Talmud pages

Yoma 81

Biblical criticism.

Today, there is perhaps no Yom Kippur ritual more iconic than the fast. According to recent polls, 40% of American Jews and 60% of Israeli Jews (the majority of whom identify as secular) still mark this day by fasting. And yet, as we have noted recently, the Torah never explicitly says that you aren’t supposed to eat or drink on Yom Kippur

As we saw on Yoma 74 and elsewhere, the rabbis locate the obligation to fast in the Torah’s language of self-affliction: “Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-affliction.” (Leviticus 23:27) But it’s a difficult derivation and the rabbis wonder: How could that have been more clearly communicated? Surely, the Torah could have found a better way to tell us! And then they give suggestions. In other words, on today’s page, the rabbis serve as God’s editor. 

First, the anonymous voice of the Gemara suggests this very practical and straightforward formulation:

How could the Merciful One write it? Let the Merciful One write: “One shall not eat on Yom Kippur.”

This seems like an air-tight formulation, but the Gemara immediately finds fault with it. The term “eat,” in rabbinic understanding, specifically prohibits “eating the amount of an olive-bulk.” But as we learned on Yoma 79, the minimal amount one may eat on Yom Kippur is actually slightly larger. 

So, the anonymous voice suggests a different formulation:

“Do not be afflicted.”

But this formulation might lead people to think that they are actually required to eat on Yom Kippur. Next, a series of named rabbis chime in, offering their own attempts at a biblical rewrite:

Rav Hoshaya strongly objects to this: Let the Merciful One write it in this manner: Guard yourself lest you not be afflicted…

Rav Beivai bar Abaye strongly objects to this: Let the Merciful One write: “Guard yourself in the mitzvah of affliction.”

Each of these attempts is then rejected. Finally, Rav Ashi offers a final attempt at a rewrite:

Let the Merciful One write: “Do not stray from afflicting yourself,” which implies a negative mitzvah — a prohibition against doing something — in this case, eating and drinking!

Amazingly, the Gemara concludes that Rav Ashi’s formulation would in fact be more clear than the Torah’s own phrasing. 

So, is it time to whip out a quill and amend the scrolls? Not so fast! The rabbis believed that God wrote the Torah — in its current form and to demonstrate eternal truths. This belief only emphasizes the charm and chutzpah in their assumption that they (or at least Rav Ashi!) could have written the Torah better than God. They do not actually advocate changing its words, which is why today’s argument ends with the term kashya — it is difficult.

If you’ve been reading along with us for a while, you’ve probably noticed that the rabbis really take to heart the notion that the Torah is meant for human beings to interpret and engage with — in ways that are on the surface consistent with the text, and in ways that appear profoundly at odds with a plain reading of the text. But they have limits. As today’s daf concludes, even when the rabbis can and do come up with a clearer (and to their mind better) formulation of a biblical verse, they do not advocate rewriting God.

Read all of Yoma 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 1st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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