Yoma 12

We rise in holiness.

The role of the high priest on Yom Kippur was so crucial that, as we learned in the mishnah on the first page of this tractate, there was always a substitute on hand. Disqualifications of the high priest could take the form of sudden sickness, ritual impurity, death — or theological dispute. During the Second Temple period, deep conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees meant that both parties often had to negotiate a settlement for the high priest to continue functioning on behalf of all Jews regardless of their affiliation. Political rivalry within the priesthood itself often led to personal objections to the appointee from competing factions. There were occasions when the high priest would refuse to accede to compromises or to placate his opponents and would have to be replaced for these reasons too.

So today’s scenario is not entirely unbelievable: What would happen if a high priest was removed, a substitute was appointed and ready to proceed, but then the original high priest was reinstated to his post because the reasons for his suspension were resolved?

The sages agree that the original high priest was returned to service. But the status of the substitute is a more difficult question.

The sages taught: If a disqualification befalls the high priest and they appointed another in his stead (and then the cause of the disqualification is resolved), the original high priest returns to service. Regarding the second (substitute acting high priest), all mitzvot of the high priesthood are incumbent upon him — this is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Yosei says: The original priest returns to his service while the second is fit to serve neither as high priest nor as common priest.

All seem in agreement that the substitute high priest cannot just go back to being a regular priest. Rabbi Meir says that the replacement still has the status of a top official and is held to the standards of a high priest in terms of the laws, dress and appearance. Rabbi Yosei on the other hand says he neither remains at the status of high priest nor can he return to the status and obligations of an ordinary priest. If he remained a high priest, it would cause a jealous rivalry between him and the other high priest. But once elevated, he cannot be reduced in status because of a principle employed throughout the Talmud: we rise in holiness and we do not decline.

This principle recurs several times in the Talmud. The most familiar is in reference to Hanukkah (Shabbat 21b) where Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue over the way the lights on the menorah are lit. Does one start with eight and reduce each day as Beit Shammai says, following the sacrifices on Sukkot that decline in number each day? Or do you start with one and increase daily as Beit Hillel says, because “we rise in holiness and we do not decline”? The latter, of course, is our custom today.

But Rabbi Yosei also mentions the issue of eyvah, ill-feeling. In his estimation, one has to demote the second high priest since you cannot have two high priests sharing the top status — it will cause too much dissention and rivalry. This concept too is widespread in the Talmud. It is used, for instance, in regard to the relationship between God and human beings, between husband and wife, and between Jew and non-Jew. It is one of the most significant moral principles in the Talmud — one which can be used to trump the letter of the law or, more to the point, guide legal decision-making.

Read all of Yoma 12 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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