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Q&A

How did accidental killers sustain themselves while living in the cities of refuge?

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An accidental killer flees to one of the cities of refuge for an indeterminate time (until the death of the kohein gadol, or even longer if the timing is unfortunate). The cities of refuge are cities given to the Levites in place of the land that other tribes get. There's a dispute in Makkot 2:8 about whether the accidental killer pays rent or lives there rent-free (the g'mara clarifies that this might be about the 6 vs the 42 cities), but even if he doesn't pay rent, he still needs food and clothing. And if he has family "back home", they need to be provided for somehow.

How did this work? Many accidental killers would presumably have been farmers, a trade they can't as easily ply in their new homes. Did they take up some other trade? Did somebody sustain them (and if so, who)? Did they beg in the streets? Did someone bring them money periodically (perhaps funds raised from their property back home)? Something else?

The mishna in 2:6 says that mothers of high priests would provide food and clothing so the exiled wouldn't pray for their sons' deaths, but that seems impractical at scale. Did the mother of the current high priest really supply all the needed food and clothing for every accidental killer in every one of the 48 cities? I understood that to be more of an occasional supplement, but that's just my own reading of it.

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As you've noted, this is a serious problem only if the rotzeiach's income was limited to some geographical location - like that of a farmer, or someone that depended on local word-of-mouth. And under these circumstances, there would certainly be a cause for consternation.

However, this isn't a problem unique to a rotzeiach. Many people lose (partially or completely) their familiar source of income due to some circumstance, and need to start over and survive in some fashion by pivoting, begging, learning something new, etc. And certainly the community will have an obligation toward providing some assistance - as they would for any of the poor that reside within their city. The only thing that is unique here is that the Torah is prescribing the limitation that is bringing this about.

Presumably, the mishna in 2:6 is not prescribing a solution for this, but rather describing an unexpected relationship that arose as an apparent side-effect (which may actually have been an intended consequence). The actual 'solution' for finding an income is going to be up to the creativity or complacency of the rotzeiach.

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Expending @PinnyM answer:

מכות י א

...תניא ערים הללו אין עושין אותן לא טירין קטנים

רש"י שם:

לפי שאין מזונות מצויין שם

Makot 10:A

One does not establish them in small settlements...

Rashi

Beacuse it's hard to make a living there.

So, we make sure that the rotzeiach will have an opportunity to take care of himself.

BTW, There is no reason why his family will not move in together with him.

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