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Some Jewish Acts Seem Meaningless. The Talmud Says You Should Do Them Anyway.

Illogical Jewish laws are ‘matters that Satan challenges’: raising doubts for enemies of Judaism and skeptical Jews

Adam Kirsch
January 21, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Richard Erdoes via Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

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

The ceremony of the scapegoat, which formed the main subject matter of this week’s unusually rich and exciting Daf Yomi reading, is one of the most mysterious rituals in Judaism. Every Yom Kippur while the Temple stood, the priests would choose a goat, bind its horns with a crimson thread, lead it into the wilderness, and hurl it off of a cliff. This was an integral part of the services that gained atonement for the Jewish people’s sins, but the ceremony is so odd—even redolent of paganism—that the rabbis of the Talmud worried it might be seen as “a meaningless act.”

To counter this skepticism, the rabbis drew what would become a tremendously important distinction in Jewish thought, between the rationally justifiable commandments and the mysterious, seemingly inexplicable ones. In Leviticus 18:4, God commands the Israelites to follow both his “ordinances” [mishpatim] and his “statutes” [huqqim], and in Yoma 67b the rabbis turn these into two different categories of mitzvot. Ordinances include “matters that had they not been written it would have been logical that they be written,” such as the prohibitions on “idol worship, prohibited sexual relations, bloodshed, theft.” These are what might be called natural laws, which any human community might institute without divine guidance.

Statutes, on the other hand, are “matters that Satan challenges”—that is, the laws that enemies of Judaism, and perhaps skeptical Jews themselves, raise doubts about, since they seem to have no logical basis. This category includes the ban on pork and on wearing mixed garments, and also the ritual of the scapegoat. It’s easy to be skeptical about these commandments, but the rabbis insist that they, too, are absolutely essential to Judaism. “Lest you say these are meaningless acts, the verse states: ‘I am the Lord,’ to indicate, I am the Lord, I decreed these statutes, and you have no right to doubt them.” Perhaps the statutes are even more crucial than the ordinances, since they are a pure test of Jewish faith: There is no reason to perform them other than submission to God’s will.

Chapter 6 of Tractate Yomi lays out the procedure for the scapegoat, which according to Leviticus is supposed to be led into the wilderness “for Azazel.” As I mentioned last week, the Bible leaves it unclear what this word means, and it seems possible that it is the name of some kind of supernatural being or demon. That is what many later Jewish readers believed, including the medieval sage Nachmanides. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, offer a strictly naturalistic interpretation: Azazel, they say, comes from the Hebrew word for rough or rugged, and refers to the “rough and hard” cliff in the desert from which the goat is to be thrown.

After choosing the goat by casting lots, the high priest would place both his hands on it and recite a prayer, asking God to forgive the people of Israel for its sins. The language of this prayer echoes the way Jews still pray on Yom Kippur: “Please God, Your people, the house of Israel, have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before you. Please God, grant atonement, please, for the sins, and for the wrongs, and for the rebellions.” In saying this prayer, the high priest would not use any of the euphemisms for God that are employed in ordinary prayers—Adonai, Hashem, and so on. Instead, he would use the “Explicit Name” [shem hameforash],the full proper name of God. The Yom Kippur service was the only time during the year when this name would be uttered publicly, and only by the high priest.

But what, exactly, was the Explicit Name? The Koren Talmud, which I have been using for the last several months, explains that the authoritative commentaries disagree on this point. Some believe that it was the Tetragrammaton, the name written in the Torah as YHWH, pronounced with the same vowels used in the word “Adonai.” Others say that, in fact, this name was used regularly in the Temple services, and what was spoken on Yom Kippur was something different: either another pronunciation of YHWH, or else an esoteric, 42-letter-long name of God.

Whatever the Jews heard, it was a sacred and emotionally overwhelming moment, as the Talmud explains: “When they would hear the Explicit Name emerging from the mouth of the high priest, they would kneel and prostrate themselves and fall on their faces, and say: Blessed is the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever.” The rituals that the high priest performed in the Holy of Holies were hidden from view, but by pronouncing the Name of God he was opening up the divine mystery to the whole people. The fact that we can no longer know exactly what the Name sounded like is one way of measuring how much was lost when the Temple was destroyed.

After making his confession on behalf of the people, the high priest would hand over the scapegoat to a specially chosen priest, who would then lead it out of the city and into the Judean desert. The route from the Temple gates to the designated cliff was marked with 10 booths, at each of which the priest would be offered food and drink, though the Gemara says that “no man ever needed this.” A crowd of people, including the most prominent citizens of Jerusalem, would escort the priest and the goat from booth to booth, until they reached the last one; then the priest would proceed alone to the cliffside.

There he performed the most overtly magical part of the ceremony. The priest would take a strip of crimson cloth and divide it in two, tying one half to the horns of the goat and the other to a rock. After the goat was pushed over the cliff to its death—“it would not reach halfway down the mountain until it was torn limb from limb”—the crimson strip would announce, like a piece of litmus paper, whether the Jews’ sacrifice had been accepted by God and their atonement granted. If the people’s sins were forgiven, the crimson would turn white, following the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they will become white as snow.” If not, the strip would remain dark red.

The people were, naturally, eager to find out whether the scapegoat had been effective, and the Gemara explains that at first the priests would take the strip and display it at the entrance to the Temple. But they found that, if the strip stayed crimson, the Jews would be so dejected that the Yom Kippur holiday was ruined. To solve the problem, they ordered that the strip be displayed inside the Temple, where only the priests could see it; but the people “would still peek and see: If it turned white they would rejoice, if it did not turn white they would be sad.” As a result, the rabbis instituted the rule that the strip should remain tied to a rock in the wilderness, so that the Jerusalemites would not find out its message until the day after Yom Kippur.

The remainder of the day’s services could not proceed until the scapegoat was dead, so a kind of human telegraph was devised. Platforms were erected all along the route from Jerusalem to the cliff, and when the goat was dead, men at each platform would pass along a signal until the news reached the Temple. Rabbi Yehuda observes that this system wasn’t strictly necessary, since the high priest could surely have estimated how long it would take for the priest to reach the cliff; and Rabbi Yishmael adds that the strip of crimson could itself have served as an indicator, since it didn’t turn white until the goat was dead. But neither of these methods was reliable enough, and the high priest waited for actual confirmation before turning to the next stage of Yom Kippur, which was the public reading of the Torah.

In discussing this Torah reading, the Gemara offers a wonderful piece of aggadah, or exegesis. The high priest’s reading of the Torah before the people, the rabbis observe, commemorates what Nehemiah did when the Second Temple was built, after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile in the late sixth century B.C.E. On that occasion, described in Nehemiah 9, the whole people of Israel listened to a recitation of the Torah and pledged themselves anew to follow its commandments.

According to Rav, the people also offered a prayer to God to remove from them the “evil inclination” to commit idolatry. As the Book of Kings repeatedly asserts, it was the Jews’ worship of false gods that led to the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah; in the Talmud’s words, “It is this that destroyed the Temple, and burned its Sanctuary, and murdered all the righteous ones, and caused the Jewish people to be exile from their land.” Everything comes from God, even the temptation to commit idolatry, which was given to the Jews so that they could earn merit by overcoming it. But now they cried out that they were too weak to meet the challenge: “We do not want it, and we do not want its reward.”

Then, the Gemara explains, a miracle occurred: “A note fell from the heavens upon which was written: Truth.” This was the sign that God had granted the people’s prayer, and after three days of fasting, God “delivered the evil inclination to them” in the form of a “a fiery lion cub,” which emerged from the Holy of Holies. The prophet Zechariah instructed the Israelites to “Throw it into a container of lead and seal the opening with lead,” which they did. As a result, the people were freed once and for all from the temptation to commit idolatry—and indeed, the worship of foreign gods seems to have been much less of a problem in the Second Temple period than it was when the First Temple stood.

This beautiful and vivid story has an even better sequel. Seeing that God was in a mood to answer their prayers, the rabbis suggested that the people also pray to be delivered from another evil: sexual temptation. But when this prayer too was granted, it turned out to be a mixed blessing, since every living creature suddenly lost the will to procreate. Even chickens, the Talmud says, stopped laying eggs, and not a single fresh egg could be found throughout the whole Land of Israel. Zechariah warned that, without sexual desire, the world would die out, and so the Jews decided to set the evil inclination free. But first they gouged out its eyes, which is why, the Talmud explains, “a person is no longer aroused to commit incest with his relatives.” As this remarkable story suggests, Judaism has never been attracted to the idea of chastity, which held such appeal for Christian ascetics. A world without sex, the rabbis believe, would be a dead world. At the same time, the sexual impulse must be maimed, rendered “blind,” if it’s not to lead to outrageous misbehavior. Even when inventing a myth, the rabbis display their deep knowledge of human nature.


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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.