The Significance of the Cities of Refuge

It is written, “Three cities shall you designate on the other side of the Jordan, and three cities shall you designate in the land of Canaan. They shall be cities of refuge. For the Children of Israel and the proselyte and resident among them shall these cities be a refuge, for anyone who kills a person unintentionally to flee there…. For he must dwell in his city of refuge until the death of the High Priest, and after the death of the High Priest the killer shall return to the land of his possession” (Numbers 35:14-15, 28).

Let us focus on the origin of this divine commandment:

1. What exactly is meant by a “city of refuge”?

2. Why does the unintentional killer not hide in his own city instead?

3. Why does the verse connect the return of the killer with the death of the High Priest? Why does the Torah not set a predetermined time for the return of the killer from the city of refuge?

4. Our Sages teach that the mothers of the High Priests gave food and clothing to whoever had unintentionally killed. This was in order for them not to pray for the death of their sons (Makkot 11a; Yalkut Shimoni 788). Does this mean that if these killers had prayed, their requests would have been granted and the lives of the High Priests would have been in danger? It is not written, “An unwarranted curse returns” (Proverbs 26:2)? The Midrash replies that the priests should have instead implored Heaven to have mercy on their generation (to prevent killings from happening in the first place), yet they refrained. The question still remains: How can we possibly imagine that the prayer of a killer could be granted and thus bring about the death of the High Priest? We must say that they were really not murderers, for they did not kill intentionally. Our Sages have nevertheless explained that if they were unintentionally responsible for the death of one of their brothers, it is because they were not truly upright (see Shabbat 32a; Bamidbar Rabba 13:17). Commenting on Numbers 34:15, the Rambam points out that in the land of Gilead, willful murderers hid their crimes and made everyone believe that they were unintentional killers.

It is written, “You reduce man to pulp, and You say: ‘Repent, O sons of man’ ” (Psalms 90:3). On this subject our Sages have explained that every gate was closed, with the exception of the gate of tears (Zohar I:132a; Berachot 32b) and that of repentance (Eicha Rabbati 3). The killers living in cities of refuge had certainly repented. The suffering brought about by forced exile (separation from relatives and friends, and living with strangers) is equal to death. Since the gate of tears and repentance are never closed, their teshuvah was certainly accepted. Let us remember that despite his grave sins, King Manasseh was forgiven (see Sanhedrin 102b-103a; Perkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, start of ch.43). Our Sages teach that Manasseh testified to the fact that the Holy One, blessed be He, accepts those who return to Him (Tanhuma, Nasso 28). If killers can reach the level of tzaddikim, it was feared that their prayers would be answered. Therefore if they cursed the High Priest, their curse was liable to be fulfilled.

What did the High Priest do? What sin did he commit so as to die as a result of the exiles who repented? Where is G-d’s justice is this?

Commenting on the subject of the cities of refuge, Rashi cites the Talmud in explaining that despite the fact that nine and a half tribes lived in the land of Canaan – while only two and a half tribes lived beyond the Jordan – both contained three cities of refuge because “manslaying was rife in Gilead” (Makkot 9b). We may say that the evil inclination is stronger outside the land of Israel. If this is true for extremely grave cases such as unintentional killing, what happens in less serious cases, ones in which the evil inclination tries to make a Jew stumble, especially in unintentional sins, which not everyone can perceive? Since the evil inclination sometimes succeeds in this way, a person who lives outside of Israel must strive to cleave to the Holy One, blessed be He and His commandments. Only Hashem, Who probes the heart of every person, knows man’s tendencies and the exact circumstances that can lead to a Jew killing (unintentionally) another. Everyone must therefore rouse themselves, do teshuvah, and be ready to overcome the trials of life.

The High Priest must show unintentional killers the way to return to G-d. He must implore Hashem to accept his repentance, without being afraid that the accused will pray to G-d to be able to leave his city of refuge (and thus precipitate the High Priest’s death). He must have faith in G-d, as it is written: “The ways of the L-RD are straight. The righteous walk in them and sinners will stumble over them” (Hosea 14:10).

We know that every person constitutes an entire world, and when the hour comes for him to leave this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, is careful to replace him with another in order that nothing should be lacking in the world, G-d forbid (see Midrash HaGadol, Vayeitzei 28:16; Zohar III:33,247b). This applies especially when it comes to tzaddikim. Commenting on the verse, “The sun rises and the sun sets” (Ecclesiastes 1:5), our Sages explain that a tzaddik does not leave this world unless another person of the same caliber is born (see Yoma 38b; Pessitka Zutah 23:1). As a result, when a person kills someone, it is as if he destroyed an entire world (Sanhedrin 37a), shedding his blood and the blood of all his potential descendants until the end of time. If we are dealing with a murderer who acts with premeditation, it is clear that only his own death will atone for his sin (Sanhedrin 43b). The sin of the unintentional killer must also be atoned for, however, and he must repent for his grave misdeed. Through his tears he can restore what he took from the world.

Such a person must flee to a city of refuge, where he will have time to reflect upon his situation. He must ponder the fact that if he was the unintentional author of such a grave misdeed, it means that he is certainly guilty. This realization will push him to sincerely repent and implore Hashem to forgive his sin. If he feels that the Holy One, blessed be He, is ready to help him leave this place of imprisonment, it is because his prayer was heard in Heaven. He will then attain the level of a baal teshuva, whose sins are transformed into merits (Yoma 86b). He thus fills the void that he created in the world through his sin.

It is nevertheless forbidden for him to pray for the death of the High Priest. If the latter’s death will enable him to leave the city of refuge, he will have fulfilled a mitzvah that was brought about by a sin (Berachot 47b; Sukkah 30a). He must instead pray for the welfare of the High Priest, and the Holy One, blessed be He, will act with him measure for measure (Shabbat 105b). During his stay in the city of refuge, he must not stop infusing himself with the holiness of the Levites who live there (see Chinuch 108). His judgment will therefore be less severe. He knows that his sin will be forgiven and that he will elevate himself on the rungs of holiness. However he must not pray to leave his place of refuge, for his prayer may cause the death of the High Priest.

This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be He, considers the death of an ordinary Jew to be like the passing of the High Priest. The mothers of the High Priests were careful to give food to unintentional killers living in cities of refuge in order for them to express their gratitude. If they have truly repented, they would not refrain from doing so, and thus they will pray for the welfare of their son the High Priest. The Torah linked the problem of the unintentional killer to the death of the High Priest in order to prevent the latter from leaving the world on account of the former’s prayer.

If cities of refuge are more numerous outside of Israel, it is because the evil inclination is stronger there. Sensing a lack of holiness, a person will hasten to sincerely repent and beg Hashem to bring him back home quickly, for he will find it unbearable to live outside the land. He will express his ardent desire for Hashem to return him to Israel, which is holiest of all lands (Kelim 1:6; Bamidbar Rabba 7:8). Once inside, he will be able to easily repent and bring about the death of the High Priest.

We may also say that the problem of the unintentional killer is linked to the death of the High Priest in order for the latter to pray to Hashem that all His children should be upright and not sin, not even unintentionally. The tzaddik must pray for his generation, and if he does not, responsibility devolves on him (see Makkot 11a). The tzaddik must elevate himself and bring his brothers closer to their Father in Heaven, a concept embodied by the verse, “When you kindle the lamps” (Numbers 8:2), which are the souls of the Jewish people. This is because “man’s soul is the lamp of the L-RD” (Proverbs 20:27) with regards to the Menorah, which represents the Shechinah.

The Torah actually wants the good of both parties. The unintentional killer must overcome his hardship and not pray to leave the city of refuge, which might bring about the death of the High Priest. The Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”) – a term that has the same numerical value as ovdei Hashem (“servants of Hashem”) – must especially concentrate when praying in order that the supplications of the unintentional killer do not bring about his own death.

This teaches that we must not refrain from demonstrating goodness, meaning teaching the Torah to others without fearing that with time their understanding and character traits will be greater than our own. We must not be ashamed of this. Let us instead prepare ourselves and share our Torah knowledge with all who want to come closer to the Holy One, blessed be He, as it is written: “Do not withhold good from its rightful recipients, when you have the power to do it” (Proverbs 3:27). If another person achieves greater Torah understanding than we do, let us control ourselves and be happy that he is abiding by Hashem’s will. It may turn out that the Torah will emerge from him.

I knew someone who was very knowledgeable in Talmud, though his study partner was less sharp. When I asked the latter why he had stopped studying with him, he said: “I’m embarrassed by the fact that he understands things faster than me!” I naturally criticized such an attitude.

Similarly, if we utter a prayer that is liable to harm another person, we must refrain from saying it, even if will be beneficially to us (see Eruvin 100a).

Let us end this lesson by introducing the following Gematrias: The term ir miklat (“city of refuge”) has the same numerical value (459) as the expression shevilei ha-emunah (“the paths of faith”), which drives the unintentional killer on the paths that lead to the house of G-d when he repents and faces the trials of life. The phrase Hashivenu Hashem El-echa (“Bring us back to You, O L-RD” – Lamentations 5:21) also has the name numerical value as ir miklat (459 + 1 for the kollel). Finally the expression Elokim hashivenu (“O G-d, return us” – Psalms 80:4) has the name numerical value (466, including 1 for the kollel) as ir miklat (459 + 7 for each letter = 466).


The Sanctity of Speech
Book of Bamidbar Index
Ask Your Father and He Will Tell You


Hevrat Pinto • 32, rue du Plateau 75019 Paris - FRANCE • Tél. : +331 42 08 25 40 • Fax : +331 42 06 00 33 • © 2015 • Webmaster : Hanania Soussan