In certain cases of unsolved murder, the Torah prescribes a ritual performed with a heifer whose neck is broken. During the course of this ritual, the judges say a confession in the sacred tongue, Hebrew, as it is stated in the verse: “If one be found slain in the land which the Lord your God has given you to possess it, lying in the field, and it is not known who has smitten him; then your Elders and your judges shall come forth” (Deuteronomy 21:1–2). What is the procedure for this ritual? Three members of the High Court [Sanhedrin] that is in Jerusalem would go out to see the corpse. Rabbi Yehuda says: Five would go out, as it is stated: “Your Elders,” in the plural form, indicating at least two; and it is written: “And your judges,” in the plural form, indicating another two judges; and a court may not be comprised of an even number of judges because they need to be able to issue a majority ruling. Consequently, they add to them one more Elder.
If the corpse was found concealed in a pile of stones, or hanging on a tree, or floating on the surface of the water, then the judges would not break the neck of the heifer, as it is stated: “If one be found slain in the land” (Deuteronomy 21:1), and not concealed in a pile of stones; “lying” on the ground and not hanging on a tree; “in the field,” and not floating on the surface of the water. If a corpse was found close to the border of the country, or close to a city in which the majority of its inhabitants are gentiles, or close to a city that is without a rabbinical court of twenty-three judges, then the judges would not break the heifer’s neck. Additionally, the Elders measure the distance from the corpse only to a city that has a rabbinical court with twenty-three judges. If the slain person is found precisely between two cities, the inhabitants of the two of them bring two heifers total; this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem do not bring a heifer whose neck is broken, even if Jerusalem is the city closest to the slain victim.
If the head of the corpse was found in one place and his body was found in a different place, they bring the head next to the body; this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They bring the body next to the head.
From where on the body would they measure the distance? Rabbi Eliezer says: From his navel. Rabbi Akiva says: From his nose. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov says: From the place where he became a slain person, which is from the neck.
The mishna continues to describe the ritual. After they would take the measurement, the Elders of Jerusalem took their leave and went away. The Elders of the city that is closest to the corpse bring a heifer from cattle, which has not pulled a yoke. But a blemish does not disqualify it, because, unlike the description of the red heifer, the Torah does not state that it must be without blemish. And they bring it down to a stream that is eitan. Eitan in this context means as the word generally indicates, powerful. The stream must have a forceful flow. The mishna comments: Even if it is not forceful, it is a valid site for the ritual. And they break the neck of the heifer from behind with a cleaver. And with regard to its place, where the heifer was standing when its neck was broken, it is prohibited for that ground to be sown or to be worked, but it is permitted to comb flax there or to cut stones there.
The Elders of that city would then wash their hands in water in the place of the breaking of the neck of the heifer, and they would recite: “Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see” (Deuteronomy 21:7). The mishna explains: But did it enter our minds that the Elders of the court are spillers of blood, that they must make such a declaration? Rather, they mean to declare that the victim did not come to us and then we let him take his leave without food, and we did not see him and then leave him alone to depart without accompaniment. They therefore attest that they took care of all his needs and are not responsible for his death even indirectly. And the priests recite: “Forgive, Lord, Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel” (Deuteronomy 21:8). They did not have to recite the conclusion of the verse: “And the blood shall be forgiven for them,” as this is not part of the priests’ statement, but rather the Divine Spirit informs them: When you shall do so, the blood is forgiven for you.
If the killer is found before the heifer’s neck was broken, the heifer shall go out and graze among the herd. It is not considered sacred at all, and it may rejoin the other animals. If the killer is found from the time when the heifer’s neck was broken, even if the rest of the ritual has not yet been performed, it is prohibited to benefit from the animal, despite the killer having been found; it should be buried in its place. This is because the heifer initially came for uncertainty, as the killer was unknown, and it atoned for its uncertainty and left, i.e., it fulfilled its purpose of bringing atonement and is considered a heifer whose neck is broken in all regards. If the heifer’s neck was broken and afterward the killer was found, he is killed. The ritual does not atone for him.
If one witness says: I saw the killer, and one other witness says: You did not see him; or if a woman says: I saw, and another woman says: You did not see, they would break the neck of the heifer, as without clear testimony about the identity of the killer the ritual is performed. Similarly, if one witness says: I saw the killer, and two witnesses say: You did not see, they would break the neck of the heifer, as the pair is relied upon. If two witnesses say: We saw the killer, and one witness says to them: You did not see, they would not break the neck of the heifer, as there are two witnesses to the identity of the killer.
The mishna further states: From the time when murderers proliferated, the ritual of the heifer whose neck is broken was nullified. The ritual was performed only when the identity of the murderer was completely unknown. Once there were many known murderers, the conditions for the performance of the ritual were no longer present, as the probable identity of the murderer was known. From the time when Eliezer ben Dinai, who was also called Teḥina ben Perisha, came, they renamed him: Son of a murderer. This is an example of a publicly known murderer. The mishna teaches a similar occurrence: From the time when adulterers proliferated, the performance of the ritual of the bitter waters was nullified; they would not administer the bitter waters to the sota. And it was Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai who nullified it, as it is stated: “I will not punish your daughters when they commit harlotry, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; for they consort with lewd women” (Hosea 4:14), meaning that when the husbands are adulterers, the wives are not punished for their own adultery. From the time when Yosei ben Yo’ezer of Tzereida and Yosei ben Yehuda of Jerusalem died, the clusters ceased, i.e., they were the last of the clusters, as explained in the Gemara, as it is stated: “There is no cluster to eat; nor first-ripe fig that my soul desires” (Micah 7:1).
The mishna continues in the same vein: Yoḥanan the High Priest took away the declaration of the tithe. After his time, no one recited the passage about the elimination of tithes that had previously been said at the end of a three-year tithing cycle. He also nullified the actions of the awakeners and the strikers at the Temple. Until his days the hammer of smiths would strike in Jerusalem on the intermediate days of a Festival, but he banned the practice. And furthermore, in his days there was no need to inquire about doubtfully tithed produce [demai], as everyone was careful to tithe. This mishna continues with the list of items that were nullified.
From the time when the Sanhedrin ceased song was also nullified from the places of feasts, i.e., it was no longer permitted to sing at a feast where wine was served, as it is stated: “With song they shall not drink wine” (Isaiah 24:9).
From the time when the early prophets died the Urim VeTummim was nullified. From the time when the Second Temple was destroyed the shamir worm ceased to exist and also the sweetness of the honeycomb, as the verse says with regard to the laws of the Torah: “More to be desired are they than gold, indeed, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalms 19:11). And men of faith ceased from being among the Jewish people, as it is stated: “Help, Lord, for the pious man is finished; for the faithful fail from among the children of men” (Psalms 12:2). Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says that Rabbi Yehoshua testified: From the day the Temple was destroyed there is no day that does not include some form of curse. And since then the dew has not descended for blessing, and the taste has been removed from fruit. Rabbi Yosei says: Since then, the fat of fruit has also been removed.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Since then, the lost purity has removed the taste and the aroma from fruit; the tithes that were not separated have removed the fat of the grain. And the Sages say: Promiscuity and witchcraft have consumed it all.
In the war [pulemus] of Vespasian the Sages decreed upon the crowns of bridegrooms, i.e., that bridegrooms may no longer wear crowns, and upon the drums, meaning they also banned the playing of drums. In the war of Titus they also decreed upon the crowns of brides, and they decreed that a person should not teach his son Greek. In the last war, meaning the bar Kokheva revolt, they decreed that a bride may not go out in a palanquin inside the city, but our Sages permitted a bride to go out in a palanquin inside the city, as this helps the bride maintain her modesty.
The mishna lists more things that ceased: From the time when Rabbi Meir died, those who relate parables ceased; from the time when ben Azzai died, the diligent ceased; from the time when ben Zoma died, the exegetists ceased; from the time when Rabbi Yehoshua died, goodness ceased from the world; from the time when Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel died, locusts come and troubles multiplied; from the time when Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya died, the sages ceased to be wealthy; from the time when Rabbi Akiva died, the honor of the Torah ceased; from the time when Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa died, the men of wondrous action ceased; from the time when Rabbi Yosei the Small died, the pious were no more. And why was he called the Small? Because he was the smallest of the pious, meaning he was one of the least important of the pious men. From the time when Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai died, the glory of wisdom ceased; from the time when Rabban Gamliel the Elder died, the honor of the Torah ceased, and purity and asceticism died. From the time when Rabbi Yishmael ben Pavi died, the glory of the priesthood ceased; from the time when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, humility and fear of sin ceased. Rabbi Pineḥas ben Ya’ir says: From the time when the Second Temple was destroyed, the ḥaverim and free men of noble lineage were ashamed, and their heads were covered in shame, and men of action dwindled, and violent and smooth-talking men gained the upper hand, and none seek, and none ask, and none inquire of the fear of Heaven. Upon whom is there for us to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven. Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: From the day the Second Temple was destroyed, the generations have deteriorated: Scholars have begun to become like scribes that teach children, and scribes have become like beadles, and beadles have become like ignoramuses, and ignoramuses are increasingly diminished, and none ask and none seek. Upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven. He also said: In the times of the approach of the Messiah, impudence will increase and high costs will pile up. Although the vine shall bring forth its fruit, wine will nevertheless be expensive. And the monarchy shall turn to heresy, and there will be no one to give reproof about this. The meeting place of the Sages will become a place of promiscuity, and the Galilee shall be destroyed, and the Gavlan will be desolate, and the men of the border shall go round from city to city to seek charity, but they will find no mercy. And the wisdom of scribes will putrefy, and people who fear sin will be held in disgust, and the truth will be absent. The youth will shame the face of elders, elders will stand before minors. Normal family relations will be ruined: A son will disgrace a father; a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will no longer be ashamed before his father. And upon what is there for us to rely? Only upon our Father in heaven. Rabbi Pineḥas ben Ya’ir says: Torah study leads to care in the performance of mitzvot. Care in the performance of mitzvot leads to diligence in their observance. Diligence leads to cleanliness of the soul. Cleanliness of the soul leads to abstention from all evil. Abstention from evil leads to purity and the elimination of all base desires. Purity leads to piety. Piety leads to humility. Humility leads to fear of sin. Fear of sin leads to holiness. Holiness leads to the Divine Spirit. The Divine Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead.