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The Talmud Pays Little Attention to What Jews Believe, Yet Asks Them To Have Faith

Judaism’s manual of sacred technology prizes holiness over beauty, action over thought, and ritual over belief

Adam Kirsch
January 07, 2014
Jacques Philippe Lebas (1707–1783), The Cult of Idols.(Christine Magne, Antiquaire)
Jacques Philippe Lebas (1707–1783), The Cult of Idols.(Christine Magne, Antiquaire)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Much of the Talmud, I’ve discovered in the year and a half since I began reading Daf Yomi, can be understood as a choreography of Jewish life. Just as a dancer must master an intricate series of movements and postures, so the Jew’s daily routine must follow the patterns laid out in the Talmudic tractates: when to pray, what to eat, where and how to move on Shabbat. Usually the follower of a religion is called a “believer,” but the Talmud pays little attention to what Jews believe. What concerns the rabbis is what they do, down to the smallest detail—for instance, which shoe ought to be put on first in the morning.

Yet choreography is not quite the right metaphor here, since the goal of the rabbis is not to produce a graceful or beautiful life, but a holy one. So, Jewish observance can also be likened to a technology—a series of tools that, if used correctly, will produce the desired result, which is to please God and win his blessing. The Talmud, then, would be a manual of sacred technology, showing how to calibrate every prayer, ritual, and action so that it will be most effective. Fundamental to this idea is that the Jewish God is not content with pious thoughts but demands the necessary sequence of actions—just as an airplane won’t fly unless the pilot turns on the engine, even if everyone on board wishes it up into the air.

Tractate Yoma, which we have been reading over the last several weeks, deals with Yom Kippur, which is the most important moment in the Jewish year. But, so far at least, it has not been concerned with the ordinary Jew’s prayers, fasting, or repentance. Rather, it is focused on the rituals performed by the high priest in the Temple in Jerusalem—the garments he wears, the animals he slaughters, the blood he sprinkles, the words he says. This suite of actions is the great solo that climaxes the choreography of the Jewish year, the crucial catalyst that sets the technology of Judaism into motion.

Nothing could be more important to the rabbis than to get it right. Yet the Talmud was compiled centuries after the Temple was destroyed, and as every page of Yoma attests, they had no certain knowledge of what went on there, or even of how the building was laid out. They were forced to bring together a rabbinic tradition here and a biblical description there, supplemented by a great deal of logical deduction and simple guesswork. What this means is that even the simplest action of the high priest becomes, in the Talmud, the occasion for extremely complicated debates.

Take, for instance, the directions that open chapter 5, concerning the offering of incense in the Holy of Holies. The high priest, the mishna says, would scoop some incense out of a container using his bare hands, then transfer the incense to a spoon (it must really have been more like a large ladle). Then he would take the spoon of incense in his left hand and a pan of burning coals in his right hand and carry them into the Holy of Holies—the Temple’s innermost chamber, which no one ever entered except for the high priest on this single day. There he would put the incense on the pan, and the resulting smoke would completely fill the room.

This sounds clear enough, but the Gemara immediately besieges the mishna with questions. The spoon, for instance, is doubly problematic. Why did the high priest use a spoon to carry the incense, when the instructions in Leviticus say that he should come to the altar with “his hands full of sweet incense”? And why did he carry the spoon in his left hand, when it was a general rule of priestly services that they could be performed only with the right hand? The answer turns out to be strictly pragmatic: It was not physically possible to carry a handful of incense and carry the coal pan at the same time, so a spoon was necessary. Likewise, it would be too awkward to carry the spoon and the pan both in the right hand, so the high priest was allowed to use his left hand on this one occasion.

But is it true, the Gemara wonders, that there was no way around using a spoon? Couldn’t the high priest “take the coal pan in his teeth,” thereby freeing his hand to carry the incense? This was ruled out as undignified: “Now, before a king of flesh and blood one would not do so. All the more so before the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.” Still, there was a logistical problem. The high priest was not allowed to simply pour the incense from the spoon into the coal pan; this part of the ritual had to be performed by hand, as the Bible instructs. As a result, the Gemara explains, the high priest executed a complex maneuver. Holding the bowl of the ladle by his fingertips, he slowly pushed it backwards with his thumbs, so that the handle rested in between his outstretched arms. Then he used his elbows to turn the spoon over and pour the incense into his hands. This was so hard to do, the rabbis say, that offering incense was considered the most difficult of all the rites in the Temple service.

Every element of the Yom Kippur ritual is given at least this much scrutiny in Yoma. After lighting the incense, the high priest sprinkled the blood of a bull and the blood of a goat in the Holy of Holies, and this too had to be done in a certain way. Dipping his fingers into the bowl of blood—which had been continually stirred by another priest, so it would not coagulate—the high priest flung the blood “like one who lashes with a whip.” First he sprinkled the blood upwards, once, and then downwards, seven times. To keep track, he would count out loud: “One; one and one; one and two; one and three,” and so on. (Or else, as Rabbi Meir says, he would count “two and one, three and one,” and so on.) The first, upward sprinkling was always counted separately from the others, so that the high priest wouldn’t get confused and accidentally leave something out.

Entering and exiting the Holy of Holies had its own protocols. On the way in, the high priest had to pass between two curtains, each of which was pulled slightly open at opposite ends, so that he had to trace an S-shaped path through them. On the way out, he had to leave the Holy of Holies walking backwards, so as not to turn his back on the ark. Or, rather, on the place where the ark used to be, for as the Gemara points out in Yoma 52b, in the Second Temple there was no Ark of the Covenant—this had been lost at the time of the destruction of the First Temple, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. (The rabbis debate whether the ark was actually stolen by Nebuchadnezzar, or whether it was buried for safekeeping by King Josiah, in which case it still lies somewhere underneath the Temple grounds.)

This absence presented a serious problem for the whole Yom Kippur ceremony. In Leviticus, Aaron is instructed to sprinkle the sacrificial blood on the ark; how, then, could the high priest fulfill his duties without an ark? The answer, the Mishna explains in Yoma 53b, is that once the ark was gone, its role was taken over by a large, low stone, which jutted out of the ground in the Holy of Holies. This stone, called the “foundation stone,” is where the high priest laid the coal pan for the incense and where he stood to sprinkle the blood. (This same stone, the Koren Talmud’s notes explain, is where the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine built on the Temple grounds, gets its name.)

At the heart of the most important Jewish ritual, then, there was a stark absence. For hundreds of years, the Jews continued to sacrifice to a God whose earthly abode, the ark, no longer existed. It must have been a constant reminder to the high priests that the Judaism they knew was impaired, wounded—an improvised substitute for the original rituals described in the Bible. Yet this absence might also have made Second Temple Judaism, in a sense, more sublime. After all, what is faith if it’s not faith in what is missing—what cannot be touched, seen, or heard? As the high priest carried out his highly ritualized duties on Yom Kippur, he had to believe, against the evidence of his senses, that God was present. The sacred choreography made no sense unless it had a divine audience.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.