Talmudic pages

Sotah 46

Walk with me.

Today’s daf continues the discussion of the eglah arufah ritual, enacted when a murder victim is discovered outside of city limits. The elders of the nearby town are required to break the neck of a calf in order to atone for the death, and they declare: “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see. Absolve, O Lord, your people Israel whom you redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel.” (Deuteronomy 21:7). 

But isn’t it obvious that the townspeople did not witness or commit the murder? Today’s daf explains this prescribed language:

Rather, he did not come to us and take his leave without food, and we did not see him and leave him without accompaniment.

Though they may not have done it with their own hands, the rabbis think that these elders would have nonetheless been liable for the murder had they encountered the victim on his journey and not offered him the proper support: food and someone to accompany him on his way. 

We know that biblical culture takes hospitality very seriously: Think of Abraham unwittingly hosting three angels in his tent. But what is clear here is that the rabbis extend that idea of hospitality to include caring for your visitor even after they leave your domain. This leads to a discussion of the importance of accompanying someone when they set off on a journey. Here are some highlights:

It is taughtRabbi Meir would say: There is coercion with regard to accompaniment as the reward for accompaniment is without measure. 

Accompanying someone on a journey is so important that, according to Rabbi Meir, you can even be forced into doing it!

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: Due to four steps that pharaoh accompanied Abraham, as it is stated: “And pharaoh gave men charge concerning him, and they brought him on the way, and his wife, and all that he had” (Genesis 12:20), he enslaved Abraham’s descendants for 400 years, as it is stated: “And shall serve them, and they shall afflict them 400 years” (Genesis 15:13). 

For taking a mere four steps with Abraham when he and his household left Egypt, pharaoh garnered the merit for his kingdom to later exercise 400 years of power over Israel. Now that’s some merit. But of course, that’s also pharaoh, supreme ruler of Egypt, deigning to accompany a random shepherd (albeit one who is a man of God) on his merry way. How far should ordinary people accompany each other? 

The sages taught: A teacher accompanies a student until the outskirts of the city; a friend accompanies a friend until the Shabbat boundary (2,000 cubits outside the city limits), a student accompanies his teacher without limit. 

Those with more merit are granted longer escort. But even so, everyone is obligated to accompany their fellow, at least a little bit. Why? Today’s daf offers two possibilities. 

First, we read a lengthy story in which Rav Kahana accompanied Rav Shimi bar Ashi on a journey to a palm grove. Seeing the palm grove leads Rav Kahanah to ask Rav Shimi bar Ashi a question, and to thus learn some new Torah. This is an inspirational possibility — we must accompany people as they set out on a journey in order to be open to new things and to continue to learn from them. 

The Gemara then returns to what we learned from the townspeople’s speech about the anonymous murder victim: 

Rabbi Yohanan says in the name of Rabbi Meir: Whoever does not accompany or will not be accompanied is like a spiller of blood.

Travel is dangerous and stressful, but there is safety in numbers. Accompanying someone, even for a little bit, just might save a life. Now isn’t that deserving of merit without measure?

Read all of Sotah 46 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 14, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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