Yoma 24

For priests only.

In Leviticus chapter 10 we find ourselves in the midst of reading about the debut of the Temple. (Actually, technically in that case, it was the tabernacle, the portable version of the Temple the Jews carried around the wilderness.) Aaron has been appointed high priest and he is ready to take on the sacred duty of offering sacrifices to God. But his sons, also priests, get excited and offer unauthorized sacrifices — “strange fires” — on the altar. Immediately, God smites them. It is clear that priests must follow proper protocol around the altar, or the consequences are indeed grave.

A few days ago, we saw priests competing for the privilege of removing ashes from the altar by racing up the altar ramp. Today’s daf features a discussion about what happens if a non-priest performs this or another function in the Temple normally reserved for priests.

Rav said: There are four Temple jobs for which a non-priest is liable to receive karet. They are: Sprinkling sacrificial blood on the altar, burning sacrifices on the altar, pouring out the water libation on the altar (on Sukkot), and pouring out the wine libation on the altar.

It is clear that according to Rav, non-priests may not approach the altar to perform various actions involved in offering a sacrifice: sprinkling blood, burning sacrificial parts, pouring water or wine. This act was punishable by karet, understood by the rabbis to be death at the hands of God (no human court would execute). But Rav doesn’t classify removing ashes from the altar as a similar level of crime. His colleague Levi disagrees:

Levi said: This is true also for the removal of the ashes. 

Who will win this debate? Numbers 18:7 is brought as a prooftext. It states:

And you and your sons with you shall keep your priesthood in everything pertaining to the altar and to that within the veil; and you shall serve; I give you the priesthood as a service of gift; and the common man that draws near shall be put to death.

This, Rav suggests, means that only priests should offer a“service of gift” — which he takes to mean something that is literally given: animal, wine or water. Since ashes are removed, not given, sweeping up the ashes is not a crime punishable by karet.

Levi, however, uses the same text, Numbers 18:7, to prove his position. Levi focuses on its use of the word “everything” (underlined above) which he understands as pertaining to everything involved in the altar, including the removal of ashes.

The discussion progresses in somewhat predictable ways: Does this apply equally to the Holy of Holies? And what about setting up rituals, like preparing oil and wicks for the Temple menorah?  At the end of the day, and indeed toward the end of the page, Rav and Levi maintain their disagreement about removal of ashes. Levi thinks it is a crime punishable by karet, Rav does not. 

Where does that leave us? Personally, if I were a non-priest, I would probably not try to remove the ashes — it’s just not worth the risk that Levi may possibly be right.

Read all of Yoma 24 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 5th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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