Alec Baldwin unintentionally killed the cinematographer on the set of a movie, a situation about which the Torah has plenty to say.
When someone kills unintentionally — as Baldwin did in 2021 on the set of Rust, when he shot a gun he did not know was loaded and fatally struck Halyna Hutchins — the Torah prescribes a set of rules which seem to say that revenge against the killer is justifiable.
Baldwin, who was formally charged with involuntary manslaughter Tuesday, is not Jewish. His lawyer called the decision to prosecute “a terrible miscarriage of justice.” But what does Jewish law say about cases like his?
The Torah, in Exodus and again in Numbers, introduces arei miklat, commonly translated as cities of refuge, where someone who commits manslaughter can flee. To ensure their safety, that person must stay in that city until the death of the nation’s kohen gadol, or high priest, when the statute of limitations expires and revenge is no longer permitted. God instructs the Israelites to build six arei miklat, and appoints the Levites to administer them.
This obviously can’t apply to Alec Baldwin. Israel hasn’t had a kohen gadol since the Second Temple was destroyed circa 70 C.E., and we don’t know where those ancient cities were. But the Talmud does address the accidental killer who doesn’t go to a sanctuary city, and raises questions of revenge. Who may or must avenge the crime?
The Sages are split on this. Discussing the cities of refuge in the tractate of Makkot (which is part of the aforementioned Talmudic order relating to damages), Rabbi Yosei HaGelili says that it is a mitzvah to avenge one’s relative, and that even non-relatives are allowed (but not commanded) to take revenge on the fleeing perpetrator outside of the arei miklat. Rabbi Akiva says the relative may take revenge, but it is not a mitzvah — and no one else can do it for them.
And, leading us back to where we started, Rabbi Eliezer says even the relative must settle the matter in court. Which is where the Baldwin case is now heading.
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