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The Unintentional Killer and The High Priest

July 27, 2014

(Hebrew version)

Waiting for the High Priest to Die?

In Parashath Mas’ei, we read about the punishment meted out to an unintentional killer, what the sages referred to as exile, the duration of which was not to be determined by the earthly court but by the heavenly court, specifically, when it decides to take the life of the High Priest. Now, why should that be? What does the High Priest have to do with this particular sort of criminal? Why should his life be the deciding factor with regards to the punishment of the other?

We will begin to answer these questions by seeing Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 35:25:

Until the High Priest dies: For he causes the Divine Presence to rest upon Israel and thus prolongs their lives, whereas the murderer causes the Divine Presence to withdraw from Israel and thus shortens their lives. He is not worthy of standing before the High Priest [Sifrei Mas’ei 20]. Another interpretation: Because the High Priest should have prayed that such a misfortune should not befall Israel during his lifetime [Makkoth 11a].

Both of these points were made by Hazal, but our questions are still far from answered. Granted that the High Priest stands for the opposite of what the killer stands for, and that the High Priest should have done more to prevent the death of the innocent, but what does the killer gain from this? Why should it matter to him that he may sit in purgatory for decades depending on when someone else passes from this world? On the contrary, the Mishna (ibid.) describes how the mother of the High Priest would seek to curry favor with the condemned so that they would not pray for her son’s demise, showing that many killers came to see the High Priest in an antagonistic role!

Rather, it may be that the connection between the term of the killer’s sentence to the High Priest’s survival was meant to teach the killer something, to give him something on which to reflect while serving his time. Maimonides and Abarbanel offered that the ensuing, national emotional turmoil that comes in the wake of the death of the High Priest should cause the redeemer of the blood to undergo a change of heart, but as we shall see, their suggestion does not take into account a few other factors.

The Killer Becoming the High Priest

Before arriving at our answer, we should note that the unintentional killer, when finally placed in his city of refuge, shares a number of unique halachoth with the High Priest, while in other ways his status parallels that of the High Priest. (All of the following quoted laws are from Maimonides’s Laws of Murderers and the Preservation of Life, and Laws of the Temple Appointments and Those Who Work Therein.)

If one of the relatives of the High Priest dies, the High Priest does not go out to the funeral procession, nor does he depart from the entrance of his home or the Temple. All of the nation comes to his house to comfort him. He stands for the line of comforters with the assistant at his right and the head of the clan to his left. [The people tell him]: “We are atonement for you” and he tells them: “May you be blessed from heaven.” When the meal of comfort is served to him all of the people sit on the ground and he sits on a low bench. He does not rend his garments over his dead, as do the other priests, as Leviticus 21:10 states: “He shall not rend his garments.” If he rends them, he is liable for lashes. He may, however, tear them from below towards his feet.

This is in contrast to the situation created by the unintentional killer, whereby the deceased is also not properly mourned by his relative, who instead of sitting shiva, is busy trying to hunt down the killer.


Whenever a person kills unintentionally, he should be exiled from the city in which he killed, to a city of refuge. It is a positive commandment to exile him… When a Torah scholar is exiled to a city of refuge, his teacher is exiled together with him. This is derived from Deuteronomy 19:5, which states: “He shall flee to one of these cities, and he shall live.” Implied, is that everything necessary for his life must be provided for him. Therefore, a scholar must be provided with his teacher, for the life of one who possesses knowledge without Torah study is considered to be death. Similarly, if a teacher is exiled, his academy is exiled with him.

And when the High Priest is kept in quarantine days prior to his most important service of the year, on Yom Kippur, the sages go to him:

He is given sages from the elders of the court who read the relevant passages for him and teach him the service necessary to be performed on the  day and its order. They tell him: “My sir, the High Priest, read by yourself, for perhaps you have forgotten or you never learned this point.”

Most importantly:

When a killer dies in his city of refuge, he should be buried there. When the High Priest dies, the bones of the killer may be taken to his ancestral plot. A person who was exiled to a city of refuge should never leave his city of refuge, not even to perform a mitzvah or to deliver testimony – neither testimony involving monetary matters, nor testimony involving a capital case. He should not leave even if he can save a life by delivering testimony, or he can save a person from gentiles, from a river, from a fire or from an avalanche. This applies even if he is a person like Joab ben Zeruiah, upon whom the salvation of the entire Jewish people may depend. He should never leave the city of refuge until the death of the High Priest. If he departs, he has allowed for his death, as explained.


There was a chamber prepared for him in the Sanctuary which was called: “The Chamber of the High Priest.” The glory and the honor of [the High Priest] would be to remain in the Sanctuary the entire day and to go to his private home only at night or for an hour or two during the day. His home should be in Jerusalem and he should never depart from there. If he knows testimony, he is not obligated to deliver it, even in the High Court. For going to testify does not enhance his honor. If it was testimony involving a King of the Jewish people, he should go to the High Court and testify concerning him…

The greatest common denominator is that both the High Priest and the unintentional killer are bidden to stay in a particular walled city in the land of Israel, places of higher sanctity than other cities. The High Priest is confined to Jerusalem, and can only leave when he dies, the killer in his city of refuge until he himself dies or until the High Priest dies. If the killer decides to leave before that, he takes his life into his hands. Even the place where the High Priest would testify on the king’s behalf had to be within Jerusalem, because that is where the Sanhedrin sat. Thus, the High Priest is kept within the constant company of God’s servants, the Levites and Priests, within the Temple; the killer is kept within the constant company of the Levites and Priests within the city of refuge.


Although the killer has gained atonement, he should never return to a position of authority that he previously held. Instead, he should be diminished in stature for his entire life, because of this great calamity that he caused.

But the High Priest, even if he were to be disqualified and/or replaced while still alive, stays a High Priest forever:

A person should be promoted to a higher position than the one he holds and should not be demoted to a lower position, for one must ascend with regard to holy matters and not descend.

Thus we have the historical phenomenon that there were sometimes multiple men with the halachic status of High Priest. For example, if a substitute High Priest entered the role on Yom Kippur itself, then:

After Yom Kippur, the first High Priest resumes his position and the second ceases to serve in this capacity. All of the commandments incumbent on a High Priest are incumbent on him, but he does not carry out the service of the High Priest. If he does perform that service, his service is acceptable. When the first dies, he is appointed in his place.

All of these examples show that the Torah linked the status of the unintentional killer with that of the High Priest. The Torah normally prescribes either lashes, or the death penalty, or monetary restitution for various sins and infractions, but the unintentional killer instead of being punished, is given the unique opportunity to emulate the High Priest. The first few pages of Tractate Makkoth grapple with this inconsistency. Normally, eidim zom’mim, scheming witnesses, are punished with “that which they sought to do their brother,” against whom they have testified falsely. Thus, if they were seeking to have someone lashed for eating pork he did not eat or lose his money by paying for damages he did not cause, the witnesses are either lashed or forced to pay, respectively. However, exile to a city of refuge is, for some reason, not an option for them even if they were seeking to have their victim convicted of negligent manslaughter and sent to a city of refuge, just like there is no way to make them into halalim, desecrated priests, even though they sought to testify that a particular priest’s mother was not fit to marry into the priesthood. Why would we not exile these scheming witnesses? Isn’t the punishment of physical exile more analogous to a case where we would impose lashes or even death upon similar witnesses? Rather, this shows that the imposition of exile on the unintentional killer is not a punishment per se, but rather some form of tiqqun, a manner of divine repair, and that there is a mysterious connection between the High Priest and the unintentional killer, one that makes our earlier questions only stronger. Just like the court can not punish by taking away a person’s priestly status, it can not punish by giving someone a priestly status. We therefore must ask, what is the purpose of exile? Why would the killer’s sentence depend on the lifespan of the High Priest? Why instead of punishing the killer, does the Torah ordain that he act in a way that is peculiar to the High Priest? Is there some deeper lesson?

The Nazirite and the Priest

When we examine the special rules that bind the nazirite, we see that by taking his oath, the nazirite accepts upon himself a set of prohibitions that make him similar to a priest. Now, a priest is holier than an ordinary Jew precisely because he is bound by additional restrictions, just like the holiness of the Sabbath and Festivals by definition derives from the prohibition of labor that applies on those days. In two ways he emulates the priest, and in two ways he does the opposite: The nazirite vows not to partake of grapes and wine, just like the priest is forbidden to drink intoxicating beverages (when he is supposed to serve in the Temple); the nazirite is forbidden to contaminate himself to the dead just like a priest; the priest brings a special offering, a minhath hinnuch, the first time he officiates, while the nazirite brings a special offering when he completes his term; just as the priest is bidden to maintain a specific hair style (no more than thirty-days’-worth of growth) the nazirite must let his hair grow freely for at least thirty days and until the duration of his period of n’ziruth. The sages actually derive the rule concerning the priests’ maximum hair length from the law of the nazirite, that is, the minimum amount of hair the nazirite must grow is the maximum that a priest may grow. What is the purpose of the nazirite’s mirror-image relationship to the priest? According to our sages, the time that the nazirite spends acting like a priest is spiritually productive: for example, the nazirite learns how to avoid potential sins by taking on personal stringency, like avoiding immorality by first avoiding drunkenness. Also, by avoiding contaminating himself, the nazirite, like the priest, is more often available to participate in sacrificial services. The nazirite thus has an uplifting experience by observing more prohibitions than an ordinary Jew and giving himself more opportunities to observe certain positive commandments, which in turn foster spiritual growth. Someone becomes a nazirite because the voice inside tells him, “the priest is brought closer to God by observing additional commandments, and I want to become closer to God, so I will do what I can in order to become like the priest.”

The same holds true for the unintentional killer.

Prison Time is Slow Time

Imagine that it is some time after the unintentional killer has become settled in his new home. The whirlwind of events that started with his causing someone else’s death, then his fleeing from the redeemer of the blood to the city of refuge, then his being brought to trial, his conviction, and his being sent back to serve an indefinite term in the city of refuge, has now subsided and he has time to consider his new situation. If he is the type to blame others and not consider his own part in determining his fate, he will foolishly, maybe spitefully, sit around and hope the High Priest leaves this world as soon as possible so that he can leave his makeshift prison. For him, it is a competition of sorts, waiting for the other to die first. He will not learn anything. Or, he can consider how not only does his fate rest on that of the High Priest, but how he himself is now in a position similar to that of the High Priest, stuck in a golden cage, surrounded by God’s servants, and facing death for trying to leave. It is to be hoped that then he will begin to say to himself, “I am in many ways bound by commandments similar to those that bind the High Priest. I am supposed to be acting like him. What’s the High Priest’s real job? The sacrifices are just an end to a means, and really he is supposed to foster peace among the Jewish People. He is supposed to look out for everyone, and perhaps had I realized this earlier, I would not have had a lackadaisical view of others that led to my causing someone’s death. I should learn to truly be the type of person the High Priest is. I should spread the knowledge of God and help people live, and not darken the world and shed blood. From now on I should seek the welfare of others.”

The killer lives like this the entire time that the High Priest does, and either predeceases the High Priest, only to be buried in his own grave after the High Priest is buried in his, or, he is given a new lease on life when the High Priest leaves this world, atoning for that generation’s sins, including those of the killer. It is then that the killer, suddenly free to leave his city without fear of his being killed, realizes how his very life was inextricably linked with that of the High Priest, who as it were, has given the killer new life by losing his own! This is in stark contrast to the circumstances that originally brought him to the city of refuge, when he took the life of another. It is only then that he has been rehabilitated, and able to rejoin society, the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”


From → halacha, original, parasha

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