Talmud pages

Yoma 68

Tolkien and the Talmud.

Back when I was in rabbinical school, a classmate and I went to see Return of the King, the final installment of the Lord of the Rings films. About two thirds of the way through the movie (spoiler alert!), one of the characters lights the Warning Beacons of Gondor, a series of oversized bonfires strategically placed on mountaintops. When set aflame, they alert the protagonists’ allies hundred of miles away of danger.  

My friend and I simultaneously (and nerdily) turned to each other and yelled with enthusiasm, “Rosh Chodesh!

Whether intentionally or not, J.R.R. Tolkien’s warning beacons are reminiscent of how Second Temple-period Jews notified their coreligionists in Babylon that the new moon had been sighted and that the new month had begun. Starting in Jerusalem and proceeding on hilltops heading northeast, Jews would light and wave “long poles of cedar, reeds, pinewood, and beaten flax” to pass the message along and ensure the calendar remained aligned. In this way, Jewish leaders were able to avoid dispatching messengers while still communicating speedily in an era before telephone or internet. (We’ll learn more about this when we get to Tractate Rosh Hashanah this fall).

Lighting bonfires and torches works well at night, but is less effective when the sun is shining (or if it’s raining, for that matter). So on today’s daf we learn about a daylight alternative for communicating messages across distance — in this case, about the location of the goat dispatched to the wilderness on Yom Kippur.

They said to the high priest: The goat has reached the wilderness. And how did they know in the Temple that the goat reached the wilderness? They would build platforms all along the way and people would stand on them and wave scarves to signal when the goat arrived. And therefore they knew that the goat reached the wilderness. 

Rabbi Yehuda said: Why did they need these platforms? Didn’t they already have a reliable indicator? From Jerusalem to Beit Hiddudo, the edge of the wilderness, where the mitzvah of dispatching the goat was performed, was a distance of three mil. Since the nobles of Jerusalem walked a mil to escort the dispatcher and returned a mil, and waited the time equivalent to the time it takes to walk a mil, they knew that the goat reached the wilderness. There was no need for the platforms. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda, visual signals were unnecessary. A little math was all that was needed. The nobles of the city would walk one mil (about six-tenths of a mile) of the way to the wilderness, walk back another mil, and then wait the amount of time necessary to walk the third mil. That way they would know when the goat reached the wilderness without relying on platforms. 

Not happy with either of those methods? Rabbi Yishmael offers another (slightly supernatural) method:

Rabbi Yishmael says: Didn’t they have a different indicator? There was a strip of crimson tied to the entrance to the sanctuary, and when the goat reached the wilderness and the mitzvah was fulfilled the strip would turn white, as it is stated: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they will become white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18)

Why is it so important to know when the goat reaches the wilderness in the first place? We learn in the Gemara that only once the goat had fulfilled its role to effect communal atonement could the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple continue. But without a reliable means of communication, it would be impossible to know when that had happened. Without such a system, what was happening just beyond the horizon may as well have been unfolding 1,000 miles away. 

Today’s daf illustrates the ingenuity of the rabbis not only in coordinating the timing of the Yom Kippur ritual, but also a variety of possibilities for effective long-distance communication.

Read all of Yoma 68 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 18th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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