Yoma 64

Science and Health

Today we are still troubleshooting the dramatic ritual of the two male goats whose fate is determined by casting lots: One is designated to be sacrificed on the altar, and the other to be sent off into the wilderness, symbolically carrying the nation’s sins. The mishnah on 62a wonders what happens if one of the goats dies after the high priest has cast lots to determine the goats’ fates:

If it died after he drew the lots, he brings another pair of goats and draws lots over them from the start.

The mishnah assumes it is the goat destined for the altar that died. This situation requires the high priest to start from scratch. He can’t just bring another goat to complete the pair because that replacement goat would not have been selected through the casting of lots — it would not have been “designated” in the manner the Torah requires. The situation is somewhat akin to an actor who serves as an understudy for multiple parts in a play: she plays a role in any given performance not because she was chosen for that particular part, but because the main actor could not perform.

So, back to the drawing board: Two new goats are brought forward, lots are cast, and the ritual proceeds as planned. Simple, right? Well, not exactly. Because now there are actually three goats: The remaining goat from the original pair, and the two new goats. What becomes of the extra goat?!

The mishnah teaches that the “second” goat should be left to graze until it becomes blemished and therefore no longer suitable to be offered in the Temple at which point it should be sold, with the proceeds donated to the Temple to be used for voluntary offerings. (This is a standard mechanism for dealing with a consecrated animal that, for any number of reasons, cannot be offered on the altar.) But which “second goat” is the mishnah referring to? Is it the second goat that was part of the original pair, or the second goat of the replacement pair? The Gemara on today’s daf cites a dispute on this point:

Rav says: the second goat of the first pair should be offered; the second goat of the second pair should graze.

Rabbi Yohanan says: the second goat of the first pair should graze; the second goat of the second pair should be offered. 

The Gemara explains the two positions as related to the concept of dichui — the law of rejection — a principle that prohibits certain types of offerings to be brought to the Temple if they had at one point been disqualified as an offering. Rav, says the Gemara, holds that living things do not become permanently rejected from the altar, which is why the original goat can still be offered, while Rabbi Yohanan holds that living things can become permanently rejected. For Rabbi Yohanan, when the first goat of the original pair died, its partner was permanently disqualified and thus must be sent to graze, while the second goat of the second pair must be the one that is offered.

If all this sounds exceedingly technical, you’re right. And the chances that one of the Yom Kippur goats will die in the narrow window between when the high priest would draw lots and when the goats were actually offered and released seems vanishingly small. So this is a good opportunity to consider the animating values of each position: What’s at stake in their dispute is less about the question of which goat will be sacrificed and more about the possibility of teshuvah (repentance) to bring us as close as we once were to God. Since we no longer sacrifice animals, and our own prayer and actions are in a sense the way we offer ourselves, Rav’s view suggests to me a belief in the possibility of teshuvah to bring us as close as we once were to God. There are moments in our lives where we become blemished or marred, where we feel distant — disqualified even — from the Divine presence. But as long as we are alive, and can refine and repair ourselves, we will never be permanently rejected. Never do we permanently lose our capacity to offer ourselves in avodat Hashem, service to God. 

Read all of Yoma 64 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 14th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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