The Rabbi's Study

Two Goats, Two Intentions, Two Rituals, Two Traditions

Religion produces some, shall we say, strange practices. Public ritual is a theatrical process designed to inspire a certain emotional state which inspires recognition and awareness through its symbolism. For our ancestors, and even for us, there is no ritual more entrenched in this public theatrical process than Yom Kippur.

In the narrative of the Torah, the rituals of Yom Kippur are presented as a response to the death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons who entered the kadosh kodashim during the consecration of the Mishkan on the 1st of Nisan and were consumed by the fire of the altar. Tradition ascribes the following reasons for their deaths: 1) they were drunk; 2) they did not consult with their teachers, Moshe and Aharon; 3) they did not consult with one another; 4) they did not appropriately mix the recipe for the incense. Following their death, God commands a series of proscriptions for the High Priest regarding when and how they must enter the kadosh kodashim, limiting access to one day a year with a very particular set of clothing and a very particular set of sacrifices. The details of this annual ritual are delivered in the beginning of Parashat Aharei Mot.

Included in this public ritual is the presence of two goats each with lots cast upon their heads – one goat designated for sacrifice to God, the other designated “for Azazel.” There has been so much written about the word Azazel: is it a demigod? is it a demon? is it a place? is it a concept? And for the purposes of this discussion, we will not delve into those questions. But here is what the Torah offers us:

He (Aharon) must take two hairy-goats and stand them at the entrance of the ohel moed before Hashem. Aharon must place on the two hairy-goats lots; one lot for Hashem and one lot for Azazel. Aharon must offer hairy-goat upon which is the lot for Hashem; he must make it a hattat-offering. The hairy-goat upon which is the lot for Azazel must be standing alive before Hashem to atone for him; to send it to Azazel toward the wilderness. (Lev. 16:7-10)

Even a seminal commentator like the Or HaHayyim thinks this sounds odd, and he asks, “why would Hashem command a mitzvah that looks like idolatry?” Obviously he goes on to explain why it is nothing of the sort, but at least he can acknowledge the optics are a little odd.

Also seeking to plumb the depths of this mysterious ritual, the Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Epharim Luntschitz (1550-1619 Poland) offers us this insight before explaining its significance:

The matter of these two hairy-goats seems completely identical to the two goat kids which Yaakov made for Yitzhak.

Now that is interesting, and in case you forgot let’s look into to what he is referring.

Rivkah said to Yaakov her son, saying: I heard your father speaking to Esav your brother saying. ‘Bring me game and make me something delicious and so I may eat; and I will bless you before Hashem before my death.’ Now, my son, listen to my voice; that which I command to you. Go, please, to the flock and take me from there two good goat kids; and I will make them delicious for your father just like he loves. (Gen. 27:6-9)

Other than the fact that there are two goats, why would this resonate with the Kli Yakar as being “completely identical” to the Azazel ritual? For that we must look deeper into the tradition.
Rashi brings us a midrash in his commentary on the story of Rivkah and Yaakov:
Were the two goats for Yitzhak’s meal? Rather one was to be offered as his pesah-offering and one was to be made delicious, according to Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer.
Now that is interesting! Let’s put aside that the Passover sacrifice would not be commanded until the generation of Moshe and simply accept the rabbinic concept that Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov observed the entire Torah.
The Kli Yakar goes on to explain that just as the two goats (because who could eat two goats by themselves?!) which Yaakov brought from the flock were for two very distinct purposes and intentions, so too the two goats for Yom Kippur were for two very distinct purposes and intentions. The Kli Yakar brings another midrash to prove his point which teaches:
“‘Good’ implies, according to Rabbi Helbo, that it is ‘good for you,’ meaning that through them blessings will rain down. Good for your children, because through them it will make atonement on Yom Kippur…”
So, just as the two goats which Yaakov brought were for two purposes – one to fulfill the obligation of hope for liberation (and remember this happens just before he runs away!), and the other to seek atonement (perhaps for the deception he in which he is about to participate) – so too the Yom Kippur goats are for two distinct purposes.
Now, I cannot know what the Rabbis who created these midrashim knew of ancient Babylonian history, but here’s something interesting to consider. We know that Yom Kippur was not part of the First Temple rites, we know that the books of Ezekiel and Zekhariah are completely unaware of its existence. We know that the kuppuru ritual of the Akkadian influenced neo-Babylonian tradition was part of a larger multi-day New Year festival known as Atiku. We know that the kuppuru ritual involved the priest slaughtering a ram in the temple of Bel, and dragging the ram through the temple and the blood would purify and cleanse the temple. We know that the Atiku festival began in the Babylonian month of Nisan.
Remember what the midrash that Rashi brought said? That Yaakov was gathering one of the goats for the Passover sacrifice? And that Nadav and Avihu died on the first day of the consecration of the Mishkan which happened on the first of Nisan? And that the month of Nisan is the first month of our calendar? And that we got the names of our months in Babylon? And that there was no mention of Yom Kippur in texts recorded before the Babylonian Exile? And that they celebrated their New Year with the kuppuru ritual? And that we celebrate our civil year in the 7th month of Tishrei which we also call New Year? And that Yom Kippur part of that New Year celebration?
Yes, religious truly does produce some, shall we say, strange practices.
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