Yoma 76

Science and Health

On today’s daf, the Gemara continues its discussion of the five afflictions of Yom Kippur that we first encountered in the mishnah on Yoma 73: abstaining from eating and drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing shoes and conjugal relations. 

As we’ve seen them do many times already, the rabbis then inquire about the biblical source of two of these afflictions:

From where do we derive that abstaining from bathing and smearing oil on oneself is called affliction? The Gemara answers: As it is written “I ate no pleasant bread, neither did meat nor wine enter my mouth, neither did I anoint myself at all” (Daniel 10:3) … And from where do we derive that abstaining from the activities that Daniel describes is considered affliction? As it is written: “Then he said to me: Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and to afflict yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come due to your words” (Daniel 10:12). 

In seeking the source of these prohibitions, the rabbis look to Chapter 10 of the Book of Daniel, in which the prophet explains that he mourned for three weeks after King Cyrus reneged on his promise to allow the Jews to rebuild the Temple. Daniel describes the manner in which he mourned: He ate no tasty food and refrained from anointing himself. Later in the chapter, Daniel has a vision of a spectacularly adorned angelic being who tells him that because he practiced abstinence before God, his prayer has been heard. 

The rabbis understand that Daniel refraining from anointing is the abstinence referred to by the angel. And because the word for abstinence in the text (hit’anoot) comes from the same root as the Torah’s command that we afflict ourselves (v’initem) on Yom Kippur, this is proof that refraining from anointing has the status of affliction and is thus prohibited on Yom Kippur. In simple terms, if “affliction” means something specific in the book of Daniel, we can infer that it means the same thing elsewhere. 

This sort of argument by analogy, in which a word used in one place in scripture is understood to be equivalent to its usage elsewhere in scripture, is known as a gezerah shavah, and is an oft-used rule of rabbinic hermeneutics. (You may recall we saw this back on Pesachim 24.)

But what’s the big deal about anointing? The anointing of both people and objects with oil was widespread in the ancient world for practical and symbolic reasons. Anointing was used for cosmetic, medicinal, funereal and – as we saw earlier in this tractate – ritual purposes. In addition to kings and other dignitaries being anointed with oil to mark their ascent to leadership, we are told that the messiah will be anointed with oil. Ordinary men and women also rubbed scented oil and lotion on their bodies, much as we do today. In modern times, the prohibition against anointing has come to include such things as using deodorant, hair cream, perfume and the like on Yom Kippur. 

The inclusion of anointing within the five categories of Yom Kippur affliction makes sense for two reasons, again both practical and symbolic. The practical reason is that using these cosmetics makes us feel, smell and look nice. Since Yom Kippur is all about forgoing bodily pleasures so that we can instead focus on the serious work of connecting with God and asking for atonement on the holiest day of the year, it makes sense that we avoid it.

But the symbolic reason may be even more profound. On Yom Kippur, we do not come to God dressed up as kings or dignitaries. We come on our knees begging forgiveness — literally during the Aleinu prostration. We are impoverished, not royal. We can only be who we are, naked of all cosmetics, wearing white like a shroud, our deeds plain to see. We come before God, and each other, with only our hearts and our words: “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”

Read all of Yoma 76 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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