Talmudic pages

Yoma 39

Winning the lottery.

On Tuesday’s daf, we learned about the iconic Yom Kippur lottery. As described in Leviticus 16, two male goats are brought before the high priest and lots are drawn from a lottery box. One goat would be chosen “for God” — i.e. to be sacrificed in the Temple — and the other, the scapegoat, would be sent out into the wilderness to a place called Azazel. On today’s daf, the mishnah concerns itself with the exact way that lottery was conducted.

The high priest would mix the lots in the lottery receptacle used to hold them and draw the two lots from it, one in each hand. Upon one was written: For God. And upon the other one was written: For Azazel. The deputy high priest would stand to the high priest’s right, and the head of the patrilineal family would stand to his left. If the lot for the name of God came up in his right hand, the deputy would say to him: My master, high priest, raise your right hand so that all can see with which hand the lot for God was selected. And if the lot for the name of God came up in his left hand, the head of the patrilineal family would say to him: My master, high priest, raise your left hand.

Picture the scene. The high priest stands between two important attendants: On his right would stand the deputy high priest, and on his left, the head of the priestly family that, due to its place in the rotation of priests, would be serving that week in the Temple.

From this description, it seems that there is a clear favorite among the two lots – the one that reads “for God.” If the high priest grabbed it with his right hand, the functionary on his right says, “Show us your right hand.” If it came up in his left hand, the functionary on his left says, “Show us your left hand.” It makes sense that the marker with God’s name would be elevated over the marker with Azazel’s name.  

However, there is another consideration in the mix: the preference for right over left, which we have seen previously in this tractate. It seems from the Gemara that the rabbis were invested in trying to ensure that the lot bearing the name of God would be grasped with the right hand. Various scenarios are then described, including having both the high priest and his deputy reach into the lottery box with their right hands to ensure that outcome. 

This entire discussion points to an obvious question: Could it be that the lottery for the scapegoat was rigged? Are they trying to game the system? And wouldn’t that obviate the entire enterprise of having a lottery in the first place?

Not so, says the Gemara. In fact, the lottery outcome itself could be seen both as one of the miracles that took place in the time of the Temple, and an indicator of how the people of Israel stood in or out of favor with God.

The Sages taught: During the tenure of Shimon HaTzaddik, the lot for God always arose in the high priest’s right hand; after his death, it occurred only occasionally; but during the 40 years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the lot for God did not arise in the high priest’s right hand at all.

The rabbis seem to be saying that rather than being rigged, the lottery itself is an indicator of whether God is truly on the right side of the people of Israel. When the people are in a state of righteousness, as in the time of Shimon HaTzaddik, who served as high priest during the Second Temple period, the lot for God always came out on the right. When they are not, it didn’t. 

And then, at the end of the daf, we get a curveball.  We learn that perhaps the lottery itself is not essential at all. If for some reason the drawing did not take place, a verbal designation of each goat’s destination by the high priest is enough. 

Perhaps that is the real lesson of this passage: After all the high drama of the public lottery, what matters most is the affirmation of the goats’ destinies — one for God, one for Azazel. And with them, our own destinies. Without a Temple, all we have now are our voices. Where are we going? Are we on the right side of God or not? 

Read all of Yoma 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 20th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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