Nedarim 87

Who is guilty of manslaughter?

According to Numbers 35, if a man killed someone accidentally — what today we would call manslaughter — he should be sent to a “city of refuge” to live out his life. This is a form of exile, but it’s also an opportunity to live free from the threat of retaliation by the victim’s family, at least as long as he remains within that city’s walls. 

According to Numbers 35:23, this avenue of protection only exists if the killing was inadvertent — or as the biblical Hebrew puts it, be-lo roeh — literally “without seeing.” On today’s daf, the Talmud asks: Just how literally should we take this phrase?

“Without seeing,” to exclude a blind person. This is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. 

Rabbi Yehuda reads the verse as suggesting that a city of refuge is only for those who can see but did not, for whatever reason. But Rabbi Yehuda does not get the last word. 

Rabbi Meir says to include a blind person.  

Rabbi Meir seems to suggest that all those who cannot see, physically or metaphorically, can be found guilty of manslaughter, and so they all have recourse to the city of refuge. 

At this point, this appears to be a relatively simple rabbinic dispute. Reading it, we might just conclude that Rabbi Yehuda differentiates people with visual impairments within the rabbinic legal system while Rabbi Meir treats people with visual impairments the same as people who are seeing. 

But the later rabbi, Rava, flips this conclusion on its head. Rava explains that each rabbi’s position emerges not only from their reading of Numbers 35, but from reading Numbers 35 together with Deuteronomy 19, which lays out the rules for a city of refuge a second time. In Deuteronomy 19, the Torah describes a paradigmatic example of a case where a city of refuge is needed — a case where two men go out to the forest to chop wood and the axe head accidentally flies off the handle and kills one of them. 

Rabbi Yehuda maintains that with regard to the (accidental) killer it is written: “And a man who goes into the forest with his neighbor to hew wood” (Deuteronomy 19:5) — anyone who is capable of entering a forest, and a blind person is also is capable of entering a forest. And if you say “without seeing” serves to include a blind person, this is derived from the word “forest.” Rather, learn from it “without seeing” serves to exclude a blind person.

According to Rava, Rabbi Yehuda reads Deuteronomy 19:5 as broadly inclusive — anyone capable of going into a forest is included. Since blind people are already covered by that verse, the verse in Numbers 35 must be doing something else — excluding them from the sentence of exile to a city of refuge. 

Rabbi Meir, however, reads the two verses together and comes to the opposite conclusion:

Rabbi Meir maintains: It is written: “One who strikes his neighbor without knowledge” (Deuteronomy 19:4) — anyone who is capable of knowing (exactly where his neighbor is standing at a given moment), but a blind person is not capable of knowing. And if you say “without seeing” to exclude a blind person, this is already derived from the “without knowledge.” Rather, learn from it “without seeing” to include a blind person.

Rabbi Meir argues that Deuteronomy 19 insists that someone who is visually impaired cannot be found guilty of manslaughter. So the verse in Numbers 35 must come to teach that even if a blind person has not been found legally guilty, they still have recourse to the cities of refuge. 

According to Rava’s reading, then, it is actually Rabbi Yehuda who thinks that, at least when it comes to manslaughter, there should be no differentiating between people with visual impairments and everyone else while Rabbi Meir thinks people with visual impairments should be treated differently. And yet, Rabbi Yehuda reads the Bible as stating that even though someone with a visual impairment may be found guilty of manslaughter, they do not need to flee to a city of refuge. And Rabbi Meir insists that even though they cannot be found guilty, they must still flee!

And just to complicate these positions even further, while we might imagine that the person who has been found guilty of manslaughter and allowed to stay home would be relieved, in not requiring exile, Rabbi Yehuda leaves the accidental killer vulnerable to attack. 

Neither position is simple, and neither position maps neatly onto a particular modern attitude. But at its core, Rava reminds us, even things which appear simple at first glance may end up actually being very complicated.

Read all of Nedarim 87 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 20th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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