Following the death of Manesh Yazachu, a 19-year-old female soldier from Yokneam, in northern Israel, who had been hit by several cars, all of which fled the scene without stopping to extend help, the rabbinic organization Tzohar (its full name is “Tzohar – A Window Between Two Worlds,” alluding to its intention of opening a channel of communication between two communities in conflict, religious and secular Jews) decided to hold a kind of “breaking the neck of a heifer” ceremony, to atone for the shocking disregard of life exhibited by some of us.
The Torah provides for a case in which a dead body is found lying in a field and no one knows who killed him or her. The elders of the town nearest the site of the corpse must take from their herds a heifer that has never known the yoke, and bring it down to a riverbed where they must break the heifer’s neck, wash their hands over the heifer and proclaim, “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor have we witnessed the crime. Do not blame your people Israel whom you redeemed, God, and do not hold them accountable for the bloodshed of an innocent person.” Then atonement will be made for the bloodshed.
That’s the somewhat unsettling ceremony described in Deuteronomy 21:1-9, which concludes: In this manner you will purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, for you must do what is right before God.
Tzohar Chairman Rabbi David Stav arrived Thursday morning with a minyan of Rabbis at the gas station near the entrance to Kibbutz HaZore’a, where they conducted a prayer, calling on everyone to take greater care when driving, and protesting the deep moral offenses of hit-and-run drivers.
Tzohar members said that despite the fact that they didn’t actually break the neck of a heifer, they were hoping to attract public attention as well as the attention of Israel’s leaders, because “it cannot be that blood is spilled and people won’t atone for it.”
“We are responsible for the blood spilled in traffic accidents,” said Rabbi Stav, “for the blood of youth shed in pointless fighting, for the women murdered by their husbands. We are responsible for the blood spilled in the murders we read about in the papers. When it comes to human life, there is no escaping responsibility.”
“If every time a woman were murdered by her husband the heads of social services, the family court judges and the local rabbi would come and say, ‘We did everything possible to prevent this,’ reality would look better,” said Rabbi Rafi Foyerstein, also of Tzohar.
The Talmud, in Tractate Sota 46 b, tells us that the annulment of the practice of breaking the heifer’s back was a sign of the moral decline of Judea before the destruction of the Temple: “When the murderers became numerous, the custom of breaking the neck of a heifer was interrupted.”