One of the more intriguing mitzvahs in the Torah is the ceremony of the eglah arufah (“decapitated calf”), performed when a murdered stranger was found out in the field and the killer was unknown.1

Upon discovery, the corpse was left in its place and five elders from the Sanhedrin (High Court) would come and measure the distance from the corpse to the nearby cities to determine which was closest. Even if the answer was obvious, it was a mitzvah to measure. After the nearest city was established, the corpse was buried in the place it was found and the representatives of the High Court returned to Jerusalem.

Then the members of the court of the designated city would take a calf that had never worked or worn a yoke, paid for by all the city's inhabitants, to the middle of a rushing river.

The calf was decapitated from behind with a cleaver. Then the members of the court, together with all the elders of the city, washed their hands at that spot.

Then, in the midst of the river, the elders declared: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did we see this with our eyes.”2

In other words, they did not let this murdered traveler leave their city without provisions for the way, nor did they let him leave without accompaniment.

The Kohanim who were present then said the verse: “Atone for Your nation Israel . . .”3

After the eglah arufah ceremony was completed, G‑d granted forgiveness to the inhabitants of the city, as the above verse continues: “And the blood will be atoned.”

This, of course, didn’t absolve the perpetrator from being brought to justice if caught.

It was forbidden to ever till or plant the area in which the eglah arufah ceremony was done.4

A Shocking Ceremony

If this ceremony sounds a bit shocking to one’s sensibilities, that is exactly the point! The commentators explain that one of its underlying purposes was to garner lots of publicity, which would help lead to identifying and capturing the murderer.5

Communal Responsibility

Another reason given for this ceremony is to teach communal responsibility. The elders declared that they were innocent and their “hands did not shed this blood . . .” Of course, they could not make such a statement before G‑d unless they were sure that this was indeed the case. This drives home the point that we are responsible even for a simple traveler passing through.6

Why an Unworked Calf?

Based on the above, we can understand some of the details as well.

Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel explains that a calf is used because the Jewish people are compared to a calf.7 The calf is young and unworked, symbolizing a young, innocent person free of sin, and this person was murdered due to no fault of his own.8

Another interesting reason given for specifically using a young calf is that the Hebrew word for “calf,” egla (עגלה), has the same numerical value (107) as “Hell,” Gehinnom (גיהנם). Additionally, the word עגלה is an acronym for the greatest of sins: עבודה זרה (idolatry); גילוי ערוית (sexual sins such as adultery, incest, etc.); לשון הרע (“evil tongue”); הריגה (murder). Thus, this ceremony also serves as an atonement for the inhabitants of the city for such a terrible crime having been committed near their city.9

From Behind at a Raging River

A river of thirst-quenching and life-giving water represents Torah, symbolizing that this act took place near a city where Torah was studied.10 In fact, when they would measure to see which city was the closest, they would only measure to a city that had a full court of 23 learned judges, each of whom was an ordained rabbi (capable of adjudicating capital punishment).11

And yet, this horrible act took place and this person was killed for no reason, without any judgment.

Thus, the calf is decapitated from behind, as this person was killed in secrecy.12

Forbidden to Work the Ground

Since it was forbidden to cultivate the ground where the eglah arufah ceremony took place, the owner of that area was spurred to make an extra effort to find the perpetrator. After all, the eglah arufah ceremony is only done if the perpetrator's identity is unknown.13

The Spiritual Welfare of Others

The Rebbe teaches us a profound lesson from the laws of the eglah arufah. A corpse symbolizes one who is seemingly dead and cut off from the divine. The reason for this is that he is “found in the field,” i.e., he is not in a place of Torah and Judaism. Even the greatest of leaders, the members of the Sanhedrin, are obligated to go out into the fields to rectify the situation and make sure that everyone is connected to the Torah, which is compared to the “tree of life.”14