ʿEGLAH ʿARUFAH (Heb. עֶגְלָה עֲרוּפָה), an expiatory ceremonial for an untraceable murder prescribed in Deuteronomy 21:1–9, in which the elders of the settlement nearest the corpse bring an unworked heifer to an uncultivated area in a watered wadi, break the heifer's neck, wash their hands over it, and profess their innocence to the bloodshed. This ceremonial of the ʿeglah ʿarufah, "the broken-necked heifer," is unique to the Bible, but it is elucidated by prior Hittite and subsequent rabbinic law codes. The ʿeglah ʿarufah is not a sacrifice. It is not slaughtered ritually on an altar, but is killed like a non-sacrificial animal (Ex. 13:13) away from the altar; it need not be unblemished like a sacrifice (Sot. 9:5), but it must never have been subjected to the yoke, a stipulation attested only in rituals never incorporated into the sacrificial system (Num. 19:2; see *Red Heifer; cf. i Sam. 6:7). Above all, its death does not make expiation for the life of the murderer (nor does any sacrifice; see *Atonement, *Sacrifices), for if the murderer is subsequently discovered, he is still put to death (Sot. 9:7; see Ket. 37b).
The key to this rite is its underlying postulate that the blood of the innocent does not "remain on his head" (e.g., Josh. 2:19; see *Bloodguilt), but pollutes the earth on which it is shed (Num. 35:33). The earth, having received the blood involuntarily, withholds its strength (Gen. 4:11–12), bringing drought and famine upon its inhabitants (ii Sam. 21:1, lxx; cf. also ii Sam. 1:21; Ezek. 22:24). This belief is not peculiar to Israel, but is part of its heritage from the cultures along the Mediterranean littoral (e.g., Ugarit: Aqhat 1:42–46; Asia Minor (Hittites), Proclamation of Telepinus, 20). That the blood of the slain must come into contact with the ground is confirmed by the rabbinic dictum that if the murder was perpetrated by some other means, e.g., hanging, the heifer ceremonial is not required (Sot. 9:2; tj, Sot. 9:2, 23c). In rabbinic law, just as in the Hittite Code, paragraph 6 (earlier version, cf. Pritchard, Texts, 189), the corpse is interred on the spot where it was found (bk 81b), and the original owner loses his rights to a set area circumscribing the corpse.
According to biblical law, "the land shall have no expiation for blood that is shed except by the blood of him who shed it" (Num. 35:33b). However, what if the murderer is unknown: will the land be permanently blighted? The ʿeglah ʿarufah is the cultic prophylactic to avert this contingency. Its purpose is to transfer the land polluted by the corpse to an uncultivated plot, removed from the settled area. Thus it closely resembles the rites of the *azazel goat and of the purification of the healed *leper, whereby sin and impurity, respectively, are exorcised from the afflicted and banished to the wilderness. Here, however, the fact that land and not man needs to be expiated necessitates the use of another method, not banishment, but transference. Through the killing of the heifer, the murder is, in effect, reenacted; the blood of the heifer (ha-dam ha-zeh, "this blood," Deut. 21:7) becomes identified with the blood of the slain, and the pollution is transferred from the area of the corpse to the area of the heifer. This rite of reenactment and transference explains why the ceremonial must take place at a perennial stream: the blood must not come into contact with the earth again and trigger the fatal polluted soil-drought syndrome, and it is thus drained off to some distant sea. Also explained is the need for the elders of the nearest settlement to wash their hands and recite a confessional over the broken-necked heifer: since the blood of the heifer represents the blood of the slain, they must purify themselves and declare their innocence of either committing or witnessing the crime (Deut. 21:6–7). Finally, the rabbinic law that the land surrounding the heifer is forever forbidden to be cultivated further underscores that the purpose of the ritual is the transference of land impurity from the human to the animal corpse.
According to this interpretation the Torah has incorporated an ancient rite, whereby land pollution due to an untraceable murder is transferred from a desirable area to an undesirable one. At the same time, it should not be overlooked how an act of pure sympathetic magic was transformed by the Torah to conform to its basic spiritual and ethical outlook. First, the ritual was placed in the hands of the priests, those "chosen by the Lord to serve Him" (21:5), and removed from the authority of the lay-elders, who might be addicted to its pagan origins. Then, the declaration was given an appendix (21:8–9), whereby the automatic, magical expiation presumed by the ritual was abolished, and the expiation and, indeed, all forgiveness of sin attributed solely to the Lord.
In the Talmud
No less than nine mishnayot (Sotah 9:1–9) and six folios of the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 44b–47b) are devoted to the laws of the ʿeglah ʿarufah, despite the fact that the rite was abolished at the beginning of the first century (see below). Unless otherwise stated, the details that follow are derived from those passages. According to the rabbis, this act of expiation and disavowal by the elders was not for the murder itself, of which no one could possibly accuse them, but for failure to create conditions which would make such a crime impossible. "He [the victim, or possibly the murderer?] did not appeal to us for help and we dismissed him without providing him with food; we did not allow him to depart without an escort." The measurement of the distance between the corpse and the nearest town was performed by three or five elders from the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem. When they had finished their task and had decided to which city the murder was to be ascribed, they returned to Jerusalem, and the rite of breaking the heifer's neck (from behind with a hatchet) was performed in the presence of all the elders of that city. The rite was performed only when it was presumed that the undetected murderer was a Jew, and it was therefore not performed in a city near the border or where the majority of the inhabitants were gentiles. Nor did the rite apply to Jerusalem. It was limited to a murder executed with a lethal weapon and therefore did not apply in the case of hanging or strangulation. The heifer had to be less than two years old. The ceremony took place by day, and the carcass was buried in situ. The rite of the ʿeglah ʿarufah was discontinued "when murderers increased in number." Its discontinuation is connected with *Eleazar b. Dinai, also called Tehinah b. Parishah, a notorious murderer who is probably identical with the Zealot leader of the same name (c. 35–60 c.e.) mentioned by Josephus (Ant. 20:121 and 161; Wars, 2:235–6, 253).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]
H.J. Elhorst, in: zaw, 39 (1921), 58–67; R. Patai, in jqr, 30 (1939), 59–69; S.H. Hooke, in: vt, 2 (1952), 2–17; A. Rofé, in: Tarbiz, 31 (1961/62), 119–43.