Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim – פרשת אחרי-קדושים

Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim – פרשת אחרי-קדושים


Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom


May 6, 2013 – י אייר תשע”ז


This essay is sponsored by Drs. Amy Fox Griffel & Martin Griffel in memory of their mothers, Sally Fox and Marion Griffel; and by Eugeny Rubashefsky and Tatyana Tchaikovskaya in honor of the birth of their granddaughter Leah bat Ephraim v’Rachel.


The Longer Route to Azazel


Rabbinic literature presents a detailed account of the Yom Kippur rite of sending a goat to the wilderness (and, specifically, to a high cliff there) “for Azazel.”  While laying his hands on the animal, the High Priest confessed on behalf of the entire Israelite nation.  The Temple authorities then entrusted the goat to the care of a designated man, typically himself a priest.  The man and the goat left the Temple complex by a bridge specially constructed so that he and the animal not encounter physical and verbal abuse from Diasporan Jewish pilgrims urging him to hurry.  Distinguished Jerusalemites escorted the designated man during the first leg of his journey.  The distance from the Temple to the cliff (צוק) was twelve Roman miles.  At each of the first ten mile markers was a booth occupied by well-wishers, who offered the man food and water.  They were concerned that, since he was fasting, he might faint from hunger or dehydration brought on by intense physical exertion.  The occupants of each booth then escorted the man and goat until they reached the next booth.  There was no booth at mile marker eleven.  The designated man walked the final stretch of his journey without escorts.  Upon reaching the cliff, he divided a strip of scarlet wool in two.  He tied half to a rock and the other half between the horns of the goat.  The man then pushed the goat, backward, off the cliff.  The goat tumbled down the mountainside and was torn limb from limb well before reaching the abyss.  The man then walked back to the nearest booth where he remained until the conclusion of the holiday at nightfall (Mishnah Yoma 6:2-6).


If the force of impact from the fall or the jagged rocks of the mountainside failed to kill the goat, the designated man was obligated to go down into the valley and slay the goat by any means necessary.  The Talmud records that in the glory days of the Second Temple, when Simon the Righteous was High Priest, the goat never survived the fall.  After his tenure, the goat would typically survive, run away, and subsequently be hunted and eaten by Bedouins (Yerushalmi Yoma 43c).


Is this Talmudic depiction of the Azazel rite historically accurate?  In particular, is it consistent with the way Scripture sets forth the commandment in Leviticus 16?


In at least one important respect, the Talmudic account clearly is not based upon the historical past or even recollections thereof.  The Tannaim debated the number of booths set up to offer comfort to the designated man along his trek.  Rabbi Meir said there were ten booths for a twelve-mile trail.  Rabbi Judah said there were nine booths on a ten-mile trail.  Rabbi Jose said there were five booths on a ten-mile trail.  And Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Jose said that he could have arranged the ceremony with as few as two booths on a ten-mile trail (Tosefta Yom 3:13).  All agreed that booths should be set up in such a way that occupants of the various booths could accompany the designated man throughout his journey.


The furthest one may walk on Yom Kippur beyond one’s place of residence is one Roman mile.  It is possible to walk as far as two miles if one sets up an Eruv Tehumin before the holiday, thus making the spot of the Eruv (a modest supply of food) one’s official place of rest.  Both Rabbi Jose and his son suggested that instead of setting up booths at every mile marker, it is possible, by means of carefully placed Eruvin, to reduce the number of booths to five or even as few as two (Yerushalmi Yoma 43d).  Their suggestions are not attempts at recording historical fact or practice; rather, they are means of displaying intellectual ingenuity and halakhic acumen.  We cannot even be certain that Eruv was an accepted institution in normative Judaism of the Temple era.  The rabbis knew that the designated man went deep into the wilderness and that there were booths of some kind along the way.  Over the years, the details and measurements of distance were forgotten; the rabbis could do no more than offer learned speculations.


The Biblical text thrice refers to the goat for Azazel as being “set alive” or “the live goat” (Leviticus 16:10, 20, 21).  Arguably, Scripture is here merely contrasting the fate of each of the two goats upon whom lots were cast.  The goat “for the Lord” was immediately slaughtered as a sin-offering, while the goat for Azazel remained alive for a few more hours — until its eventual grizzly death.  Yet one seems to get the sense from Scripture that the goat for Azazel remained alive even after the conclusion of the ritual.  The text never explicitly states that the goat must die in the performance of the rite.  Verses 10 and 21 mandate that the goat be sent to the wilderness.  Verse 22 reads, “And the goat shall bear upon it all their transgressions to a remote region, and he shall send off the goat to the wilderness” (Robert Alter translation).  Scripture seems to require the designated man to take the goat to a location beyond the geographical scope of civilization and there to release it to an unknown fate.  The Septuagint translates Azazel as tragos apopompaios, the “goat sent out.”  The Vulgate renders Azazel as caper emissaries, the “emissary goat.”  These translations are consistent with the notion that the goat is removed from Israelite society, symbolically taking with it the sins of the people, and that the goat’s ultimate fate is of little consequence.


Rabbinic literature preserves something of the Biblical ceremony in which the goat is not taken deep into the wilderness and killed but is instead released into the wild, just beyond the edge of inhabited territory.


The rabbis debated the point at which the designated man’s clothing contracts impurity (see Leviticus 16:26).  Rabbi Judah said they become impure as soon as he passes beyond the walls of Jerusalem.  Rabbi Jose said it happens when he reaches the cliff.  Rabbi Simon said his clothing becomes impure only after he pushes the goat over the precipice (Yoma 67b).  One might read this as nothing more than an arcane dispute about ritual impurity.  But another way to look at the debate is that it represents differing views on when the commandment has been fulfilled.  Rabbi Judah is the minimalist; he does not insist upon the designated man’s making a long journey.  Rabbi Simon is the maximalist; he insists not only upon the long journey but also the violent death of the goat.


Mishnah Yoma 6:8 confirms that Rabbi Judah was a minimalist.  Noting that the High Priest must pause the Temple service until after the Azazel rite is finished, the Mishnah asks how those back in Jerusalem knew when the Azazel ceremony had ended, since it took place miles away.  One opinion states that there were platforms next to the booths along the path to the cliff.  After the goat was pushed, someone would wave a flag atop the platform nearest the cliff.  Those occupying the neighboring booth would see the signal and similarly wave their flag.  Very quickly, in this way the message was relayed to Jerusalem.  Rabbi Judah claimed to have devised a better method.  He noted that the distance from the Temple to Bet Haduro is only three Roman miles.  It was enough for those escorting the designated man to walk with him for one mile, walk back one mile to the Temple, and then loiter for the time it takes to walk a mile.  By that point, the goat would certainly have reached the wilderness and the High Priest’s service could resume.  Rabbi Judah implied that it was essential only for the goat to reach Bet Haduro, a location just at the edge of the Judean desert, and that the further journey to the cliff was of lesser importance.  Moreover, even in describing the views of the maximalists, the Mishnah repeatedly uses the term הגיע שעיר למדבר, “the goat reached the wilderness.”  One can suggest that the Mishnah’s language reflects the phrasing used in the late Temple era, which itself was reminiscent of an earlier time when the goat was led no further than the edge of the wilderness.


Is it possible to identify the locations of Bet Haduro and the wilderness cliff with any degree of precision?


Over the past century, scholars have offered a wide range of possible sites.  Several criteria guide their speculation:  1) The cliff must be approximately 15 kilometers from Jerusalem.  2) In Temple times, there must have been a traversable road leading to the cliff.  3) It should be possible for a person to descend from the mountaintop to the valley below in case the goat did not die as a result of its fall but remained alive in the valley.  4) The action at the cliff must be visible from a distance of one Roman mile in the direction of Jerusalem.  5) The cliff must not be near an inhabited region.  6) There should be a site with a name similar to “Haduro” at a distance of 4.5 kilometers from Jerusalem in the general direction of the cliff and known to be a last stop before the rugged wilderness.


Some scholars were led off course by a passage in the Talmud saying that the Azazel ceremony was performed not only when the Jerusalem Temple stood but also wherever the Tabernacle had been, or was, temporarily erected – which would include Nob, Gibeon, and Shiloh (Yoma 67b).  They assumed that the cliff was a precise and unchanging location regardless of where the Sanctuary might be.  In this view, the cliff’s name, צוק, is a proper noun.  In light of the geographic locations of Shiloh and Jerusalem, this view situates the cliff well north of Jerusalem.  One theory identified the cliff with the barren hill overlooking the Jordan valley at Sartaba where the Hasmonean fortress Alexandrium was built.  That view is certainly incorrect.  As Ibn Ezra commented, in Aaron’s generation the Azazel ceremony was performed in the wilderness of Sinai, while in later generations it was performed at various hilltops, always relative to the position of the Sanctuary.  Moreover, the word צוק in rabbinic literature is not a proper noun.  It simply means any sharp cliff (Mishnah Baba Metzia 7:10).


Professor Avi Sasson reviewed the various suggested sites for the cliff, which include Jabel Muntar, Jabel Hermon, Nebi Musa, Dir a-Suk, Herodium, and Halhul.  Sasson compellingly argued that בית הדורו is the same as עין חוד, otherwise known as Bethany or el-Ezariya, located 4 kilometers east of Jerusalem.  He identified the cliff as being near the modern city of Ma’aleh Adumim, 15 kilometers east of Jerusalem.


Why might the Azazel ceremony have evolved over time from a) a short trip to release an animal into the wild into b) a long journey with a gruesome ending?  Shmuel and Zev Safrai hint at an answer in their commentary on the Mishnah.  But first it is necessary to define, or to try to define, the word “Azazel.”


One approach understands the word Azazel as describing the goat.  The Greek and Latin translations understood the word that way, and from their renderings arrived at “scapegoat.”  Rabbenu Bachya similarly understood Azazel as a play on the words עז אזל, “the goat that moves.”  A second approach understands the word Azazel to be describing the location to which the goat is sent.  It is a place of harsh mountains (Sifra Acharei 2).  In this view, the core of the word Azazel is עז, meaning fierce (Yoma 67b).  A third approach, consistent with the Samaritan Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls, understands Azazel to be a deity other than the Hebrew God.  Instead of עזאזל, their recension is עזזאל.  In this view, theological considerations led to the respelling of the word in the Masoretic Text to obscure its unsettling pagan origins.  The fourth approach – which is the one that I embrace and endorse — understands Azazel to be a goat-demon.


Scripture states that Israelite sacrificial offerings were restricted to the one legitimate altar in the Tent of Meeting so “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray (Leviticus 17:7).”  Goat-demons, or satyrs, were thought to live and rule over the desolate regions (see Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14).   That is, their domain was the wilderness.


The Apocryphal Book of Enoch identifies Azazel as one of the fallen angels which consorted with the daughters of man and sired giants (see Genesis 6:2-3).  Azazel was guilty of corrupting mankind by teaching men the arts of war and sexual seduction (I Enoch 8:1-2).  To punish Azazel for his teaching of wickedness and his revealing of secrets, God instructed Raphael to bind Azazel and cover him with rocks at Dudael, the entrance of the wilderness.  Azazel would remain there until the apocalypse, when he would be cast into the fire (10:4-6).  [Dudael is similar to Haduro or Hadudo.]


Rabbinic literature preserved elements of the Apocryphal account.  The Talmud offers a homiletic interpretation of the word Azazel: The goat serves to atone for the episode of Uza and Azael (Yoma 67b).  The Geonic era Aggadic work Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer offers an embellished version: The destructive angel, Samael, complained to God that he is unable to act against Israel.  God told him that he could so but only on Yom Kippur and only on condition that the Israelites are tainted by sin.  The Israelites then bribe Azazel with a goat, a sin-offering laden with all the iniquities of Israel, thereby maintaining their righteous reputation and avoiding the harm threatened by Samael (PdRE 45).


A ceremony in which a goat is sent from the Temple into the Judean wilderness on Yom Kippur to placate a demonic force seems, however, to be inconsistent with fundamental Jewish theology.  The rabbis recognized this.  They noted that the evil inclination causes Jews to question the legitimacy, and divinely-revealed status, of certain peculiar mitzvoth.  Moreover, gentiles mock Jews for engaging in these seemingly inexplicable or illogical rituals.  Included in this category are: the ban on wool-linen combinations, the ban on eating pork, the yevamah’s spittle during the halitzah ceremony, the ban on sowing admixtures of seed, the stoning of the ox that gored, the decapitated heifer, the birds of the leper’s purification ritual, the redemption of firstborn donkeys, the ban on mixing meat and dairy foodstuffs, and the goat sent to Azazel (Tanhuma Mishpatim 7).  The sages offered a homiletic interpretation of the word גזירה in Leviticus 16:22.  Lest one think that the Azazel ritual is nothingness, one must understand that God issued a גזירה, decree, and one is forbidden to question it (Yoma 67b).


The authorities of the late Second Temple era and the rabbis of the subsequent Talmudic era did their utmost to reduce the miraculous, mystical, and quasi-pagan elements in Judaism generally and in the Temple cult in particular.  The strip of scarlet wool that turned white on Yom Kippur is an example of this phenomenon.  Originally, the strip was tied to the outer wall of the Sanctuary.  If it turned pale the people were happy, believing that they had been forgiven.  If is remained darkish red the people were saddened, believing that they were doomed.  The authorities were upset that inordinate popular focus was placed on an expected miraculous manifestation of Divine favor instead of upon personal repentance.  So they moved the strip of wool inside the Sanctuary, where only priests are allowed.  Yet still the people snuck inside in their desperation to see the miraculous change of color.  Ultimately, the authorities chose to remove the strip of wool from the Temple completely, and had the designated man tie it to a rock atop the cliff (Rosh Hashanah 31b).


Judaic authorities abolished the ceremony of the decapitated heifer for unsolved homicides and the administering of bitter waters to the suspected adulteress (Mishnah Sotah 9:9).  The official reason given for these changes was that society had become terribly violent and lewd, thereby rendering these ceremonies pointless.  But there was another, albeit unstated, factor.  Immediately upon drinking the Sotah waters, the guilty adulteress was supposed to experience horrible disfiguration and death.  The religious authorities did not want the laity to expect miracles, and also did not want them to become disillusioned when and if anticipated miracles did not occur.


Legends abounded concerning miraculous phenomenon in the Temple:  The lot for the goat offered to God on Yom Kippur always emerged in the High Priest’s right hand.  The strip of scarlet wool always turned white.  The flame on the western candle of the menorah was never extinguished.  The altar pyre remained aflame all day, fueled solely by two wooden logs.  The Omer, two-loaves of Shavuot, and Showbread all were blessed, so that even if the priests ate a minimal portion they felt satisfied.  The rabbis claimed that these miracles had happened long ago, in the days of Simon the Righteous, but in the rabbis’ own and more recent times, and as a result of the decline in righteousness of the later generations, the Temple functioned along natural, non-miraculous lines (Yoma 39a).  The sages were loath to deny the veracity of the miracles, but at the same time they did not want contemporary laymen to expect and anticipate such wondrous phenomena.


Judaic authorities were discomfited by the commandment to send a goat to Azazel.  They would not take the extreme measure of abolishing the practice.  But they wanted to keep the public away from a ceremony having pagan overtones.  Though Yom Kippur was not one of the three pilgrimage festivals, throngs of Jews did come to Jerusalem to watch the proceedings.  They would even exit the city to watch the burning of the carcasses (Mishnah Yoma 7:2, Tosefta Yoma 3:17).  Many would have liked to watch the Azazel ceremony, even if that involved walking beyond the Sabbath boundary and violating the laws of Techum.  To suppress spectator interest in the scapegoat ritual, the journey into the wilderness was lengthened dramatically.  Instead of stopping at Bet Haduro, the designated man walked 15 kilometers into the uninhabited region of eastern Judea.  Though he was accompanied for most of his journey, he took the last leg of the trip alone.  Only one person was to know the true nature of the ceremony and, according to Midrashic tradition, the designated man always died within the year.


Knowledge of the precise location of the cliff was not preserved.  In light of the analysis in this essay, this lacuna in the historical record does not surprise.  The sages generally objected to the creation of holy places or pilgrimage sites; they certainly would not have wanted the צוק to become one.  Whatever the true meaning of Azazel might be, and even if it could be interpreted in a manner consistent with Jewish theology, the sages much preferred that, on Yom Kippur, Jews turn inward and express contrition rather than focus their attention on a cliff in the Judean wilderness.