Yoma 22

Race you!

It’s tempting to read the Talmud as history; the text certainly presents itself as a source for understanding how things were. But it’s probably a safer bet to read it as a description of how the rabbis want things to be. Let’s take a look at today’s daf to explore this further. 

In the Temple, that huge compound devoted to churning out all manner of sacrifices every day of the year, ashes could quickly pile up around the altar and make a big mess. To keep things neat and clean, the ashes were cleared daily by any priest who was willing to do it. So what happened if more than one priest was interested in the job?

The priests race up the ramp leading to the top of the altar. The first priest who arrives within four cubits (six feet) of the top of the altar is privileged to remove the ashes.

Thought God’s house was a place of constant solemn decorum? Apparently not. Not only did the priests race right up the altar for the privilege of removing the ashes, they took it seriously. As a result, this system worked — until it didn’t:

An incident occurred where both of them were equal as they were running up the ramp, and one of them shoved another and he fell and his leg was broken. 

Applying the principal “it’s all fun and games until someone breaks a leg,” a change was made:

Once the beit din (rabbinic court) saw that people were coming to potential danger, they instituted that priests would remove ashes from the altar only by means of a lottery.

Instead of a race, the priests would now compete for the privilege of removing ashes through a lottery. Not as much fun, but also not a lawsuit waiting to happen.

As you read these texts, did you notice who was making the decisions about the system for determining which priest got to clear the ashes? If not, look back and check. In fact, if you have the time, go back and review the mishnahs at the start of the tractate with this question in mind. If you do, you’ll uncover an underlying assumption of the Talmud: the rabbis are in charge of the Temple and they are responsible for preparing the high priest for his sacred duties on Yom Kippur.

This is a radical notion. 

For much of the second Temple period, historians tell us, priests had both cultic and civic authority. During the Hasmonean period (mid-second to mid-first century BCE) the descendants of the Maccabees ruled as priest-kings, unifying political and religious authority. In the Roman period that followed, the political power of the priesthood shifted to the Rome-appointed governor. While high priests served at the will of the local authority, the priesthood retained control of the Temple and its rituals. 

And the rabbis? While early rabbinic communities may have begun to emerge at this time, their sphere of influence was small — it did not fully develop until well after the destruction of the Temple.

It’s not unreasonable to assume (if any of this was in fact historical) that it would have been the priests who decided to institute the race to the top of the ramp, and that it would have been priests who changed the practice after the tragic death of one of their own. 

By claiming authority over the Temple of the past, the rabbis cemented their own authority — convincing people they were in charge way back when, was a way to strengthen their claim to be in charge in the present. And, had the Temple been rebuilt in their day, they would be well-positioned to run it. As we said at the start, while it’s tempting to read the Talmud as history, it’s probably a safer bet to read it as a description of how the rabbis want things to be.

Read all of Yoma 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 3rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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