on it and that is not assuaged when blood has been shed on it until it "drinks" the blood of the one who shed blood. While the land thirsts for the blood of a person who commits premeditated murderer, it is ready to compromise in the case of a manslayer, perhaps also out of compromise with the laws of the Torah, and to settle for the killer being banished from the land to a city of refuge.

In this respect the city of refuge is a sort of ex-territorial place where the manslayer can live without residing in the land, so that being there is the manslayer's punishment for causing injury to the land. This follows from the fact that the Torah warns against accepting ransom from a murderer sentenced to death and, in the same context and similar language, warns against accepting ransom from someone who should be in a city of refuge and seeks "to return to live on his land" (vv. 31-32). Thus the land requires one of two punishments: the death of the murderer for premeditated murder; for manslaughter, banishment of the manslayer from the land.

The roots of this approach go very far back in the Torah, to the first case of murder, in which the land figured as an interested party against Cain the murderer: "Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth" (Gen. 4:11-12).

Here the land appears as a living entity that opens its mouth and swallows the blood, similarly to what is written in this week's reading. The result, as well, is similar: the murderer is forever banished off the land, and therefore shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth. [4] Note that Cain's lot was not eased and the Lord did not give him the option of being "present yet absent" in a city of refuge.

As we have said, the notion that a murderer causes injury to the land, and that therefore banishment to a city of refuge is the punishment for injury to the land, is unique to Parashat Mas'ei and is not found in the other passages. Now it becomes evident that the passage on cities of refuge is connected with the passage on apportionment of the land not only because setting aside cities of refuge is related to determining the tribal allotments. The connection between these passages goes much deeper, the land itself demanding that there be cities of refuge. Both figures, the blood-avenger and the land, both of which demand the blood of the slain person, appear in the well-known legend about Nebuzaradan in the Temple:

Rabbi Hiyya quoted Rabbi Joshua b. Korha, saying: An old man of Jerusalem once told me that in this valley the master butcher Nebuzaradan slaughtered two hundred and eleven myriads, and in Jerusalem he killed ninety-four myriad on a single stone, until their blood flowed and reached the blood of Zechariah, fulfilling what is written: "blood toucheth blood" (New JPS Translation: Crime follows upon crime)" (Hosea 4:2). Thus went the story: Nebuzaradan found the blood of Zechariah seething up and asked, "What is this?" They told him, "The blood of sacrifices that has been spilled." He brought the blood of sacrifices and saw that it did not look the same as this blood, so he said to them, "It would be best for you to tell me, but if you do not, I shall comb your flesh with iron combs." They said to him, "What shall we tell you? His son was a prophet who used to reprove us about heavenly matters. We rose up against him and killed him, and for years his blood has found no rest." He said to them, "I shall appease him." He brought a High Court and a Lower Court and killed them, but the blood did not rest; he brought young maidens and lads and killed them, but the blood did not rest; he brought babes from the Beit Midrash and killed them, but the blood did not rest. Finally Nebuzaradan said to him: "Zechariah, Zechariah, I have done away with the very best of them; would you have me do away with them all?" When he had spoken to him thus, the blood rested... That is what Scripture meant in saying: "She set her blood upon the barock, so that it was not covered." [To fulfill what is written: "blood toucheth blood" (Hosea 4:2).]

The picture that emerges here bears an amazing resemblance to what we described above. The blood of Zechariah, shed two hundred years earlier, continued to seethe and would not rest, apparently waiting for the blood of those who murdered him. Nebuzaradan tried to "avenge" the blood, but to no avail; only his sharp remarks put Zechariah's blood to rest. This harrowing legend is built around Ezekiel's prophesy (Ezek. 24:6-8), which also contains similar motifs:

Woe to the city of blood ... For the blood she shed is still in her; she set it upon a bare rock; she did not pour it out on the ground to cover it with earth. She set her blood upon the bare rock, so that it was not covered, so that it may stir up [My] fury to take vengeance.

The prophet describes the city of blood, where the blood of those who were murdered was not covered, unlike the practice with the blood of animals. Thus the blood remained exposed, not absorbed into the ground or covered with earth. This condition, where blood cries out and is not covered, symbolized to Ezekiel murderous corruption and is surely connected to what we read in this week's portion about the land thirsting for the blood of the murderer in order to atone for the blood of the murdered.

This does not yet complete the picture, for the Lord also has a claim against the murderer and has been an interested party ever since the command given Noah: [5] "But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in His image did G-d make man" (Gen. 9:5-6). The Lord requires a reckoning for human life of the beasts and of man for his fellow man. The reason that "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed," lies in the fact that "in His image did G-d make man." The Lord demands a reckoning for the soul, for the Lord Himself is the creator of that soul; the breath of life that the Lord inspired in Man is what made him a living soul.

In this week's reading and in Parashat Shofetim the Lord does not appear explicitly as an interested party. [6] It may be, however, that His mission is fulfilled by the public officials: the assembly (in this week's reading), and the city elders (in Shofetim), whose function is to try the case of the murderer and to decide according to the legal principles of the Torah whether he is to be handed over to the blood-avenger or is to be banished. [7] Perhaps in this context we can understand why the laws on cities of refuge stipulate that upon the death of the High Priest the murderer is "released" from banishment. If we accept the murderer as owing a debt to the Lord, perhaps we can understand how the priest might serve as the representative of the people's bond to the Lord, so that his death would mark the end of an era on the level of these relations and as a result would bring to a close the term of punishment given the murderer.

Be that as it may, we have presented an overall approach according to which a murderer causes injury to three fundamental elements in human existence: the family of the murdered person, the Lord, and the land. [8] Or, to put it differently: his biological parents, on the one hand, and his two "figurative" parents, on the other. Having been injured, these three parties demand that the murderer be punished, each according to its nature. Thus we can say that there are three partners with an interest in man: the earth, that gave him his first body; the Lord, Who inspired him with the breath of life; and his parents, who actually gave birth to him. When a murderer spills a person's blood on the earth, these three come and demand that he pay the consequences of his action.

[1] Blood-avenging of this sort occurs several times in the Bible. Suffice it to mention Abner being killed by Joab, brother of Asahel (II Sam. 2-3). Cf. especially 3:27 there: "Thus [Abner] died for shedding the blood of Asahel, Joab's brother."

[2] The reciprocal relationship between murdered and murderer is developed to the fullest extent in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai on Exodus 21:13, which raises the possibility that "the same way as he murdered, he shall be slain," and therefore, "if he killed him with a dagger, he shall be killed with a dagger; if he killed him with a rod [reed?], he shall kill him with an encrusted rod." Also cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 24b 7.3.

[3] This is stated explicitly in verse 30 in this week's reading: "If anyone kills a person, the manslayer may be executed only on the evidence of witnesses; the testimony of a single witness against a person shall not suffice for a sentence of death."

[4] According to this view, Cain's fear that "anyone who meets me may kill me" (Gen. 4:14) stemmed from his fear of a blood-avenger and not from the earth's punishment of him. Indeed, the sentence of banishment was not commuted, but his fear of a blood-avenger was answered by the Lord by placing a mark on Cain that he not be killed.

[5] Also cf. what Reuben says to his brothers in the Joseph story: "Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (Gen. 42:22), by which he surely meant the reckoning demanded by G-d. Also cf. Psalms 9:13: "He who requites bloodshed is mindful of them," which also refers to the Lord's requiring a reckoning.

[6] Save for the last verse: "You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I Myself abide, for I the Lord abide among the Israelite people," except that this verse might be connected specifically with the land.

[7] This also follows from the rite of breaking a heifer's neck, in which the act of the elders and judges is followed by the priests, sons of Levi, petitioning the Lord: "Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel" (Deut. 21:8).

[8] Cf. Deut. 32:43: "O nations, acclaim His people! For He'll avenge the blood of His servants, wreak vengeance on His foes, and cleanse the land of His people.

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