5774 - #39





            The discussion in Bamidbar, Chapters 34 and 35 is about settling the land of Israel, how it is to be divided amongst the people once the nation enters it. The one exception within this presentation would seem to be that regarding the laws of negligent manslaughter.1 While discussing how the land is to be divided and how the Levite cities are to be apportioned, the Torah therein enters into a detailed description of how the courts are to respond if someone is killed by accident. On the surface, though, it could be argued, the deviation is somewhat understandable. Since the Torah declares that the six arei miklat [cities of refuge]2 are to be amongst the cities given to the Levites,3 the opening is clearly there for the Torah to then discuss the purpose of these cities. It still seems strange, though, for the Torah to fully present these laws at this time,4 especially given the fact that the concept of negligent manslaughter was already introduced in Shemot 21:13. In Bamidbar, we are discussing the settling of the land of Israel; why go off topic to discuss these laws? Perhaps, since the Torah mentions the concept of arei miklat, it would be appropriate to give some description of their purpose – but why enter into a full presentation of the laws of negligent manslaughter at this juncture?  

            It would seem that Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bamidbar 35:10 was also actually bothered by this exact issue. From his words, he seems compelled to explain why the Torah, at this time, enters into a presentation on the laws of negligent manslaughter. He writes: “…The land is only given on the condition of every human life being respected as being unassailably sacred to the Torah…This holding human life to be so sacred is to be made evident immediately on taking possession of the land in the division of it by instituting [this] arrangement…” It would appear that according to Rabbi Hirsch, the detailed description of the laws of negligent manslaughter are specifically presented at this point to make the emphatic statement that the very purpose of the establishment of a Jewish presence on the land is the promotion of the high value of human life. We are not simply to settle the land. We are to create a holy, ethical society upon it. This establishment of the arei miklat upon the land, given their purpose, seals our recognition of this ideal. The goal of cultivating the land is the formation of the highest ethical society.

            I find, though, somewhat of a problem with this idea. The arei miklat were specifically a response to negligent manslaughter and, as such, why would their establishment be a reflection of a goal of developing the highest ethical society? When we think in terms of unethical behavior, we think in terms of premeditation to do evil. An unethical society, as such, is one, it would seem, in which premeditated criminal behavior is rampant. Arei miklat do not speak to this situation; they are a response to negligence, to negative consequences that were not premeditated. How is a response to negligence a primary reflection of a goal of developing the highest ethical society?

            The idea behind this question would actually seem connected to a question of a different nature posed by Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar 35:14. Rashi, Bamidbar 35:14 asks the question of why there were three arei miklat on both sides of the Jordan. Given that the populations on both sides of the Jordan were not equal – after all there were 2.5 tribes on one side and 9.5 tribes on the other – why did both sides have an equal amount of cities of refuge? Rashi answers, based on Hoshea 6:8, that the Gilead had more murderers and thus demanded a greater number of arei miklat per capital. Gur Aryeh, though, wonders why a greater likelihood of premeditated murders would affect the number of arei miklat for these cities only serviced those who killed negligently? He answers that a greater number of premeditated murders would actually impact also on negligent manslaughter for there would be a cheapening of the value of human life. One only suffered exile to a city of refuge if the negligence was somewhat culpable; greater care would have not resulted in this tragic accident. The argument is, thus, that the lack of concern for human life, which is the result of such rampant premeditated murders, would also increase the number of negligent deaths for human life would not be treated with the necessary care.

            Gur Aryeh explains how a greater number of premeditated murders could cause an increase in the number of negligent deaths. Thus there was a need for a greater number of arei miklat per capita in territories with a greater abundance of violent criminal behavior. The fact is, though, that this causal sequence may actually work both ways – and this may explain the thoughts of Rabbi Hirsch. Just as a greater incident of premeditated murder may lead to a greater incident of negligent deaths, for human life is thereby cheapened, it is equally possible that a greater incident of negligent deaths could increase the number of premeditated murders. Human life is also cheapened when it is not given its proper respect and care, which would be evidenced by increased negligence resulting in death. It is not simply the absence of crime including the absence of murders that marks a society with the highest ethical standards. Such a society is one that truly values human life and that is demonstrated through its response to negligent manslaughter. It is in the very care and concern for human life that marks the highest ethical society and that is demonstrated in how the society responds to the demands necessary to preserve and maintain human life.

            The call of the higher ethical standard is beyond the absence of murder. It is the undertaking of steps to further protect human life. It is thus the laws of negligent manslaughter and of the rules of the cities of refuge that are presented to mark the underlying principles that must form the basis of the holy Jewish society that will occupy this land. The value of human life is found not simply in not murdering but in the steps undertaken to actually prevent the loss of life.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 Bamidbar 35:9-34.

2 Within the laws of negligent manslaughter, a family maintained the right to avenge the death of a loved one, yet was forbidden to do so within the confines of a city of refuge. Such cities, thus, served a significant purpose in offering protection to one guilty of negligent manslaughter. As it was also forbidden, though, for such a person to leave such a city, these arei miklat, as such, also served an additional purpose as a form of punishment, as a jail to some extent, for one guilty of negligent manslaughter. Bamidbar 35:6, in discussing the Levites’ rights to the land, mentions that these six cities of refuge are specifically to be given to the Levites – and so the topic is breached.

3 It should perhaps further be mentioned that since all the Levite cities could serve as cities of refuge, albeit with some differences in law from the six cities specifically defined as such cities (see T.B. Makkot 10a, 13a), there is, in fact, some connection between the entire presentation on the Levite cities and the law of negligent manslaughter.

4 Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvot 409-413, actually, counts five mitzvot, within this textual section in Bamidbar, touching upon the case of negligent manslaughter.

Nishma 2014


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