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Rav Zvi Shimon
In memory of Fred Stone z"l.


Violence is not only horrible due to the damage, injury and death it causes. It is also horrible due to its explosive nature. Violence invariably breeds more violence. The injured party retaliates, setting in motion a chain reaction whose beginning is known to all, but whose end none can foretell. It is with this latter devastating aspect of violence that this week's Torah reading contends:


"The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee.  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...

If he pushed him in hate or hurled something at him on purpose and death resulted, or if he struck him with his hands 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 encounter.

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 cases the assembly shall decide between the slayer and the blood-avenger.  The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who anointed him with the sacred oil.  But if the manslayer ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled, and the blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills the manslayer, there is no bloodguilt on his account.  For he must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return to his land holding." (Numbers 35:9-12, 20-28)


            God commands the Israelites to designate cities of refuge where accidental killers may seek protection from the avenger of the deceased's blood. The killer remains in the city of refuge until he stands trial. If the judges conclude that the killing was unintentional, a consequence of carelessness and not premeditated, then the killer is returned to the city of refuge where he must remain till the death of the high priest. There he lives safely out of the reach of the avenger and the violence is terminated. If, however, the killer is found guilty of murder, he is handed over to the avenger and put to death.


II. The Avenger


            Who is this avenger? He is referred to in Hebrew as the 'goel'. Interestingly, this very same word is used in relation to several other commandments.  The 'goel' receives money owed to a dead family member on behalf of the family (Numbers 5:8), he buys a family member out of slavery brought on by poverty (Leviticus 25:48), and buys property that has passed out of the family under similar conditions (ibid. 25:25). According to the book of Ruth, his responsibilities also include marrying the widow of a childless relative in order to perpetuate his name (Ruth 4:4). All these instances relate to a loss suffered by the family. Thus, we may conclude that the 'goel' is the next-of-kin selected by the family to deal with a loss suffered by that family. This may shed light on the conceived role of the avenger of blood. The 'goel' is not viewed as engaging in revenge but rather in redemption of a family loss. A family member was killed, and the 'goel' seeks to rectify this loss. In so doing, he represents the deceased and his family.


III. Cities of Refuge


            The Torah commands the Israelites to designate cities of refuge in order to protect the accidental killer from the avenger/redeemer. This is the stated purpose of the city of refuge: "The cities shall serve you as a refuge from the avenger" (35:12). According to certain commentators, there is an additional function for the cities of refuge. The unintentional killer must leave his home and move to the cities of refuge from which he may not leave until the death of the high priest. Although the city of refuge protects him, it also confines him. Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) views this confinement as a form of punishment (Rabbi Hirsch on Genesis 4:12). The unintentional killer is banished from his home; he suffers a form of exile. His fate is reminiscent of that of Cain, the first killer: "You have banished me this day from the soil...anyone who meets me may kill me" (Genesis 4:13). Like Cain, the unintentional killer is exiled from home and must be constantly on the watch for potential avengers. He enjoys no security. The punishment for killing is the loss of one's rights to dwell at home and in peace. He who kills forfeits his rights to domicile on earth; he is no longer deserving of his own plot of land. Although an accident, the killer is still partially culpable. He should have been more careful. Now, he must go into exile, into the city of refuge.


These two functions of the cities of refuge, protection and punishment, are not mutually exclusive. The 'Sefer Ha-chinukh' (Lists and elaborates the 613 commandments, anonymous author, Spain, 13th century,) incorporates both in describing the function of the city of refuge:


"At the root of the precept lies the reason that the crime of killing is utmostly serious, for in it lies the destruction of the world - so much so that the Sages of blessed memory taught that if a person kills someone deliberately, even if he has observed all the commandments he is not saved from judgment.

It is therefore proper for one who killed even unintentionally, since such a great misfortune occurred by his hand, that he should suffer for it the anguish of exile, which is almost equal to the anguish of death, since a man is then separated from his friends and his native ground, and he lives all his days with strangers.  Moreover, there is a rectification in the community through this precept, in the sense that Scripture explains: for in this way he will be rescued from the hand of the blood-avenger, that he should not kill him when there was no violence in his hands, since he had done it unintentionally."


            Both these functions highlight the sanctity of human life. The city of refuge protects the life of the unintentional killer and, simultaneously, punishes him for having shed the blood of another human being.


The Torah emphasizes that the cities of refuge must be designated immediately upon entry into the promised land: "When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan" (35:10). Rabbi Hirsch comments on the significance of this specification: 


"The land of the Divine Torah is there for the people who live in it.  Its most valuable every human life...The land is only given on the condition of every human life being respected as being unassailably sacred to the Torah.  One drop of innocent blood shed and no notice taken of it, drops a stitch in the bond which connects the land with the nation and both with God.  This holding of human life to be so sacred is to be made evident immediately on taking possession of the land." (Rabbi Hirsch 35:10)


IV. Ancient Near-Eastern Law


The two concepts discussed so far, the avenger and the cities of refuge, are not creations of the Torah. Both existed in ancient Near Eastern cultures. In fact, to fully grasp the significance of the laws of the cities of refuge, we need to compare them to the prevailing norms of ancient civilization before the giving of the Torah.  For this purpose, we will refer to scholars of ancient Near Eastern civilization.


            The idea of avenging blood was common in Assyrian culture, pre-Islamic Arabian culture, and is found, to this day, in Arabic society, particularly amongst the nomadic Bedouin tribes:


"The practical test of kinship is that the whole kin is answerable for the life of each of its members.  By the rules of early society, if I slay my kinsman, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, the act is murder, and is punished by expulsion from the kin; if my kinsman is slain by an outsider I and every other member of my kin are bound to avenge his death by killing the manslayer or some member of his kin." (W. Robertson Smith, 'The Religion of the Semites' p.272)


"Blood-revenge applies to manslaughter, i.e., to the killing of a stranger.  And in that case the dead man's kin make no effort to discover and punish the individual slayer; they hold his whole kin responsible for his act, and take vengeance on the first of them on whom they can lay hands."(ibid. p. 420)


            Ancient law did not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. In both instances, the blood of the slain had to be avenged. Amazingly, the avenger would not be limited to killing the manslayer. He could retaliate by killing any of the killer's relatives!


            The concept of temples or cities of refuge was also common throughout the ancient Near East and beyond. They existed in Mesopotamia, Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Greece:


"In many cases the assertion of a man's undoubted rights as against a fugitive at the sanctuary is regarded as an encroachment on its holiness; justice cannot strike the criminal, and a master cannot recover his runaway slave who has found asylum on holy soil.  In the Old Testament the legal right of asylum is limited to the case of involuntary homicide; but the wording of the law shows that this was a narrowing of ancient custom, and many heathen sanctuaries of the Phoenicians and Syrians retained even in Roman times what seems to have been an unlimited right of asylum.  At certain Arabian sanctuaries the god gave shelter to all fugitives without distinction and even stray or stolen cattle that reached the holy ground could not be reclaimed by their owners."(ibid. 148)


            Some temples of refuge of ancient civilization enjoyed sweeping powers. Anyone or anything coming within their parameters became untouchable. These holy sites were beyond the arm of the law. Once a murderer entered a city of refuge, he was safe. Consequently, many of the temples became dens for criminals. Amazingly, this intolerable state of affairs existed even within the Roman empire, under the reign of Tiberius (Tiberius Claudius Nero, 2nd emperor of Rome, 42 BC- 37 AD):


"Tiberius, however, while tightening his grasp on the solid power of the principate, vouchsafed to the senate a shadow of the past by submitting the claims of the provinces to the discussion of its members.  For throughout the Greek cities there was a growing laxity, and impunity, in the creation of rights of asylum.  The temples were filled with the dregs of the slave population; the same shelter was extended to the debtor against his creditor and to the man suspected of a capital offence; nor was any authority powerful enough to quell the factions of a race which protected human felony equally with divine worship.  It was resolved, therefore, that the communities in question should send their charters and deputies to Rome."(Tacitus, 'The Annals', book 3, ch. 60)


V. Torah Law


            With this historical background in mind, let us examine some of the laws regulating the Torah's cities of refuge. As you read the Rambam's (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) formulation of the laws of the cities of refuge, note the contrast to the ancient Near Eastern conception:


"Both the unwitting killer and the willful killer first go to the cities of refuge. The court of the city in which the murder took place send for and bring him [the killer] and judge him as is stated "The elders of his town shall have him brought back from there" (Deuteronomy 19:12). He who is sentenced to death, is killed as is stated, "they shall hand him over to the blood avenger" (ibid.); he who is found innocent is released as is stated, "The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger"(Numbers 35:25); he who is sentenced to exile is returned to his place [to the city of refuge] as is stated, "the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge(ibid.)" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer 5:7)


            The first striking difference between Torah law and ancient Near-Eastern law is that, according to Jewish law, the city of refuge is part of the judicial process. It is not an asylum from the law; it is merely a shelter from the avenger. In contrast to the idolatrous cities of refuge which was beyond the pale of the judges, the Israelite court fetches the killer from the cities of refuge. "When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death"(Exodus 21:14). God's altar will not be made into a haven for criminals.


            A second difference is the demand that the killer be judged by an impartial court. According to idolatrous practice, the avenger had free reign to avenge the blood of his relative. The Torah took the decision of the guilt or innocence of the manslayer out of the hands of the avenger and assigned it to an impartial tribunal. Jewish law requires that the killer stand trial before facing the avenger. Only if he is found guilty of murder, is he handed over to the avenger.


            The third fundamental difference is that the Torah clearly distinguishes between the willful and the unintentional killer. The avenger may not kill the unwitting killer residing in a city of refuge. However, the murderer is handed over to the avenger. Thus, Jewish law limits the action of the avenger to the willful murderer, but, at the same time, legally invests him with the role of carrying out the death penalty of he who is found guilty of murder.


            The verses following the laws of the cities of refuge highlight another difference between Torah and common ancient law: "You may not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime; he must be put to death. Nor may you accept ransom in lieu of flight to a city of refuge, enabling one to return to live on his land before the death of the priest" (Numbers 35:31,32). Just as the city of refuge does not override the arm of justice, so, too, does money not absolve from punishment. Compensation can not atone for the spilling of blood even if accepted by the injured party. Justice is the overriding concern.


            In summary, the Torah did not do away completely with the pre-existing structure of the avenger and the cities of refuge but actually implemented them within Torah law. However, the implementation followed a serious overhaul which redefined their function and essence.


            One question still requires elaboration. If the Torah established cities of refuge in order to protect the unintentional killer from the avenger, why did it not totally cancel the whole idea of a blood avenger? Why does the Torah not consider the avenger a murderer? Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) grapples with this very question:


"In early times, before peoples were organized under a king, ministers, judges and officers, every family took revenge against other families, and the closest relative of the dead was responsible to avenge his death. The Torah established judges and officers and transferred the responsibilities of avenging [a killing] from individuals to the community. Now in a case of murder it was possible to mollify the avenger by telling him to leave it to the judges to investigate and execute the killer if found guilty of murder. However, when the killing was unintentional, it was impossible to mollify the avenger and oblige him to watch he who killed his father or brother remain unpunished. He and his acquaintances would interpret this [his inaction] to be proof that he does not love his father or brother, since he does not avenge their death. Now it was impossible to totally uproot this attitude [that lack of vengeance implied lack of love]. The divine wisdom knew that condemning the avenger to death when avenging an unintentional killing would not prevent all or even most of the avengers from avenging the death of their relatives...Therefore, what did the Torah do? It left the avenger the right to avenge the killing of his kin but designated places of refuge where the [unintentional] killer could seek protection and in which the avenger is unable to kill him"


            According to Shadal's approach, the custom of the avenger was so entrenched in ancient society that attempting to totally nullify it would be futile. The Torah therefore satisfied itself with drastically limiting the scope of the law of the avenger and establishing cities of refuge to protect the unintentional killer. Ideally, the Torah would have preferred the total abolishment of the involvement of the avenger, but since this was not possible, the Torah confined his role to a bare minimum.


Shadal is of the opinion that the Torah law does not represent the ideal judicial state. However, there is room to consider the involvement of the avenger as part of the ideal formulation of the law. Our Sages emphasize that only an unwitting killer who was somewhat negligent in causing death must dwell in the city of refuge (see Babylonian Talmud, tractate Makot 7a ff.) Someone who killed unintentionally but in a totally unforeseeable manner, where he is not in any way at fault, is not exiled to a city of refuge and the avenger may not harm him. Thus, the law of the avenger and the cities of refuge pertains to an unwitting killer who is, nevertheless, guilty of a certain degree of negligence. Although the killer does not deserve a death penalty, he is still culpable for his negligence. As stated above, his confinement to a city of refuge may be viewed as part of his punishment. In addition to suffering the pangs of exile, he also loses any sense of peace and tranquility. The unintentional killer must always be on guard from the avenger. It is the avenger who deters the killer from leaving the cities of refuge. Thus, we may see in the avenger and the exile to the cities of refuge one interconnected punishment. The avenger keeps the unintentional killer in the city of refuge and prevents him from enjoying a secure existence elsewhere.


VI. Death of a Priest


            The exile of the unintentional killer is not eternal. Scripture states that he must remain in the cities of refuge until the death of the high priest. Why should the length of the killers' tarriance in the city of refuge be determined by the high priests' life span? This question intrigued all the commentators. We will begin with the explanation advanced by the Seforno (Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, Italy, 1470-1550):


"It has already been explained that exile is the punishment for one who kills in error. Now being that there are different kinds of unintentional sins which are disparate because some are closer to being considered accidental while others are closer to being considered intentional, therefore there are varying periods of exile for one who kills unintentionally. For some, the unintentional act [of killing] is [punished by exile] for a brief period before the high priest dies, while some murderers die in exile before the death of the high priest. This occurs [according to] the judgement of God who punishes the unintentional sinner according to the degree of his error"


            Seforno understands the residence of the unintentional killer in the cities of refuge to be a punishment. Not every case of unintentional manslaughter is comparable. Some instances involve a greater degree of negligence and hence culpability on the part of the killer. Therefore, the Torah did not prescribe a definite number of years to the exile but designated the high priest's life span to be the determinant. God can thus influence the length of the exile. If the killer is deserving of a harsher punishment, the priest will live longer, but if the killer deserves only a minor punishment, God will not lengthen the days of the priest. Do you see any difficulties in this interpretation.


            This interpretation is problematic on several accounts. Why should the high priest's length of life be impacted by the degree of culpability of the unintentional killer? Moreover, the Seforno's interpretation assumes the existence of only one unintentional killer. However, there were surely more than one unintentional killer at a time and every single one of them was a different case with different levels of personal responsibility for the killing.


            The Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yosef Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12th century) agrees that the killers' dwelling in the cities of refuge is a punishment. However, he offers a different explanation of the specification "until the death of the high priest":


"We do not know how long the slain man would have lived had he not been killed. We, therefore, estimate his life span through the high priest who is important, and it is known that it is unlikely that the slain would have lived longer than the high priest who serves God. According to the years which he shortened the life of the slain shall the killer dwell in exile"


            The Bekhor Shor offers a novel explanation. The years in exile come instead of the years lost by the deceased. The Torah states "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"(Exodus 21:24). According to the Bekhor Shor we may now add 'a year for a year'. Exile is a form of death, a detachment from one's natural life and habitat. The price paid by the killer is "loss" of his own life for the same amount of years taken from the deceased. One who steals must return that which he has stolen. The killer cannot return life to the dead but he pays with his own loss of time.


            The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) takes a very different approach in explaining the specification that the unintentional killer remain in the city of refuge “until the death of the high priest”:


"[The Torah] states that he [the unintentional killer] remain [in the city of refuge] till the death of the high priest because the high priest was a prince and a leader of Israel and was consecrated to God. Upon his death the whole nation would tremble and the living would recognize that the days of man are like a shadow. So why should he [the avenger] not shed from his thoughts the idea of avenging [the death] of his relative...for shortly the avenger himself will be led to his grave. Therefore his heart and anger will be placated and he will be consoled and forget his troubles and his zealousness will subside. This is the reason for the designation 'until the death of the high priest' for he is the great one through whom the heart of the avenger is pacified”


            In contrast to the explanations of the Seforno and the Beckor Shor which consider the city of refuge to be a punishment for the killer, the Abrabanel’s explanation considers the city of refuge to be a shelter protecting the unintentional killer from the avenger. The unintentional killer must remain there so long as his life is in peril. For how long does this continue; when does the vindictive rage of the avenger subside? Scripture informs us that this occurs upon the death of the high priest. The death of a leader of the stature of the high priest has a profound impact on the nation. We might compare it to the impact that the death of a great Rabbi would have on the community. The nation’s grief would be so great that it would eclipse all other sorrow. The death of the high priest would cause the avenger to forget his previous sorrow and stop pursuing the killer.


            The three elucidations offered so far for the specification “until the death of the high priest” explained it as a time designation. The death of the high priest is a calendrical signpost revealing additional data such as life expectancy or the duration of the avenger’s vengefulness. Other approaches propose a more direct connection between the high priest and the length of time the unintentional killer must reside in the city of refuge:


“He who kills a human being had no atonement until the Torah established atonement through the death of the high priest [as is written in Numbers 35:25] “and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Yoma 7:3)


            According to our Sages, the death of the high priest is not simply a calendrical designation; it provides atonement for the unintentional killing of human beings and consequently releases the unintentional killer from the city of refuge. This approach is further elaborated by Shadal:


“The priests atone for unintentional sins through the offering of sacrifices, the high priest atones for even more, this being the reason for his functions on Yom Kippur, and the death of the high priest is the highest form of atonement which atones for unintentional manslaughter, the severest of unintentional sins”


            A transgression which was performed unintentionally still requires atonement. This is one of the functions of sacrifices and the priestly temple worship. In addition to sacrifices, our Sages maintain that the death of the high priest atones for unintentional manslaughter. Sacrifices are of no use for such grave sins. The only atonement is the death of the righteous high priest which grants the whole nation atonement for unintentional killings.


            The Rashbam (Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) offers a different interpretation which also links, albeit from a different perspective, the death of the high priest directly to the length of time the unintentional killer must remain in the city of refuge:


“Until the death of the high priest”- “According to the simple reading, throughout the days of the chief justice, as stated 'who never released his prisoners to their homes'(Isaiah 14:17)."


            The priests had several functions within the nation. They were responsible for offering sacrifices and performing the different functions in the Temple as stated “They shall put incense before you, and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar” (Deuteronomy 33:10). In addition, they were the judges of the people as stated: “If there arise a matter too hard for you in shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days” (ibid. 17:8,9). Our Sages, cited earlier, explained the role of the high priest in determining the time when the unintentional killer may leave the city of refuge, on the basis of the first priestly function, the sacrificial rite. Just as sacrifices atone for sin, so does the death of the high priest atone. In contrast to our Sages, the Rashbam emphasizes the second role of the high priest as the chief justice. The high priest sentences the killer to dwell in the city of refuge. This sentence is determined by the high priest and extends throughout the high priest’s life. The killer is not imprisoned in the city of refuge forever. The high priest’s death provides clemency for the killer and ends the obligation to remain in the city of refuge. Why should the sentence be limited to the life the chief justice? Although the Rashbam does not elaborate, the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) grapples with this very question.


“After the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return”(35:28)- “Since the city of refuge of the Levites are under the dominion of the high priest, and he [the unintentional killer] enters his [the high priest’s] dominion, it is proper that he be released upon [the high priest’s] death”


            The cities of refuge are closely connected to the cities of the Levites. They appear in the same chapter in the Torah (see Numbers 35:1-8 and 35:9 ff.). In fact, the forty-two Levite cities function as cities of refuge (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Murderer, 8:9). The cities of refuge are under the jurisdiction of the Levites, and more specifically, the high priest. When an unintentional killer dwells within the city of refuge he becomes the “property” of the high priest. He lives within his city and therefore belongs to him. Although by no means a slave, he still lives under the dominion of the high priest. The same law governing the release of a permanent Jewish slave upon the death of his master (see Mishna, Tractate Kiddushin, 1:2) applies here. The unintentional killer may leave only upon the death of his “master”, the high priest.


            I would like to carry this interpretation a step further. I believe it is possible to view the unintentional killer not only as living under the dominion of the high priest, but as actually joining, in some sense, the tribe of Levy. He no longer resides on his plot of land, but, like the tribe of Levy, dwells in specific cities. For the time being, he has no land inheritance; he joins the ranks of the Levites. Textual support for this novel conception may be found in a precise, albeit novel, reading of an obscure verse in our section:


“And the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest WHO ANOINTED HIM with the sacred oil” (35:25).(In Hebrew- ‘ad mot ha-kohen ha-gadol ASHER MASHACH OTTO be-shemen ha-kodesh’)


            The obvious question is who anointed whom? Who is the subject who did the anointing and who was anointed? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) offers the following interpretation:


“According to its plain sense, this is one of the elliptical sentences- for it does not expressly mention who anointed him but it is the same as ‘the high priest WHOM HE WHO CARRIED OUT THE ANOINTING had anointed with the sacred oil’


            Rashi claims that our verse is abbreviated and can only be understood by adding a subject. The unintentional killer must wait till the death of the high priest whom "the anointer" anointed with the sacred oil. This is the accepted and obvious interpretation. The high priest was anointed before serving in this capacity. The only people to be anointed with the sacred oil are the high priests, the priest who goes out to war with the nation (Deuteronomy 20:2), and the kings of Israel (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Utensils of the Temple, 1:7). The anointing dedicates a person to a new position, in service of God, or an object to the service of the temple. Rashi, therefore, interprets that the high priest was the one who was anointed. However, we must clarify why the Torah uses this abbreviated and obscure phrasing. “there he shall remain until the death of the high priest WHO ANOINTED HIM with the sacred oil”! A simple reading of our verse could lead one to mistakenly conclude that the high priest anointed the unintentional killer!? I would like to propose that the Torah’s obscure wording is meant to have a double entendre, a double meaning. In reality, only the high priest was anointed. However, on a conceptual plain, the unintentional killer was also to be anointed! Why should a killer be anointed with sacred oil? Is not manslaughter the antithesis of sanctity?


            To answer this question, we must return to the interpretation of the Chizkuni. According to the Chizkuni, the unintentional killer falls under the dominion of the high priest. If we accept my claim that the unintentional killer actually joins, in some sense, the ranks of the priests, than it is clear why he is anointed. His entry into the city of refuge is an entry into a new role, a new position as a servant of God. He was not born a priest and must therefore be consecrated for his new status. However, this still begs the question: Why should a killer be promoted to the status of a quasi-priest?


            The answer to this question is that his consecration to the service of God is part of his atonement process. All sinners must atone for their wrongdoing. A thief must return that which he has stolen and pay a fine. One who injures his fellow human being must pay damages and compensation. How does the unintentional killer atone for his negligence? More specifically, to whom is he liable. The Torah informs us that he is liable towards God. The killer has slain a human being, has taken the life of one of God’s creations. He cannot revive the dead. His only way of ‘repaying’ God, of atoning for his sin, is consecrating his life to the service of God. Human life is sacred. If one spills blood unintentionally he must atone for it. The Torah, which so values every human life, wished to prevent the escalation of violence and the further spilling of blood by the avenger. For this reason, it commanded the establishment of cities of refuge. These cities prevented more bloodshed and simultaneously allowed the unintentional killer to atone for his sin by joining the high priest in consecrating his life to the service of God.


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