Yoma 59

Science and Health

A number of years ago I served as the m’saderet kedushin (officiant) at a friend’s wedding. When discussing the details of the ceremony and the meaning behind them, I instructed her to ask the caterer to place two glasses and a bottle of white wine on a little table under the huppah.

“Interesting!” my friend commented. “What’s the significance of the wine being white? Does it symbolize something about marriage?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “It can get a little crowded under the huppah — this way, in case you get jostled, you won’t have red wine down the front of your dress!” 

Long ago, the high priest had a similar dilemma on Yom Kippur. A mishnah on yesterday’s page details the way the high priest daubed the blood of the sacrificial bull and goat to the altar:

It is stated: “… and he shall take of the blood of the bull, and of the blood of the goat, and place it upon the corners of the altar round about” (Leviticus 16:18). This refers to the golden altar. He began to daub from above downward. From where does he begin? From the northeast corner, and then northwest, and then southwest, and then southeast…

Rabbi Eliezer says: He stood in one place and daubed the blood from there. And on all the corners he applied the blood from below upward, except for that corner that was directly before him, on which he applied the blood from above downward. 

There were two altars in the Temple complex, one in the courtyard (outer altar), and one inside the sanctuary (inner altar), also known as the “golden altar.” After the high priest slaughtered the bull and then the goat, he would sprinkle some of the blood inside the Holy of Holies. Then, he would return to the golden altar and apply some of the remaining blood to its four corners. On all other days of the year, applying blood to the corners was also done by sprinkling. But the verse in Leviticus tells us that on Yom Kippur the high priest should “place” the blood — suggesting that it was more of a daubing motion.

The Gemara cites several beraitot (rabbinic traditions from the same era) that offer similar teachings to our mishnah. In the middle of our daf, we learn that Rabbi Eliezer’s position, as cited in the mishnah, was taught by Rabbi Yehudah with some additional explanation:

Rabbi Yehuda says that Rabbi Eliezer says: He stood in one place and daubed, and on all of the corners he daubed from below upward, except for that one which was directly before him, on which he would apply from above downward, so as not to dirty his garments.

Rabbi Yehuda explains that the high priest applies blood to this final corner from top to bottom, with a downward motion simply to avoid dripping the blood on his white linen garments! 

Let’s get technical for a minute. Rabbi Yehudah’s rationale applies, of course, to the original anonymous position in the mishnah which states that the high priest would apply the blood in a downward motion on all four corners. In his famous talmudic commentary, Rashi explains that in Rabbi Eliezer’s view, the high priest could daub from bottom to top for the other three corners because for those he leaned over the altar to apply the blood, which minimized the possibility of dripping on himself. Because blood stains as badly as wine.

When we think about ritual, there is a natural impulse to assign spiritual significance to every detail. Doing so is beautiful, but as today’s daf shows us, sometimes ritual and custom are animated purely by practical concerns — like keeping our clothes clean!

Read all of Yoma 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 9th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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