Masei: The high priest’s mother

For he (the man-slayer) must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the man-slayer may return to his land holding. (Bamidbar 35:28).

She sits in a corner:
her fingers fly busily
over the yarn
which she knits into cloth.

She piles up the garments
one on another
to give to the exiles
in the cities of refuge.

They only go free
when the High Priest expires
but she has no wish
to bury her child.

So she sends food and clothing:
she hopes they’ll deal kindly
and not pray to hasten
the death of her son.


The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that just as the high priest brings atonement for all Israel through the rituals of Yom Kippur, his death brings atonement for the inadvertent man-slayer. Both Abrabanel and Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed, point out the connection between the fugitive’s stay in the city of refuge with the high priest’s death. This, they say, lies in human nature. They say that when someone is hit by a tragedy, he is comforted when he sees it happens to others – that he alone has not been singled out. So when the high priest dies, and the relatives of the slain person see that death comes even to the greatest of mortals, they are less likely to take revenge on the inadvertent killer. Other commentators teach that the high priest was beloved by all the community – he was considered to be almost like a member of the family, so mourning for him would eclipse the mourning for their earlier loss and the wish for revenge which they previously held would dissipate.

The Rabbis of the Mishnah (Makkot 11a) picture the high priest’s mother knitting articles of clothing and sending food for those incarcerated in the cities of refuge so that they will think kindly of her and not pray for her son’s speedy death to release them from exile. The Peninim Yekarot asks why the high priest’s mother supplies the needs of the refugees so that they won’t pray for her son’s death. Why do the high priests themselves not supply the exiles? He surmises that were the high priests to support the refugees with all their needs, there was a risk that any person who found himself in dire straits and unable to support himself, might arrive at one of the cities of refuge, professing to have committed manslaughter, and the high priest would have to support him with food and clothes. When the priest would die, the source of support would dry up and he could return home. However, if the mother of the high priest would supply his needs, he would be afraid that she might die, there would be no-one to support him, but he could not return home as long as the high priest still lived. His subterfuge would therefore back-fire.

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