The following procedure should be adhered to when the corpse of a slain person is found lying on the earth, and it is not known who struck him. It is left in place. Five elders from the High Court in Jerusalem come and measure from the corpse to the nearby cities, as indicated by Deuteronomy 21:2: "And your elders and your judges shall go out and measure...."
Even if the corpse is found right next to a city, or it is clearly obvious that a particular city is closer, it is a mitzvah to measure.
After they measure and establish which city is closest, they bury the person who was murdered in the place he was found. The elders from Jerusalem return to their city, and the court of the city that was designated brings a calf paid for by all the inhabitants. They bring the the calf to a river that flows forcefully. This is the meaning of the term eitan found in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:4).
It should be decapitated there with a cleaver, from behind. The court of that city and all the elders of the city, even if they are 100 in number, must wash their hands at the place where the calf was decapitated.
There, in the midst of the river, the elders declare in the holy tongue Deuteronomy 21:7: "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did we see this with our eyes." Their intent is that the murdered person did not come into their city and they let him leave without giving him provisions for the way, nor did they see him go and they let him leave without accompaniment.
The priests then say in the Holy Tongue Ibid.:8: "Atone for Your nation Israel...." They depart. The Holy One, blessed be He, then forgives the shedding of the blood, as the above verse continues: "And the blood will be atoned."
When the judges measure the distance from the corpse to the nearest city, they must measure exactly and not by estimation. They should measure only to a city that has a court of 23 judges.
They should never measure, however, to Jerusalem, for the inhabitants of Jerusalem are never required to bring a calf to be decapitated. For Jerusalem was never divided among the tribes, and the mitzvah of decapitating a calf applies "in the land that God your Lord is giving you to inherit" Deuteronomy 19:1.
If the corpse is found close to Jerusalem or close to a city that does not have a court, that city should be ignored, and a measurement should be made to the other cities close by.
If the corpse is found close to a border city or to a city inhabited by gentiles, no measurement is made at all. For we presume that the person was killed by gentiles.
The city that is closest to the corpse does not bring the calf unless its population is equal to that of the city that is further away. If, however, the population of the city that is further away exceeds that of the closer city, the number of inhabitants becomes the determining factor, and the more populous city must bring the calf.
Although at times the Torah considers number to be a determining factor, and at times proximity to be a determining factor, number carries more weight than proximity.
If a corpse is found equidistant between two cities, and both cities have the same number of inhabitants, they should bring a calf in partnership and make the following stipulation: If this city is the closer, the calf belongs to its inhabitants, and the others are giving them their portion in it as a present. And if the other city is closer, the calf belongs to its inhabitants and the others are giving them their portion in it as a present. For it is impossible to be exact in measurement, even with regard to something that comes about as a result of human activity.
From which portion of the corpse should we measure? From the nose.
If the body of a corpse is found in one place and the head in another place, the body is brought to the head, and then the corpse is buried in that place. Similarly, whenever a corpse is found with no one to bury it, the body is brought to the head, and then the corpse is buried in that place.
If many corpses were found next to each other, a measurement should be made from the nose of each one individually. If one city is discovered to be closest to all of them, it brings one calf for all the corpses.
If the corpses are found piled one on top of the other, we should measure from the top corpse, since it is lying on top of the others.
Deuteronomy 21:1 states: "When a corpse is found...." Challal, the term used for corpse indicates a person slain with a sword, and not strangled to death, nor a person in his death throes; these are not implied by the term challal.
The verse continues "on the earth" - i.e., not buried in a mound; "fallen" and not hanging from a tree; "in the field" - and not floating on the water. "And it is not known who killed him" - thus, if the murderer's identity is known, a calf was not decapitated.
Even if only one witness - or even a servant,a woman, or a person disqualified to serve as a witness because of his transgressions - saw the murderer, the calf would not be decapitated. For this reason, in the later part of the Second Temple Period, when the number of those who murdered overtly increased, the decapitation of the calf was nullified.
If one witness says: "I saw the murderer," and another witness disputes his statement, saying: "You did not see him," the calf would be decapitated.
When does the above apply? When the two witnesses came at the same time. If, however, the witness who claims to have seen the murderer came first and testified, his word is believed as would be that of two witnesses in this context. Therefore, if another witness comes and disputes his testimony, claiming that the first witness did not see the murderer, the words of the second witness are of no consequence, and the calf would not be decapitated.
If after the one witness testifies that he saw the murderer, two witnesses come and testify that he did not see him, it is considered as if there are two testimonies of equal weight, disputing each other, and the calf should be decapitated.
If a woman says: "I saw the murderer," and another woman disputes her testimony and says: "You did not see," the calf should be decapitated. This applies regardless of whether the women came together or one after the other.
If two say: "We saw him," and one says, "You did not see him," the calf should not be decapitated. If one says: "I saw him," and two say, "You did not see him," the calf should be decapitated.
When does the above apply? When the three witnesses mentioned are either all acceptable or all unacceptable. If, however, one acceptable witness says: "I saw the murderer," and two women or two unacceptable witnesses contradict him and say that he did not see him, the calf should not be decapitated.
When two women or two unacceptable witnesses say: "We saw the murderer," and one acceptable witness denies their statements and says that they did not see him, the calf should be decapitated.
Even when 100 women or 100 unacceptable witnesses say: "We saw the murderer", and one acceptable witness denies all their statements, all the unacceptable witnesses are considered as if they were one man, with the weight of a single witness.
When three women or three unacceptable witnesses say: "We saw the murderer," and four women or four unacceptable witnesses say: "You did not see him," the calf should be decapitated. This is the guiding principle: With regard to unacceptable witnesses, accept the testimony supported by the most witnesses in all situations.
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