Why the Mothers?

This week the Torah teaches us about the obligation to establish arei miklat — cities of refuge for individuals who unintentionally took the life of another — that Bnei Yisrael were instructed to set up throughout Eretz Yisrael. The unintentional killers were forced to stay in a city of refuge until the petirah of the Kohen Gadol.

Chazal (Makkos 11a) tell us that the mother of the Kohen Gadol would provide food and clothing for these individuals so that they shouldn’t daven for the Kohen Gadol to pass away.

Why was it the mother of the Kohen Gadol who did so, and not the Kohen Gadol himself, or his wife?

One explanation is that it would be disrespectful to the exalted position of the Kohen Gadol, an individual so righteous that his merits protect all of Klal Yisrael, to indicate that there would be a need for him to fear the curse of an unintentional killer and take proactive action by giving him food and clothing. And if the Kohen Gadol’s wife would be the one seeking to appease these individuals, it would be assumed that she was doing so as per her husband’s wishes.

A Jewish mother, however, is famed for going to great lengths to try to protect her children and to worry even about fearful possibilities that aren’t necessarily grounded in firm facts. Therefore, when it is the mother of the Kohen Gadol doing the worrying and appeasing, it would not be seen as disrespectful to the position.

(Another approach as to why it is davka the mother is based on a very practical aspect: The halachah is that, in order to be exiled to a city of refuge, it isn’t necessary for witnesses to testify that they saw an individual inadvertently kill someone. Though a person who committed an intentional murder would not be put to death based on his own admission, someone who admits to an unintentional murder is exiled to a city of refuge.

Were it the Kohen Gadol or his wife supplying food and clothing, destitute individuals might seek to take advantage by falsely claiming to have killed someone, and make their way to the ir miklat where they would be fed and clothed by the Kohen Gadol.

On the other hand, since it is probable that the Kohen Gadol’s mother would pass away some years before her son, the fact that she was the one providing food and clothing would avoid this dilemma, for since the poor would be stuck without any means of support during the years between the petirah of the mother and that of her son, such false claims would be deterred.)

The Gemara brings an additional, slightly variant reason why the mother brought food and clothing. It wasn’t that she was afraid that the unintentional killers would daven that her son would die. Rather, the mother of the Kohen Gadol would do so because she wanted them to daven for her son, so that he should not die!

At first glance this seems surprising. If the mother of the Kohen Gadol was seeking brachos for her son’s longevity, why didn’t she turn to the tzaddikim of the generation? Why would she request brachos from individuals forced to go into exile after inadvertently taking a life?

One answer is that such tefillos would be an act of total selflessness on the part of these individuals. The petirah of the Kohen Gadol was their ticket to freedom. Davening for his long life meant putting aside their own interests and davening for the benefit of another — even though this tefillah would cause them to remain in exile.

Such a tefillah is indeed invaluable, and this is what the mother was seeking.

(Adapted from the Ben Ish Chai.)


There is another powerful lesson that we can derive from the halachos of ir miklat.

The mesirus nefesh of the Ponevezher Rav, zt”l, to build Torah institutions was legendary. He once expressed his distress to the Chazon Ish over the difficulties he had in fund-raising for Torah mosdos. He contrasted this with the university that was built near Bnei Brak, for which donors — mostly Americans — gave huge sums of money, allowing it to be built quickly and easily.

The Chazon Ish replied by contrasting two mitzvos in the Torah. One is the arei miklat. Part of the mitzvah included placing signs directing individuals to the nearest city of refuge.

The second mitzvah is to be oleh regel, to ascend to Yerushalayim three times a year. Unlike the cities of refuge, no signs were erected; rather, the Yidden were told to enter every town and village along the way and ask, “Which way to Yerushalayim?”

The Chazon Ish explained that in regard to the unintentional murderer, if the individual would have had to start making inquiries about how to get to the ir miklat, it would have been cause for much discussion. About such matters the Torah prefers that the less said, the better.

On the other hand, regarding ascending to Yerushalayim to be oleh regel, the Torah clearly prefers that this be a topic of discussion. Each time the question “Which way to Yerushalayim?” is posed, it will inspire and remind the Jews along the way that it is time for them to begin their journey.

The Chazon Ish told the Ponevezher Rav that the same applied in regard to his efforts. About a university, it is preferable that the less said about it, the better. In regard to yeshivos, the more effort that is put into fund-raising, the more discussion will ensue, and talking about such matters is, in itself, a positive development.