Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

My Photo
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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Parshat Mattot-Massei

The Blood Avenger and Cities of Refuge

Moshe is commanded by God to set aside six cities of refuge. "These cities shall serve you as a refuge from an avenger, so that the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation" (Bemidbar 35:12).

These two concepts, that of the avenger and that of the city of refuge, are strange concepts for us to understand. What are they about?

In order to understand these concepts we must try to understand ancient near eastern culture.

Family honor is still today, a very important concept. In the ancient world it was everything. To such an extent that if someone was killed, it was incumbent on a family member to avenge that person's death by killing the killer – an honor killing.

This phenomenon still exists in some eastern cultures. It was the norm in ancient Israel. However, the Torah did not approve of this form of ex-judicial justice. It believed that only the courts could decide to execute someone. However, it could not forbid it as the phenomenon was so engrained in the society. So the Torah permitted it, but put some limitations onto it that would essentially, nullify it.

The first thing it did was to say: "the murderer shall not die until he stands in judgment before the congregation" (ibid). When a person killed, street justice could not be performed. The person must be taken to a court. The court will decide if it was murder or accidental killing.

If it was murder then "the murderer shall be put to death" (ibid 18). However, if it was accidental killing, then the killer should flee to a city of refuge. There, he has protection from the blood avenger. If the killer does not flee, or does not flee quickly enough, then the avenger is given the legal right to take his vengeance. Once however, the killer reaches the city of refuge, the avenger must leave him be.

The Torah is therefore, permitting blood vengeance, but puts it into the judicial realm and then tries to avoid it by putting a limitation on it that makes it unworkable. This is a similar method that the Torah uses to prevent honor killings with the family (see

In this manner the Torah tries to wean Israel away from this ugly phenomenon.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Massei, entitled: "Zelofchad's Daughters Part 2 " appears a at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot, entitled: "The Combatant's Tax " appears a at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Mattot- Massei, entitled: " Moshe and the Transjordan" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Massei, entitled: "Tribe and Tribalism" appears at

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home