In the ancient world, the spilling of blood was cause for spilling more blood. That’s why murderers were killed, either executed by the courts in capital punishment, or if they fled, by a relative of the initial victim in an act of blood vengeance.
The institution of cities of refuge, ‘arei miklat, is mentioned in a number of places in the Torah, but given particularly prominent attention in Parshat Mas’ei. There we learn that when someone kills another person under accidental circumstances, when there’s no history of enmity between the perpetrator and victim, the community must actively rescue the killer from danger. “The assembly shall protect the manslayer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil” (Numbers 35:25).
Centuries after the Torah was written, the Rabbis grappled with the concept of ‘arei miklat. They address all of the fine points of law that separate manslaughter from murder in tractate Makkot. But they read the institution of ‘arei miklat as serving a different purpose, which is clear in opening words of the chapter of Mishnah: “The following are exiled…” (M. Makkot 2:1).
So which is it? Are ‘arei miklat a sanctuary, or are they a punishment? We’ll explore this further on Shabbat morning.