Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. , at sacred-texts.com
THE precepts of the fifth class, enumerated in the Section--"On Damages" (Sepher neziḳin), aim at the removal of wrong and the prevention of injury. As we are strongly recommended to prevent damage, we are responsible for every damage caused by our property or through our work in so far as it is in our power to take care and to guard it from becoming injurious. We are, therefore, responsible for all damage caused by our cattle; we must guard them. The same is the case with fire and pits; they are made by man, and he can be careful that they do not cause damage. I win point out the equity of the various laws in this respect. No compensation is enforced for damage caused by the mouth or the foot of an animal in a public thoroughfare; because this cannot be guarded against, and the damage caused there is not very large. Those who place their things in a public place are themselves guilty of neglect, and expose their property to injury. But compensation is given for damage caused to the property of a person in his own field by the tooth or the foot of an animal. It is different in the case of damage caused by the horn of animals or the like. The animal can be guarded everywhere land prevented from causing injury], whilst those who pass public thoroughfares cannot sufficiently take care against accidents of this kind. In this case the law is the same for all places: but there is a difference whether the owner of the animal has been warned concerning it or not (mu‘ad or tam). If the animal has not been in the habit of causing damage, the owner need only pay half the damage; but damage caused by an animal which has been in the habit of doing so, and has been known as savage, must be paid in full. The compensation for a slave is uniformly estimated at half the value fixed for a free man. For in the law concerning the valuation of man you find the highest valuation at sixty shekels, whilst the money to be paid for a slave is fixed at thirty shekels silver. The killing of an animal that has killed a human being (Exod. xxi. 28, 29) is not a punishment to the animal, as the dissenters insinuate against us, but it is a fine imposed on the owner of that animal. For the same reason the use of its flesh is prohibited. The owner of an animal will, therefore, take the greatest possible care in guarding it; he will know that if any person is killed by the animal, whether that person be grown up or young, free or in bondage, he forfeits at least the animal; and in case he has already received a warning concerning it, he will have to pay a ransom in addition to the loss of the animal. This is also the reason why a beast is killed that has been used by a human being for an immoral purpose (Lev. xx. 15, 16); its owner will be more careful as regards his beast, will guard it, and never lose sight of it, just as he watches his household: for people fear the loss of their property as much as that of their own life: some even more, but most people hold both in the same estimation. Comp. "and to take us for bondmen, and our asses" (Gen. xliii. 18).
This class includes also the duty of killing him who pursues another person; that is to say, if a person is about to commit a crime we may prevent it by killing him. Only in two cases is this permitted; viz., when a person runs after another in order to murder him, or in order to commit fornication: because in these two cases the crime, once committed; cannot be remedied. In the case of other sins, punished with death by the court of law, such as
idolatry and profanation of the Sabbath, by which the sinner does no harm to another person, and which concern only his own principles, no person may be killed for the mere intention, if he has not carried it out.
It is known that desire is denounced because it leads to coveting, and the latter is prohibited because it leads to robbery, as has been said by our Sages.
The object of the law of restoring lost property to its owner (Deut. xxii. 1-3) is obvious. In the first instance, it is in itself a good feature in man's character. Secondly, its benefit is mutual; for if a person does not return the lost property of his fellow-man, nobody will restore to him what he may lose, just as those who do not honour their parents cannot expect to be honoured by their children.
A person who killed another person unknowingly must go into exile (Exod. xii. 13: Num. xxxv. 11-28); because the anger of "the avenger of the blood" (Num. xxxv. 19) cools down while the cause of the mischief is out of sight. The chance of returning from the exile depends on the death of [the high-priest], the most honoured of men, and the friend of all Israel. By his death the relative of the slain person becomes reconciled (ibid. ver. 25); for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one has befallen another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the high-priest.
The beneficial character of the law concerning "the breaking of the neck of a heifer" (Deut. xii. 1-8) is evident. For it is the city that is nearest to the slain person that brings the heifer, and in most cases the murderer comes from that place. The elders of the place call upon God as their witness, according to the interpretation of our Sages, that they have always kept the roads in good condition, have protected them, and have directed every one that asked his way; that the person has not been killed because they were careless in these general provisions, and they do not know who has slain him. As a rule the investigation, the procession of the elders, the measuring, and the taking of the heifer, make people talk about it, and by making the event public, the murderer may be found out, and he who knows of him, or has heard of him, or has discovered him by any due, will now name the person that is the murderer, and as soon as a man, or even a woman or handmaid, rises up and names a certain person as having committed the murder, the heifer is not killed. It is well known that it is considered great wickedness and guilt on the part of a person who knows the murderer, and is silent about him whilst the elders call upon God as witness that they know nothing about the murderer. Even a woman will, therefore, communicate whatever knowledge she has of him. When the murderer is discovered, the benefit of the law is apparent. If the court of justice cannot sentence him to death, the king may find him guilty, who has the power to sentence to death on circumstantial evidence; and if the ling does not put him to death, the avenger of blood may scheme and plan his death, and at last kill him. We have thus shown the use of the law concerning the breaking of the neck of the heifer in discovering the murderer. Force is added to the law by the rule that the place in which the neck of the heifer is broken should never be cultivated or sown. The owner of the land will therefore use all means in his power to search and to find the murderer, in order that the heifer be not killed and his land be not made useless to him.