Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Parshat Ki Tissa

Blood Money

This week's parsha begins with a very strange rule:

"When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord a ransom (כֹּפֶר) for his soul when they are counted; so that there will be no plague among them when they are counted" Shemot 30:12. This is a strange concept. To begin with, why should a person have to pay a ransom just because he is being counted? Why does he need ransoming, what is he being held accountable for? Secondly, why should a plague result from the ransom not being paid? To answer this question, we will look at the word כֹּפֶר (ransom) by looking at its other appearances in the Torah.

In this form, it appears only a further three times in the Torah. Each case involves a homicide: 1. The owner of a habitually goring bull (שור מועד) that has killed a person must pay a ransom (כֹּפֶר) in order to redeem his own life. “Insofar as ransom (כֹּפֶר) shall be levied upon him, he shall give the redemption of his soul according to all that is levied upon him" Ibid 21:30.

The owner of the bull really deserves to forfeit his life because of the life that his bull had taken. He knew his bull was dangerous, but did not take enough precautions. Nevertheless, the Torah allows him to ransom his life with a cash payment. 2. On the other hand, a murderer cannot save his life by paying the ransom: “You shall not accept ransom (כֹּפֶר) for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, for he shall be put be put to death” (Bemidbar 35:31).

On no account can a murderer forfeit execution by paying a ransom.
3. Neither can an accidental killer save himself from exile by paying a ransom: “You shall not accept ransom (כֹּפֶר) for one who has fled to his city of refuge, to allow him to return to live in the Land” (ibid 32).

In each of these cases, a ransom can or cannot be paid in lieu of the lost life of another.

It seems that it was common practice for people who had caused the death of another to forfeit execution or punishment by paying blood money, a ransom. The Torah forbids this procedure in the case of homicide, but permits it in the case of habitually goring bull.
Now let's return to this week's parsha.

The standard motive for a census was to prepare men for battle. Soldiers in combat are expected to kill. The Torah insists that as part of their conscription, the soldiers must pay a ransom for those they are destined to slay. The soldier enrolling for war must recognize that the taking of life, even that of an enemy in battle, is something that must never come easy. For their lives, he must gain atonement. He does it by paying the ransom. Failure to pay the ransom is equivalent to devaluing human life and would lead to God's wrath being vented against them.


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