Deuteronomy 21:1–9 explains that when the body of a murder victim is found in a field and the identity of the murderer is unknown, the elders of the closest town are required to perform a ritual involving an eglah arufah, a heifer whose neck is broken. To determine which town is responsible for the ritual, elders are tasked with surveying and determining which town is closest. The rabbis explain how to make this determination when the body is about the same distance from two different towns. The mishnah teaches:
From where on the body would they measure the distance? Rabbi Eliezer says: From his navel. Rabbi Akiva says: From his nose. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: From the place where he became a slain person, which is from the neck.
If it’s a matter of just a few feet or inches, it may make a difference where on the body itself one chooses to measure from. But why choose the navel or nose as representing the precise location of the body?
One sage, Rabbi Akiva, holds: A person’s life is sustained mainly in his nose.
And one sage, Rabbi Eliezer, holds: His life is mainly in the area of his navel.
Rabbis Akiva and Eliezer choose the navel and nose because they see those regions — the gateway to the respiratory system and the center of the belly — as most critical for sustaining life. In this case, the law follows Rabbi Akiva, setting the nose as a standard for measurement and clarifying how we determine which town is the closest.
But what if we measure from that precise point and it turns out that the towns are exactly equidistant? Here, Rabbi Eliezer provides instruction:
If the slain person is found precisely between two cities, the inhabitants of both each bring a heifer. What is the reasoning of Rabbi Eliezer? First, he holds that it is possible to measure precisely (and know for sure the distances are equal). And second, he holds that the term “That is nearest” (Deuteronomy 21:3) can even be understood as “That are nearest,” so that the law can apply to more than one city.
Rabbi Eliezer provides for that highly improbably scenario in which the body really and truly is equidistant between two towns. In that case, it’s best to cover all bases and have each town bring an eglah arufa.
We have often seen the Talmud regularly present instructions for highly improbable events — like this one, in which the body is exactly the same number of inches from each town. Questions like this may be practical, but might also be designed to stretch our imagination and force us to think about what happens when the world does not conform to our predetermined categories and expectations. But this is more common of the later rabbis of the Talmud, the amoraim, than it is of the early rabbis of the Mishnah, the tannaim.
In this case, however, it is a tanna who dives into this kind of territory. Is Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling an antecedent for the imaginative, creative, and academic questions that are preserved in the Talmud? Or is it a practical ruling that was meant to prepare the elders to manage an unlikely but not impossible situation in which a murdered corpse is found exactly equidistant between two towns?
The Talmud does not reflect upon these questions and it’s hard to read into the intended tone of of Rabbi Eliezer’s statement. And that leaves it for the reader to ponder.
Read all of Sotah 45 on Sefaria.