Welcome to Tractate Yoma — the Talmud’s book-length consideration of the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur.
If you are expecting a detailed discussion of prayers of atonement, fasting and the other liturgies and prohibitions that Jews take on during this day — in other words, if you are expecting a discussion of Yom Kippur rituals that look familiar — you may be in for a bit of a surprise.
As always, the rabbis take their cues from the Torah. In this case, Leviticus 16, which describes the elaborate atonement rites performed by the high priest once per year, on the tenth day of the seventh month. The Torah refers to this solemn day of complete purification, sublime sanctity and total forgiveness as Shabbat Shabbaton — the Sabbath of Sabbaths. It is the one day each year when the high priest pays a visit to the inner sanctum of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and draws unbearably near to God, the King of Kings. (Catching all the repetition here? That last phrase in Hebrew is actually literally “King of Kings of Kings” indicating that God ruled over emperors who styled themselves “kings of kings.”) The ritual is vital — and perilous.
If you are not familiar with this description of the Yom Kippur ritual, you may wish to read it before you embark on this tractate; it is the basis of everything we are about to study.
Those who have been with us for a while on this Daf Yomi journey will recall that Tractate Pesachim, which details the laws of Passover, was almost singularly focused on the paschal sacrifice. That tractate worked its way chronologically through the ritual that celebrates Israel’s redemption from Egypt. Likewise, this tractate works its way chronologically through the ritual that brings an inevitably imperfect people back to God.
If Passover celebrates the moment God reached out to Israel, brought them to freedom and forged an everlasting covenant with them, Yom Kippur is the day that Israel comes together to reach out to God to repair and rededicate that relationship — to make it clean and new again. On Passover, the entire nation comes together for a joyous barbeque celebrating the beginning of the relationship with Israel’s one true God. On Yom Kippur, the nation fasts while the high priest alone enters the sacred Holy of Holies to approach God on their behalf, to demonstrate that this stubborn and highly imperfect nation still chooses the God who chose them.
Because the fate of Israel’s relationship with God rested on the shoulders of just one man, the high priest, he had to be up to the job. To prepare, he required extensive training every year — high priest boot camp, if you will — as the mishnah at the top of today’s page begins to explain:
Seven days prior to Yom Kippur, the sages would remove the high priest from his house to the Chamber of Parhedrin (a room in the Temple specifically for this period of preparation). And they would designate another priest in his stead lest he become disqualified.
The high priest is sequestered away to ensure that he is in a state of purity ahead of the Yom Kippur service, when he carries the weight of the combined sins of the community on his shoulders. In the Gemara, the rabbis draw a parallel between this period of sequestration and the isolation Aaron and his sons took upon themselves in the wilderness when they, the first priests, prepared to perform the sacrificial service for the very first time. They also compare it to other periods of high priestly sequestering: before the ritual of the red heifer and before other holidays. Continuing in the mishnah:
Rabbi Yehuda says: They even designate another wife for him lest his wife die, as it is stated: And it will atone for him and for his house. (Leviticus 16:6) “His house” — that is his wife.
The need to have everything perfectly in line for the awesome Day of Atonement is so great that Rabbi Yehuda tells us they even designate an emergency back-up wife, because the Torah says that the ritual is performed on behalf of the high priest and his household. To fulfill the words of Torah properly, he must have a household.
The sages demur from Rabbi Yehuda, pointing out that if we designated a back-up wife we might say he needs a back-up for the back-up wife, and a back-up for that wife and then: there would be no end to the matter.
But then again, when the fate of the entire nation rests on your shoulders, can you really be too careful?
Read all of Yoma 2 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 13th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.