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What about the Three Cities of Refuge?

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

Numbers 35:14

“You shall designate three cities on the other side of the Jordan River, and you shall designate three cities in the land of Canaan; they shall serve as cities of refuge” (Numbers 35:14).

If someone committed manslaughter and killed another unintentionally, these cities were places he could flee to in order to escape the vengeance of the victim’s relatives. Rashi’s commentary here refers to a very obvious question raised by the Talmud (Makkos 9b). It seems disproportionate for the nine and a half tribes on the west side of the Jordan River to have three cities of refuge and for the two and a half tribes on the east side to need three such cities.

The answer the Talmud offers to this question is that murderers abounded on the east side of the Jordan, so that’s why they needed as many cities of refuge as the more numerous tribes in Canaan proper.

However, numerous commentaries raise a serious problem with this answer. We know that only people who killed unintentionally were allowed to live in a city of refuge. Actual murderers who did so purposefully were tried and could be executed. So, why would a proliferation of actual murderers necessitate having additional cities of refuge which were only for people who killed unintentionally?

The Maharal from Prague explained that in a place where murder is commonplace, people become desensitized to it and as a consequence, life will not be valued highly and people take it for granted. In such societies where life is cheap, insufficient caution is taken to protect people and ensure a safe environment. People in such places become lax and careless and this will lead to more incidents of accidental killing.

By Rabbi Michael Skobac


Rabbi Michael Skobac had been involved with Jews for Judaism (Canada) since 1989 and currently serves as its Director of Education and Counselling. He is a leading authority on missionaries, cults and issues relating to Jewish continuity and Jewish spirituality. Rabbi Skobac's publications include Missionary Impossible; Counter-Missionary Survival Guide; The DaVinci Code: A Jewish Perspetive; and Intermarriage: Is There Ligth at teh End of the Tunnel?


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Republished by Angelique Sijbolts with permission for the Noahide Academy.

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