Talmud pages

Yoma 41

How to design a ritual.

For several days now, we have been learning the ritual of the scapegoat — a high point of the Yom Kippur service. Two goats are selected and then a lottery determines which will be “for God” and become a sin offering and which will be designated “for Azazel” (the scapegoat) and sent to wander in the wilderness. According to the mishnah on today’s page, the goat that is selected by lot for Azazel is then marked with a strip of crimson wool:

The high priest tied a strip of crimson wool upon the head of the scapegoat and positioned it opposite the place from which it was dispatched. 

To learn more about this crimson strip, the rabbis turn to another ritual that involves a piece of red cloth: the red heifer. Occasionally, as dictated by the Book of Numbers, the high priest would slaughter a perfectly red and perfectly pure heifer, one that had never been worked in the field, and burn it entirely. The ashes were used to reverse corpse impurity. Numbers 19:5–6 gives the following instruction: “The cow shall be burned in his sight — its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included — and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.”

The rabbis ask a simple question: Why is the crimson cloth used to tie up the cedar wood and hyssop before the whole bundle is burned in the fire along with the red heifer? A beraita (early rabbinic source) offers two possibilities. The first answer is: so that they will all be in a single bundle. Straightforward, but unhelpful. Rabbi Elazar offers a more helpful answer: so they will have weight and fall in the fire.

Later post-talmudic rabbinic interpreters are not satisfied and offer additional explanations.  In three separate analyses, we get three distinct answers which each suggest a different and important dimension to effective ritual.

Rashi’s explanation is clear and direct: the hyssop and cedar wood are bundled together with the crimson strip to make the lot easy to carry. Rashi makes a functional argument: in order for rituals to be successful, they cannot be overly complicated to perform. If they have too many moving pieces, there are more opportunities for something to go awry. And with more ways for things to go wrong, you risk losing people who might stay away out of fear of error.

Yosef Tov Elem, an 11th-century French talmudist known as Rabbeinu Yosef, suggests that because they are all small objects, the bundling of the hyssop and cedar with the crimson strip makes for a more beautiful mitzvah. Rabbeinu Yosef goes the aesthetic route: rituals benefit from being pleasing to the eye. It makes them more compelling and engages both the performer and the viewer more deeply.

Rabbi Isaac ben Asher HaLevi, or the Riba, also an 11th-century talmudist but based in Germany, compares this bundling to the bundling involved in the paschal lamb during Passover (whose organs were bundled together so that the whole could be roasted by fire) and the bundling involved in Sukkot, where we bundle the four species together. Riba takes an historical angle: rituals cannot stand on their own, but they must root us in a larger story and connect us back to the past.

All of these serve as helpful models for how Jewish ritual can function. Taken together, they suggest to us that the best rituals are uncomplicated (Rashi), beautiful (Rabbeinu Yosef) and rooted in history and tradition (Riba). These days, with growing interest in how rituals can enrich our lives, more and more people are looking to craft their own rituals. For the innovators and dreamers out there, these three rabbis provide a blueprint for new rituals imbued with functionality, beauty and tradition. 

Read all of Yoma 41 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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