Breaking a Calf’s Neck (Maybe Beheading It)

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Let’s get this out of the way: I chose this mitzvah for Parshat Mikeitz by mistake. I remembered Rashi 45;27 says Yosef sent agalot, wagons, to his father to remind him of their last topic of Torah discussion before he left to see his brothers (and was sold to Egypt), egla arufah, the requirement of a calf neck ceremony should a murdered corpse be found between two cities.

The Midrash most simply means Ya’akov’s spirit revived because he was now sure Yosef was alive, Yosef having sent information only the two of them had. I like to think he was also touched by knowing his son valued their Torah discussions sufficiently to remember what they had been talking about all those years ago.

Since I vividly remember the sugya I had discussed with my father in the emergency room at Maimonides in Boro Park before he suddenly passed away thirty four years ago this Hanukkah (we’re under two weeks away from it in Daf Yomi, actually), it’s a Rashi that resonates with me.

Of course, it’s from Va-Yigash, not Mikeitz. So wait until there, you say? But She’iltot had a mitzvah for Va-Yigash that fits well there. I’m sticking with my mistake; please address all complaints to our Customer Service department.

I also have a soft spot for eglah arufah, the mitzvah at hand, because I tried to bring it to life in Murderer in the Mikdash, my novel based in the time of a third Beit Ha-Mikdash.

The Ceremony

Rambam, Obligation 181, writes of a commandment (from Devarim 21) la’arof (I have always thought it meant breaking the neck, but see below) the neck of a calf when a person is found murdered between cities, murderer unknown. Aruch Ha-Shulhan Hoshen Mishpat 465;72 gives several halachot he assumes are gezerat ha-katuv, rules the Torah set up without immediately obvious reason, but that affect how we understand the purpose or goal of the mitzvah.

The victim must be deceased when found, because the Torah said halal, a corpse, a term also taken to mean killed with a weapon rather than strangled. The Torah said we find the body ba-adamah, in the land, ruling out buried in a mound, hung from a tree, or floating on the water. The sources that record these inferences do not explain why these circumstances make an eglah arufah ceremony pointless.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 530 adds more details, the nearest city conducts the ceremony. Aruch Ha-Shulhan Hoshen Mishpat;64 says we measure to identify the city even if the corpse was found right next to one. The point is the hullaballo around the process, to make a big deal of it.

For more pomp, Sotah 44b infers five members of the Sanhedrin come to perform the measurement, Aruch Ha-Shulhan says, because the verse refers to zekenechayour elders, and later speaks of zekenim, nonspecific elders. Zekenecha are special elders, who will enhance the publicity around the ceremony.

After we know which city must offer the calf, the victim is buried where killed, and the Sanhedrin elders go home. The rest is for this city itself.

The Torah said the ceremony should occur in a nahal eitan, a phrase Rashi rendered “strong, not worked,” where Rambam in Mishneh Torah and Sefer Ha-Hinuch are sure it is a river whose waters flow strongly.

Making a Spectacle

Sefer Ha-Hinuch starts inarguably in his view of a reason for the mitzvah (Aruch Ha-Shulhan assumes it as well), then takes a surprising turn. He says assembling the elders and important people of the city, having them take a large animal and kill it somehow, will draw a crowd, since people are excited by spectacles.

[The eglah for our mitzvah is under two years old, says Rambam in Mishneh Torah, and Aruch Ha-Shulhan Hoshen Mishpat 465;87. Elsewhere, such as for sacrifices, an egel or eglah is under a yearAruch Ha-Shulhan attributes the greater age here to the Torah’s saying eglat bakar, closer to a full bakar, a full adult.

As a side point, Aruch Ha-Shulhan puts the laws of eglah arufah (and ir miklat, cities of refuge), neither of which are possible today, in his regular work, a reworking of Shulhan Aruch, who only focused on laws applicable in our times. This chapter of Shulhan Aruch has five paragraphs, how we handle death penalty cases in the absence of courts authorized to execute the verdict.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan does not explain why he goes on to these other areas. Perhaps, because Hoshen Mishpat was the first section he published, he had not yet decided to write his Aruch Ha-Shulhan He-Atid, the parallel work dealing with laws that will return when we have a restored Land of Israel, with a majority of Jews living by tribes, and a rebuilt Temple.

God willing, speedily in our days.]

Furthering the Investigation

Getting back to the ceremony, the group leaves the city together, and when they hear the animal’s neck broken (with its sounds of distress as it dies, I think), they will be shaken and pay close attention.

Until here, he fully has me. Then he says the roused emotions will lead people to think more carefully about whether they know anything relevant, can then share with the authorities pursuing the murderer. By catching the criminal, the community will rid itself of the blood-iniquity it bears for this death; the ceremony itself expresses the communal leaders’ deep interest in catching the killer.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch tells us he found the idea in Rambam, as Rambam indeed writes in Morah Nevuchim III;40. However, I suspect there is more to the picture, first because Rambam also mentioned the need for the elders to declare they had maintained the roads and relevant infrastructure properly, which has nothing to do with fostering information.

Halachot of eglah arufah suggest “ferreting out the killer” only partially explains the topic.

Rules for Implicated Cities

The application of rov ve-karov to eglah arufah probably supports the “find the killer” idea. If there is a farther but more populous city, Baba Batra 23b tells us we follow the rov, the greater numbers. Since the murderer most likely came from the bigger city, I assume Sefer Ha-Hinuch would say, having them enact the ceremony will put them in closer proximity to the identity of the murderer.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan 465;68 points out a surprising implication: unless the city is obstructed from other cities in some way, like in a valley, we will not have an eglah arufah, because there will always be much larger non-Jewish cities farther away. [I see what to argue, but not here].

Other halachot indicate more elements to this ritual. The city of Jerusalem would never bring an eglah arufahSotah 45b says, because Devarim 21;1 speaks of finding a corpse on the land God is giving you, and Jerusalem was not divided among the tribes. Separately, should the victim have been found close to the border or a city of majority non-Jews, no ceremony will be enacted. For this last, Sefer Ha-Hinuch says the murderer was likely a non-Jew (and therefore Jews will not know who did it, I think he means).

[To me, Jerusalem’s exemption points to the ceremony being about a city’s responsibility, I assume for the safety of the roads, especially since the Torah has the elders say “our hands did not spill this blood, etc.,” a declaration the Gemara took to be about their having properly cared for this traveler. If the cities around are non-Jewish majority, there’s no ceremony, perhaps, because it’s on them.]

In paragraph 68, Aruch Ha-Shulhan notes we also exempt any city without a court of twenty-three, because only such cities are required to supervise the local roads. He earlier did speak of finding the killer, here implies (as said in paragraph 66) what I just did, the ceremony is about accepting responsibility for not having prevented this. If no cities nearby have such a court, none bring the eglah. To me, again, if our issue were finding the killer, this requirement seems odd; if it is about atoning a failure to supervise, it might signal the obligation only comes when a city reaches a certain stage of maturity, including being ready for an official court.

The Neck-Breaking

I have always thought the ceremony involved breaking the calf’s neck. Thanks to the translation from Sefaria (done by my friend R. Francis Nataf), I was brought to realize Rashi and others seem to assume the neck was removed. Perhaps “remove” meant breaking it, but it sounds like they mean taking it off the body. I may be stuck in my ways, but it doesn’t sit right with me. Were the rule to remove the head, I would expect to see discussions of details (how much of the head? What qualifies as neck removal? Why did the verse focus on the neck if the point was beheading? Where on the neck?). We do not.

In any case, the neck was broken or removed with a kupitz, a cleaver or large knife used for chopping bones. After, the elders—all the elders, Aruch Ha-Shulhan says, even a hundred, without telling us who qualifies—wash their hands in the river, and recite a formula, in which they say they had not killed this victim (by failures of supervision, Aruch Ha-Shulhan 66 says), and ask for God to atone for the Jewish people, not assign them culpability for this innocent blood.

The death of a Jew in unknown circumstances calls for a significant reaction, the Torah teaches us. Whether it is only to rid the land of the bloodstain, to find who killed him/her, or to atone for the community’s failure to guarantee the safety of their roads (and/or their failure to care for a stranger in their midst), it is a big reaction, at least to be sure we not let this death pass unnoticed or unatoned.

About Gidon Rothstein

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