Shoftim: The City of Refuge in the Age of Zoom

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by R. Gil Student

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We learned over the past few years the many ways to use video communications technology like Zoom. We can gather for classes and meetings, or join in a hybrid way with some people in person and some remote. This has become commonplace for millions of people who used to shy away from such technology. I would like to explore how this might or might not affect the accidental murderer living in a city of refuge.

In the times when the cities of refuge are in effect, someone who accidentally commits murder can flee to one of these cities and escape the vengeful relative, the go’el ha-dam. The Torah (Deut. 19:5) says that the accidental murderer “will flee to one of these cities and live, hu yanus el achas he-arim ha-eileh va-chai.” The Gemara (Makkos 10a) emphasizes that the accidental murderer has to be able to live in the city of refuge. This means that his rebbe, his primary Torah teacher, has to go to the city of refuge with him. Because what kind of a life is it without being able to learn Torah optimally?

I was wondering, does this rule still apply in the age of Zoom? Unlike in the past, distance is less of an issue. You can join your rebbe’s classes remotely — assuming he allows it by turning on Zoom. You can participate in the class and even converse privately without the rebbe uprooting himself to move to the city of refuge. If so, perhaps the rebbe no longer has to move with his student to a city of refuge. I do not have any halakhic arguments or proofs on this subject. Instead, I will offer a tentative thought on the subject.

The Gemara (Gittin 12a) says that a slave who accidentally murders also flees to a city of refuge. However, once there, his master does not have to pay for his food. The slave is not working for the master so instead he has to find a job to support himself. Asks the Gemara, isn’t it obvious that if he isn’t working for his master then his master does not have to pay for his food? The Gemara answers that because the Torah says that an accidental murderer in a city of refuge must “live,” you might have thought that his master must ensure he has enough to eat. But that is not the case.

Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz (20th cen., Russia; quoted in Peninim Mi-Shulkhan Gavo’ah, Deut. 19:5) asks why the Gemara learns contradictory things from the same word. Regarding a rebbe, the Gemara in Makkos says that we learn from the word “live” that an accidental murderer gets the maximal definition of living, to the extent that his teacher has to move to the same city because life without his rebbe isn’t really life. But regarding a slave, the Gemara in Gittin learns from the word “live” that the accidental murderer gets the minimal definition of living — he isn’t supported financially and must earn his own money to pay for food. Why is “live” read maximally in one context and minimally in another?

To explain this, Rav Baruch Ber differentiates between this-worldly concerns and next-worldly concerns. When it comes to physical things, the accidental murderer is expected to live at the bare minimum, at a subsistence level. Everything else is excess, is more than just living. But when it comes to spiritual growth and health, nothing is extra. The more you learn Torah, and the better you learn it, that is a basic need. There is no bare minimum when it comes to learning Torah. That is why a rebbe moving to the city of refuge is a basic need of life.

If we accept Rav Leibowitz’s explanation, then it would seem that even in an age of Zoom, we should still insist that a rebbe move to the city of refuge with his student. Yes, you can learn Torah through Zoom but it is less effective than in person. As we have learned, with Zoom you miss a personal touch, an actual connection. Since when it comes to Torah learning we understand “living” in a maximal sense, a Zoom class will not do and the accidental murderer should get an in-person learning experience.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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