One of the topics that this week’s portion of the Torah deals with is that of the cities of refuge. When the Israelites enter the land, so it is called for, “you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. The cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for trial. The cities which you are to give shall be your six cities of refuge… for the sons of Israel, and for the alien and for the sojourner among them; that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.” However this is conditioned upon two things, firstly, it must be an unintentional killing, and secondly he “shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. But if the manslayer at any time goes beyond the border of his city of refuge to which he may flee, and the blood avenger finds him outside the border of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger kills the manslayer, he will not be guilty of blood because he should have remained in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest. But after the death of the high priest the manslayer shall return to the land of his possession.” So seemingly this is all pretty straightforward. In the case of an unintentional killing, the killer may flee to one of the six cities of refuge. While there he may not be touched but if he leaves the city’s boundaries than he may be struck and killed in revenge. He may leave only once the high priest dies.
This of course cannot finish just with the words from the Torah and in the Mishnah we find a discussion about this issue. (Nezikin, Makot, 2ns chapter, 7th Mishnah). It is argued there that one who was in such a city but there was not high priest, or who has killed a high priest or a high priest who has killed can never leave the boundaries of the city of refuge. Even if the People of Israel need him, even if he is as great as the war lord Yoav the son of Tsruiah, he cannot not leave the confinement of the city of refuge. This is learned from the teaching of chapter 35 of the book of Numbers that proclaims that the person has fled into that city, there will be where he stays, there it will be where he dies, and there it will be where he shall be buried. This is extended to the entire area of the city, that is, the city boundaries so even the outskirts of the city can take in it a person seeking refuge. The Mishna continues to discuss a debate between Rabbi Yossi from the Galilee and Rabbi Akiva. In the case where someone who fled into such a city of refuge that has now left it and may meet up a blood avenger – Rabbi Yossi argues that it is a mitzvah for the blood avenger to avenge and that others have the right to do so while Rabbi Akiva argues differently. He says that it is an option for the blood avenger while others do not have any such responsibility. There is also a question of what happens of a person who has already killed once and now kills unintentionally within the city of refuge and he must move from one neighborhood to another, however, if it is a Levite, he must leave the city of refuge to another city of refuge.
This is an interesting debate as they bring up a case where for some reason the high priest is actually not present, he may be killed, not alive or accused of killing. The solution is that, assuming that the killing was unintentional, that person must remain within the confinement of the city of refuge. This is regardless of that person’s qualities or how important he may be. Even if that person is the most capable person to lead the military he may not move from that city. It may be a rare occasion, certainly not a common one, but nevertheless one worthwhile thinking about. Their conclusion is that such a person may not be free to roam the country even if he is needed for important state matters, for example being a witness of the month, the person saying that he saw the new moon. He may not leave the borders of the city.
As for the debate between Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Akiva we can find a profound philosophical difference in the way to two rabbis think. Rabbi Yossi sees the revenge as a proper conduct that the avenger is not free to choose if to perform or not, he is obliged to take matters in his own hands. Rabbi Akiva leans more towards allowing the blood avenger the freedom to decide if he really wishes to have more bloodshed and gives him the opportunity to stop a spiral of blood from flowing.
If that debate is not enough this also led to another complexity. What happens in the case where someone who has fled to a city of refuge kills again, unintentionally. Here the solution is for most people that they will have to move from one neighborhood to another. However this does not apply upon the Levites, they have to move from one city of refuge to another.
Today we do not have cities of refuge. The law is different – blood vengeance is not tolerated in most of the world and is certainly not accepted by the law. Nevertheless there remains a grading of levels of killing from minimal offence until the most severe. The law does not deal in a similar way with those who have killed on self-defense or unintentionally and those who have cold bloodedly plan to end the life of another human being. The importance of the studying of these cases is that it gives us an opportunity to debate a theoretical case and deal with its consequences not when an actual real world situation requires a decision. These may require significant pondering, learning, and debating of issues and does not ensure that the same conclusions will be reached. Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Akiva arrive at different conclusions because their methods of reasoning stem from different approaches. Nevertheless both come at it through deep learning, study of a problem and an attempt to come up with a solution that can be applied in day-to-day life.
Reuven Marko, 2 August 2019, 2 Menachem-Av, 5779