“Security for Citizens and Caring for Guests”
(updated and revised from parashat Shoftim 5761-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we encounter the ritual of the עֶגְלָה עֲרוּפָה —Eglah Arufah, the ceremony of the heifer that is put to death.

In Deuteronomy 21, the Torah states, that if a corpse of a murdered person is found outside a city, and it is not known who the murderer was or which city the victim came from, the members of the Sanhedrin (High Court) in Jerusalem must determine the closest city, and the elders or leaders of that city are required to bring a heifer to nachal eitan, a strong valley with running water. At that location, the elders wash their hands over the heifer,symbolizing washing away of the community’s guilt. The elders then say (Deuteronomy 21:7), יָדֵינוּ לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ , “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” The elders ask for forgiveness from G-d for not safeguarding the roads and for not providing adequate security for the travelers.

The Talmud, Sotah 46a, explains that the Eglah Arufah ceremony is purposely centered about a young heifer–an animal that has never produced fruit [offspring], and has never done any work. This incomplete animalis to symbolically atone for the death of the man who died prematurely without producing “fruit.” According to Rambam, Guide of the Perplexed 3:40, the purpose of the ritual was to publicize the killing in the hope of finding the murderer.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Eglah Arufah ritual.

Not everyone remembers that New York City was, not so long ago, a crime ridden city on the verge of anarchy. It was Rudy Giuliani, who as mayor of New York, restored law and order to a city. After being elected Mayor in 1993, Giuliani reduced the rate of murder in the city by 65%. Since then, the murder rate has declined even further. In 1993 there were almost 2,000 murders in the city, and by 2019, the number of murders was remarkably reduced to 219. In fact, despite the recent rise in homicides, New York City is still ranked as the safest large city in America.

So, we pat ourselves on our backs as if to say what a wonderful achievement. But, is it justified?

Consider the fact that the entire country of Japan, with a total population of 126 million citizens had 950 murders in 2019. New York City, with a population of 8.4 million people should hardly rejoice over 219 murders. To the contrary, we should all be jumping out of our skins in grief and dismay that even 10 innocent people, or even one innocent person, was murdered.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like if the mayor or leaders of any city in the world had to go out twice or three times a week to perform the Eglah Arufah ritual whenever a dead person was found. I feel quite certain that a much more concerted effort would be made to prevent murders if government officials were required to attend these horrible rituals.

It is well known that the bottom line of Judaism and of all Jewish life is the “sanctity of human life.” So, it should come as no surprise that Judaism has this unprecedented ritual known as Eglah Arufah to underscore the community leaders’ responsibilities to protect human life.

As important as that lesson might be, we learn additionally from the ritual of Eglah Arufah that not only city officials, but even local (civillain) hosts, have a responsibility of escorting visitors, to make certain that every visitor can travel safely from one city to another. This ritual clearly demonstrates that hosts who fail to provide security are held morally responsible.

The law of escorting visitors from city to city and providing security is actually part of the customs of Hachnasat Orchim, the Jewish practice of welcoming guests in to one’s home. According to Jewish law, it is proper for hosts to escort visitors from their home, and even from their places of business, and walk with them approximately 4 cubits, that is about 8 feet, outside the front door. This is not done in order to “show guests the door,” but rather to provide guests with a sense of security.

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David in his helpful book Around the Shabbat Table, cites Maimonides, who insists that escorting guests when they leave is a greater mitzvah than inviting them in. This is rather surprising given all the hard work that is required to serve guests in one’s home.

Ben David points out that once a guest leaves the home, the guest feels quite vulnerable and alone. Escorting the guest out of the home shows that the host doesn’t really want the visitor to leave, and is in effect saying, “I’m willing to leave the comfort of my own home to help you on your way. I am accompanying you because I wish to extend this visit, if but for a few minutes, to allow me to be with you a bit longer because of my affection and affinity for you.”

Once again, we see that the ancient rituals of Judaism have wondrous contemporary implications.

May all your journeys be safe.

May you be blessed.