Talmud pages

Yoma 71

Priestly barbs.

After a full day of costume changes, ritual immersions, lotteries, sacrifices, blood sprinklings, confessions, mysterious moments in the Holy of Holies, and much more, the high priest’s day comes to an end. The mishnah on yesterday’s daf tells us that the high priest would mark the end of Yom Kippur with a feast for his loved ones — probably the earliest reference to the traditional break fast.

On today’s daf, the Gemara relates an incident that occurred on the way to the feast that caused a bit of a stir.

There was an incident involving one high priest who exited the Holy Temple and everyone followed him. When they saw Shemaya and Avtalyon, the heads of the Sanhedrin, walking along, in deference to them they left the high priest by himself and walked after Shemaya and Avtalyon.

Eventually, Shemaya and Avtalyon came to take leave of the high priest. He said to them, “Let the descendants of the gentile nations come in peace.”

Underlying Tractate Yoma is an assumption that it is the sages who are in charge and not the priests. This story reinforces that notion and shows that, at the close of Yom Kippur, the people in the streets honored rabbinic leadership over the priestly caste.

Out of anger (or perhaps frustration) at this, the high priest’s parting words refer to the fact that Shemaya and Avtalyon were both converts. This comment is especially sharp coming from the high priest, who comes to his position based upon his lineage. Language like this, especially when directed at converts, is expressly forbidden by both the Torah and the rabbis. 

The story continues:

Shemaya and Avtalyon said to him, “Let the descendants of the gentile nations, who perform acts of Aaron, come in peace; and let not the descendent of Aaron, who does not perform the acts of Aaron, come in peace.”

Aaron is Moses’s brother and the original high priest. In rabbinic literature, he is also described as a lover and pursuer of peace. In response to the insult, Shemaya and Avtalyon call out the high priest for not living up to the standards set by his ancestor.

The story reinforces a common rabbinic theme — it’s not where you come from, but what you have learned and how you behave that is the true measure of a person. These qualities earn you a spot in the halls of Torah, which ultimately, to the rabbis, is a far more honorable place to be than in the priesthood.

More than what it has to say about the relative honor due to rabbis and priests, this story also suggests something about human nature. You might think that the Day of Atonement would have had some impact on the way rabbis and priests interact, at least for the time it takes them to walk home. Lucky for them, they’ll all have an opportunity to atone for their actions — on the following Yom Kippur.

Read all of Yoma 71 on Sefaria.

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

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