If …someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them…and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Devarim 21: 1-9)
In the nearby city
children caper joyously
underneath acacia trees
shaded from the sun.
In the distant pasture,
crushing uncut grass
lies a figure, prone and still
beneath the burning rays.
A pall of horror falls,
darkness shrouds the town,
heads are bowed, eyes are dull,
the children’s voices hushed.
By the barren wadi
the untried heifer’s blood
trickles past the rocks
and flows into the stream.
The city elders, troubled,
“Our hands are free of blood
we did not see the crime.”
Yet contrition fills their heart
for the one they did not save
for the care that was not offered
for the life that was curtailed.
The rite of the beheaded heifer (eglah arufah) concludes the Parasha of Shofetim which largely encompasses the establishment of a judicial system.
Rashi explains the symbolism of this rite: it involves a decapitating a heifer which is in its first year of life and has not yet yielded any fruit either by giving birth or by working. This calf represents the individual whose death severed his ability to bear fruit. It is killed in an unworked field which represents the fact that no-one from that town was aware of the murder and the steps necessary to prevent it were not taken.
The Rambam suggests that this ritual was so rarely performed that it became a much-discussed public spectacle in the town. There would be a high likelihood that the murderer emanated from the town closest to the murder scene and due to this level of involvement from the citizens the murderer might soon be discovered because someone would emerge who knew something about it. “Furthermore since the place where the neck of the calf is broken can never be cultivated after the cow is killed there, it will remain uncultivated forever, and the owner of the field and his family and friends will thus do everything possible to discover the murderer to prevent the eglah arufah ritual from recurring.” (Guide for the Perplexed 3)
The Ramban regards it as a “chok” – a law like that of the red heifer, the meaning of which we do not undestand.
The Gemara (Sotah 38b) elaborates on the hidden meaning: R’ Yehoshua ben Levi says: the eglah arufah only comes on account of inhospitability, as it says, “They shall declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood…” Would we have thought that the elders of the court are murderers [that they need to declare their innocence]? Rather, [what they are saying is]: “He did not come to us that we left him without food, he did not come to us for us to leave him without escort.” (In the Sifri only “escorting” is mentioned).
So the leaders seem to be declaring that they did whatever they could to treat the victim properly while he was passing through their town (or that they were unaware of his presence – both the Gemara and the Sifri could be read either way).
In a commentary on this ritual, http://www.torah.org/advanced/mikra/5757/dv/dt.58.5.05.html, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom recalls a teaching he learned from Rabbi Yoel Sperka, “What does the hospitality have to do with homicide? Why would a declaration stating that “We did not kill this man” imply anything about the way the elders (or townspeople) treated him?”
Rabbi Etshalom elaborates in the name of Rabbi Sperka, that a stranger who comes to town and is ignored, not offered hospitality nor escorted when he leaves, is unlikely to feel uplifted and emotionally buoyant. He will be more likely to be easy prey if he is set upon by a thug who stalks him outside the city. On the other hand, someone who comes to town and is vied over by the townsfolk who wish to host him, is begged to stay longer and finally escorted to the edge of town is likely to feel more emotionally robust and put up more of a fight against a would-be attacker. Rabbi Etshalom continues, “This is what the elders are declaring: If we saw this man, we did everything possible to enhance and maintain his sense of self-worth, such that any chance he had of defending himself was enhanced by his visit through our town.
“(If, as the second half of the declaration implies, they did not see him, then they certainly did as much as they could…)”
Nechama Leibowitz devotes a chapter in her book Studies in Devarim to this rite. She first cites the 15th-century Portuguese Jewish philosopher Abravanel (1437-1508) who asks what is the significance of this strange ritual – if the aim was to cleanse the innocent blood – how did the blood of the beheaded heifer atone for that of the victim; and if the Israelites had not committed the sin, why did they need the ritual? Nechama Leibowitz does not find support in the text for the Rambam’s theory that it might aid in detecting the murderer. She says that most commentators argue that the rite was intended to shock the local inhabitants, “We know too well the indifference that prevails among people regarding the miseries of others. Anyone hearing of a murder, either then or now, would shake his head, go his own way and the world would continue as before.”
In a commentary on Parashat Shofetim, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/category/shoftim from 2011, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser notes that on average, more than thirty people are murdered every day in the United States. He continues, “When most of us hear statistics like this, we think about the role of poverty and guns in creating a climate for homicide. We may think about the frequency with which racial minorities are the perpetrators and the victims of these murders. But we don’t often think about our own culpability.
“What would happen if we had to make the declaration of the cow with the broken neck described in this week’s Torah portion? What if, every time you read about a homicide in your town or an adjacent area, you had to travel to the scene of the murder and declare that you had no opportunity to offer the victim food, to care for him or her, or to offer protection from harm? Could you do it? Could any of us?
“…the Torah has no particular interest in the rights of an individual, but it has a very keen interest in a person’s obligations. The Torah offers us no right to remain uninterested in murders committed in the places near where we live. By the very fact that we do live in the place, we already are implicated. We are obliged to protect from harm even the stranger who is passing through.”
In Jerusalem in 2012 the Tzohar association of rabbis conducted a modernized version the ritual of the decapacitated calf. A minyan of ten rabbis from Tzohar gathered on highway 66 at the site of a hit-and-run incident in which female soldier Amnesh Yasatzu was killed. According to the police, Yasatzu was hit by a number of cars close to Kibbutz Hazorea in the western Jezreel Valley before she died.
Led by Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav, the ceremony was conducted in protest against the “moral injustice” of hit-and-run incidents, and as a call to drivers to exercise greater caution on the roads.
Tzohar said in a statement that it conducted the ritual (without the decapitated calf), “to arouse the attention of communal leaders and the hearts of the public, because there should not be a situation in which blood is haphazardly spilt and the public does not perform any act of remorse.”
“The Torah presents an uncompromising moral statement, that all of us, religious, traditional and secular, have to adopt: We are responsible for spilt blood,” Rabbi Stav said. “We are responsible for blood spilt in road accidents, we are responsible for blood spilt in stupid gang fights, for women murdered by their husbands, and for the blood spilt in the murders which fill the pages of our newspapers.”
Rabbi Stav continued that we must not shirk responsibility when it comes to human life and professing ignorance about a potential life-threatening situation is a form of guilt. The purpose of the ritual then as now was to interrupt the routine of everyday life and force those watching and passing by to think about and take responsibility for a situation in which a society can allow a person’s death to go unpunished and unnoticed.
In an article from the blog Times of Israel entitled The Eglah Arufah and Modern Police Work: The View of Jewish Police Chaplain, http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-eglah-arufa-and-modern-police-work/ Rabbi Rigoberto Vinas (the chaplain) discusses various commentators’ views on the meaning of the ritual. He says, “The best explanation I have ever received for this ritual actually came from a Detective – a member of the Yonkers Police Department, where I serve as Police Chaplain. I came into the office and he and another officer were busy planning a candlelight vigil to take place in front of the home of a homicide victim. He was on the phone with family members, community leaders and others to attend this event. I remarked to him that it must be difficult solving a murder when you become so personally involved in a case that you would want to organize a memorial service for the victim. I asked him why he did this, wasn’t he supposed to concentrate on solving the murder. The detective explained that in the many years that he was involved in homicide he had noticed that this type of service opens the hearts of potential witnesses who had seen the crime, and promotes their cooperation when they see the victim’s family asking for help. He also said that sometimes the murderer attends the event and this helps to identify potential suspects. “So in a very direct way the candlelight vigil is a very much a part of solving the crime,” he explained. I realized that this is in fact the modern version of the eglah arufah and explained to him the biblical source for what he was engaged in. To this day, I am beholden to this detective for explaining to me a biblical ritual which at first glance appears to be obsolete but is in fact a very important and modern part of police work.
Rabbi Vinas notes the apathy of today’s society, “Murders go on daily and we are no longer shocked or up at arms. “Don’t get involved” either directly or even emotionally seems to be the order of the day. In this ritual, the Torah describes a society where the citizens of that town have stopped their daily routines to participate in a ritual that perhaps they do not even understand. (Ramban) But react they must. Even if it has the most remote chance of bringing the murderer to light (Rambam) they do everything they can to stop it. Their reaction to the death of that innocent is not a cold calculated reaction, rather they try to recreate what happened to stir up their own feelings even more and to mourn the loss of that individual. (Rashi).
“The Torah’s path is a path of compassion and connection not coldness and separation. Even at the cost of feeling other’s pain we seek it out so that we may continue the connectedness of society. In today’s “advanced culture” which is really primitive compared to the culture outlined in this ritual, we tell each other that we cannot feel others pain either because it wouldn’t help anyways or because it would be too overwhelming for us. But perhaps if we did begin feeling others’ pain we could highly diminish it so that it would be a rarity.”
And finally, in a lengthy article on the eglah arufah in the Jewish Journal, entitled Strangers, Immigrants and the Eglah Arufah http://www.jewishjournal.com/socialjusticerav/item/strangers_immigrants_and_the_eglah_arufah
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz addresses the plight of the “outsider” of our day, the immigrant, and relates to economic immigrants who attempt to cross borders into neighboring countries and are sometimes killed while doing so. He suggests that the Jewish response to vulnerability of undocumented immigrants might incorporate the ethos of the eglah arufa.
He notes that the 16th-century Jewish thinker, the Maharal of Prague, suggests that the poor wanderer was hungry and was killed while trying to steal food. Even though the victim died while committing an illegal act, the leaders who failed to feed him are responsible. Rabbi Yanklowitz says “Just as the wanderer who was commemorated through the eglah arufah broke the law, so too undocumented immigrants today break the law. Nevertheless, the leaders who turn a blind eye to their needs are responsible for their suffering. In the case in Deuteronomy, the individual was guilty of theft, a sin condemned very strongly by Jewish law. Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “We assume that the person was starving and attempted an armed robbery in order to obtain food” (Ahron Soloveichik, Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind (Jersualem 1991), 175). This is all the more true with someone crossing international borders without documentation which is not an act condemned by Jewish law, and although we are bound by the law of the land, there is no reason why we should take less responsibility than in the case of the eglah arufah.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz continues, “The idea that leaders are accountable for their generation is prevalent in Jewish thought…Once we accept the role of moral leadership, we are truly accountable for our community. But the Rabbis teach us that societal accountability is not granted solely to those who have been granted formal authority, but to all those of learning. “If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, he gives stability to the land…But if he sits in his home and says to himself, ‘What have the affairs of society to do with me? …Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest? Let my soul dwell in peace!’—if he does this, he overthrows the world” (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2). Responsibility does not just apply to the scholar. The Rabbis confirm that this responsibility is upon all of us. “Everyone who can protest the sin of his household and does not, is responsible for the people of his household; for the people of his city, he is responsible for the people of his city; for the whole world, he is responsible for the whole world” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b). There are many different ways to take responsibility and to fulfill the commandment, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” (Leviticus 19:16). The world continues to exist because humans are responsible agents. When we give up our ability to hear the voices of protest and the cry of the sufferer, we bring the world to ruin.”
Rabbi Yanklowitz cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his 1971 “A Prayer for Peace”: “O Lord, we confess our sins; we are ashamed of the inadequacy of our anguish, of how faint and slight is our mercy. We are a generation that has lost its capacity for outrage. We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.”