Masei – Cities of Refuge and the Classification of murder

The granting of the land to the Jewish people by God,  was followed by the designation of the cities of refuge for the safety of unintended deaths, and then the definitions of murder and manslaughter. The cities were to be easily accessible for the fugitive and would break the cycle of revenge killing which might occur before culpability had been decided by the courts.


R’ SR Hirsch commented that the cities of refuge should contain all the fugitive required, so that he could find “a life” there. Any manslayer could take refuge there and this should prevent the possibility of him being killed before he stood trial, for only the court could decide whether he was liable to capital punishment, liable to exile, or to be exonerated and released. Even if it was known with absolute certainty that the suspect was liable to the death penalty, the murderer could not be put to death before the proper legal procedure.


The criteria defining an act of deliberate murder were listed. R’ SR Hirsch wrote that there should be subjective indications, that the accused was aware of what he was doing and had criminal intent, and there were objective factors, elaborated in Sanhedrin. These were the means employed by the killer, the relation between them and the death that was caused, and the deliberation as to whether the death was a direct result of the act. Then there was the size of the weapon, the material from which it was made, its properties, the amount of force exerted by the accused, and the part of the victim’s body that was struck. Wood, stone and iron are mentioned, and if the expert opinion was that death was caused as the result of the blow, the accused was called a murderer and his punishment was death by human hands.


In Makkot, careless actions and accidents are described.There was a tendency to exonerate in the criminal courts. R’ SR Hirsch referred to Sanhedrin on the use of witnesses and the majority of at least two judges of the 23 to convict the defendant.


This section ends with the instruction from God “do not defile the land in which you dwell, in whose midst I am present, for I, God, am present in the midst of the Children of Israel”. R’ SR Hirsch commented that here, the land is viewed as the basis for the national human society, and for the presence of God on earth. Both depend on the awareness and the acknowledgement of the dignity of man who was created in God’s image.

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