Today we start Masechet Yoma, a tractate that we will only finish in the summer. While not the same perfect timing as finishing Pesachim a week before Pesach, this is still close enough to Yom Kippur to get us in the mood. In this introduction, we will take a look at what makes this masechet, and the holiday it describes, unique and unusual.
Yom Kippur is a strange day. It is a Biblically mandated holiday (i.e., no work can be done) but it is also a fast day, the only day like that in the Torah. We are commanded to abstain from food and drink ועיניתם את נפשותיכם and in this way to gain atonement. A long passage in Leviticus 16 describes the process by which the Temple and the people achieve atonement, only at the end of the chapter is it clear that this is the description of the Yom Kippur service. Instead of a list of sacrifices like we have for other holidays, this chapter is an elaborately detailed set of directions, which include sacrifices but also a lottery, incense and most importantly, the only entrance into the Holy of Holies in the entire year. No other holiday includes so many Biblical instructions. The whole process is meant not only to cleanse the people but also the Temple from anything that may have been done improperly throughout the year. It is a “restart” for the holy place.
Yom Kippur is also unusual in its date. It takes place on the tenth of the seventh month, what we call Tishrei today. No other Biblical holiday takes place on the tenth. All of them (with the exception of Shavuot which has no date in the Torah) are either on the first or the fifteenth of the month, the new moon or the full moon. In addition, almost all other holidays including Shabbat commemorate some historic occasion, Yom Kippur has no historical connection, not to the Exodus or the time in the desert or anything else. In fact, the apocryphal text Jubilees seeks to remedy that “fault” by explaining that the tenth of the seventh month is when Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery. The sacrifice of a goat (the two שעירים) is to atone for the fact that the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat into goat blood to fool Jacob into thinking he had been murdered. But Yom Kippur in the Torah seems to stand outside of time and history.
The central part of Yom Kippur, both in the Torah and in our tractate, is the complicated avoda, the series of actions that are done in the Temple on that day. The focus of the day is the Temple and the main character of the day is the High Priest. While on all other days of the year the High Priest had certain daily duties but mostly was not required to serve in the Temple, on Yom Kippur he was the star of the show. It was a physically and mentally exhausting day and that explains our Mishnah here on the first page, which emphasizes that the High Priest needs a week’s “prep time” to go into Yom Kippur prepared and pure. His entrance into the Holy of Holies is also a powerful change from the rest of the year. Every place on the Temple Mount allows some people in and excludes others (non Jews only up to a certain point, Israelites only up to a certain point, etc.) but the Holy of Holies is completely off limits all year to everyone, except for this one day when the High Priest is allowed in. Even then, his entrance has many rules and, at least as the rabbis portrayed it, was fraught with danger for someone unworthy.
The structure of Yoma reflects the emphasis on the Temple. Seven out of eight chapters are about the avoda; only the last chapter discusses topics more familiar to us – fasting and atonement. More intriguing is the style of the tractate. It is not a dry listing of laws but more an on the scene description of what is happening, from the week before Yom Kippur to the culmination of the day with the High Priest’s triumphant return home. It includes stories and eye witness accounts as it follows the basic outlines of the Torah’s description in Leviticus 16. The power of this depiction was so strong that even today, centuries after the Temple has been destroyed, a major portion of the musaf service of Yom Kippur is about the avoda and we are meant to try and relive it, difficult as that may be. This reminds us that, like Pesach, the ultimate way to keep Yom Kippur was in the Temple, watching the avoda and celebrating as we are granted atonement for another year.
Jews praying at the Western Wall before 1948
Another side of the Temple also emerges from our tractate. We get a sharp picture of some of the difficulties of late Second Temple times. Sectarianism emerges in the rabbis’ condemnation of Sadducee variations in the avoda and in the fact that they had to administer an oath to the High Priest that he would not deviate from what he was taught (Mishnah Yoma 1:5). It is also clear, particularly in the first chapter, that many High Priests were not worthy of their position. They were ignorant not only of the how to do the avoda and therefore needed to practice it and be taught what to do, but some were not even able to read and study on their own:
If he was a scholar, he would teach Torah. If he was not a scholar, Torah scholars would teach Torah before him. And if he was accustomed to read the Bible, he would read; and if he was not, they would read the Bible before him. (Mishnah Yoma 1:6)
The quality of the high priesthood went way down in late Second Temple times as the office was sold to the highest bidder. The wealth and corruption of some of the priests will become evident throughout the tractate.
Wealthy priestly homes in Jerusalem (Wikipedia)
Despite these shortcomings, Yoma is often a celebration of the era when the red string would turn white and the High Priest would be escorted home with celebration. At the end of the day the Jewish nation knew that their prayers, sacrifices and atonement had been accepted.