Yoma 66

Science and Health

The mishnah on today’s daf points out a challenge with gathering Jews from all over the world on Yom Kippur, with their different expectations and attitudes toward ritual life. Culture clash becomes somewhat inevitable — like this:

And they made a ramp for the goat due to the Babylonian Jews who were in Jerusalem, who would pluck at the goat’s hair and would say to the goat: Take our sins and go, take our sins and go.

The goat designated for Azazel, who bore the sins of the community into the wilderness, had to be led out of the Temple through the crowds that had arrived for the Day of Atonement. It seems that the Babylonian Jews would touch the goat and pull on its hair in order to spur it to leave Jerusalem faster. The Jews of Jerusalem, on the other hand, felt that the goat should pass through unpestered — so they built a ramp that would keep the goat out of reach. Were they concerned about possible pain caused to the goat by the hair-pulling? Were they concerned that this kind of overwhelming attack on the goat might lead to its death before it ever got to the wilderness? Did they just think that the Babylonian Jews’ behavior was undignified? The mishnah doesn’t tell us. 

If we picture the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud reciting this mishnah and then discussing it together, we can imagine just how awkward that experience might have been. While the Mishnah was compiled and edited by rabbis who lived in the north of Israel, in the Galilee, and collects the teachings of men who lived throughout the land of Israel, the Babylonian Talmud records the rabbinic thinking of the Jewish community in Babylon — the very place whose people are being called out here as inappropriate! 

Fun fact: There is actually a second version of this mishnah, found in the Tosefta (a collection of rabbinic teachings that closely parallels our Mishnah). Interestingly, the Tosefta’s version identifies the goat hair-pulling rabble not as Babylonian but as Alexandrian. In the time of the Second Temple, the Jewish community of Alexandria was wealthy, politically integrated into the Roman world (though not always in positive ways!) and their Judaism was vibrant and innovative, producing both awe-inspiring synagogues and Jewish texts like the Septuagint. The stunning golden gates commissioned for the Temple that we read about on Yoma 38 were crafted in Alexandria. It’s not hard to imagine a kind of rivalry existed between the Jews of Jerusalem, the ritual center of Jewish life, and the Jews from Alexandria which was home to so much Jewish innovation. 

But were these folks pestering the Yom Kippur scapegoat in fact Babylonian or Alexandrian? The daf attempts to resolve that question:

Rabba bar bar Hana said: They were not actually Babylonians, rather they were Alexandrians from Egypt. And since (in the land of Israel) they hate the Babylonians, they would call all foreigners who acted inappropriately by their name as an insult.

Clearly, these culture clashes ran deep and, at least according to this Babylonian, the Jews in the land of Israel felt that Jews from both Alexandria and Babylonia didn’t know how to act properly when it came to Temple rituals. 

The Jews of Jerusalem were probably correct — after all, locals are going to be far more familiar with local customs and appropriate patterns of behavior than visitors. But the Gemara still reminds us of the human cost of this kind of name-calling:

Rabbi Yehuda says: They were not Babylonians, rather they were Alexandrians.

Rabbi Yosei (whose family was from Babylonia) said to him: May your mind be at ease, since you have put my mind at ease.

Two thousand years later, being part of the stigmatized group causes no less anxiety and shame. But let’s not oversell the message — the Gemara doesn’t reject the stereotypes entirely, but does insist that they only apply to other people.

Read all of Yoma 66 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 16th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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