The Case of the Two Sleuths

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

By Jeffrey Fiskin

Published September 09, 2005, issue of September 09, 2005.
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A chalk outline on the ground. An older gentleman in the worn robes of a scholar paces off the distance from the chalk outline to the nearest city. He is joined by a fellow in a houndstooth coat and deerstalker cap, a calabash meerschaum clenched tightly in his teeth.

Moshe: Three hundred forty-one, three hundred forty-two —

Holmes: Fascinating case, what? It’s pure Deuteronomy 21:1: “If one be found slain in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him …”

Moshe: Fascinating? This whole business is a time sink that could be far better spent gaining knowledge of God. Now do you mind, I’m trying to count here.

Holmes: Of course. But I am frankly surprised to discover a fellow acolyte of the deductive method at work. Surprised and delighted.

Moshe: Three-hundred and… where was I? Oy!

Holmes: Three-hundred forty-three! But perhaps I can save you some time. The distance from here to the next city east is five thousand, eight hundred and twelve paces, whilst the village to the west is slightly more, six thousand paces and change.

Moshe: You’re a rabbi?

Holmes: Ah, no. Just an amateur sleuth like yourself. And I would hazard that we have drawn the same conclusion concerning this heinous crime.

Moshe: We have?

Holmes: Quite. A good working hypothesis would be that the perpetrator is from the nearer of the two cities, yes? As it is said, in Deuteronomy 21:4, et seq., “And it shall be that the city which is nearest unto the slain man… etc.”

Moshe: Well, the blood is on their hands.

Holmes: Precisely. And what is the next step you propose?

Moshe: I go to the elders of the city, tell them what happened. They take a calf to a nearby gully and break its neck. Offer a few prayers. Done.

Holmes: Done? You expect to find the murderer that way?

Moshe: Of course not. We won’t find the murderer. Inquiries were made; there are no witnesses. Not even a servant girl. So no murderer.

Holmes: You’re no detective.

Moshe: Surprise.

Holmes: Ah, I was paying so much attention to the body; I neglected you and the far more obvious clues. Let’s see. The robes of a poor scholar —

Moshe: They serve.

Holmes: Do I detect the hint of a Spanish accent?

Moshe: You can still hear it after all these years?

Holmes: And the cotton in your robe, Egyptian. And finally, I believe you are impatient with the social and legal aspects of your work. This case being a perfect example.

Moshe: Yes, I would prefer a more direct communion. While I appreciate the necessity of portions like Shoftim, I prefer passages that bring me more direct knowledge of God. As I always say, “One only loves God with the knowledge with which one knows Him. According to the knowledge will be the love. If the former be little or much, so will the latter be little or much.” (Mishnah, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:6)

Holmes: Yet doesn’t your co-religionist, Judah Lowe, late of Prague, suggest that it is precisely in the quotidian details of your holy book — these very sorts of legalistic minutia — that one may best discover the perfection of your God?

Moshe: A great mind, The Maharal.

Holmes: Likewise, Chaim of Volozhin is not interested in the transports of communion with The Almighty whilst studying. Rather, he recommends attending only to the words of the book, however commonplace.

Moshe: As he says, the entire universe depends on it.

Holmes: Yet you disagree and have no time for it.

Moshe: Oh, but I don’t disagree; I do have my own preference.

Holmes: You would rather engage your Lord more immediately?

Moshe: Yes. But the two paths are not mutually exclusive. As it is written — and it could easily apply to either my preference or the Maharal’s — “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Avot 2:19). Forgive me, but you seem to be the one bound by only one approach.

Holmes: Alas, I have little alternative. I have but the one small skill. I am, after all, a modern man for whom communion with a higher power has become — how shall I say — a less obvious choice. Further, I am not at all certain the times call for it.

Moshe: I’m afraid I have to agree with you. As I have said, “When the number of murders increased, the rite of eglah arufah [the sacrifice of the heifer] lapsed…” (Mishnah Sotah 9.9 )

Holmes: Then perhaps I am doing the Lord’s work after all. If I bring justice into the world, there may again be a place for eglah arufah.

Moshe: Very likely, Mr. Holmes.

Holmes: Now how did you figure that out?

Moshe: I would love to say that all knowledge is in the Torah. But it was the deerstalker and calabash.

Holmes: Well done, Rav Moshe ben Maimon!

Moshe: The Spanish accent, Egyptian cotton…

Holmes: And you quoted from yourself quite liberally.

Moshe: An impressive bit of deduction, Mr. Holmes.

Holmes: Elementary my dear, Rambam.

Jeffrey Fiskin is a writer who lives with his family in Los Angeles.

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