Yoma 6:8

By :  Daniel Nevins JTS Alum (Rabbinical School), Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Jan 1, 2008 | Mishnat Hashavua

Was the scapegoat “to Azazeil” of the Yom Kippur rite ceremony symbolic or magical?

אמרו לו לכהן גדול, הגיע שעיר למדבר. ומנין היו יודעין שהגיע שעיר למדבר? דרכיות היו עושין, ומניפין בסודרין ויודעין שהגיע שעיר למדבר. אמר רבי יהודה, והלא סימן גדול היה להם, מירושלים ועד בית חדודו שלשה מילין. הולכין מיל, וחוזרין מיל, ושוהין כדי מיל, ויודעין שהגיע שעיר למדבר. רבי ישמעאל אומר, והלא סימן אחר היה להם, לשון של זהורית היה קשור על פתחו של היכל, וכשהגיע שעיר למדבר היה הלשון מלבין, שנאמר [ישעיה א:יח] “אם יהיו חטאיכם כשנים כשלג ילבינו”.

They would tell the high priest, “the goat has reached the wilderness” [indicating that he could proceed with the service]. But how did they know that it had reached the wilderness? There were scouts who waived signals [as it passed] to inform [the priests] that the goat had reached the wilderness. Rabbi Yehudah says it was quite a system they had—from Jerusalem to Beit Hidudo [the edge of the wilderness] was three mil. The scouts walked one mil [with the goat] then returned the mil and waited an equal time, and thus they knew that the goat had reached the wilderness. Rabbi Yishmael says, but wasn’t there a different notification system? A crimson cloth was hung from the sanctuary door, and when the goat reached the wilderness, it would turn white, as it says, “Though your sins be like crimson, they shall become white as snow” (Isa. 1:18).


Of the many strange ceremonies in Judaism, few can match that of the scapegoat ritual described above. Some speculate that it reflects an era when Israelites were torn between worship of the Lord and the worship of goat demons (See Lev. 17:7, and the comments of Nachmanides there and in Lev. 16:8). However, the scapegoat came to symbolize the purification of Israel from sin on Yom Kippur. This Mishnah focuses on the question of how the priest knew that the ritual was complete, and that the goat had fallen from a designated cliff in the desert. Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yishmael, living after the temple had been destroyed, debate whether the priests relied on a clever relay system or rather, a miracle. This raises the question of memory—are the sages debating what actually happened in the temple, or rather what should have happened, based upon their interpretation of the Bible?


How do you relate to the scapegoat ritual? Is it a powerful symbol of the expiation of sin, a dubious quasi-magical rite, or simply another mitzvah of the Torah?