Yoma 4

Call first.

Today’s daf finds the rabbis continuing to debate a question they have been batting back and forth almost since the very beginning of this tractate — namely, what is the source of the practice of sequestering the high priest for a week prior to the Yom Kippur Temple service?

After first considering that the practice derived from Aaron and his sons performing the service in the tabernacle in the desert, yesterday’s daf introduced us to a teaching from Reish Lakish that the sequestration derives from the revelation at Sinai, about which the Torah tells us that God’s presence enveloped Mount Sinai (or Moses himself) in a cloud for six days prior to the revelation. Today’s daf probes deeper into the particulars of this prelude to revelation. 

Among the teachings we discover are two opposing views about whether it was the mountain that was covered in a cloud or Moses himself. According to Rabbi Natan, it was Moses himself, and for a very specific reason:

Moses was in fact called to enter the cloud; however, his entrance was not for the purpose of sequestering and purifying him, rather, the verse comes only to cleanse the food and drink that was in his intestines, to render him like the ministering angels who require neither food nor drink.

According to Rabbi Natan, Moses had to enter the cloud prior to revelation because his stomach was full. To encounter God, Moses had to become like the angels, who require no food or drink. This teaching actually accords nicely with our modern practice of Yom Kippur fasting, where the closeness with God we achieve on that day comes in part through relinquishing our attachment to physicality, abstaining not only from food, but from sex and washing too. Some people also have the practice of wearing a white shroud, or kittel, on Yom Kippur, which is also associated with the purity of angels.

Moving on, Rabbi Zerika raises a concern that the verse describing Moses entering the cloud after six days is contradicted by another verse from Exodus 40:35“And Moses was not able to enter into the Tent of Meeting because the cloud dwelt on it.”  If Moses couldn’t enter the tent because the cloud of God was there in the 40th chapter of Exodus, how could he enter the cloud on Mount Sinai in the 24th?

The dispute is resolved by means of verbal analogy around the Hebrew word b’toch —- meaning “inside.” The Bible’s account of the Israelites passing through the sea on their way out of Egypt also uses the word b’toch to describe their safe passage through the water. Since the Israelites couldn’t have actually passed “inside” the water, but rather — per the Bible’s account — took a pathway through the water, we can assume that Moses didn’t actually enter the cloud either, but only seemed to because he walked a path through the cloud. 

Finally, a bit of practical wisdom in all this talk of divine clouds and miraculously cleared intestines. The Gemara wants to know why, in Leviticus 1:1 (“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying”), when God calls to Moses from inside the tabernacle, the verse says both that God “called” to Moses and that God “spoke” to him. The answer? Simple etiquette: It’s improper to say anything to anyone unless calling first. Think of it as the biblical version of phoning someone before you pop over. 

But in fact, the Talmud goes even further. The final word of that verse — lemor, generally translated as “saying” — is fancifully understood as a contraction that means just about the opposite: lo emor, meaning “do not say.” The upshot? Don’t pass on what someone tells you without getting permission first. If you do, you might need to find a properly sequestered high priest to secure atonement. 

Read all of Yoma 4 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 15th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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