Murder: The Real Loss

Dani Roth

If, in the land that the LORD your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. (Deut. 21:1-4)

 The Gemara asks from where on the corpse should they measure the distance to the closest city. Rabbi Akiva holds from the nose, as a person’s life is sustained mainly by his nose, by breathing. Rabbi Eliezer holds his life is mainly in the area of his navel. On this view, Abba Shaul said an embryo is formed from its navel: the navel is the first part of the body formed, and the rest of body is generated from there. (Today we know this is incorrect: it is the heart and circulatory system that are first formed. But this doesn’t impact the value of the rabbis’ theories). 

Discussing this problem with Dani Roth, we searched for the underlying theoretical dispute: What theory explains measuring from the nose, and what theory explains measuring from the navel? The rabbis apparently debate the concept of “life.” Which aspect of life is to be atoned?  Rabbi Akiva says man’s life is sustained predominately by breathing. Rabbi Eliezer appears to view life not in terms of sustenance, but in terms of its inception. Thus, these rabbis agree that life must be atoned for, but they dispute what measure of life: Was the murder against man’s sustained existence (nose), or was the crime more severe, taking into account a destruction man’s full spectrum of his days on Earth (which began through his navel). Are we atoning for the present loss where his prior years are not impaired, or does murder discount the full duration of this man’s existence, as his prior years have not realized their potential? It is an interesting question. 

Rashi (Deut. 21:4):  

One breaks its neck with a hatchet. The Holy One, blessed be He, says, as it were, “Let a heifer which is only one year old and which therefore has brought forth no fruits (no offspring) have its neck broken at a spot (the untilled valley) which has not brought forth fruits, to expiate for the murder of him whom they did not permit further to beget fruits (children) (Sotah 46a).”

Without seeing the Rashi, Dani intuited it. Dani gave an original answer not offered by these rabbis. He said that navel represents how a child is sustained until birth. He said that the atonement for life isn’t just for the one man who was murdered, but for all his descendants who will no longer enter the world. The navel represents the severity of the crime, as it refers to birth, namely all the births that could have been, had this man lived.  An excellent answer, as atonement must relate to the degree of the crime. One cannot atone for murdering one person, if he in fact killed 10 people. Here too, the elders cannot atone for misguiding their society by atoning for one dead person, for this dead person could have created so many children. Measuring from the nose indicates only 1 human loss. But measuring from the navel indicates this greater loss of all children who are sustained through the umbilical cord. Dani, this is an excellent insight.