I have to admit, when I sat down to compose something about this final page of Tractate Yoma, my first impulse was to write something snarky — because this is the (ahem) climax of the entire tractate:
A Tanna taught Rav Nahman: One who sees a seminal emission on Yom Kippur, his sins are forgiven.
In the course of Yoma, we’ve spent countless hours poring over the details of a complicated, high-stakes Temple ritual with the very life and death of the entire community as well as its individual members at stake. We’ve pondered what effort it takes to get this ritual right, whether it’s assigning the high priest an emergency back-up wife or building a miles-long aqueduct to bring live waters across the desert to build a mikveh on top of a gate, and we’ve delved into the meaning of such ponderous topics as self-affliction and personal atonement.
So it’s difficult to keep a straight face when we come to the end of three months of study only to learn that a man who accidentally ejaculates in his sleep on the most solemn day of the year should take it as a sign that his sins have been forgiven. Rabbi Yishmael and his school, at least, have what seems a more intuitive take:
The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: One who sees an emission of semen on Yom Kippur should worry the whole year. But if he survives the year, he can be assured that he has a share in the World to Come.
One might think that after a long day of fasting, praying and watching goats meet unfortunate fates, a seminal emission — even an accidental one — is not a sign that you’re doing it right. But the rabbis disagree. Rather pointedly, Rabbi Yishmael’s school is rejoined by Rav Dimi, who shares the final and conclusive teaching that not only does an accidental emission on Yom Kippur signal likely divine forgiveness, it also assures long life and progeny.
This is on brand for the rabbis. Accidental emissions are a fact of life, and human beings are not robots. Refusing to shame people for having human bodies that do human things, even at inopportune times, is their way.
The more revealing question is how we got onto this subject in the first place. On the bottom of yesterday’s page, the rabbis began a discussion of the final prayer of Yom Kippur, Neilat Shearim, “the locking of the gates.” Today, we know this as simply Neilah, the fifth and final service of Yom Kippur, recited as the sun sinks to the horizon. Neilah affords us one last opportunity to secure God’s forgiveness before the gates of repentance swing shut and our fates are decided for the coming year.
Neilah, as we experience it today, is a much more fleshed-out service than what the rabbis are talking about, including a final recitation of the Viddui confession, a final Avinu Malkeinu, a final Shema, followed by a triplicate declaration of baruch hu u’varuch shemo — the response line of the Shema that is said aloud only on Yom Kippur. Then a declaration of God’s dominion, Adonai hu ha’Elohim, is repeated seven times. And finally, one long blast of the shofar.
In contrast, for the rabbis, Neilat Shearim is neither a full service nor something unique to Yom Kippur. For instance, it is also recited at the end of spontaneous fasts that are called in the event that the community is experiencing a drought. (We’ll explore these kinds of as-needed fasts, which were common in the ancient world, in Tractate Ta’anit.)
After some debate, the rabbis decide that Neilat Shearim is an additional Amidah said toward the close of Yom Kippur. But if that’s the case, does saying Neilat Shearim exempt one from saying the regular evening Amidah (Maariv) that follows the holiday? Or does it mean we can at least abbreviate that evening Amidah?
Those seminal emissions come in to help us answer this question. Here’s how it works: Though bathing is prohibited on Yom Kippur, if one has a seminal emission he may immerse — indeed should immerse — because according to a decree of Ezra, purification is necessary to pray. (This is not actually so strange. As you may recall, the high priest immerses multiple times over the course of the holiday.)
On the other hand, if you’ve already done all your praying and only then realize you’ve experienced an emission, perhaps you should wait until sundown to complete this purification ritual. Because though purification through immersion is permitted, bathing is still prohibited.
What emerges from this discussion is that sometimes a person might immerse after the Mincha (afternoon) Amidah in order to recite Neilat Shearim, providing proof that Neilat Shearim is recited during daylight hours (because otherwise you would wait until nightfall to immerse). And this, in turn, shows that Neilat Shearim does not exempt one from reciting the evening prayers — nor even allow one to abbreviate them. Indeed, to this day, after the shofar is blown to mark the end of Yom Kippur, congregations around the world turn immediately to praying a full, 18-blessing evening Amidah, including an extra line for Havdalah, which separates the sacred day from the mundane day.
On the one hand, the tractate ends with this discussion for entirely practical reasons. The rabbis are simply illuminating detailed halakhic points about the final ritual of Yom Kippur. But if you find the whole idea that accidental emission on the Day of Atonement proves one has a share in the World to Come somewhere between befuddling and lurid, then consider this: The rabbis are grappling with the real problem of human sin, which is universal and brings unimaginable suffering into this world. Yom Kippur asks all of us to look that reality straight in the face, own up to our own part, and make real, true progress. To end on a discussion of life, death, prayer and sex seems appropriate — pointing up the tremendous magnitude and all-encompassing nature of the conversation. At the same time, by not only forgiving the accidental emission but converting it into a sign of merit, the rabbis remind us not to go too far in our eagerness to root out evil. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and not a sin.
Read all of Yoma 88 on Sefaria.