In its discussion of the red heifer and the scapegoat, today’s daf offers a really strange statement:
The death of Ravya bar Kisi atones like the scapegoat.
The medieval commentator Rashi connects this statement to a tradition in tractate Moed Katan 28a:
Just as the red heifer atones for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin.
I don’t know about you, but if someone told me that according to Jewish tradition, the death of someone particularly special atoned for the sins of many, just like an animal sacrifice, I’d feel a little, as the kids say, squicky. That just doesn’t sound … Jewish. In fact, it sounds Christian. After all, a central theological tenet of Christianity is that Jesus died on the cross to atone for the sins of humankind. And indeed, many early Christian writers explicitly call Jesus a scapegoat!
So what’s going on here? We know that sacrifices and prayer can offer atonement, even the garments of the high priest. But the death of the righteous? Later Jewish readers of this text have offered three explanations:
Explanation #1: Medieval commentators such as Rashi and his grandsons the Tosafot accept this statement as a theological truth. This acceptance is particularly striking given that Rashi’s family lived in Troyes, a predominantly Christian town in medieval France. Rashi would have known that the idea that the death of the righteous atone for sin is a central element of Christian theology, but doesn’t seem bothered by the idea that the Talmud contains a teaching that aligns with Christian theology. Rather than cede the idea to their Christian neighbors, these medieval readers seem to embrace it as a part of Jewish tradition rooted in the Torah.
Explanation #2: Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Horowitz, a 16th and 17th century rabbi who lived in Prague, Poland, Germany and the land of Israel and whose thinking strongly influenced the development of Hasidism suggests that the parallel between the death of the righteous and animal sacrifice suggests something deeper. In his major work, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, he suggests that just like the red heifer atones only for those who are repentant, who come to the Temple to participate in the ritual of atonement, so too the death of the righteous atones only for those who are repentant, who see this moment as one that requires and enables true repentance.
Possibility #3: The modern commentator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his glosses and explanations of the talmudic text, suggests that the death of the righteous offers atonement only for the sins of their specific generation. Where many Christians believe that Jesus’ death offers an eternal atonement for sin, Steinsaltz understands today’s daf as suggesting a much more limited atonement, only for those alive at the same time as the righteous person.
So who’s right? Does the death of the righteous atone for any and all sin? Or just the sins of the repentant? Or just the sins of that same generation? It’s no surprise that Jews don’t all agree on how to understand this strange text. Most talmudic discussions are far more interested in explaining the different rabbinic positions in a particular disagreement than in choosing a winner — an important model for modern disagreement!
Read all of Yoma 42 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.