Some Aspects of Arei Miklat and How They Work

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Towards the end of Parshat Mas’ei, Hashem has Moshe teach the Jewish people about arei miklat, cities where unwitting murderers must flee. [The obligation is in force regardless of whether this murderer fears the go’el ha-dam, the relative the Torah made responsible for avenging the death; every murderer must be judged as to whether the incident was deliberate, out of his/her control, or where in between it lies. If the court determines it was shogeg, without full awareness, the murderer must stay there until the Kohen Gadol passes away].

Hashem tells Moshe, 35;10, to speak to the Jewish people, ve-amarta aleihem, and say to them. Meshech Hochmah knows Sotah 26a and several places in Torat Kohanim, the Midrash Halachah to Vayikra, take the seemingly redundant ve-amarta aleihem to include converts. Yet verse fifteen already singles out converts and residents for inclusion in arei miklat, so what is it doing here?

Timing the Cities of Refuge

For an aspect of arei miklat where we needed to know to include converts, Meshech Hochmah turns to R. Simai, in Makkot, who taught the cities of refuge did not operate until the Land of Israel had been conquered and settled. While Moshe set aside the ones on the east side of the Jordan, they did not function until the rest of the Land had been conquered and the other arei miklat set aside as well.

We might have thought the delay was only for born Jews, says Meshech Hochmah, because perhaps only they were obligated to conquer, divide, and settle the Land. Converts do not clearly bear the obligation of acquiring the Land, and maybe could therefore have used the arei miklat from the moment they were designated. Ve-amarta aleihem rejects the idea, includes them in the limitation of arei miklat to after conquest and settlement.

[He doesn’t say whether this reveals they also bore an obligation to conquer the Land. Before I read this Meshech Hochmah, I assumed anyone who converts as the nation is about to go to war immediately becomes encompassed by the nation’s war. Meshech Hochmah certainly doesn’t think it’s obvious, may even disagree about the fact of it. In his world, there were already plausible unwitting murders at that stage of the nation’s existence, and also plausible the Torah would set up a two-tier system, converts not having to go to war and already using the arei miklat, but for the verse.]

Later, he suggests another reason the cities on the east side of the Jordan did not take effect earlier, to avoid unwitting murderers leaving the west side of the Jordan to take refuge on the east side (which he calls hutz la-aretz, outside of Israel).

Second, the murderer must stay in the city until the Kohen Gadol passes away. Were unwitting murderers already being hosted in arei miklat during the war to conquer and then settle Israel, they would have no hope of leaving, because Elazar Ha-Kohen, the Kohen Gadol of the time, was vital to the process. Knowing he was guaranteed not to die during those years, they would know they were stuck there, and Meshech Hochmah is sure murderer-residents of a city of refuge had to have some hope of leaving. [He does not expand on why hope was essential.]

Cities of Levi’im Also Offer Refuge, When They Belong to Levi’im

Not so long ago in the US, there was talk of cities providing sanctuary; with unwitting murderers, sanctuary cities included the six arei miklat as well as the forty-two other cities of the Levi’im (with some differences; one he will mention below is the six offer refuge even if the murderer did not realize where s/he was, where in other Levitical cities the murderer must declare an intention to secure refuge for it to work).

Regarding those forty-two, Sotah 48b says in the time of the Second Temple, they did not have migreshei ha-Levi’im, the untouched expanse the Torah required. Meshech Hochmah thinks the lack of migrash indicates the Levi’im did not fully own those cities during Bayit Sheini, also negating their possible function as sanctuary. Verse thirteen says the six cities tihyenah lachem, will be for you, are yours, which he takes to mean they serve their function at all times, in contrast to arei ha-Levi’im.

He suggests the cities were not fully the Levi’im’s during Bayit Sheini for similar reasons to why agricultural gifts—terumah to a kohenma’aser to a Levi, etc.—did not come back in Biblical force. He floats the possibility that since the Land wasn’t reapportioned with the Urim ve-Tumim (which also were lost in Bayit Sheini), there was no migrash to Levitical cities.

[I always thought the issue with Bayit Sheni was whether agricultural gifts require bi’at kulchem, a majority of Jews living in Israel, and/or shevatim bimkomam, the tribes all in their right places. If that’s true, perhaps the Levi’im’s cities only fully count when given to them by the entire Jewish people, represented by the majority of the nation, with the tribes in their places.]

Taking us back to the converts he raised earlier, he also wonders whether the Torah’s saying the cities tihyenah lachem, will be for you, means only born Jews are absorbed without having to declare or realize it.

[You can see the movie already, an unwitting murderer fleeing a go’el ha-dam, a blood avenger taking the job way too seriously. The desperate murderer—who we know was actually anus, it happened beyond her control—sees no way out, is sure her clock has run out, when she happens to enter the boundaries of an ir miklat, whose officials step in to warn the go’el ha-dam to desist. With that tense moment until the go’el ha-dam lowers his gun.]

The convert, in contrast, might need to declare his/her intention to take refuge. [His certainty that converts stay not fully part of the people bears comment, but would require us first to check fully for his views of converts, research I am not doing now.]

The Murderer May Not Leave

The Torah warns the Jewish people against allowing an unwitting murderer to leave early, stressing s/he must stay until the Kohen Gadol, High Priest, passes away, 35;28. Makkot 11b says the rule applies even if the entire Jewish people need the murderer for some reason.

Were it just a matter of protecting the murderer from the blood-avenging relative, the king or Sanhedrin could issue an order of protection, forbid the go’el ha-dam from killing the murderer. No, says Meshech Hochmah, the worry is that the murderer will kill the Kohen Gadol to be free of the obligation to live in the city of refuge.

[Notice the progression he assumes: this person killed someone without proper care to ensure it did not happen, then became so desperate to get out of the city of refuge, s/he might deliberately murder the Kohen Gadol. To prevent it, the Torah made a blanket rule, no murderer may leave until the Kohen Gadol passes away.]

None of these comments explain why the Kohen Gadol was so central (and I did not find a place where Meshech Hochmah discussed the question), but we have seen him say there must be a possibility the Kohen Gadol might die and assume the murderer’s wish freedom might lead him/her to kill the Kohen Gadol. It suggests a thematic connection, although trying to say what would be too speculative for here.

What we have seen is his including converts among the Jews for whom the six cities were a unit, which could function even when the Levitical cities did not, a place unwitting murderers had to stay—not just to protect their lives—until the Kohen Gadol passed away.

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