Home > Judaism, Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal > What’s the meaning of the ‘eglah arufah’ ritual?

What’s the meaning of the ‘eglah arufah’ ritual?

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO–Parashat Shoftim contains the obtuse ritual of the eglah arufah (heifer whose neck was broken).

If a murder victim is found outside of one or more towns and the slayer is unknown, the residents of the town closest to the victim must take responsibility for their burial. Before doing so they must perform the ritual of the eglah arufah and make a declaration that they were not responsible for the murder. They take a heifer which has never been yoked, bring it down to wadi (dry river bed) that has never been tilled or sown, and break its neck.

A Kohein offers a blessing and then the elders of the town wash their hands over the heifer and declare: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel who you redeemed and do not let guilt of the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” (Deut. 21:7)

The ritual of “heifer whose neck was broken” is strange and the rabbis classified it as a law which lacks rational explanation; it is performed only because God says so. Some of the symbolism, however, is obvious-such as the innocent elders “washing their hands” of guilt after the murder.

Their declaration is nevertheless strange. Why should the elders of the town, who are obviously innocent, have to swear they were not involved? The Talmud explains that the elders were not declaring their own innocence, but that they did not permit lawlessness and violence that lead to murder to flourish in their towns. The Midrash adds: “in our community, no poor person goes unaided to the point of being driven to a life of crime.” (Etz Hayim, p. 1105)

What the rabbis were teaching us is, that while it is obviously forbidden to commit murder, it is also our responsibility to prevent murder and acts of violence from occurring in our society. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We prevent acts of violence by making every effort to insure that those around us are treated justly and equitably, and that poverty and need do not propel people to a life of crime.

When we see injustice and violence we may not just wash our hands of responsibility and walk away. We are obligated to work together to eliminate the causes, attitudes, and lifestyle which lead to a life of hatred and violence.

Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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