Mattos / Masei 5781

The responsibility of the Kohen Gadol[1]

‏…והשיבו אתו העדה אל-עיר מקלטו אשר-נס שמה וישב בה עד-מות הכהן הגדל וגו’‏
…The congregation shall return [the accidental killer] to his city of refuge (where he initially fled to), and he shall dwell there until the death of the Kohen Gadol…[2]

The Torah mandates that someone who, G-d forbid, accidentally kills another, be sentenced to exile. They have to leave their family and friends and dwell in one of the cities of refuge that the Torah delineates. It serves both as protection from the deceased’s relatives (who may want to take revenge)[3], and as a form of atonement[4]. The Torah does give a time limit to this exile. Although, it’s seemingly incongruous to the crime committed. The accidental killer must stay in their city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Only then can they return to their home. Why did the Torah make his freedom dependent on the Kohen Gadol’s death?

Chazal tell us[5] that it’s due to negligence on his part. A tragedy just occurred in the Jewish nation. Someone was accidentally killed. The Kohen Gadol, due to his position and stature, should have been able to prevent such a mishap. His prayers are more potent, and had he prayed properly, this would have never happened. Therefore, the Torah decided that anytime someone is accidentally killed, the Kohen Gadol bears some responsibility. Thus, his death was determined to be the catalyst for the accidental killer’s freedom.

Chazal discuss[6] an interesting case. What happens if after the accidental killing occurred, but before the trial finished with a verdict of exile, the Kohen Gadol dies and is replaced with another? The law is that the accidental killer goes free with the death of the second Kohen Gadol. The gemarra asks why this should be so? According to what we said, that the Kohen Gadol bears responsibility for the murder taking place, since they should have prayed stronger that such calamities not occur, this new Kohen Gadol wasn’t appointed when the killing took place! What should they have done? Why should they bear any responsibility[7]? The gemarra answers that true, the killing already took place. However, the trial’s verdict wasn’t yet determined. The new Kohen Gadol should have prayed that the accidental killer be acquitted. He should have influenced a verdict of innocence, so that the accused doesn’t need to be exiled. Since the verdict was not that way, the Kohen Gadol bears some responsibility.

This explanation requires clarification. What does it mean that the Kohen Gadol should pray to influence the accused’s verdict? If he’s guilty, he’s guilty. How could the Kohen Gadol pray that the judges make a mistake? Due to the severity of this question, some[8] want to suggest a tremendous novelty. There’s a law regarding capital crimes, that the verdict of death or acquittal is determined by a majority vote. However, if the entire court rules guilty, without dissidence, the accused goes free[9]. Why that is the case is a discussion in its own right[10], but some[11] want to extend this law to cases of exile for accidental murder.

If so, the intent of the gemarra is simple. This new, replacement Kohen Gadol should have prayed that every judge rule that the suspect is guilty. Since he is in fact guilty, this prayer would not be a perversion of their ruling. However, had they all ruled guilty, the suspected accidental killer would have gone free. Since the final verdict was that he had to go to exile, this shows that the Kohen Gadol didn’t pray enough. As such, he bears responsibility for this punishment of exile. It makes sense then that the accidental killer’s release would be determined by the death of this Kohen Gadol.

The problem is, this alone does not sufficiently answer the question[12]. If in fact this accidental killer is guilty, and is deserving of exile, then that means they need it as an atonement for their negligence[13]. Without exile, they will forever carry this blemish with them. If so, why is the Kohen Gadol guilty for not praying that a loophole take place, allowing the accidental killer freedom? The exile is for his own good! Why then is the Kohen Gadol punished for neglecting to pray that all the judges rule guilty, essentially acquitting the accidental killer?

Perhaps we can answer this based on a principle we are taught[14] regarding the Kohen Gadol’s clothing. A parsha discussing[15] the special clothing of the Kohanim is juxtaposed to a parsha discussing offerings[16]. This teaches us that that just like offerings provide atonement, so too the clothing of the Kohanim. The clothing of the regular Kohanim can provide atonement, as well as the special clothing of the Kohen Gadol. We are taught that the Kohen’s tunic atones for murder. There are those[17] that want to explain that the gemarra is specifically referring to unintentional sinners. Meaning, when we are taught that the Kohen’s tunic atones for murder, it’s referring to our case of an accidental killer.

It’s seemingly obvious that the clothing of the Kohanim don’t automatically provide atonement. It should also depend on their intent when donning them. The Kohen Gadol, when he would put on his tunic, would need to focus and beseech Hashem that the accidental killers would receive their necessary atonement. So too with all the garments for whatever they atone for. Therefore, if the Kohen Gadol was doing his job properly when putting on his tunic, all the accidental killers would no longer need to go to exile to receive their atonement. They would be completely absolved of their negligence[18].

It turns out then that it was completely possible for the Kohen Gadol to pray for the accidental killer to be acquitted. Hashem listens to the prayers of the righteous, and had the Kohen Gadol prayed properly, Hashem would have intervened. The judges would have been influenced to all rule the accused guilty[19], releasing the accidental killer from the punishment of exile. The Kohen Gadol’s prayers aren’t perverting justice, as the judges are all ruling correctly. There’s also no problem that the accidental killer is missing their atonement which their exile would have provided. The fact that they were acquitted shows that the prayers and garments of the Kohen Gadol provided the atonement they needed. If in the end the accidental killer is ruled for exile, that’s a sign that they still need their atonement. The Kohen Gadol’s prayers must have failed, so he bears some responsibility. As such, the Torah hinged the accidental killer’s freedom from exile with the death of the Kohen Gadol.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Numbers 35:25

[2] Numbers loc. cit.

[3] See v. 27

[4] הן שלא עשו מעשה במזיד נמי ליגלו כי היכי דליהוי להו כפרה (Makkos 2b; cf. ibid 11b (however, see Tosafos ad. loc. s.v. מידי גלות))

[5] Ibid 11a, brought by Rashi to v. 25

[6] Ibid 2:6 and 11b

[7] See Rashi ad. loc.

[8] Teshuva M’Ahavah 1:194 by Rav Elazar Fleckeles, one of the Nodah B’Yehudah’s primary students, brought by Mar’eh Kohen ad. loc., by Rav Betzalel Cohen of Vilna, one of the editors of the Vilna Shas, and older brother of the Cheishek Shlomo

[9] Sanhedrin 17a; Mishneh Torah Hilchos Sanhedrin 9:1

[10] For one explanation, see the Maharal’s Be’er HaGolah 2:3 (Machon Yerushalayim ed.)

[11] Teshuva M’Ahavah loc. cit. His rational is that there are other laws that are learned from capital crimes to exile (see Makkos 5b). In fact, he is motivated to expand this law of capital crimes to the laws of exile precisely because of this difficult gemarra in Makkos with the Kohen Gadol

[12] What follows is the Be’er Yosef’s attempt to explain this gemarra

[13] See note 4

[14] Zevachim 88b

[15] Leviticus Chapter 8

[16] Ibid Chapter 6, 7

[17] Maharsha and Iyun Ya’akov ad. loc. See the Be’er Yosef where he brings the entire gemarra and how Rashi and Tosafos ad. loc. as well as in Arachin 16a understood the gemarra as we have it written, which is that it’s referring to an intentional murder. As such, they try to explain what the gemarra means that they are atoned with the clothing of the Kohanim if they are an intentional murderers

[18] The son of the Be’er Yosef clarifies that even though regular Kohanim also wore a tunic which provided atonement, the Kohen Gadol bears special accountability for the atonement of accidental killers. This is because, as evident from Yoma 53b, the Kohen Gadol had the main responsibility amongst the Kohanim to pray for the Jewish people’s needs

[19] אלקים נצב בעדת קל (Psalms 82:1)