Yoma 44

Science and Health

Tashlich is a Jewish ritual, dating to the Middle Ages, that involves tossing bread into a live body of water between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The bread symbolizes a person’s sins, and the water is meant to wash them away. This practice has spawned a whole genre of contemporary jokes. What do you toss into the water to atone for ordinary sins? White bread. For darker sins, you’ll need pumpernickel. Waffles atone for sins of indecision and pretzels for twisted acts. French bread atones for exotic sins; stoned wheat and poppy seed rolls are for drug use. You get the idea.

The ritual of Tashlich resonates with the scapegoat at the center of the ancient Yom Kippur service. Just as the high priest places the sins of the community on the head of this goat and sends it off into the wilderness, so too the ritual of Tashlich symbolically casts a person’s sins away to be carried off by the current.

But according to today’s daf, the goat is not the only element of the Yom Kippur service that has the power to affect atonement. Two days ago, we discovered a surprising statement that the death of a righteous person can also affect atonement. And today, the rabbis wonder about the incense that the high priest offers in the sacred privacy of the Holy of Holies:

Does incense affect atonement?

Yes, as Rabbi Hananya teaches: We learned of the incense that it affects atonement, as it is stated: And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people (Numbers 17:12). 

And the school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: For what does incense affect atonement? For slander. Let something that is done in secret come and affect atonement for an act done in secret.

According to the Talmud, on Yom Kippur atonement is not just the province of bulls and goats! The fragrant incense, offered by the high priest alone in the Holy of Holies, can also atone for sins. However, the school of Rabbi Ishmael explains that it atones for just one type of sin: lashon hara, typically translated as “evil speech” or “slander.” Why? Just as the incense is offered behind closed doors, so too is vicious talk.

Lashon hara is one of those intangible kinds of sins — so easy to do, and seemingly without consequence. It strikes me that like incense, lashon hara has a way of rapidly dispersing through the air, seeping under the cracks of doors and penetrating dark spaces, causing a stink (albeit a stink that people love!) everywhere it goes. Once uttered, like smoke its spread is virtually uncontrollable. Maybe we need a special part of the Yom Kippur service to atone just for this particularly slippery and insidious misdeed. So now alongside that cornbread you toss for making terrible jokes, or the stuffing you cast out for the sin of gluttony, you can recall that the high priest burned incense to atone for every time someone said something vicious about that pain-in-the-neck neighbor that just wasn’t true — or at least, not very nice.

Read all of Yoma 44 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 25th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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