Yoma 13

Risk management.

On today’s daf we continue a discussion that has consumed much of the first two weeks of Tractate Yoma: how to prepare the high priest for Yom Kippur while hedging against the possibility that he will become unavailable for one reason or another. Death has lurked as one potential source of disqualification since the opening of the tractate. The mishnah on 2a reported that Rabbi Yehuda held that a back-up wife was designated for the high priest, lest his own wife die (based on the rabbis’ understanding that the high priest must have a wife so that he can, in accordance with Leviticus 16:16, atone for his house). 

In that mishnah, readers will recall, the sages objected to Rabbi Yehuda’s ruling, noting that if we designate a back-up wife in case the first should pass away, then logically we ought to designate a back-up for the back-up, and a back-up for that back-up, and so forth — with no obvious end to the matter. The image conjured — of a potentially infinite line of emergency wives — is both comical and morbid.

Today’s daf digs into the complexities of the second “designated” wife, playing out a fuller version of the argument between Rabbi Yehuda and the sages. The Gemara picks up with a comment that approves of the sages’ position: They spoke well to Rabbi Yehuda. The back-up wife thing is too much.

The sages’ position may be a good one, according to the Gemara, but Rabbi Yehuda deserves a chance to respond, and so the Talmud offers this hypothetical rebuttal: 

Rabbi Yehuda could have said to you: For the death of one wife we are concerned, for the death of two wives, we are not concerned. 

In other words, Rabbi Yehuda could have reasonably drawn a line: one back-up wife is the exact right number.

The Talmud then furnishes the sages with their own rebuttal:

If there is a concern (for one death) then even for two deaths we should be concerned. 

The sages have returned to their original argument. The apparent arbitrariness of worrying about one death but not two simply doesn’t satisfy. 

Now the Talmud does something interesting; it turns the sages’ own logic on them: the same “there is no end to the matter” problem, the Gemara points out, could just as easily apply to the back-up high priest (remember him?) who is designated in case the high priest himself is disqualified. And yet the sages mandate an appointed back-up high priest, but not a back-up to that back-up. 

Now suddenly on the defensive, the sages answer this apparent inconsistency in their own position by noting that the high priest, always careful about impurity, becomes even more so when a specific rival is designated to take his place should he stumble. In light of his care, one replacement is enough.

All of this boils down to a discussion of risk, and the reality that reasonable people will assess it differently. Rabbi Yehuda worries about one death but not two, while the sages feel, as we’ve seen before and we see again on this page, that while impurity is common, death is not common (another reason they do not agree with the back-up wife plan). Meanwhile, the sages worry about one person’s impurity but think they can hedge that risk adequately by designating a single replacement. In the end, of course, there is no way to be absolutely sure, because the events the sages are trying to plan for are not entirely — or even mostly — under their control. Impurity can happen even to a sequestered high priest who is vigilant, and death, of course, lay even further beyond the control of our rabbinic forebearers than it does ours. This is always true, though the high stakes of the sacred day of Yom Kippur, when the high priest has an opportunity to atone for the entire people and bring back God’s favor, throw it into sharper relief.

Read all of Yoma 13 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 24th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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