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  KD MAGAZINE!                      ב"ה     
28 Tamuz 5771
By: Rabbi Asher Brander,

A Kohein Gadol's Life


In the early days of rail travel, crossing guards warned travelers of approaching trains. These men were especially important at night. When trains came, they stood in the middle of the road, swinging a lantern to warn coach drivers of the impending danger. One night, there was a terrible accident at a particular crossing. A coach collided with a train, killing a family of six. An inquest by the railroad authorities subpoenaed Ben, the guard on duty that night. "Ben," the chairman of the review board asked, "were you on duty the night of the accident?" "Yes, sir, I was," Ben replied nervously. "Did you know the train was coming?" "Yes, sir, I did." "Did you take your place in front of the crossing?" "Yes, sir, I did." "Did you have your lantern with you?" "Yes, sir, I did." Then the chairman thanked Ben and told him to step down. The inquest closed the case without knowing the cause of the accident. Speculation was that the coach driver was drunk or blind.

Many years later, Ben lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. Softly he began to moan, "Those poor people. Those poor, poor people." His oldest son leaned down to hear his father. "Are you talking about the people in that coach, Dad?" "Yes. Those poor, poor people." "But, Dad! Don't you remember? There was an inquest. You were cleared; it wasn't your fault!" "They forgot to ask one question," Ben gasped. "What didn't they ask?" "They forgot to ask," Ben whispered, "if my lantern was lit."

Our parsha[1] is home to the unique and fascinating halacha of the unintentional murderer, the rotzeiach b'shogeg - who bears some degree of responsibility in the snuffing out of a life; he who could have been more careful is to be sent to the city of refuge, the ir miklat [the resident levi cities] to do time.

22. But if he pushed him accidentally, without malice, or threw an object at him without premeditation, ....The congregation shall protect the murderer from the hand of the blood avenger, and the congregation shall return him to the city of refuge to which he had fled,

This is unique within the context of Torah justice, which generally does not sanction a prison system. For the most part, prison as rehabilitation fails miserably. The Torah prison conception incorporates other fascinating interconnecting elements that deserve our attention

First, consider that there is a negative incentive for the rotzeiach to scram to the ir miklat[2]:

26. But if the murderer goes beyond the border of the city of refuge to which he had fled 27. and the blood avenger finds him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood avenger slays the murderer, he has no blood. For he shall remain in his city of refuge until the Kohen Gadol dies, and only after the Kohen Gadol has died, may the murderer return to the land which is his possession.

Fascinating. The Torah introduces the goel hadam - the blood avenger, the relative of the victim whom the Torah gives license to mete out apparent vigilante justice to the murderer were he to step out of the bounds of the ir miklat. A good NFL receiver is always taught to know where the field is; one can be sure l'havdil that rotzeiach b'shogeg took a crash course in miklat geography. This whole notion evokes images of the Wild west[3];

One more gripping element, the focus of our attention, creates a dramatic triangle. First the pasuk.

and he shall remain there until the Kohen Gadol, who anointed him with the sacred oil, dies

In other words, the length of the unintentional murderer's stay in the city of refuge is variant. He stays until the kohen gadol dies - a halacha that remains in force even when the unintentional murderer soul has left this world:

If the murderer died [in banishment] before the high priest, they move [after the kohen gadol's death] his bones [body] to burial place of his ancestors as it is written, ...the murderer shall return to the land of his possession

We seek to understand the kohein gadol - rotzeiach connection. What significance is there in the apparently arbitrary link between the unintentional murderer's freedom and the demise of the kohein gadol? First, consider this dramatic scene

Therefore, mothers of high priests were wont to provide food and garments for them [the unintentional murderers] that they might not pray for their son's death.

The Kohen Gadol's emah understood well what lurked in the hearts and minds of the miklat men. They wanted to return home and that could only happen at the demise of the Kohen Gadol. By serving some brownies and knitting some sweaters, she may be effective in removing the potency of the murderers's prayer.

Now we are ready to probe the connection - but let us remember that there are three personalities involves: the kohein gadol, the rotzeiach and the blood avenger. As such, the connection between the kohen gadol's death and the release of the unintentional murderer might relate to any or all of these 3 possibilities. We now present several classic approaches:

1. Seforno: and because there are many different types of unintentionality - some closer to intentional and some closer to completely accidental - the Torah gave to exile variant times. Some will commit their unintentional act shortly before the kohen gadols' death and other times the rotzeiach shall die in exile before the kohen gadol and this [a demonstration of] God's justice who knows all - to punish ... commensurate to the degree of his unintentionality

In other words, the Kohen Gadol's death is a subjective point designed to account for the variant nature of the rotzeiach's crime. As our opening story indicates, the man who didn't turn on the light - did everything else right - but he REALLY blew it. The driver who looked both ways and then crossed the red is more negligent than the one whose car slicked on the greasy patch and didn't control his skid properly. A million shades of gray requires an adjustable and calibrated system. As such, the kohein gadol's demise as a release point for the rotzeiach is an ode to Divine design[4].

In this brilliant Sefoorno, we marvel at the precision and yet still wonder: why choose the Kohen gadol and why not some other objective persona - the king, head of Sanhedrin or even simply the head of the tribe?

We thus turn to (2.) Chizkuni and Da'as Zekeinim[5]

For if the murderer would be allowed to walk around freely, people would say - have you seen this person who took a life and he is free to move around - and the kohein gadol is not avenging this and it is up to him .... As it says [that in times of crisis] you shall go to the kohein of that day

It is about the Kohein Gadol - but it is not his fault. The Torah seeks to sparing him from shame. As the ranking spiritual and moral authority, a communal moral lapse of an egregious nature must be addressed. If not, the leader [the kohein gadol] is cast in a very negative light. The people want justice - but from a pure Torah perspective, the murderer can not be put to death by the kohein gadol. So the Torah throws the rotzeiach out of the communal eye. When the new kohen gadol emerges, everyone understands that it did not happen on his watch. Chizkuni/Da'as Zekeinim's approach offers us a window into Divine mercy - but ultimately finds nothing inherent in the connection between rotzeiach and kohen gadol.

3. Rambam[6] finds the connection as focusing on the third party: the goel hadam

And the Torah connects his return with the death of the man who is most respected and beloved by all, for with this the blood avenger will be calmed --- for it is a natural phenomenon when one suffers a loss - that if something similar [or greater] happens to someone else, one will find comfort ... and there is no instance of death that is greater in loss than the death of the koehin gadol

There are many other approaches[7], but we shall conclude with two famous notions of Rashi, his second approach [#4] echoing the classic Talmudic approach[8]:

Another interpretation: Because the Kohein Gadol should have prayed that this pitfall not occur in Israel during his lifetime.90

The kohein gadol must pray for people. His shemone esrei can not be a personal shopping list - he must carry the needs of all of klal Yisroel. In Rav Hirsch's [cf. beginning of Emor] brilliant formulation, he is the ultimate communal man - thus the kohein gadol can not become impure for personal relatives. He is a sacred communal possession[9]. Further, he kohein gadol is responsible for creating a better climate and articulating a forceful and compelling spiritual message[10].

5. Rashi then presents us with 2nd notion [based on Sifri] .

As he causes the Divine Presence to reside in Israel, and lengthens their lives, while the murderer causes the Divine Presence to leave Israel, and shortens their lives, he (the murderer) is unworthy of being in the presence of the Kohein Gadol.

Another piece of the triangle. It is about the rotzeiach. The kohein gadol and the rotzeiach simply can not dwell together. Just as the knife may not be used for the mizbeiach stones[11], for the knife represents death and the altar life - so may the kohein gadol not be present in the same room with the murderer; they represent a jarring antithesis the one who loves life and the one who cheapens it. At the same time that one man is doing all he can to bring the Shechina into this world [think of Rashi's other approach], another man snuffed out [from this world] some of tzelem Elokim. Thus the Torah limits the rotzeiach's space

A few days ago, I had the great privilege praying with a very famous 98 year old rabbi. He is at the top of the holy Rabbis. His name: Rabbi Aharon Leib Staiman of Bnei Brak. He is a simple and obviously holy Jew who lives life in an incredibly God centered way. Being able to pray in his minyan allowed me the opportunity of being close [literally about 18 inches away] echoing the Talmudic comment that in this world, we can be a lot closer to the holy people than in the next. Praying near him was very meaningful - but to watch how after prayer services are over, everybody wants a word or two with this man was special to behold. People call, fax, e-mail or come from around the world to seek his advice and comforting message.

To me, it was most remarkable, how a man [at an age that the world would consider passť] lives and gives life. His intense and focused life is the source of his ability to elevate others. To us regular people, we need bear in man the kohein gadol/rotzeiach dialectic. To the extent that we devalue our fellow man, we snuff out life; to the extent that we focus on increasing Hashem's presence in this world, we then can give others encouragement and life itself.

Good Shabbos from Cleveland [celebrating with the Posts]

Asher Brander


[1] Its appearance is connected to the apportionment of the Eretz Yisrael and its attendant borders

[2] Bamidbar 35

[3] Cf. Rambam [Rotzeiach, 1:1-2] and Ketzos Hachoshen [2:1] vs. Tumim as to whether this halacha applies even nowadays. It is hard to argue although some have that the goel hadam is a concession given that Sanhedrin appoints one, if no relative exists and that according to some tanaim it was an absolute mitzvah

[4] Cf. Meshech Chochma for a fascinating offshoot of this concept with regard to the lifespan of the Kohen Gadol. With this notion, he also explains ambiguous term of Bamidbar 35:25 asher mashach oto

[5] Bamidbar ad. Loc.

[6] Moreh Nevuchim, 3:40

[7] Cf. Rashbam, Ikarim, Akeidas Yitzchak and Abarbanel

[8] Makkos 11a, Cf. Gur Aryeh who argues that Rashi's approach is not exactly reflective of the gemara

[9] He may only become tamei for thee meis mitzvah - for the obligation to bury the one who has not bruiers is upon the community.

[10] An obvious question on this approach is the halacha that if a murder was committed during the lifetime of the kohein gadol - who then dies (and is replaced) - and then beit din decides the punishment - the halacha makes the release of the murderer contingent upon the death of the 2nd koheein gadol - but what did he do at that point?

[11] Cf. Rashi, Shemos, 20:22

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