The commandment of 'Egla Arufa'

Author: Mindy Gerstman, Tevet 5772/Jan 2012


(Talk given by Mindy Gerstman to an Etta Kossowsky Study Group)

At the end of the Torah Section known as Shoftim (Deut. 16,v.18 – 21,v.9), the Torah gives instructions in the case of a dead person being found in an area outside of two cities.

'If someone be found slain in the land which your G-d gives you to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who has slain him, then your elders and your judges shall come out and they shall measure to the cities round about to the person that is slain. Then it shall be that the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain shall take a heifer that has not been worked with or drawn in the yoke. Then the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a rough valley....and they shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley....and all the elders of the city that is next to the slain person shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley and they shall answer and say “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it; be merciful, O Lord....and lay not innocent blood upon your people of Israel's charge.” and the blood shall be forgiven them.' (Deut 22,v.1-8).

The judges and those enforcing the law are responsible for the personal safety of all. That is why there are courts,witnesses, even Arei Miklat (cities of refuge) , and severe punishment for anyone who posits an alternative authority. The judges protect from harm and also deal with matters where there are things that are either unknown, or not clear.

Incidentally, in addition to the judges, this parsha introduces the kohen-Levi, the role of the king, the prophet and the kohen who goes to war. National safety as well as personal safety are clearly defined as the job of all these job-holders.

But what happens when a murder is committed outside the confines of the city (or a war)? In whose domain does it fall? The national government, or the local district? Which city in that district?
What happens if there are no witnesses.?
What happens if there is no Goel hadam (avenger)?
Who cares ? Whose responsibility is it to solve the unresolved murder?

There is a local story of several attempted murders, involving 3 wounded and two dead, that happened over a year and half on the street of Y (actually the street where the talk was given), the forest Mataa, and a hill nearby. The story exemplifies many of the laws of this commandment relating to an unresolved murder. No one cried for the unresolved murder. (The police brushed it off to begin with – the first was perhaps a jealous lover, the next a suicide – until there was a third event). So, was it a romance, a suicide, etc,etc.?

Abarbanel (13-14th century) asks if the Sanhedrin (judiciary) didn’t commit the crime, why are they obligated with the ceremony of egla arufa?

And which crime are they smoothing over. Is the murderer still at large? Rashi asks why do the elders formally state 'our hands didn’t spill this blood'? Did anyone accuse them?

The Sefer Hahinuch explains that the purpose of this mitzvah (commandment) is to make a lot of noise. If the elders (were these courts of 3, 5, 23 representatives of the Sanhedrin?) of the central court must travel to this no-man’s land where the murdered person is lying, that attracts attention. A team of measurers spreads out in every direction to measure and a large animal – a 2 year old cow is brought down to a rushing river. If all the elders (defined as over 60 – there is a dispute as to whether that goes for females too) and the court of the nearest city are there..lots of people are going to trail and follow. “hey what's going on“ (Like the day President Peres came to the park below our home. The amount of entourage caused me and my son to go just out of curiosity. Don’t ask which way all his body guards were facing. We surprised them from behind). And then tongues will start wagging: “Actually, I was near there a few days ago, and I saw this wayfarer, that I did/didn’t recognize”. Or “I saw, so and so, a known villain”.

Any thread, and clue, testified by anyone, is sufficient to get an investigation under way, and thus absolve the elders from the mitzvah of Eglah arufa. (Actually we are told that there are eighty one permutations of witnesses and their counter witnesses. And in each case there is a dispute.)

The purpose of the mitzvah of Egla Arufa is to do justice and find the murderer. Enact justice.

Abarbanel says the proclamation of the local elders and the court is to say “we never freed a guilty murderer; in that sense, we did not shed this blood, We were never too lax, sloppy, easy in our rulings, which would cause our district to lack the requisite amount of fear to discourage murder.“ The local court may not be specifically guilty of this crime. But they set the tone for the district.

Then their hands are washed over the heifer. Rashi explains that they assure the assembly that they always accompanied a stranger out of the city.

Rashi comments how important the mitzvah of accompanying is. When someone with a low self image, - say that he ate in the local kidush, but no one said hi , or walked with him a few steps - continues on his journey, he could think: I am so invisible, that if I become really invisible, no one will notice. And then he will not have the courage and emotional strength to put up a fight . The act of accompanying is to provide psychological support.

I told the story , 12 years ago when our car broke down in Susya, the garage mechanic in Kiryat Arba wouldn’t let us travel home (it was not even such a great distance) till we almost swore that we would call him the moment we arrived home. That impacted the way we drove, (more defensively?) in the middle of the intifada.

The Sefer HaHinuch brings a second mitzva in connection with the egla arufa; One does not plant on the place where such a heifer is buried – and this still applies. If you know of such a spot, even if many years have passed, the ban on using that spot agriculturally still holds.

Note- it is a women’s group. So I mentioned R Hayim Kaniefsy’s book from 1949, Nahal Eitan, that says that a woman can perform the mitzva of egla arufa (axing the heifer) A participant of the group said that maybe it is most fitting – for the widow of the slain to do the mitzva. We are told by commentators that, as a result of the murder becoming known, the status of the widow is clarified and she is free to remarry.

In summary, the purpose of the mitzvah of Egla Arufa is to enact justice. The mechanism of the mitzva can trigger an investigation into the unresolved murder.