SALT - Wednesday, 28 Tammuz 5776 - August 3, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Parashat Masei discusses the laws relevant to cases of inadvertent murder, specifically, the requirement that one who accidentally kills relocates in an ir miklat (city of refuge) where he is protected from angry relatives of the victim.  The Torah establishes that the killer must remain in the city of refuge until the kohen gadol’s death (35:28).

            The Mishna in Masekhet Makkot (11a) tells that it was customary for the kohen gadol’s mother to supply food and clothing for the killers residing in the cities of refuge.  The reason, the Mishna explains, is that the killers would otherwise pray for the kohen gadol to die, so they can return home.  In order to earn their favor so they would not pray for her son’s death, the kohen gadol’s mother would care for them during their stay.

            The Mishna’s remark is fascinating on several levels, and gives rise to a number of different questions, including why it was specifically the kohen gadol’s mother who tried to “bribe” the killers.  If it was important to persuade them not to pray for the kohen gadol’s death, why didn’t the kohen gadol himself care for their needs in an attempt to win their favor?

            The Panim Yafot (here in Parashat Masei) suggests that the kohen gadol was not informed of inadvertent murders that took place.  The Gemara (there in Makkot) comments that the Torah arranges a situation whereby people are likely to pray for the kohen gadol’s death as a punishment of sorts for the kohen gadol, whose role includes praying for the safety and protection of the nation.  A tragic incident of accidental murder is blamed, at least partially, on the kohen gadol, and for this reason the Torah has the killers relocate and feel resentment towards the kohen gadol.  This information was concealed from the kohen gadol, the Panim Yafot suggests, in order not to cause him undue feelings of guilt, and so naturally he was not in a position to supply food and clothing to the killers.

            The Tiferet Yisrael commentary to the Mishna explains that it would be disrespectful for the kohen gadol to come before these killers and plead with them not to pray for his death.  It would be demeaning for him to express this kind of fear, and also to reinforce the suspicion that he was to blame for the tragic turn of events.

            A much different answer is offered by the Arukh La-ner, who notes that the practice to give free food and clothing to inadvertent killers could easily lead unscrupulous people facing financial hardship to pose as inadvertent killers.  People might simply move into a city of refuge on the claim that they had accidentally killed somebody, and they would then be supported, at least until the kohen gadol’s death.  In order to avoid such schemes, the Arukh La-ner writes, the custom developed for specifically the kohen gadol’s mother to supply food and clothing.  The kohen gadol’s mother would generally pass away before the kohen gadol, and when she died, the inadvertent killers living in the arei miklat stopped receiving their free food and clothing.  If a person without a means of sustenance had falsely claimed to have killed somebody in order to benefit from these privileges, he would be “trapped” in the city of refuge after the death of the kohen gadol’s mother, as he would be forced to live there until the kohen gadol’s death, and left without any livelihood.  This is why the goods were provided by the kohen gadol’s mother, and not by the kohen gadol himself, as if the kohen gadol himself cared for the killers, frauds would be easily able to cheat the system by falsely claiming to have committed an accidental murder.

(See Rav Asher Anshel Schwartz’s Ma’adanei Asher, Parashat Masei, 5768)