Yoma 40

Appearance of impropriety.

Yesterday, in the description of the Yom Kippur lottery during which two goats were designated either for God or for Azazel, we discovered the preference for having the lot reading “for God” appear in the high priest’s right hand. The daf concluded with a curveball: the opinion that the lottery itself was even not essential. Verbally designating each goat’s destiny was enough. 

That discussion continues on today’s daf, where we see a fascinating reason why the lottery is in fact indispensable and why its integrity must be maintained. 

Come and hear a proof that the drawing of lots is not indispensable. A beraita teaches: Rabbi Akiva’s students asked him: If the lot for God was drawn by the high priest’s left hand, what is the halakha with regard to whether he may transfer the lot to his right hand? He said to them: Do not give the heretics an opportunity to dominate. If it is allowed, they will adduce this as proof of their claim that the halakhot are not absolute, and the Sages have the power to change them as they see fit.

The heretics being called out here are none other than the Sadducees, a rival sect active during the time of the Second Temple. Tracing their pedigree to Tzadok, the high priest in the time of King Solomon, the Sadducees were primarily from the ruling and priestly class – the upper crust of Second Temple times. The Sadducees often found themselves in conflict with the Pharisees, the forerunners of the rabbis.

For our purposes, the important thing to know about the Sadducees is that they believed in the primacy of the Written Torah – that is, a literal reading of the Torah devoid of later rabbinic interpretation. This makes sense because the priests got their power from the lineage described in the Torah; they are descendants of Aaron and in charge of Israelite worship and the Temple rituals. The Torah is where we learn about the Yom Kippur lottery in the first place, and the Sadducees are all about keeping those traditions intact. 

The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, the set of traditions passed down orally from Moses and reflected in the very Talmud we have in our hands today. The Pharisees invented rabbinic Judaism, and their power came from their ability to make Judaism portable and text-based after the Second Temple was destroyed. This philosophical difference put the two groups in conflict. 

The rabbis recognized that if they finagled with the lottery too much – by manipulating it so the lot reading “for God” wound up in the high priest’s right hand or dispensing with the lottery altogether – they would run afoul of the Sadducees, who would call them out for what they saw as a cardinal sin: changing the directive of the Written Torah. Rabbi Akiva, one of the most influential early rabbis, understood this dynamic and sought to impart it to his students. If we change things too much, or even give the appearance of change, he says, it will give the wealthy and powerful Sadducees an opportunity to undercut the entire rabbinic enterprise. 

In the years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the role of the Sadducees was deeply diminished. By the time of the conversation on our daf, a few hundred years after the destruction, the rabbis had achieved the primacy that the priests formerly held. And yet, they are still concerned about the appearance of impropriety. Why? 

When the rabbis of the Talmud argue that while the high priest can dispense with the lottery but should not do so, it is not necessarily for the approval of the Sadducees, who by this time are long gone and exert no influence. It is for our benefit, teaching us that we should seek to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing by being above board with our ritual actions. Ultimately, that is the benefit of the lottery. By conducting it in public, everyone can see what is going on, thereby knowing that their atonement is in good hands — and hopefully, the right one.  

Read all of Yoma 40 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 21st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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