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A person who kills another person by accident must run to a city of refuge. While he's running, relatives of the person he killed may kill him.

Why are the relatives allowed to kill in such a case? Why must he run to the city? And what is so special/significant about the city so that the relative cannot kill him there?

In short, can someone explain the entire topic...

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Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 410) explains as follows:

Murder is an extremely severe sin, since it destroys the fabric of society. So one who killed, even accidentally, deserves the death penalty for having committed such a terrible act. Instead, though, the Torah commutes his sentence to exile, the pain of which is almost as harsh as that of death: it means a permanent (or near-permanent) separation from friends, family, and birthplace.

This exile also serves two other purposes: it keeps him safe from the goel hadam (the "avenger of blood" who is out to kill him); and it also offers the other relatives of the victim some closure, so that they don't have to see the person who killed their relative day in and day out.

Why is he sent to live specifically among the Levites? (All of the cities set aside for them, 48 in all, are considered Cities of Refuge.) This, the Sefer Hachinuch says (mitzvah 408), is for the following reasons:

  • The Levites are holy people, and therefore their lands are holier than the rest of Eretz Yisrael. This extra measure of sanctity helps to atone for his grave sin of murder.

  • They are also consummately wise and moral people, and they therefore will not shun or harm him while he's living among them.

He doesn't explain why the goel hadam is given license to kill the accidental murderer. But possibly it's based on the point above, about murder being so destructive of human society. Since a Jewish court can apply the death penalty only very rarely (because to do so requires witnesses, a proper warning, and a whole rigmarole that is actually deliberately somewhat slanted in favor of the accused, so as to avoid bloodshed as much as possible), Hashem provides an approved extrajudicial method of dealing with the situation and dispatching the offender (while at the same time, balancing this by also providing a way for him to save his life).

  • Now that you mentioned all this, what happens if the relative kills him in the refuge city? – yydl Jun 15 '10 at 3:06
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    Just to add: when we say "accidental" here, maybe a better word is "by mistake." The cases of goel hadam involve a certain degree of negligence (e.g. didn't check his axe handle). – Shalom Jun 15 '10 at 13:03
  • @yydl: Then he himself would be prosecutable for murder. (Rambam. Hil. Rotze'ach 5:11) – Alex Jun 15 '10 at 23:43
  • @Shalom: True, and thanks for the clarification. – Alex Jun 15 '10 at 23:44
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Rambam explains the reason for the law of accidental murder as follows:

Guide for the Perplexed 3:40

A person who killed another person unknowingly must go into exile (Exod. xii. 13: Num. xxxv. 11-28); because the anger of "the avenger of the blood" (Num. xxxv. 19) cools down while the cause of the mischief is out of sight. The chance of returning from the exile depends on the death of [the high-priest], the most honoured of men, and the friend of all Israel. By his death the relative of the slain person becomes reconciled (ibid. ver. 25); for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one has befallen another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the high-priest. (Friedlander translation)

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