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Shoftim 5761-2001

“Security for Citizens and Caring for Guests”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, Deuteronomy 21, we encounter the ritual of the Eglah Arufah, the ceremony of the heifer that is put to death.

If a corpse of a murdered person is found outside a city, and it is not known who the murderer was or which city the victim came from, the members of the Sanhedrin (High Court) in Jerusalem determine the closest city, and the elders or leaders of that city are required to bring a heifer to nachal eitan, a strong valley with running water. At that location the elders wash their hands over the heifer symbolizing the washing away of the community’s guilt and say, “Ya’daynu lo shaf’chu et ha’dam ha’zeh, v’ay’nay’nu lo ra’uh, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. The elders ask for forgiveness from G-d, for not safeguarding the roads and for not providing adequate security for the travelers.

The Talmud explains that the Eglah Arufah ceremony is purposely centered about a young heifer–an animal that has never produced fruit and has never done any work. This incomplete animal is to symbolically atone for the death of the man who died prematurely without producing “fruit.” According to Maimonides, the purpose of the ritual was to publicize the killing in the hope of finding the murderer.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Eglah Arufah ritual. I know that we residents of New York City pride ourselves on having the great Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor of New York has restored law and order to a city which was on the verge of anarchy. Since becoming Mayor in 1993, Giuliani has reduced the rate of murder in the city by 65%. In 1993 there were almost 2,000 murders in the city. By the year 2000, the number of murders was reduced to 667. So, we pat ourselves on our shoulders as if to say what a wonderful achievement this is, but it’s really not. Consider the fact that the entire country of Japan, with a total population of 126 ½ million citizens had 1,265 murders in 1999. New York City, with a population of 8 million people can hardly rejoice over 677 murders. Should we not be jumping out of our skins that even 10 innocent people, or even one innocent person was murdered this year?

I’ve also wondered what it would be like if the mayor or leaders of any city in the world had to go out twice or three times a day to perform the Eglah Arufah ritual whenever a dead person was found. I feel quite certain that much more effort would be made to prevent murders if government officials were required to attend these horrible daily rituals.

It is well know that the bottom line of Judaism and of Jewish life is the sanctity of human life. So, it should come as no surprise that Judaism has this unbelievable ritual known as Eglah Arufah to underscore the community leaders’ responsibilities for protecting life.

As important as that lesson might be, we learn additionally from the Eglah Arufah ritual that both city officials, and hosts in general, have a responsibility of escorting visitors, to make certain that visitors can travel safely from one city to another. We see from this ritual that hosts who fail to provide security are held morally responsible.

The law of escorting visitors from city to city and providing security is actually part of the customs of Hachnasat Orchim, the ritual of welcoming guests in to one’s home. According to Jewish law, it is proper for hosts to escort visitors from their home and even from their business offices, and walk with them approximately 4 cubits (that is, 8 feet) outside the front door. This is done not in order to “show guests the door,” but to provide guests with a sense of security. Aryeh ben David, in his new and helpful book Around the Shabbat Table (published by Jason Aaronson Inc. 2000), cites Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), who insists that escorting guests when they leave is a greater mitzvah than inviting them in. This is rather surprising given all the hard work that is required to host guests in one’s home.

Ben David points out that once a guest leaves the home, the guest feels quite vulnerable and alone. Attending the guest out of the home shows that the host doesn’t really want the visitor to leave, and is in effect saying, I’m willing to leave the comfort of my own home to help you on your way. I am accompanying you because I wish to extend this visit, if but for a few minutes, to allow me to be with you a bit longer because of my affection and affinity for you.

Once again, we see that the ancient rituals of Judaism have very wonderful contemporary implications.

May all your journeys be safe, and may you be blessed.