Talmud pages

Yoma 18

Perhaps he has forgotten.

The mishnah on today’s daf picks up on earlier discussions about prepping the high priest for his big annual event: Yom Kippur. As we’ve seen already, this is a high-stakes affair in which the high priest’s very life is on the line if he gets some part of the service wrong. So how to guarantee the high priest is up to speed on all the details?

The sages provided the high priest with elders selected from the elders of the court, and they would read before him the order of the service of the day of Yom Kippur. And they would say to him: My master, high priest. Read the order of the service with your own mouth, as perhaps you forgot this reading or perhaps you did not learn it previously.

The high priest gets the A Team — the most experienced elders of the court — to coach him on the service and all its details. It’s understandable that the priest may have forgotten the particulars — it’s been a whole year since he needed this information at his fingertips. He might also be nervous. After all, his life is at stake when he goes into the Holy of Holies to petition God for the well-being of both his own household and the people of Israel. 

But how is it possible that someone could become the high priest and never have learned any of it? Turns out, the rabbis were perplexed by this possibility as well.

Granted, perhaps he forgot, that is fine, as it is conceivable that he is not accustomed to reading the Torah and might have forgotten this portion. However, is it conceivable that perhaps the high priest did not learn it? Do we appoint a high priest of that sort who never learned the Bible?

Wasn’t it taught in a baraita that it is stated: “And the priest who is greater than his brethren” (Leviticus 21:10)? This teaches that he must be greater than his priestly brethren in strength, in beauty, in wisdom, and in wealth.

In other words, wisdom is a prerequisite for the job of high priest. So how could he possibly be lacking in that department? The Gemara suggests that this might have been impossible in the time of the First Temple. But by the time of the Second Temple, corruption had set in and in some cases, the high priesthood was sold to the highest bidder.

So, how do the elders make sure that he’s ready? An important clue is provided by the mishnah. The passage makes no mention of the content of the service. It focuses instead on the conduct of the elders, from which we can learn three important lessons.

First, the elders address the high priest respectfully and remind him of his office. Second, they coach him to review the service. Like us, the elders knew that reading and repetition are often the keys to performance, and they instruct the high priest accordingly, as the mishnah goes on to delineate. Third, they give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the priest forgot the material. Or maybe he never learned it. 

The elders do not make the forgetful or ignorant high priest feel bad. Instead, they act as wise and kind counselors, for the high priest’s sake as well as their own (and that of the nation). By doing so, they ensure that the high priest feels empowered and supported in doing this most important job.

So next time you are preparing for a big event and feel discombobulated because you have forgotten some detail you have gone over a million times, you can simply remind yourself that everyone, even the high priest, needs a refresher — and some helpful colleagues — from time to time.

Read all of Yoma 18 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 29th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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