Photo Credit: Jewish Press

“Be careful,” my father warned. “Don’t run around the house with that sharp thing in your hand. Slow down. You could hurt somebody.”

“Old peoples’ advice,” I thought to myself as I raced by. “Besides, my father is a dayan. Judges always anticipate the worst.”


When it comes to preservation of life, we should all anticipate the worst.

The Rambam tell us there are three degrees of unintentional murder.

The first mentioned by the Rambam is hahoreg bishegagah ubeha’alamah gemurah – unintentional murder in situations where accidents are prone to happen and could be avoided with a little more concern for public safety.

Such might be the case when one is installing an air conditioning unit in an upper story window overlooking the street. Perhaps some safety precautions were taken but maybe more could have been done. The unit plunges to the street and a passerby is fatally hurt. In the days of the Sanhedrin, one would have been banished to an open prison known as ir miklat, city of refuge. These cities of refuge served a dual purpose. The punishment of being confined within its borders served as atonement for the sin of not being more careful. They also protected the inadvertent killer from vengeance at the hands of the goel hadam, the deceased’s closest relative, who would be acquitted of murder if he or she, out of emotional distress, killed the inadvertent killer outside the ir miklat.

The second degree is hahoreg bishegagah karov le’oness – unintentional murder in situations in which even the most diligent safety precautions could not have prevented the accident. Such might be the case when one is driving attentively within the legal speed limit and the victim darts out right in front of one’s car. In this situation, the Sanhedrin would completely exonerate the inadvertent killer, who would not be banished to the ir miklat but would be free to go home. The inadvertent killer needs no atonement because he did nothing wrong. The goel hadam would be guilty of murder if he or she killed him.

The third degree is hahoreg bishegagah kerovah lezadon – unintentional murder as a result of reckless or negligent behavior. Examples might be running about in a confined, populated area with an unsheathed knife, or backing up a car in the street without looking behind. In this situation, the Sanhedrin would not banish the killer to the ir miklat because the sin is so grave that confinement there will not atone for it. If the goel hadam kills the inadvertent killer, he or she will be acquitted of murder.

Six cities of refuge were established in Israel, one of them being Hebron. In addition there were forty-two cities belonging to the Levi’im that also served as sanctuaries for the inadvertent killer but provided a lesser degree of protection.

All persons accused of murder were confined to the cities of refuge during their trial in the Sanhedrin. If they were found to have killed intentionally and the conditions permitting execution were present, they were executed. If they were found to have committed unintentional murder, of the second or third degree described above, they were released. If they were found to have committed first-degree unintentional murder they were banished to the cities of refuge.

Once the inadvertent killer was inside the ir miklat, the law prohibited the goel hadam from avenging the deceased. But if the inadvertent killer ever ventured outside the ir miklat, this protection was removed. Similarly, the goel hadam would be acquitted of murder if he or she killed the inadvertent killer after the verdict, while the inadvertent killer was on the way to the ir miklat.

The inadvertent killer would remain confined to the ir miklat until the death of the kohen gadol, the high priest. Following the death of the kohen gadol, he would be allowed to return home and the goel hadam would no longer have any license to kill him. One could well imagine that in these circumstances the inadvertent killer would pray fervently for the death of the kohen gadol. According to the Talmud, the kohen gadol was deserving of such harmful prayers because had he beseeched God earnestly enough during the Yom Kippur service to spare Israel from such tragedies, the accident might never have happened.

The road to the cities of refuge had to be a well-maintained, unobstructed freeway so that the inadvertent killer could get there safely without being ambushed by the goel hadam. The cities of refuge themselves had to be equipped with all the services and amenities necessary to live a “normal” life so that the inadvertent killer would not be tempted to venture outside and risk his life. The kohen gadol’s mother would supply food, drink, and clothing so that the inadvertent killer would not pray for the kohen gadol’s premature death.


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Raphael Grunfeld received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Rabbi Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed.” Questions for the author can be sent to