Weekly Torah. Shabbat Shoftim Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

August 13, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
Read on for article

Who is Responsible?

In a part of the Torah, full of important political and social laws, there is one of the weirdest in all the Torah, the Eglah Arufa, the calf whose neck had to be broken (Deuteronomy 21:1-9). Some say it is an example of a law that was never carried out. We should not forget that all the ancient rituals which may seem so strange to us now, had great significance in those days even if we may no longer understand why the message is as clear today as it was then.

Here is the text

If a dead body is found lying in the open and the identity of the slayer is not known, the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a young calf which has never been worked, or pulled in a yoke and the elders of that town shall bring it down to an overflowing 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 to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of God over every lawsuit and case of assault according to the law. Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the calf 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, God Your people Israel and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain upon Your people Israel… for you must do what is right in the sight of the God.”

There is much discussion as to the meaning of the words as well as the procedure. What is clear is that someone has been killed, and it is the community that bears responsibility both for finding the killer and for preventing crime. One opinion in the Talmud is that this whole procedure is to publicize the crime in the hope that someone who witnessed it will come forward. This suggests that something is wrong in a specific society.

Unlike religious sacrifice, this animal is not slaughtered in the normal way, so this is a civil ceremony. It cannot have been used in any way or eaten. Its life has been cut short without any benefit. The unproductivity of the ground where it is taken to be killed symbolizes the curse on the land that resulted from Abel’s senseless murder. And washing hands is a way of saying one is not responsible legally even if one might be morally (a custom the Romans governors took from the Bible). The elders may not have been not personally responsible, but in a way they are. When things go wrong in a society everyone, including the leadership shares in the crime. The priests and Levites are responsible too because they were the teachers and educators, and everyone else because they should have been better citizens and neighbours. The fact that no one has come forward with any evidence implies that some people were knowingly shielding the criminals.

This is another example of a law that is more important in its moral message than in the actual execution. It is that we all must bear some degree of blame when something goes wrong within our societies. Whether because we turn a blind eye or make excuses or pretend that it is not so important or allow our mistaken political dogmas to blind us to crime.  As we see nowadays that violence is often being excused. We are to blame when things go wrong, and we should not minimize crime or try to shift the blame onto others.

Shabbat Shalom

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.