The taking of a human life is always a tragedy, and there is never a way to actually make it alright for the loved ones of the victims. In situations of unnatural death, there are several layers of culpability. In contemporary terms, there is murder, which is the deliberate taking of another’s life, criminally negligent manslaughter, which is an act that was not intentional but for which someone is responsible, and unforeseen death, which is an unintended act that could not have been prevented.

The Torah has a unique system for dealing with manslaughter. The person who caused the accidental death immediately flees to one of six special cities known as arei miklat, cities of refuge (click here to read more), or to one of the other 42 cities of the Levites.

To clarify who is required to be exiled to the ir miklat, the Talmud states:

The following go into banishment: He who slays in error. If, while he was pushing a roller [on the roof], it fell down and killed somebody, or while he was lowering a cask, it fell down and killed somebody…He goes into banishment. But if, while he was pulling up the roller, it fell back on someone, killing him, or while he was raising a bucket the rope snapped and the bucket killed somebody in its fall…He doesn’t go into banishment…This is the general principle: whenever the death was caused in the course of a downward movement, he goes into banishment, but if it is caused not in the course of a downward movement, he does not go into banishment (Talmud Makkot 7a-b).

The general idea is that there are different levels of culpability involved in an accident. The subtle nuance of a person’s movements at the time of the incident can determine whether the person should take refuge in an ir miklat or not. Needless to say, each case needs to be considered individually. It is, however, fascinating to note the subtle parameters set in this passage of the Talmud, which continues on through a series of very complex situations and discussions, as the sages sought to ensure justice for all.

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