Mishpatim: Adulterer, Murderer, Kohen

 The study of crime begins with the knowledge of oneself. All that you despise, all that you loathe, all that you reject, all that you condemn and seek to convert by punishment springs from you. -Henry Miller

In the midst of a recital of numerous civil laws and capital offenses, the Torah adds an unusual phrase:

When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death. -Exodus 21:14

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to the seemingly superfluous line of “treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar.” Anyone who kills someone else merits the death penalty. Why the extra verbiage in a text that we know conserves every word possible?

The Meshech Chochma connects the intent of the murderer of the above verse with two other personalities that were presumed to have murder on their minds: Pharaoh from the time of Abraham, and Avimelech, King of Grar. Abraham suspected and feared that both of these monarchs would have killed him to get his beautiful wife Sarah when he visited their domains. We are told their stories in the Book of Genesis, of how Abraham and Sarah pretended to be brother and sister, which led each of the monarchs to take Sarah for themselves until God miraculously intervenes in each case and forces the potentially murderous monarch to return Sarah to Abraham. It seems that had Abraham and Sarah revealed that they were married, it would have been likely that Abraham would have been killed in order to make Sarah “available” for the monarchs.

The Meshech Chochma however, connects our verse with another creature that was named “treacherous,” namely, the snake in the Garden of Eden. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 9b) presents the Midrash which states that the conniving snake desired Eve and plotted to kill Adam to get her, (hence getting them to eat from the forbidden fruit, which would trigger Adam’s death).

The Meshech Chochma goes further and states that the likely culprit of such adulterous thoughts and murderous activity would be none other than a Kohen! That would explain the need to take him away from the altar – the Kohens are the ones who are serving God at the altar. However, there are additional reasons to make the Kohen a particularly apt suspect:

  1. Kohens are prohibited from marrying a divorcee. Therefore, the only way they could permissibly marry a married woman whom they desired would be to kill the husband. All non-Kohens could wait for a non-lethal divorce.
  2. Kohens, as Temple servants, would come into frequent contact with women who brought their various sacrifices to the Temple. The frequent contact could lead them to murderous thoughts to separate these women from their living husbands.

May we be spared from treacherous thoughts and treacherous people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of the Kohens in my life. They are wonderful, upstanding and inspirational people.

About the Author
Ben-Tzion Spitz is the former Chief Rabbi of Uruguay and a candidate for the Knesset for the Zehut party. He is the author of three books of Biblical Fiction and hundreds of articles and stories dealing with biblical themes. Ben-Tzion is a graduate of Yeshiva University and received his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University.
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