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14.08.2018 18:26    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  devarim  shoftim  

“Nahal Eitan—a Dry Riverbed or Flowing River?”

The commandment of Eglah Arufah—a calf decapitated as penitence for an unsolved murder—which concludes Parashat Shoftim, describes a series of non-routine actions:  elders leave Jerusalem in order to measure the distance from the place a corpse was found to the closest town; a calf is taken, decapitated and burned in a nahal eitan (a ravine or river; meaning uncertain); and the elders publicly proclaim:  “Our hands did not shed this blood” (Deut. 21:7).  Each of these acts calls for close study in its own right.  Here we shall focus on the meaning of the expression, nahal eitan.

The Torah commands that the calf be taken to a nahal eitan, to be decapitated there, after which the elders are to wash their hands in the river/ravine, over the decapitated calf:

The elders of that town [nearest the corpse] shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi [nahal eitan], which is not tilled or sown.  There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck…Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi.  And they shall make this declaration:  “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.  Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel…(Deut. 21:4-8).

Sifre (par. 207) says, regarding the expression nahal eitan:  “As it means: hard.”  Likewise, in the Mishnah, Sota 9.5-6:

When the elders of Jerusalem had departed and gone away, the elders of that city [nearest the corpse] would take a calf of the herd which had never been worked and which had not drawn in the yoke, and a defect does not disqualify it.  They bring it down to a ravine which is stony [eitan]—“eitan” is to be understood in its literal sense of “hard”…The site may never be sown or tilled, but it is permitted to card flax and to chisel stones there.  The elders of that city then wash their hands with water in the place where the calf’s neck was broken…

In the baraita in the Talmudic discussion (Sotah 46a) the grounds for this reading of eitan are presented as problematic:

Our Rabbis taught:  Whence is it that eitan means hard?  As it is said, “Strong [eitan] is your dwelling-place, and your nest is set in the rock” (Num. 24:21), and it states, “Hear, you mountains, the case of the Lord—you firm ones, [eitanim] foundations of the earth!” (Micah 6:2).

Following these sources, Rashi interpreted nahal eitan as a “hard riverbed, not cultivated,” and Ibn Ezra, too, wrote:  “Eitan—hard, strong.”[1]

The reason for decapitating the calf appears in the gemara, in the continuation of the discussion (ibid.):

Rabbi Johanan b. Saul said:  Why does the Torah mention that he should bring a heifer into a ravine?  The Holy One, blessed be He, said:  Let something which did not produce fruit have its neck broken in a place which is not fertile and atone for one who was not allowed to produce fruit [the murdered person].

According to this interpretation, the Torah’s instruction can be explained as follows:  the elders of the city are required to take a calf to a barren ravine, to the region where the murder took place, and there to decapitate the calf.  Afterwards, they are to wash their hands over the calf, using water which they brought from another source, and to request atonement.  The continuation of the verse, “which is neither tilled nor sown,” would then be read as describing the sort of riverbed and not as prohibiting a future action—in contrast to the mishnah, where these words are understood as being in the future tense, asserting that it be forbidden to sow that part of the wadi.  Washing their hands symbolizes that the elders’ hands are clean and that they are shocked at the murderous act.  On the significance of the ritual, performed in this manner, Shadal wrote:

Therefore the Torah commanded that the calf be decapitated on hard ground, so that its blood would remain visibly evident and not become swallowed up [in the ground], as in Ezekiel 24:8:  “I set her blood upon the bare rock, so that it was not covered.”  Thus it would cry out the dastardly deed, as in Genesis 4:10, “Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.”

Since the murderer cannot be put to death, and the land can have no expiation for blood shed on it save by that of the one who shed the blood, the Torah commanded that the blood of a calf be spilled instead, in order to make expiation for the land and the people.  This blood that brings expiation ought not to become swallowed up in the earth, but be spilled on a barren rock in order to atone for innocent blood and hush its crying out from the earth.  Undoubtedly the elders of the city would come there with their servants and would bring along a cup of water and other implements necessary in order to perform the commandment.[2]

Shadal stresses that the calf’s blood must be poured on dry ground that will not swallow it up, as an expression of the spilled blood of the murder victim silently crying out.

Nahal eitan has also been interpreted in a manner quite different from the understanding of hard and dry, which we have seen thus far; some see it as a strong, swiftly flowing river.  Such is Maimonides’ view (Hilkhot Rotze’ah 9.2):  “The court of the city that was designated brings a calf paid for by all the inhabitants.  They bring the calf to a river that flows forcefully.  This is the meaning of the term eitan found in the Torah.”

To these words of Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, we add what he says in Guide for the Perplexed, where he explains that the actions taken with the calf are intended ultimately to lead to identifying the murderer:

The beneficial character of the law concerning “breaking the neck of a heifer” (Deut. 12:1-8) is evident…and by making the event public, the murderer may be found out, and he who knows of him, or has heard of him, or has discovered him by any due, will now name the person that is the murderer…when the murderer is discovered, the benefit of the law is apparent…Force is added to the law by the rule that the place in which the neck of the heifer is broken should never by cultivated or sown.  The owner of the land will therefore use all means in his power to search and to find the murderer, in order that the heifer be not killed and his land be not made useless to him forever.[3]

Maimonides reads the words lo ye`aved ve-lo yizare`a not as describing the wadi, but as prohibiting any future tilling of fertile land along the riverbed.[4] The objective of this proscription is to put pressure on the owner of the land to try to find the murderer and have him brought to justice.

While Maimonides’ remarks depart from the interpretation in the mishnah and the gemara regarding the expression nahal eitan,[5] they have quite a lot of internal logic, for the prohibition against tilling and sowing the land along the river makes sense only if we are dealing with a fertile place, not a barren one.[6] Maimonides’ interpretation of nahal eitan is similar to Rabbenu Jonah ibn Janah’s definition in Sefer Shorashim of the root eit:  a mighty stream of strong current.  Likewise Radak, in his Sefer ha-Shorashim, under nahal:  “It had water in it, for it says they are to wash their hands.  Similarly, ‘But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream [nahal eitan]’ (Amos 5:24).”

Rabbenu Bahya, as well, offers an explanation of the prohibition against farming in the riverbed, but his remarks are somewhat different from Maimonides’:

Nahal eitan has been interpreted by some as a fertile, fat land, which henceforth shall not be tilled and not be sown.  Thus the Sages explained (Sotah 46b):  Which is neither plowed nor sown…refers to the future.  According to this reading each and every person will greatly safeguard the roads, so that no misfortune of murder take place on anyone’s land, for they know they will lose their farm entirely and it will be forbidden to them to benefit from the land itself forever.

Nahmanides (on Deut. 21:5), discussing Maimonides’ remarks in Guide for the Perplexed, notes:

According to this reading, the plan has a certain benefit, but the act itself is not to be desired.  It would be more fitting for it to be performed in a good field, fit for sowing, so that all who see it recognize; for in a nahal eitan, one might not know why the soil is not being farmed.

This is not a problem for Maimonides since he interpreted the text as referring to a fertile spot, but Nahmanides apparently understood nahal eitan the same way as Rashi, following the Talmudic discussion.[7]

The elders washing their hands in the water of the river is interpreted by Abarbanel, who followed Maimonides’ approach, as an expression of the elders being prepared to do justice, along the lines of the Torah being metaphorically compared to water:

Moreover, He commanded that it [the calf] be brought to an ever-flowing river and be decapitated in the river; for the river is a sign indicating that the city had been a place of Torah and justice; for water alludes to the Torah, as it is said (Isa. 55:1), “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water,” and the Sages said in another regard in Bava Kama, “Water is none other than Torah.”

Thus we see that the opposing meanings of the expression nahal eitannecessitated interpreting the entire passage and the reasoning behind it differently, beginning with the nature of the place the calf was to be decapitated and going as far as the significance of the elders washing their hands.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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