And these things shall be for a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all you dwellings. Whosoever kills any person, the murderer shall be slain at the mouth of witnesses: But one witness shall not testify against any person that he die. Moreover, you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death: But he shall surely be put to death.
And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, permitting him to come again prior to the death of the Priest and live in the land
So you shall not pollute [tachanifu] the land in which you are, for the blood pollutes [yachanif] the land: And no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it other than by the blood of the one who shed it.
And you shall not defile [tetamei] the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell: For I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Num. 35:29-34)
This text deals with homicide and its consequences. It begins with the fate of the convicted murderer, indicating both that at least two qualified witnesses to the crime are required and also that, if convicted, the sentence is death.
Although the process appears to be cut and dried, the rendering of a capital verdict was extremely rare. According to the Sages, the execution of a murderer did not actually take place more than once in seven years. According to Rabbi Akiva, it was so rare that it occurred no more than once in seventy years. Tractate Sanhedrin explains why capital punishment was so very rare. The laws of evidence, the role of the witnesses, the quality of their testimony, the nature of cross-examination, and other complex judicial procedures ensured that rendering a capital verdict was well nigh impossible. Human life was simply too valuable to be squandered. The court was warned of the eternal consequences of wrongly terminating a person’s life. Nevertheless, our text makes it clear that once the process had concluded, the sentence would have to stick. Monetary payment of could not ransom a convicted murderer’s life.
The second part of the text deals with the effects of inadvertent homicide. Six cities of refuge were set-aside for unintentional killers. There they would be protected from relatives who might wish to avenge the victim’s blood. Our text demands that manslayers remain in cities of refuge until the death of the High Priest irrespective of whether the threat to their lives still obtained. There were to be no exceptions. The manslayer’s life could not be ransomed for money.
The purpose of these laws was to emphasize the infinite value of human life. No price could be placed on it. Accepting ransom would devalue the invaluable.
The translation I have used is descriptive rather than proscriptive. It contains no other prohibition. It simply describes the consequence for accepting blood money as the pollution and defilement of the Holy land. So you shall not pollute [tachanifu] the land in which you are, for the blood pollutes [yachanif] the land: And no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it other than by the blood of the one who shed it. (Num. 35:33). According to the Hertz commentary on the Torah, “the Hebrew root chanaf means to act wickedly, to profane or pollute. If such redemption money were permitted [to allow the offender to escape the prescribed sentence] human life would be cheapened and the land become wholly corrupt.”
But the translation and Hertz’s elucidation of the text obfuscate its meaning. They do not clarify the difference between the words pollution and defilement. One therefore gets the impression that chanaf and tama are synonymous, and that our text is an example of biblical parallelism. The classical commentators do not agree, maintaining, instead, that the meanings of the boldfaced Hebrew words in our text are different from each other.
The Sifrei, the classical halakhic exegesis of the last two Books of the Torah, suggests that the Hebrew root chanaf means “ flatter.” The exalted status, power and esteem enjoyed by the families of the offenders may have the effect of causing judges to give a nod to their status by commuting the sentence of the perpetrator, short of actually accepting bribes or ransom money. According to this source, therefore, verse thirty-three of our text prohibits judges from being inauthentic sycophants. (Sifrei Bamidbar 161).
Ramban, followed by Chizkuni and S.R. Hirsch, takes the root chanaf to denote hypocrisy. The hypocrite is one whose outward appearance and actions belie his or her hidden character and agendas. This line of interpretation prohibits deceptive and hypocritical activity by judicial officers who create the false outward impression of personal piety and rectitude.
Our Sages have expressed very strong views about hypocrisy. One story is particularly striking. Alexander Yannai ascended to the Hasmonean throne through the machinations of Salome Alexandra, the widow of King Aristobulus, who had died childless. The Queen maintained her grip on power through her levirate marriage [yibum] to the very unpopular Alexander Yannai. The Pharisees on sound ideological grounds vigorously opposed the ascension to power of Alexander Yannai. To stifle the popular opposition, the king aligned himself with the Sadducees and slaughtered many Pharisees. He died in 76 BCE after an impressive series of conquests and was succeeded on the throne by Salome Alexandra. Before his death he had reconciled with the Pharisees and offered his wife the following advice: “Be afraid neither of the Pharisees nor of the non Pharisees, but only of the hypocrites who only outwardly resemble the Pharisees. They act like Zimri, son of Salu [Prince of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly intimate with Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, the head of the tribes of Midian and desire the reward of [the authentically virtuous] Pinchas”. (BT Sotah 22b).
The Sages relate the following verse to the sin of hypocrisy: So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: And behold the tears of the oppressed who had no one to comfort him: And power rested in the hand of the oppressors. [And so the oppressed] had no comforter. (Eccl. 4:1) “Torah hypocrites – each is wrapped in his tallit, with his tefillin on his head, but behold the tears of the oppressed who had no one to comfort him. (Kohelet Rabbah 4:2).. This rabbinic commentary on Kohelet is remarkable because the text itself makes no reference to cruel and hypocritical Torah authorities. The Sages are clearly using the text as a peg on which to hang their disgust at rabbinic corruption perpetrated in the guise of piety and principle, which they liken to the shedding of the blood of the innocent. They were probably projecting their displeasure at the pain caused to so many people by the rulings of some callous rabbinic authorities of their day. In their judgment, the perpetrators were guilty not only of manifest malfeasance, but also of the separate though not less serious sin of hypocrisy.
It goes without saying that their comment transcends their particular historic experience. It also condemns anybody, in all times and under all circumstances, whose unfeeling and cold-hearted judgments are clothed in the garb of piety and principle.
Understood in this way, our text delineates two separate types of corruption. The first is manifest. The second is hidden. The first often involves avarice and greed. The second has its roots in flattery and hypocrisy. The result is the same: And you shall not defile [tetamei] the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell: For I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Num. 35: 34). Tum’ah is a spiritual category. Overt and covert corruption, avarice and hypocrisy, undermine the spiritual foundations of society and contaminate the Holy Land.