Accidental Murderer

Makkot (2) | Rav Yonatan Rosensweig | 14 years ago

The majority of the Mishnayot in the second chapter of Masechet Makkot deal with the case of accidental murder. I use the term “accidental murder” because that is precisely the term the Torah and Mishnah use – “rotze’ach beshogeg”. It is indeed a peculiar term as we are accustomed to the understanding that murder cannot be accidental, and that although one can be indicted with “involuntary manslaughter”, he cannot be indicted with “involuntary murder in the first degree”. As we will see, this term was chosen for its accurateness rather than its lack of clarity.

We find two very singular points in the Mishnayot:

  1. The Mishnah tells us that the mothers of the kohanim gedolim

    used to send food and clothing to the accidental murderers residing in the arei miklat, so that they would not pray for the kohen gadol’s demise (which would set them free). It is interesting that the mothers accept this as common practice and that those prayers of the accidental murders are not criticised by the Gemara.

  2. The Mishnah tells us that a kohen gadol who was anointed before

    the killer was sentenced – even though he was not the kohen gadol at the time of the killing – is also responsible for this killer’s eventual freedom. The reason the Gemara brings is that he should have prayed for his acquittal but did not. This, too, seems a bit strange: Why should he have prayed for a murderer’s acquittal?

In order to properly understand the answer to these questions it is important to focus on the halachot of an accidental killer and paint a picture of these halachot. Being an accidental murderer means the following: If you are a talmid your rabbi must go with you; if you are a rabbi your yeshiva commutes with you. If you die before you get there – your bones are taken there to be buried. He who dies there is buried there – nowhere else; anyone who is buried there has his bones removed when the kohen gadol dies. He who is exiled does not come out of his city for anything (without risking the chance of being killed by the goel ha’dam) – not to testify (even in a capital case), not to save other lives, not even to save the whole of .

When taking a bird’s-eye view of these halachot – as we just did – I think the picture which is painted is quite clear. The accidental murderer is not just given a punishment – he is being completely transported to another existence. The term “accidental murderer” comes to point out this very issue. It is true that on the one hand we see this as accidental, but on the other hand such a thing could never have happened without some form of carelessness, obtuseness or indifference. When a person engages in an act that could cost other people’s lives he must be ten times as careful as he is doing anything else. What would we call a driver who fell asleep at the wheel and killed someone, for example? I think the most fitting term for such a person would be an “accidental murderer”. It happened by accident, but the liability is very much there. He is still considered a murderer.

This is viewed by the Torah as an anomaly; someone who commits such a crime is part of another world, of a different society, and has a different set of values. This is why the arei miklat are deemed irrelevant if they are housed primarily by murderers, as the murderers no longer feel their anomalous existence. This is also why they are not criticised for their prayers and the Gemara even accepts it as fact – what can you expect from one living in a different world? You cannot criticise such people, only pity them, as the mothers of kohanim gedolim do. This is also the reason for the fact that the kohen gadol must pray for their acquittal – these are not murderers in the absolute extreme sense of the word – they are men who must be pitied, taken care of and helped. That is why the Torah builds them cities in the first place. That is why the kohen gadol must pray for them.

It is this separate existence which causes them to be completely disconnected from the rest of Am Israel to the extent that they are even exempt from the laws pertaining to pikuach nefesh. These murderers have no understanding of pikuach nefesh and cannot take part in it in the larger scheme of things. They become one people with the rest of the nation only when G-d signals their release – with the death of the kohen gadol, as decreed in the Torah.


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