Amitai Ben Nun
Former Shaliach in Cape Town


The chapter of eglah arufa (literally, a decapitated calf) refers to a case where a corpse is found in a field and the murderer is not known. In response, the city elders and the kohanim participate in a unique ceremony. They decapitate a calf in a valley and declare,

“Our hands have not spilled this blood.” (Devarim 21:7)

As the Abarbanel notes, this topic is perplexing:

“What is the point of this mitzvah and its reasons? And if it was to cleanse the innocent blood, how does the blood of the eglah arufa atone for the iniquity of the blood of the murdered man? And if Yisrael were not guilty in this matter, why was this action needed?”

The Abarbanel ascribes an important social value to this mitzvah: the eglah arufah ceremony was meant to shock the people living in the cities surrounding the murder site. By gathering together and then decapitating the calf, the city elders thereby interrupt the normal routine of everyday life. The goal was to force the onlookers to stop, think, and take responsibility for the horrible social conditions which enabled a man to be murdered. When someone is killed, life cannot just go on as usual.

In Sefer Shoftim, during the episode of “pilegesh bagivah”, we see that the nation understood this lesson. In the wake of the terrible incident, the rest of the shevatim were outraged and did not remain apathetic. As the pasuk describes:

“And all the people arose as one man saying, ‘No man shall go to his tent and no man shall turn to his house. And now this is the thing which we will do…’” (Shoftim 20:8-9)

Civilian life stopped; no one went home until the evil was uprooted.

Nonetheless, we must still ask why the elders had to declare that their hands had not shed any blood. Would it not have been more logical to simply investigate the individuals who were murder suspects?

The pilegesh bagivah episode ends with many casualties. Chazal state:

“Lest you say that those seventy thousand who were killed in Givat Binyamin, why did they die? Because the Sanhedrin should have… gone and fastened iron cords to their hips and traveled to all the towns of Israel… and taught Israel about derech eretz (proper behavior)… until Israel would settle in their land… But they did not do this. Instead, when they entered their land, each person went into his vineyard and his wine and into his field, and they would say ‘peace be upon you, my soul’ in order not to be overly bothered.” (Tana Divei Eliyahu 11)

The Torah and Chazal demand that society – and especially its leaders – be held accountable. The latter are responsible for any crimes committed in the city streets, because they are obligated to go around and educate the nation. The leaders must influence and encourage the nation to adopt the correct path and to appreciate the value of every human life. However, the entire public – “the cities which surround the corpse” (Devarim 21:2) – is ultimately responsible as well.

Thus, this parsha comes to teach us that proper social norms can thwart the atmosphere, the factors, and the circumstances which can lead to wanton murder. Therefore, if the public and the leadership did not institute these norms, they are responsible for the results.

As Nechama Leibovitz explains:

“We see then that responsibility for an evil act does not fall only on the perpetrator and not just on the abettor. The crime does not only involve cooperation, but also negligence, omission, and inattention. One who sits in his quiet corner and ignores the rest of society and its corrupt ways and “with dualists do not mingle” (Mishlei 24:21) and guards his soul with every safeguard – and sees oppression and theft and robbery but does not arise and does not move and does not struggle and does not protest – he also cannot say, ‘Our hands have not spilled this blood.’”