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Eglah Arufah (Breaking the Neck of the Heifer)

Parshat Shoftim ends with an unusual mitzvah. If a slain man is found in an open area in Israel, and the murderer is unknown, the elders of the nearest town conduct a ceremony with a heifer that has never been worked. They bring it to a “nachal eitan” (meaning in dispute) and break its neck there. They then wash their hands over it and recite the phrase: “Our hands have not shed this blood nor have our eyes seen it.” Another verse, 21:8, is then recited, this time perhaps by the Kohanim: “Atone for your nation…and do not let innocent blood remain in the midst of your nation Israel.” Verse 21:8 ends with a comment: “ve-nikaper lahem ha-dam”[this procedure] will have atoned for them the [victim’s] blood. The last verse reads: “You shall remove the innocent blood from your midst….” The implication is that this ritual does that.

What is the reason for this mitzvah? Rambam includes it as a חק at Me’ilah 8:8. There he defines “chukim” as commandments whose reason is not known. (It is not listed in the standard text of Yoma 67b where the Sages list a few chukim, but is included in the version of R. Chananel. It is also included in the list at Tanchuma Mishpatim 7.)

In his later work Moreh Nevuchim (III, 40), Rambam suggests a reason. “The beneficial character of the law… is evident. For it is the city that is nearest to the slain person that brings the heifer, and in most cases the murderer comes from that place…The investigation, the procession of the elders, the measuring, and the taking of the heifer, make people talk about it, and by making the event public, the murderer may be found out …”

But Rambam’s explanation of the law does not fit the plain sense of the verses where the ritual itself seems to be the goal.

In order to understand this law, we must first understand the meaning of “nachal eitan.” The simplest understanding of nachal is a valley that has a continuous water flow, and eitan means strong. (See, e.g., Rambam, Rotzeach 9:2.) Accordingly, R. Hertz explains that the ceremony is taking place in an area with a perennial brook and “its running water would carry away the blood of the heifer, and thus symbolize the removal of the defilement from the land.” Many agree with R. Hertz here that this is the explanation of the ritual.

The problem with this approach is that there is nothing explicit in the verses about the blood of the heifer. The verses only refer to the breaking of the neck of the heifer. There is no sacrifice of the heifer being performed.

Others understand nachal eitan the same way, but view its symbolism differently, not involving any carrying away of blood. Because there was a continuous flow of water, the area remained uncultivated. The symbolism of the ritual is that just like the heifer used in the ritual is one that was never used, so, too, the procedure takes place in an area that could never be cultivated.

In an alternative translation, Rashi understands it as a valley that is a hard one that has never been worked. In this approach, too, there is nothing in the ritual about water carrying the blood of the heifer away. Rashi bases his interpretation on the Talmud. (Its citation at Sotah 46b to Numbers 24:21 supports Rashi’s interpretation. But Rambam’s interpretation is perhaps a simpler understanding of the term at Deut. 21:4.)

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If the ritual does not involve the heifer’s blood being carried away and removing the defilement in this manner, how do we understand it? And does the heifer symbolize the murderer, the victim or perhaps neither?

The Talmud at Sotah 46a offers an explanation for the ritual: The heifer symbolizes the victim. An animal that has not become fruitful is killed in a place that is not fruitful and shall atone for one who has been robbed of the possibility to become fruitful, i.e., to do mitzvot.

But R. Hirsch suggests that Sanhedrin 52b seems to view the killing of the heifer as symbolizing the killing of the murderer. The Talmud is willing to learn general rules about killing murderers from how this heifer is killed: e.g., at the neck. It also seems to me that the simplest understanding of the ritual is that the heifer represents the murderer.

S. D. Luzzatto sees several educational purposes in the ritual. The heifer is killed as a substitute for the murderer being killed and this reinforces the lesson that the Jewish people are responsible for one another, and that the land will not atone for a death without the death of the murderer. Second, because of their new understanding of how serious an offense a murder is to the land, they will make sure not to kill the one suspected of this unsolved murder without clear proof.

Luzzatto agrees with Rashi that the “nachal eitan” is a dry, hard place. This is so the blood of the heifer that ends up on the ground will remain and leave an impression. This blood will also placate the blood of the victim that calls out from the ground (see Gen. 4:10.)

Nechama Leibowitz views the rite as designed to shock all the residents with the news that a murdered man had been found in the vicinity. There is a general tendency for individuals to be indifferent upon hearing tragedies. They shake their head initially but then go on their way. God set up this elaborate ritual with the participation of the elders and the priests. In this way, the people would take seriously the loss of even one individual. It would shock their complacency and summon them to severe self-scrutiny, and hopefully reduce the number of murders.

Among modern scholars, a very creative explanation is found in the Encyclopaedia Judaica entry, “Eglah Arufah.” There is an idea in Tanach that the land, when polluted with the blood of murder victims, punishes the people with famine. By killing the heifer, the murder is reenacted and the pollution is transferred from the area of the corpse to a different area: the area of the killed heifer, which is either a rough area that can never be plowed, or an area whose constant stream prevents the area from being plowed. By this transfer of the location of the pollution, the area where the murder occurred can become fertile again. My response to this explanation is that this idea of a transfer of the location of the pollution from one location to another is far-fetched and not expressed in these verses. For a similar approach, see the article by R. Patai, at JQR 30, pp. 59-69.

Other instances of neck breaking in Tanach are at Ex. 13:13 and 34:20 (both regarding חמור פטר) and Isa. 66:3 (neck of a dog). The last is a practice that God seems to view as an abomination. It has been suggested that it was associated with idolatry.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. As a personal injury lawyer, he knows to be slow and careful when walking so he does not fall and break his neck. For more of his articles, please visit his website at www.rootsandrituals.org.

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