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Urban Planning (Shoftim)

In biblical times, the arei miklat—“cities of refuge,” or “sanctuary cities”—protected unintentional murderers from their victims’ would-be avengers. The Torah previously discussed arei miklat on a number of occasions (Exod. 21:13; Num. 35:9-29; Deut. 4:41-43); in this week’s parshah, Shoftim, it pays particular attention to the geographic spacing of these cities:

ssWhen the Lord, your God, cuts off the nations, whose land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you inherit them, and dwell in their cities and in their houses, you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess. Prepare the way for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer.

And this is the case of the killer who will flee there, so that he may live: Whoever strikes his fellow [to death] unintentionally, whom he did not hate in times past… he shall flee to one of these cities, and live. Lest the avenger of the blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is long, and he strikes him to death, whereas he was not deserving of death, for he had not hated him in times past. Therefore, I command you, saying, “You shall separate for yourself three cities.”

And when the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He swore to your forefathers, and He gives you all the land of which He spoke to give to your forefathers; if you will keep all this commandment to perform it, which I command you this day, to love the Lord, your God, and to walk in His ways all the days, you shall add three more cities for yourself, in addition to these three, so that innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance which would deem you guilty of [having shed this] blood… (Deut. 19:1-10).

This, in fact, is the second consecutive parshah in which the Torah has focused upon bnei Yisrael’s ease of access to a given city. Last week, in Re’eh, it was the distance to and from “the place of God’s choosing”—that is, the city housing the beit ha-Mikdash, or “Temple”—to which the Torah called attention. This topic recurred throughout Re’eh, and, remarkably, many of the key terms and phrases that appeared there resurface in our parshah’s presentation of the “sanctuary cities.” Thus:

(1) In Re’eh the Torah said, near the end of a passage detailing the prohibition to construct altars outside of Yerushalayim (in imitation of the private shrines built by the Canaanites): “When the Lord, your God cuts off the nations [כי יכרית ה’ אלקיך את הגוים] to which you will come to inherit before you, and when you inherit them and dwell in their land [וירשת אותם וישבת בארצם]…” (Deut. 12:29). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “When the Lord, your God, cuts off the nations [כי יכרית ה’ אלוקיך את הגוים] whose land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you inherit them, and dwell in their cities and in their houses [וירשתם וישבתם בעריהם ובבתיהם]…”  (Deut. 19:1). Nothing similar to the underlined phrase-pairs appears anywhere else in the Torah besides for in the instances listed here.

(2) In Re’eh the Torah said, concerning the slaughter of meat outside of Yerushalayim:   “When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary [כי ירחיב ה’ את גבולך], as He has spoken to you [כאשר דבר לך]…” (Deut. 12:20). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “And when the Lord, your God, expands your boundary [ואם ירחיב ה’ את גבולך] as He swore to your forefathers [כאשר נשבע לאבותיך]…” (Deut. 19:8). Nothing similar to the underlined phrase-pairs appears anywhere else in the Torah besides for in the instances listed here.

(3) In Re’eh the Torah said, concerning the consumption of tithes outside of Yerushalayim: “And if the way be too long for you [וכי ירבה ממך הדרך], that you are unable to carry it, for the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to establish His Name therein, is too far from you…” (Deut. 14:24). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “Prepare the way [הדרך] for yourself…lest the avenger of the blood pursue the killer, while his heart is hot, and overtake him, because the way is too long [כי ירבה הדרך]” (Deut. 19:3, 6). Nothing similar to the underlined phrase-pairs appears anywhere else in the Torah besides for in the instances listed here.

(4) In Re’eh the Torah said, concerning the obligation to visit Yerushalayim: “Three times in the year, every one of your males shall appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose…” (Deut. 16:16). In Shoftim the Torah says, concerning the “sanctuary city:” “You shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land” (Deut. 19:2); “prepare the way for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land” (ibid. 3); “and when the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, you shall add three more cities for yourself, in addition to these three” (ibid. 19:8-9).

Altogether, then, Re’eh and Shoftim present us with a fascinating contrast between two sorts of cities: the “sacred city,” on the one hand, and the “sanctuary city,” on the other.[1] Both must be built upon settling the land of Israel. Both will prove too far for some to reach, especially should national borders expand. But the Torah’s response to this problem differs by case. In the case of the “sacred city,” the Torah insists that there shall only be one—even if this means that less sacrifices will be offered than might otherwise have been, or that sacred edibles, such as tithes, will be redeemed rather than consumed ritually. In the case of the “sanctuary city,” however, the Torah actively exhorts bnei Yisrael to increase their number, “so that innocent blood will not be shed” for lack of adequate asylum.

Several axiological propositions probably underlie this distinction, but the most fundamental of them all may be simply this: as sacred as Hashem regards our worship of Him, even more important to Him are our efforts to honor the sanctity of each human life.[2] Hence the disproportionate allocation of the nation’s limited public lands. Let b’nei Yisrael dedicate a single site to Hashem (in stark contrast to the prevailing religious practice of Israel’s surrounding cultures at the time), which they can travel to three times a year; but let there be three cities, and then another three, dedicated to sheltering the vulnerable among us, so that, when they need it, it takes them only one trip to get there. True, the distance bein adam l’Makom may be (quite literally!) increased thereby. If, however, this brings us closer bein adam l’chaveiro, then the “sacrifice” is worth more to Hashem than any sacrifice that could possibly have been presented to Him atop the altar.[3]

Shabbat shalom!

[1] The connection between these cities may already be implied by Exod. 21:12-14:  “Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer [even] from my altar for execution.” Also reflective of this connection is the fact that the arei miklat were all located in the territory of the tribe of Levi, whose members ministered in the beit ha-Mikdash in Yerushalayim (Num. 35:1-8); and the fact that all Levite cities actually functioned as arei miklat in some sense (Makkot 13a).

[2] In a similar vein, it is interesting to contrast the opening verse of Shoftim—“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deut. 16:18)—with the first verse in Re’eh that explicitly addresses the centralization of Hashem’s worship: “Only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes as His habitation to set His Name there shall you go there” (Deut. 12:5). The place of ritual worship is made only in one city, only in the territory of one tribe; but courts must be established in all cities, in all tribes.

[3] For more on this theme, see the 2014 article on Terumah, “Moral Laws vs. Ritual Laws.”


  1. […] From the What’s P’shat? blog at Yeshiva University – Urban Planning […]

  2. EWZS says:

    Really interesting piece, Alex.

    I’d been mulling a puzzle for a while and you helped me illuminate it: Why, in Deut 4:41-49, does an account of Moshe’s setting aside 3 sanctuary cities on the east bank of the Jordan interrupt Moshe’s speeches leading up to his recounting of Sinai/Horeb? In particular, Moshe describes the experience of Sinai in detail both both before this interlude (4:10-20; 4:35-6) and afterwards (5:2-5:5; 5:18-5:25) on either side of the Decalogue (5:6-5:17). This is extremely odd if you think about it– not only because it interrupts the flow of the narrative but also because the theme of the sanctuary cities seems unrelated and sort of mundane when juxtaposed with the big themes Moshe is sounding.

    But I think your analysis provides some clues. In particular, it is interesting that there is a key difference between how Moshe describes Sinai before the interlude about the sanctuary cities and afterwards. Prior to the interlude, Moshe describes the encounter between God and Israel as intimate and unmediated. But after the interlude, Moshe describes (5:19-5:25) how the experience was so overwhelming and seemingly life-threatening that Israel asked for Moshe to act as an intermediary (while somehow not diminishing the immediacy of the experience; it was still “face to face” [5:4] even though Moshe “was standing between God and you” [5:5]).

    What does this have to do with your analysis? Well, for one thing, note that there is one other time in the Torah that Moshe describes how Israel had asked him to be an intermediary between God and Israel at Horeb. That’s in 18:15-16– as part of Moshe’s guidance for how they should select a prophet, to keep them from going astray from God (18:9-18:22), leading up to… you guessed it… the treatment of sanctuary cities (19:1-19:14).

    So there seems to be some kind of connection between sanctuary cities and the appointing of (Moses as) a prophet due to the fact that it is too overwhelming to live in a state of close proximity to God.

    I think when we start pondering what that connection might be, your analysis is helpful. In particular, you are essentially suggesting that sanctuary cities are a way of addressing the challenge that God is so far away from the people. The discussion in Numbers 35:9-24 is helpful in this respect. In particular, note how the climactic line here is “Do not contaminate the land– that in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell– because I dwell in the midst of the children of Israel (35:34).” The last words here– “כי אני שכן בתוך בני ישראל” relate to the key lines from last week’s parsha about what the central sanctuary (in Jerusalem): “and it will be the place that the Lord your God will select for his name to dwell (“לשכן שמו שם”).

    As you suggest, the idea would seem to be the fact that God’s presence is most immediately felt in the central sanctuary does not take away from the fact that God dwells in Israel’s midst. (I am reminded here of Menachem Leibtag’s argument that the point of the second half of Vayikra is precisely to reinforce the idea that tabernacle/temple worship should not prevent us from recognizing God in our midst in our day-to-day lives; see http://www.tanach.org/vayikra/ach/achs1.htm). And perhaps one might suggest that the law of sanctuary cities is a particularly well-chosen vehicle for making this point. In particular, these laws are essentially a mechanism for controlling the kind of “social control” behavior that occurs where both God and human leaders (who are needed because God cannot rule directly) seem most distant– when a relative is killed and one is called upon to defend the honor of one’s kin. But the Torah provides a framework for structuring and channeling this situation, keeping it under the control of human authorities appointed by God even when it occurs quite far from Jerusalem.

    • Fascinating! The question of where and how often “ir miklat” shows up is one I’ve thought about quite a bit as well, and the connection you’re articulating here seems most promising. To your point about why the sanctuary city, in particular, might have been chosen to emphasize the notion that God’s presence can be found even in those places that are relatively distant from Yerushalayim (or Sinai):
      (a) no institution represents exile/banishment more so than the “ir miklat;” surely those sentenced to a lifetime there would have lamented, along with Yonah: ואני אמרתי נגרשתי מנגד עיניך אך אוסיף להביט אל היכל קדשך. Yet, Hashem insists: ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה—God Himself personally establishes this place on behalf of the accidental murderer, and populates it with none other than His ministers, the Levi’im, so that even in “exile,” our accidental murderer never feels himself too far from Yerushalayim.
      (b) in light of the above, Moshe’s separation of those three cities across the Jordan assumes new significance: so quintessentially “exilic” is this mitzvah that its observance actually began outside of Israel proper! (And note that the association of “east” with “exile” https://whatspshat.org/2014/07/17/mattot/, tracing its roots all the way back to Gan Eden)
      Finally: All of this is especially interesting given the thematic centrality of God’s closeness (ק.ר.ב) within Sefer Devarim: from the first three episodes Moshe retells—appointing judges, sending spies, and, as you mention, the Sinai Revelation—all of which include the phrase ותקרבון אלי, through his exhortation near the end of the Sefer to the effect thatקרוב אליך הדבר מאוד, בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו … More on that here: https://whatspshat.org/2015/07/28/immanence-and-intermediary-vaethanan/
      PS: Based on your ideas, we might suggest another way to explain the “distance discrepancy” between “ir miklat” and “ha-makom asher yivchar Hashem:” Hashem desires closeness with the entire nation; but whereas those religiously inspired pilgrims who undertake aliyah l’regel need no reminding that they are always invited to draw close to Hashem, the accidental murderer, on account of his grave sin, feels that great distance separates him from Hashem. Thus Hashem endeavors specially on the latter’s behalf, making sure to minimize the distance to an “ir miklat” as a way of “reaching out” to the rotzeach b’shgagah and communicating to Him that there remains ample place for him within Hashem’s territory.

      • EWZS says:

        Cool ideas, Alex.

        And perhaps it’s worth noting the other case we have of the Torah of exile to the east after manslaughter is Moshe himself (which in many ways foreshadows the law of sanctuary cities, especially in that he returns only after the death of pharaoh (Ex 2:23; cf. Num 35:25,28 on the death of the high priest) and all those (relatives) seeking vengeance (Ex 4:19). And of course to your point about no one ever truly being outside of Hashem’s territory, God reveals Himself to Moshe at a point where he had seemingly long given up on any connection to his people; indeed, he was doubly exiled, both from Egypt and from Israel.

        Hmm… so perhaps it’s significant that the Torah goes out of its way to tell us that the designation of the sanctuary cities on the East Bank is performed by Moshe himself (and perhaps that’s another reason for emphasizing that; it is the only commandment connected to the land that Moses could fulfill himself) is that he arguably had a special connection to it)

      • Great call on the Moshe connection! Relates to something I was planning to write on Masei at some point; in brief:
        Separate from the whole Ir Miklat/Yerushalayim connections already discussed, the fact that the Levi’im are those chosen to administer the ir miklat works well for yet another reason. The ir miklat shelters the rotzeach b’shogeg from the Torah’s most salient form of permissible extrajudicial killing: geulat dam. And the Leviim are the Torah’s paradigmatic extrajudicial killers: think of Shimon and Levi in Shechem; Moshe killing the Egyptian; Levi’im executing the worshippers of the Egel; and Pinchas killing Zimri. The Levi’im understand the instinct that motivates extrajudicial killing, and have repeatedly exercised it in ways that (to this point) received divine sanction. But now, as Bnei Yisrael move into settled, civilized society, and seek to establish a nation anchored in law and order, the Levi’im are encouraged to move away from that instinct by administering precisely that institution which trains against it; simultaneously, they serve as the spokespeople of moderation to the goel hadam, whose instinct they can empathize with, since they are best positioned for both validating his sentiments and, hopefully, directing them in a different direction.

  3. EWZS says:

    Oh wow, that’s brilliant re the Levi’im’s role. Yasher koach Alex.
    (Your theory of the role of levi’im parallels a theory of mine about how the kehuna is a form of “punishment” for Aharon’s sin at chet ha’egel. I’ve been meaning to write it up; iyh will do that sometime soon and share it by email)

    • Now *that* is intriguing; please send along when finished!
      Thanks for a great back-and-forth, Ezra; you’ve really helped me probe depths that I hadn’t considered. Always a true pleasure 🙂

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