It was taught in a baraita: We do not establish cities of refuge from small villages or from large cities, but only from medium-sized towns. We establish them only where there is water; and if there is no water, we bring water. We establish them only where there are marketplaces. And we establish them only where there are population centers. If the surrounding area’s population has diminished, we boost the population; if the population of the city of refuge has diminished, we bring kohanim, levities, and Israelites [to settle] there. “And there should be no commerce in weapons or hunting gear”—these are the words of R. Nechemiah, but the Sages permit it. And they agree that traps may not be lain in [the cities of refuge], nor ropes spun in them, so that the blood-avenger should not be found there.
Torah makes provision for the protection of people who are compelled to flee their homes because their lives are endangered by people bent upon killing them: He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it be design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee. (Exodus 21:12–13) The situation envisioned by Torah is the case in which a person accidentally commits manslaughter and relatives of the deceased seek vengeance by killing the person who unwittingly caused the death.
Torah stipulates the division of Eretz Israel among the tribes of Israel when the Israelites entered the Land. The Levites, assigned to administer the sacrifices in the Temple, were not assigned a tribal holding, but rather granted forty-eight towns in which to dwell, as well as pastureland beyond their walls (see Numbers ch. 35). Torah designates six of the towns allotted to the Levites as Arei Miklat (“Cities of Refuge”), where people who had committed accidental, unintentional manslaughter could find asylum from a family member of the deceased (“the blood-avenger”) who pursued them with intent to kill. One who sought asylum in a city of refugee could only be removed in order to stand trial. In Makkot 13a we are told that in these six towns, the refugee is provided sanctuary whether or not he knows he is in an ir miklat (sanctuary city); in the other forty-two cities, it would seem, the refugee must request sanctuary, but with the full expectation that it will be provided by the residents.
We might ask: Why do the Rabbis in Babylonia—far from Eretz Yisrael and long after Jews have lost sovereignty over the land—bother to discuss the particulars of the Arei Miklat in detail? And what can we learn both from their discussion of the requirements for establishing sanctuary cities, and from the very fact that they find it important to consider and discuss providing sanctuary to refugees, even at a time when they are not in a position to implement the principles they deduce from their study and conversation?
The passage above is a baraita, a teaching of the tanna’im, the scholars of the first two centuries CE. It stipulates the qualities needed for a city to qualify as a sanctuary city, qualities likely to ensure that it could properly and safely harbor those whose lives were endangered.
The baraita delineates five characteristics required for a town to fulfill its mission as a sanctuary city: First, neither small hamlets nor large cities are suitable because small hamlets lack the requisite characteristics to care for refugees and large cities pose the danger that a go’el ha-dam (“blood-avenger”) might enter unnoticed, blend into a large crowd, and thereby succeed in killing his prey. Second, an adequate supply of water must be available. Where this is lacking, canals are dug to bring water to the community. In the arid conditions of Eretz Yisrael, water supply is crucial for sustaining life. Notice that an inadequate water supply does not necessarily disqualify a town from serving as a sanctuary city: there are solutions that can be pursued even though they require strenuous labor. Third, the sanctuary city must have a marketplace, which insures that food and other provisions needed for refugees are readily available. Fourth, the sanctuary city must be surrounded by a sizable population because the go’el ha-dam might bring a gang with him to attack the town in his quest for vengeance. Fifth, the sanctuary city itself must have an adequate population of Jews to insure that the people of the town will be familiar with, and committed, to the law of the Cities of Refuge and will not turn refugees over to blood-avengers.
R. Nechemiah adds to the baraita’s list of requirements a prohibition against selling weapons and hunting gear in the ir miklat (“sanctuary city”) lest a blood-avenger enter the city with the appearance of innocent intent and then buy weapons to kill a refugee. A person carrying weapons is far easier to recognize as a blood-avenger. The Rabbis disagree because weapons and hunting gear are basic necessities for providing food for one’s family. Both R. Nechemiah and the Rabbis agree, however, that laying traps and spinning ropes may not take place within a sanctuary city, lest the blood-avenger slip into the town unnoticed.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Torah establishes sanctuary cities as a fundamental feature of Israelite society as a refuge for people who had killed someone accidentally and unintentionally. How does Torah’s concern for protecting those whose lives are endangered (whether by families, militias, or governments) speak to the situations around the globe we find today?
- The Gemara (Makkot 13a) instructs that refugees who are exiled to one of the six Cities of Refuge are exempt from paying rent for lodging. (They would, however, pay rent to the Levites in the other forty-two towns.) What message might we take from this instruction?
- In order for a town to meet Torah’s requirements, it seems clear that someone had to survey its qualifications and the leaders of the community had to insure that they provided the infrastructure to support refugees. What is our responsibility toward today’s refugees?