An old woman walks along the road, carrying heavy parcels and leading a donkey laden with pots of savory food. She is on her way to a city where she’ll dispense the food to the locals.

This old woman is none other than the mother of the high priest, and she’s walking to a city of refuge, a city to which a person flees if he’s killed someone.

Why is the mother of the high priest bringing food to these murderers? Before we answer this question, we first need to understand the background of these cities of refuge.

What Is a City of Refuge?

Moses was instructed to designate cities of refuge when the Jews entered the Land of Israel:

Designate cities as cities of refuge, to which anyone who accidentally kills a person can flee. The cities will serve as refuges, where the killer will be safe from being killed by a blood relative of the dead. Establish six cities of refuge: three on the far side of the Jordan River, and three in the Land of Canaan. These cities will be cities of refuge.1

So let’s say, for example, that Joe was walking under a ladder, and Sam, who was standing atop the ladder, dropped his hammer, accidentally killing Joe. Why is the mother of the high priest bringing food to these murderers?Now Joe’s family member wants to avenge his death, which he can do with impunity—except in a city of refuge, where he would be considered guilty of murder and would be sentenced to death. So Sam runs away to a city of refuge, which provides safety and also serves as a punishment for him.

The cities of refuge were only for those who killed accidentally, not knowing the consequences of their actions. If the person killed out of gross negligence—for example, knocking down a wall in a public area without looking whether anyone was there—the sin is too severe to be atoned for by exile, and the cities of refuge don’t serve as a haven for the killer.

Conversely, if a person tore down a wall in a private area that people never frequent, and a stone fell and killed someone who happened to be there by a fluke, the death is seen as beyond his control, and the accidental killer is not exiled, nor may the blood redeemer kill him.2

Although the main purpose of cities of refuge was to protect one who accidentally killed,3 in practice, murderers who killed intentionally went there too.4 When a person arrived at a city of refuge, the court sent messengers to bring him in for a hearing. These messengers also acted as bodyguards, to protect him from blood avengers. If it was decided that he’d murdered intentionally, he would be judged accordingly; but if the judges determined that it was an unintentional killing, the messengers would return him to the city of refuge.

Where Were the Cities of Refuge?

The six cities of refuge were located in different areas of the Land of Israel, so that everyone had reasonably easy access to them. The southernmost city was Hebron; the northernmost was Kedesh, in the Galilee; and the city of Shechem was in the center. Three more cities were chosen, at roughly the same latitudes, on the other side of the Jordan River.5

Ease of access was a major factor in choosing the placement of the cities of refuge. The roads leading to the cities were especially wide by the standards of the time. Other major roads were sixteen cubits (around 8 m/26 ft.) wide, while the roads leading to the cities of refuge had to be at least double that: thirty-two cubits (around 16 m/52 ft.) wide!6

The routes to the cities of refuge had to be easy for a refugee to navigate. Valleys were raised and hills were leveled to make it easier to travel. Bridges were built where necessary;7 signs were posted at crossroads; and once a year, in the middle of the month of Adar, the state of the roads was thoroughly examined to make sure they were in good repair.Valleys were raised and hills were leveled

Each city needed to be of average size, located in a populous trading center, with an independent water source.8

Additionally, the cities provided refuge only if the majority of the population was non-murderers, and there was an established court of law in the city.9 If the general population fell, kohanim and Levites were urged to move in and bolster the neutral population.10

Besides the 6 major cities of refuge, all 48 of the Levites’ cities were also places of safety for refugees.11 The Levites were the holiest of all the Jews, so their lands could atone for the sin of killing, and they would not hate the refugees who came to live in their cities.12

In addition to the actual city, the two thousand cubits surrounding a city of refuge served as a haven.13

How Long Did One Stay in the City of Refuge?

The refugee would stay in the city for an unspecified amount of time. He went “free” only when the high priest died.14

Several reasons are given for this. In his Guide for the Perplexed,15 Rambam writes that the national mourning that took place at the death of the high priest distracted the mourners of the family member who was killed by the refugee. Another explanation is that it was a punishment for the high priest, who “should have prayed that no such accident would happen to the Jews in his lifetime.”16 A third explanation is that the high priest causes the Divine Presence to rest upon Israel and thus prolong their lives, whereas the murderer causes the Divine Presence to withdraw from Israel and thus shorten their lives, so he is not worthy of standing before the kohen gadol.17

If the refugee died before the high priest did, he would be buried in the city of refuge. After the high priest died, his body could be moved to a different city for reburial.18

This brings us back to the story of the woman with the pots of food. This was the mother of the high priest, who went around to the cities of refuge distributing food and clothing to the refugees so that they wouldn’t pray for the death of her son, which would free them from their exile. Some commentators say that she hoped to spoil them so much that not only wouldn’t they pray for his death, they would even pray for him to have a long life.

The mother of the high priest wasn’t the only one providing refugees with what they needed. The court had to supply their needs, including their spiritual needs: if a disciple became a refugee, his teacher had to move to the city of refuge so that he could continue to teach him Torah.19

The Messianic Message

The Torah says that when the opportunity arises, three additional cities of refuge should be established: “You should add three more cities of refuge to these three.”20

This Three additional cities should be establishedreference to cities of refuge that will be established in the future is referring to the messianic era,21 when the Land of Israel will be larger, and we’ll need more cities of refuge.22

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out23 that in the laws relating to the coming of the Messiah, the Rambam mentions this mitzvah of adding cities of refuge in the future.24 So the coming of the Messiah is not just a prophecy, but one of the mitzvahs in the Torah.

May we merit to see the coming of the Messiah speedily in our days. Amen.