As we have learned, the Torah requires that someone who kills accidentally must exile himself to an ir miklat – a City of Refuge. What was the procedure for being accepted into an ir miklat? Where were these cities?
As the Rambam explains the Mishna on today’s daf, everyone who killed would run to one of these cities in order to protect himself from revenge at the hands of the go’el ha-dam – the relative who serves as a “blood avenger.” The perpetrator would be taken to trial and would either be found guilty and put to death, would be found innocent and set free, or declared an accidental killer and returned to the ir miklat in the company of two guards who would be charged with protecting him from the go’el ha-dam.
According to the Mishna, the biblical commandment to establish six cities of refuge (see Bamidbar 35:13-14) requiring three on each side of the Jordan River, was first fulfilled by Moshe (see Devarim 4:41) on the eastern side of the river. Nevertheless, the system does not begin to operate until the Children of Israel cross the Jordan and establish cities on the western side of the river, as well. There were three pairs of cities on either side of the Jordan – one set in the south (Hebron and Betzer), one in the middle of the country (Shekhem and Ramot) and one in the north (Kadesh and Golan).
Abaye explains that although the eastern side of the Jordan was much smaller than the western side, there was still a need for three cities of refuge since in Gilad there were many murderers. The obvious question is that the Cities of Refuge are only meant to serve accidental killers and not murderers – why would the number of murderers affect the need for arei miklat?
The Ramban explains that since all killers would run to the Cities of Refuge in order to await trial, even murderers would go there in the hope of escaping the go’el ha-dam, and the cities had to be able to accommodate murderers as well as accidental killers.
Tosafot suggest that according to the continuation of the Gemara, an accidental killing is likely a heavenly arrangement to punish someone who deserved a death penalty. Thus, a place that had a large number of murderers would also have a large number of accidental killings.
The Meiri offers a different approach, suggesting that the fact that there were many murderers in Gilad offered the possibility of people who the go’el ha-dam might hire to avenge the accidental killing. In order to help the accidental killer escape these people, more Cities of Refuge were needed.