Arei Miklat – Cities of Refuge or Exile?


Biblical Verses and Rabbinic Texts

Four different passages in the Torah (Shemot 21, Bemidbar 35, Devarim 4, and Devarim 19) describe the designation of "עָרֵי מִקְלָט" (cities to which the unintentional murderer can flee and receive protection). From all of them, one is left with the impression that the purpose of the legislation is to safeguard the perpetrator from the "גֹּאֵל הַדָּם" (the next of kin who seeks to avenge the death of his slain relative). This theme is perhaps most explicit in the verses of Devarim 19:


(ו) פֶּן יִרְדֹּף גֹּאֵל הַדָּם אַחֲרֵי הָרֹצֵחַ כִּי יֵחַם לְבָבוֹ וְהִשִּׂיגוֹ כִּי יִרְבֶּה הַדֶּרֶךְ וְהִכָּהוּ נָפֶשׁ וְלוֹ אֵין מִשְׁפַּט מָוֶת כִּי לֹא שֹׂנֵא הוּא לוֹ מִתְּמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם. (ז) עַל כֵּן אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ לֵאמֹר שָׁלֹשׁ עָרִים תַּבְדִּיל לָךְ... (י) וְלֹא יִשָּׁפֵךְ דָּם נָקִי בְּקֶרֶב אַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וְהָיָה עָלֶיךָ דָּמִים.

(6) Lest the blood avenger pursue after the killer because his heart his hot, and overtake him because the way is long and strike him mortally, and he has no sentence of death because he has not hated him previously. (7) Therefore I am commanding you, saying, "Separate three cities for you." ... (10) So that innocent blood will not be shed, in the midst of your land that Hashem your god is giving to you for an inheritance, and there will be blood on you.

However, in contrast to the various Biblical texts which utilize the roots קלט (usually rendered as shelter)1 and נוס (flee), Rabbinic sources2 employ the term "גלות" (exile) to describe the banishment of the inadvertent murderer. This conception of the process as a punishment rather than protection, is reinforced by discussions in Bavli MakkotMakkot 2bMakkot 11bAbout the Bavli as to how the unintentional murderer achieves penance, and whether the exile itself contributes to his atonement.

How can we reconcile these different portraits? Are the "עָרֵי מִקְלָט" intended for the benefit of the murderer, his punishment, or both?

Prohibition of Blood Money

A closer examination reveals possible ambiguity even within the Torah itself. At the conclusion of its discussion of the laws of "עָרֵי מִקְלָט" and intentional or unintentional murderers, Bemidbar 35 outlaws the possibility of the murderer paying monetary compensation in lieu of his prescribed penalty:


(לא) וְלֹא תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לְנֶפֶשׁ רֹצֵחַ אֲשֶׁר הוּא רָשָׁע לָמוּת כִּי מוֹת יוּמָת. (לב) וְלֹא תִקְחוּ כֹפֶר לָנוּס אֶל עִיר מִקְלָטוֹ לָשׁוּב לָשֶׁבֶת בָּאָרֶץ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן. (לג) וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ. (לד) וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בָּהּ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹכָהּ כִּי אֲנִי ה' שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

(31) And you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, rather he shall die. (32) And you shall not take ransom for him to flee to a city of refuge, that he may come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. (33) And you shall not pollute the land in which you are in, for blood will pollute your land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood which was shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. (34) And you shall not defile the land in which you are dwelling, in which I dwell, because I am Hashem, dwelling in the midst of the Children of Israel.

While verse 31 appears to speak of an intentional murderer from whom restitution cannot be accepted instead of applying capital punishment, verses 32-34 are less clear. Do they transition to prohibiting the acceptance of blood money also from the inadvertent murderer, implying that his exile to the "עִיר מִקְלָט" is a mandatory punishment? Or do they continue with the laws of the intentional murderer, forbidding him to take advantage of the shelter provided by the city of refuge in order to evade the death penalty?

Blood Avengers and High Priests

There are some additional puzzling aspects which are integrally related to our subject matter:

  • Why does the Torah permit and perhaps even encourage the institution of the bloodthirsty avenger? What light does this shed on the guilt of the unintentional murderer and the character of the cities of refuge?
  • What enables the killer to return to his home and city upon the death of the high priest? What linkage is there between the high priest and the murder or its consequences?

In Approaches, we will examine the options adopted by the various commentators in understanding these institutions, their Biblical sources, and Rabbinic development.