The law of the decapitated calf is practiced only in Eretz Yisrael. It is also practiced in TransJordan.
The calf that is decapitated may be two years old or younger. If, however, it is two years and one day old, it is not acceptable. Physical blemishes do not disqualify it. Nevertheless, if it is taref, it is unacceptable. For "atonement" is mentioned with regard to it, as it is mentioned with regard to sacrificial offerings.
Deuteronomy 21:3 states: "that has never been worked, and that has never carried a yoke." Accordingly, all types of work disqualify the calf, just as they disqualify a red heifer.
Why is "a yoke" then singled out; seemingly it is included with the other tasks in the expression "that has never been worked"? To teach that a yoke disqualifies a calf whether or not it carries it while working. If a calf carries a yoke for a distance of a handbreadth, it is disqualified even though it did not plow with it or perform any work. With regard to other tasks, by contrast, they do not disqualify a calf unless work was actually performed.
Whenever the calf performs a task for its own benefit, that does not disqualify it; for example, the owner spread his garment over it to protect it from flies. Any task that is not for its own benefit - e.g., the owner spread his garment over it, so that it should carry it - disqualifies it. The same applies in all analogous situations, as we have explained in Hilchot Parah.
The calf should be decapitated only during the daytime, for "atonement" is mentioned with regard to it, as it is mentioned with regard to sacrificial offerings.
It is acceptable to decapitate it any time during the entire day. Two calves should not be decapitated at the same time, for mitzvot should not be performed in bundles.
It is forbidden to benefit from a calf that is decapitated. It should be buried at the place where it was decapitated.
Once it is taken down to the river, benefiting from it becomes forbidden, even though it has not yet been decapitated. Thus, if it dies there or was slaughtered after it was decapitated, one is forbidden to benefit from it, and it should be buried.
If, however, the witnesses are found to be lying, it is permitted to benefit from the calf.
What is implied? One witness testified that he saw the murderer, and two witnesses come and negate his testimony, telling him: "You did not see him." If on this basis, the court set aside a calf and brought it down to the river to decapitate it because of their testimony, and these witnesses were disqualified afterwards as lying witnesses, it is permitted to benefit from the calf.
If the murderer was discovered before the calf was decapitated, it should be released and allowed to pasture with the herd. If he was discovered after the calf was decapitated, before it was buried, it should be buried in its place. For at the outset, it was brought because of a doubt. It atoned for this lack of knowledge and served its purpose.
Even when the murderer is discovered after the decapitation of the calf, he should be executed, as Deuteronomy 21:9 states: "You shall thus rid yourselves of the guilt for the shedding of innocent blood."
It is forbidden ever to sow seeds or till the river in which the calf was decapitated, as Deuteronomy 21:4 states: "that must never be worked or sown." Whoever performs work with the land itself - e.g., he plowed, he dug, he seeded, he planted, or the like - should be punished with lashes.
It is, however, permitted to comb flax there, or to drill stones, for this is similar to weaving a garment there or sewing it there, for these are tasks that are not performed with the land itself. To emphasize this concept, the verse states: "that must never be worked or sown." Implied is that just as sowing involves the land itself, similarly all work that is forbidden there involves the land itself.
When the inhabitants of a city that was closest to a corpse have delayed and have not brought a calf for decapitation, they should be compelled to bring it even though several years have passed. For those who are liable to bring a calf for decapitation remain liable despite the fact that Yom Kippur has passed.
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