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   by Jacob Solomon

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There are four categories of the act of causing the death of another person. These are implied and partially explicit in the Parasha and developed in Makkot 9b.

1. The act was completely accidental. The perpetrator is absolved of responsibility.

2. The act was unintentional, but with an element of carelessness. The person committing the act is exiled to a city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. Once there, he or she is legally protected from the relative that is determined to avenge the death in blood. As the Parasha explicitly states: The assembly shall rescue the murderer from the hand of the avenger of the blood… and he shall dwell in [the city of refuge] until the death of the High Priest…(35:25).

3. The act was intentional, but with insufficient evidence; or there was a high degree of negligence, bringing it near to the category of intentional. In those cases, the Court cannot act. The neglect makes the circumstances too serious for the city of refuge, but the evidence is not strong enough for the Court to punish directly.

4. The killing was intentional with acceptable evidence. In that case, the murderer is liable to execution by the Court.

The Sforno connects the nature of the accidental killings with the amount of time left over until the death of the High Priest. The length of exile suffered by each individual was to be commensurate with the degree of negligence in the case, which is known to G-d only. Thus those with greater blame would find themselves exiled for a longer duration, and those with lesser blame would find themselves exiled for a shorter duration. Since the manslaughter contained the element of being pre-ordained by G-d, He would arrange for it to happen relative to the time of the future death of the High Priest.

Developing the idea of the Sforno, it comes out that the sentence of exile is unique in the Torah. Both the Court and G-d are involved. The Court confines him to the City of Refuge. G-d decides how long he should stay there.

The Torah is in effect saying that judging how much of the act was negligent and how much of it was by accident is beyond the physical power of the Court alone. This is an exceptional case where the principle of "no judge can pass judgment except on what his eyes can see" (Nidda 20b) does not apply. For that reason, G-d pre-ordains the date that the fatality happens. The Court's work is to determine whether the death's circumstances fit the criteria for exile into a city of refuge, not how long the person should stay there.

On the other side of the picture, the victim - the person killed, is not necessarily entirely blameless. From to victim's perspective, the Talmud offers the following insight into an accidental death in the context of the mitzvah of fencing one's private roof:

"When you build a new house you shall build a fence for your roof, so that you will not cause blood in your house if the fallen one falls from it' (Deut 22:8). The term fallen one implies the person who died deserved to fall for some previous sin, but it should have not been through the house-owner. That he fell from the house-owner's own roof reflects to some degree on that house-owner. From there we get the maxim that G-d brings about good things through the worthy and bad things through the liable" (Shabbat 32a).

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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