Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Yoma 54 a, b

Our Sages use one argument and prooftext after another to argue that the Ark was not exiled to Babylonia but instead was buried close to the site of the First Temple.  Each argument is as or more interesting as the last.  One argument was familiar; a rabbi who was looking for wormwood found a tile in the woodshed that seemed misplaced.  Had he found the buried Ark?  The rabbi was consumed in fire before he could locate the Ark, implying that the Ark was not meant to be found.

Another idea jumped out at me; it was presented twice.  Ulla told the rabbis that the buried Ark "And they are there to this day".  "To this day" implies forever, we are told.  So that would include today, the day that I read these words, and the day that someone else reads the same sentence. Part of the joy of learning Torah is the notion that at this moment, I am struggling with ideas that others have struggled with for millennia.

Moving to another statement from the last Mishna, the rabbis wonder about the staves of the Ark.  Apparently we learn both that they can be seen and that they can't be seen.  How do we resolve this contradiction?  Among many other ideas, the rabbis suggest that they might have been pressed up against the curtain, "like the two breasts of a woman (pushing against her clothes)".    The prooftext?  From Song of Songs, of course, 1:13, where "My beloved is to me like a bundle of myrrh, that lies between by breasts".  In a similar tone, the wings of the cherubs touching each other in the Holy of Holies are said to stand in for the Jewish people, who are "... beloved  before G0d, lie the love of a male and female".

Which one of us is the female, G-d or the Jewish people?  Which holds a 'masculine' role?  I can't imagine that the rabbis would be comfortable imagining the Jewish people as consistently 'feminine' in contrast with G-d's 'masculine' presence.  And we know that G-d has feminine names in addition to His mostly masculine names, including the Shechina.   Should we not learn from this that the notion of gender is fluid?  That what is male and what is female is not set and determined?  Just a thought.

The rabbis compare the hidden Ark with the modest bride who only reveals herself to her husband after marriage.  They further this analogy between the hidden Ark and a divorced woman who was once allowed to show herself but then, since divorce, is again modest in his presence until they remarry.  And thus we will eventually 'marry' with these sacred representations of G-d's presence.   The rabbis then describe the many curtains, images and carvings within the Holy of Holies.  Reish Lakish tells one story of the cherubs who look as if in romantic contact with each other.  He says that when the Temple was destroyed, the Gentiles took the cherubs to market where they were debased and destroyed because of their obvious sexualized connotations.

In amud (b) the Rabbis discuss a number of ways in which the world was created through metaphor.   Job speaks of rain, of snow, and of the the dust running into a mass and the colds cleaving together.  We also  "Out of Zion the perfection of beauty, G-d has shined forth" (Psalms 50:2) -- a beautiful phrase.  Rabbi Eliezer the Great said that the generations of the heavens were created from the heavens but the generations of the earth were created from the earth.  Zion is said to the be the connector between what is spiritual, of the higher/heavenly realm, and what is physical, or earthly.  This is true beauty: a perfect connection between spirit and physicality.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Yoma 53 a, b

The rabbis distinguish the incense of Yom Kippur from the incense burned on every other day.  They ensure that the High Priest does not follow the Sadducees' interpretations by threatening the death penalty if they light the incense in the coal pan outside of the Holy of Holies.  Amazing that the Sadducees' ideas posed such a strong threat to the Sages and rabbinic thought.  And we think that Orthodox Rabbis think badly of Reform Jewish traditions!  What is the difference between incurring the death penalty and disallowing marriages and conversions?

Even if someone enters the Holy of Holies without permission, at the wrong time, etc., s/he incurs a penalty.  So mistakes with spices just add incense to the injury.  Couldn't resist.

The rabbis work toward understanding how the smoke filled the Holy of Holies based on verses from the Tanach and related baraitot.

We learn about possible connections between the death of Aaron's sons and the punishment of death regarding the appearance of clouds.  G-d seems to be present along with the cloud of incense; the cloud in the desert.   It is noted that Aaron's sons were punished with death not only because they brought in the fire.  The rabbis agree that this harsh punishment stemmed from previous sinful behaviour.

The rabbis share an odd conversation about the priests leaving the Holy of Holies in the reverse direction of how they entered.  The find proof texts for this type of exit, and they teach that we walk away from our teachers by walking backwards (Rabbi Elazar leaving Rabbi Yochanan).  However, Rava left Rav Yosef in this way and hurt himself.  Thus we are allowed to turn our faces sideways as we take leave of our teachers.  My assumption is that these teachings inform our taking leave of the Torah on the bima: we walk backward at least three steps; we do not turn our backs on the Torah.

In amud (b), we learn more about the practice of taking three steps backward as we conclude the Amida prayer.  We also learn about pausing after taking three steps back to confirm our respectful behaviour.  Not doing this is compared to a dog who eats its vomit, first rejecting its food and then eating it again.  A lovely metaphor.

A number of different prayers could be referred to in this Mishna.  The High Priest could say a long or a short prayer,  one that refers to rain or one that refers to the reign of Judah.   We are reminded that the prayer was never to long, again to protect the Jewish people from worrying about the High Priest's death.

Amud (b) introduces a new Mishna.  It tells us that after the Ark was taken and buried, a rock from the days of the early prophets was called the foundation rock. It sat three fingerbreadths higher than the ground.  It acted as the centre of the Holy of Holies, and incense was burned there, blood was sprinkled there and animals' blood was poured there.  The Mishna details how many times different animals' blood was sprinkled and poured at that spot.  Interestingly, we learn in a note that the High Priest exited and entered the Holy of Holies a number of times between animal offerings, etc.

In its commentary, the Gemara first disputes about whether the Ark was buried or "taken".  The rabbis wonder whether in accordance with a baraita, the Ark was brought to Babylonia along with the precious vessels of the House of the Lord (II Chronicles 36:10).  A number of other possible proof texts are suggested to understand where and how the Ark was removed from Jerusalem.

Yoma 52 a, b

The area separating the Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies is marked by curtains with one cubit between them (called the amah teraksim).  In calculating this measurement, the rabbis look at our Torah instructions regarding the other measurements in the Sanctuary.  We know that the Sanctuary in total is 100 cubits.

The rabbis have difficulty with a particular verse regarding the measurements for the Sanctuary.  Rabbi Yochanan said that Yosef of Hutzal* told us of the dilemma with I Kings 6:19: "And he prepared a partition in the midst of the House within to set there the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord." We are reminded that Isi ben Yehuda says that there are five verses in the Torah whose meaning cannot be decided by reading the text on its own:

Se'et (Genesis 4:7) as remembrance: When you do well, your sin will be forgotten.

Meshukkadim (Exodus 25:34) as almond blossoms: referring to either the first part of the verse, ex.: the menorah's four cups are like almond blossoms, or the last part of the verse, ex. its knops and flowers made like almond blossoms".

Machar (Exodus 17:9): as tomorrow, referring to either the first or last part of the verse: from "Fight with Amalek tomorrow", or "Tomorrow I'll stand on top of the hill...".

Arur (Genesis 49:7) as cursed: where Levi and Simeon treated Shechem with extreme anger and cruelty, or "in anger they cut of the cursed oxen", where the cursed oxen are those from Shechem, who descended from Canaan, also accursed. 

Vekam (Deuteronomy 31:16): as 'rise up', either from "Behold, you are about to sleep with your father and rise up (at the time of resurrection)", or "And this people will rise up and go astray"

A new Mishna tells us more about the Sanctuary.  It describes how the curtains between the Sanctuary and the Holy of Holies are constructed and fastened so that the High Priest enters through the southern opening and exits from the northern opening.  We learn that the High Priest places the coals and then offers the incense.  He leave the Holy of Holies, now filled with smoke, and returns the way he came.  He recites only a brief Prayer on leaving to not worry the Jewish people that he might have died while in the Holy of Holies.

Does this referring to the First Temple or the Second Temple?  What happened to the Ark, the jar of manna, the flask of oil, Aaron's staff, and the gifted chest after the destruction of the First Temple?  We are told that they were buried on the foundation rock beneath the Holy of Holies.  And the rabbis suggest that it was Josiah, King of Judea, who buried the Ark (I Chronicles 35:3).

We end today's daf with questions about precisely where the coals and the incense should be placed by the High Priest.  Again it strikes me that the rabbis are tremendously concerned with determining the exact practice of the past.  The underlying theory seems to be that precision regarding the letter of the law is more attainable and (thus?) more important than the spirit of the law.  Our traditional practice continues to place inordinate significance upon our practices rather than what is less measurable -- beyond our the practice, how we deepen our spiritual connection with G-d.

*Yosef of Hutzal is known by many names, including possibly Yosef of Babylonia, Isi ben Gur Arye, Isi ben Gamliel, Isi ben Mahalalel, and Isi ben Akiva.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Yoma 51 a, b

We continue yesterday's conversation about substitutions, sacrifices and related halachot.

First, the Gemara explains that substitution is one category where there are no differences between different substitutions.  With sacrifices, however, halacha regarding the firstborn and the animal tithe are different from other offerings. We cannot understand a general principal from this type of category.  A note teaches us that these particular tithes are consecrated in advance (in utero and as the tenth animal counted, even if it has a blemish).  These offerings are never redeemed, sheared or worked.

In trying to decode a baraita, the rabbis have been arguing about whether or not a bull can be substituted if it dies part way through the ceremony. Now Rav Sheshet suggests that that baraita referred to the High Priest's ram, and thus the ram of Aaron and the Paschal offering is discussed (rather than the bull and the Yom Kippur offering).  Rav Sheshet argues that we do not slaughter the Korban Pesach for an individual but for a group; the second Pesach offering overrides Shabbat but does not override ritual impurity, as in the baraita's commentary.  Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua and Rava speak further about the implications of the halachot of the second Pesach.  They look at performance of mitzvot in a state of ritual impurity under specific conditions.

Rabbi Elazar had asked earlier about whether a High Priest can make a substitution for his bull. This would require the priests to gain atonement because they were 'full partners' in the offering. Even if this baraita helps us understand what Aaron did in his own circumstances, it does not solve Rabbi Elazar's question.

A new Mishnah tells us that the High Priest would then walk west in the Sanctuary to the curtain at the Holy of Holies.  It explains that the curtain separates the Sanctuary from the Holy of Holies by one cubit of space.  The Gemara wonders whether this was the case in both Temples.  Part of their consideration is the layout of each Temple.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Yoma 49 a, b

Our rabbis love the "what if" questions.  What if the High Priest has invalidating thoughts at critical points in the service?  What if he scoops the incense and then dies?  We eavesdrop on their conversations on this and other questions today, including Rabbi Chisda and Rabbi Chanina.

We learn about Rav Sheshet and others' opinions regarding some broad categories of disqualification.  It is suggested that if a one of these people: a drunk priest, a non-priest, a blemished priest, a minor, a person sitting down or a person using his left hand, a mourner on his first day of mourning - if any other these should perform the receiving, carrying, or sprinkling of blood, the rite is disqualified.    Rav Chanina quotes a baraita in his argument, which suggests that the rabbis did not carry on Shabbat but lined up and passed bowls of blood from one to the other, therefore not breaking the laws of Shabbat on carrying.

In questioning whether or not a High Priest must scoop the incense himself, we are introduced to anecdotes about rabbi Chanina.  Rabbi Chanina was said to have deferred to others' words and to have suggested that a contemporary scholar was in fact an Elder. Through this examination we learn both that Rabbi Chanina knew much about medicine.  We are reminded that medicine is forbiden on Shabbat, unless that medicine is potentially lifesaving.  The Gemara then walks through potential orders of the incense offering.

The rabbis suggest that offering the incense might be in fact the most challenging of all rites.   They detail the steps involved, including the use of the spoon and one's thumbs and/or teeth.  It is connected to the slaughter of the bull and the sprinkling of its blood, which is also elaborated.  We end the daf with a discussion of the groups that sponsor animals for sacrifice - and that membership in those groups is not solid until the time of slaughter.  To that end, the rabbis question other offerings.

The rabbi's focus on perfection and precision is impressive - and exhausting.  I wonder if our Sages might have developed ulcers - so much of our spiritual practice revolves around "doing it right" rather than feeling any kind of connection with G-d.  Am I missing that part of their practice?  Or is my 21st century mentality blocking me from appreciating the true spiritual nature of their observances?


Thursday, 26 December 2013

Yoma 48 a, b

What is the High Priest to do when incense or flour falls from his hands to the floor?  Can it be gathered together and offered as intended, or does is the rite invalidated?  Similarly, what does the High Priest do if the blood of an offering spills to the floor?  Can the blood be collected in a vessel and then gathered and sprinkled?  Are these two error related to each other?

The rabbis explore the expression, “and the anointed priest shall take 'from the blood of the bull'” (Leviticus 4:5).  Does this refer to spilled blood?  Are we to take all of the animal’s blood?  Or is this teaching us that the blood taken must be from the neck and not from a cut of the skin?

This discussion is followed by other examples of potential disqualification.   The touch of someone who was ritually impure but has immersed – but who is waiting for the end of the day to finalized his or her new state of ritual purity – that touch disqualifies a consecrated item.  The rabbis teach that consecrated items are subject to different types of ritual impurity. 

At the end of today’s daf the rabbis suggest that the High Priest’s every movement is conscious and important during these rituals.  For example, he must face the limbs of his offerings in specific directions.  However, they repeat a recent decision regarding the right and left hands.  In usual circumstances, rites must be performed by the right hand to be valid.   When using the coal pan and the spoon, this is not the case.  The simultaneous use of both hands teaches us that the left hand can be used to perform a Yom Kippur ritual.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Yoma 47 a, b

Perek V begins today with a much information and many anecdotes.  In amud (a) we learn a new Mishna that tells us more about how to use the spoon and coal pan and how the priest with larger hands takes larger handfuls of incense. The Gemara discusses these instructions, paying attention to their practicalities.  For example, they recognize that the priest might have to hold the coal pan in his teeth while he transfers the incense.  As this would be undignified, it must not happen.  Thus it is permitted for the High Priest to hold the spoon in his left hand, even though this would disqualify the service under other circumstances.

The mothers of High Priests are mentioned a number of times today.  Rabbi Yishmael ben Kimchit is said to be very tall, with huge hands.  He suggests that his mother's actions (perhaps her choice of flour in pregnancy; perhaps her collection of wood) caused him to be both large and accomplished.  There is a short discussion of how mothers create greatness in their wombs: the notion that G-d chose the sperm that grew inside one's mother to fashion that particular person.

Rabbi Yishmael ben Kimchit is said to have become ritually impure when the spittle of an Arab (through speech and not malice) touched his clothing in the market on Yom Kippur.*  His brother, Yeshevav, became High Priest for the remainder of the day.  Their mother saw two of her sons serving as High Priest on the same day.  When asked what she did to deserve this honour, she suggested modesty (covering her hair at all times).   The rabbis recognized that modesty alone could not account for such a rare experience.

The rabbis describe how the handfuls of flour are taken by different priests for the meal-offering. They teach the particular method used to scoop out the flour of the meal-offering and the timing/ hazards/ purpose of this ritual.  They teach us that we are in a state of 'doubt'.  We are told in a note by Steinsaltz that twilight is another instance where the rabbis experience doubt: there is no difficulty with the categories created, rather there is a difficulty with this particular thing that does not fit into our categories.**  Wondering about the technicalities of scooping the flour (most notably, suggesting that perhaps fat priests should take the flour because of their 'fleshy fingers'), the rabbis state that this is one of the most difficult Temple rites.

* Why would a High Priest be in the market on Yom Kippur, speaking with an Arab (in close enough proximity to be spit upon)?

** I have continually challenged these texts regarding the development and maintaining of distinctions in all areas of thought and practice.  Clearly the rabbis recognize the limitations of this thinking, too, but  with regard to only very specific circumstances.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Yoma 46 a, b

Amud (a) explores the hierarchy of ritual.  What trumps what?  Burning disqualified limbs on a valid fire?  But what about on Shabbat?  And what about the beginning of the burning ritual vs. its end -- might a mitzvah be valid at certain points but not at others?  With specific examples using the arguments of a number of rabbis, we learn about which mitzvot might override which halachot and vice versa.

Amud (b) applies this conversation to the limitations around fire.  Is it permitted to move a piece of coal from the fire beneath the Altar?  What if that coal is moved after the rituals are completed?  What if the coal is moved away from the fire, where it is not actually a part of the fire but a separate entity?  What if the coal is moved to a spot above the Altar, where it might be thought of as part of the fire?  What if the coal is taken in order to light the menorah which must always be lit?  And if these actions are not permitted, are they punishable by lashes? or worse?

I have put aside the details of these arguments, which are debated and supported by a number of rabbis.  Certainly I have missed much of the subtlety (and perhaps much of the substance) of today's daf.  Still, these arguments continue to be significant in our modern lives.  If we are not performing all of the mitzvot - whether by choice or because something conspires against our practice - how do we choose which mitzvot to practice?  Which of our halachot are so important that we must not avoid their observance; which mitzvot are incorporated into the practice of other mitzvot?

Again, the material of the Talmud is remote to me, but the process and the underlying questions guiding its arguments are gripping.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Yoma 45 a, b

The rabbis clarify statements made in a previous Mishna.  Each of their conversations teaches us that the rituals of Yom Kippur are somehow different from those on all other days.  For example, the incense is now extra-fine, and the priests enter and exit the Sanctuary ramp in the middle (rather than using the east and west sides of the ramp).  Although each of the rituals discussed has its own interesting components (and reasoning for those components), the larger discussion seems to focus on the differences between Yom Kippur and other days.  Again, as I have noted many times, we are learning about the importance of creating and maintaining strict distinctions between this and that; between what is one thing and what is another.

Amud (b) pulls our attention toward specific rituals, all regarding burning.  The Gemara asks 'what ifs', including when partially burned materials fall to the ground, and when the menorah is not perpetually lit, as the candles cease burning (or if only one candle is still lit).  In their rulings, the rabbis seem to be very aware of the practical issues facing the priests.  They seem to understand that things go wrong - candles burn out; burned offerings fall beneath the Altar.  The rabbis want us to believe in G-d's ability to perform miracles, but they teach us to rely on ourselves.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Yoma 44 a, b

What is so special about burning the incense?  The High Priest is truly alone when he performs this rite, and other priests are removed from the Holy of Holies and from the surrounding areas altogether.  The School of Rabbi Yishmael suggests that burning incense is effecting atonement for a specific sin: slander.  The High Priest makes atonement in a particular order: for himself, for his family, and then for the community of Israel.  Slander is done secretly, just like the burning of incense is done secretly.  And slander requires just one sound, just as burning incense involves only the sound of the High Priest's tunic.

The rabbis consider some of the differences between burning the incense and other rites, like the sacrifice of animals and the sprinkling of blood.  Clearly they are searching for the logic behind these rituals.  And yet we are taught that the rituals do not have to make sense to us; our task is to perform them regardless of whether or not we appreciate any ultimate meanings.  It is validating to witness our Sages struggle with these same questions: why are we doing this?  There must be a reason!

In amud (b), the rabbis want to understand the different levels of sanctity in different areas of the Temple.  Specifically, they ask about places in the Sanctuary: the Holy of Holies, the Entrance Hall and the Altar.  In addition, our rabbis ask about the coals for the Altar: how were they scooped up and why in that way?  How many coals were gathered?  Through this discussion, the rabbis introduce measurements that are inconsistent: desert measurements are the smallest, Jerusalem measurements are one sixth larger than desert measurements and were instituted when the community reached Jerusalem. Finally the Tzipori or Galilean units are one sixth larger than the Jerusalem units.  Thus one 'kav' of coals in Tzipori units might be similar to two kav of coals measured in desert units.

The rabbis explain that the High Priest's pan is different (lighter, with a longer handle, with a ring) from other days to assist him, as he was tired and weak from the day's work with no food or sleep.  In addition, he was to be heard when he did these rituals, thus the utensils created sound. At the very end of the daf we are introduced to Rav Chisda's explanation of the eight types of gold that are mentioned in the Torah.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Yoma 42 a, b

Moving from specifics to generalities, the rabbis question several possible reasons to disqualify a service or an offering.  In part, they consider:

  • who performs the service/offering: High Priest vs. any common priest; man vs. man or woman, etc.
  • the timing of the service/offering
  • the type of service/offering, ex. red heifer vs. bull, etc.
To further their opinions, they share proof texts.  Some of those proof texts are based the hermeneutic rule regarding repetition of words.  In today's daf, the rabbis suggest that the placement of an individual word such as "it" or "statute" teaches us the particular practice of given rituals.

Although today's daf was relatively dry, we are introduced to an interesting discourse on women's potential ritual leadership. The rabbis question whether or not a woman can take on the ritual of sprinkling water (red heifer).  No, we are told, a man must perform this ritual - and the ritual must take place during the day.  The proof text is found in Numbers 19:19, where "the pure one shall sprinkle..." is in the singular masculine form, which excludes women.  Further, "... on the third day" is understood to mean day and not night.  

Why is it that the rabbis sometimes understand the singular masculine as inclusive of all people (ie. when it says 'man', it means 'one') and yet they arbitrarily (according to my reading) suggest that the singular masculine excludes women?

This analysis continues: that one man performs all of the stages of the ritual during the day: slaughter, collection of blood, sprinkling of blood, burning, and casting the cedar word and the hyssop and the strip of crimson (the lot, discussed yesterday) into the fire.  This is determined through an interpretation of the word "statute" in Numbers 19:2.  However, other stages are excluded from the daytime, male requirement: collecting the ashes, filling the water, and sanctification (of hands and feet).  So are women allowed to lead those final rites?  The Gemara furthers this challenge - what is permitted to be done by a non-priest compared with what is permitted to be done by a woman?

Abaye reminds us that the verse states that "Elazar" performs these rituals.  A High Priest and not a common priest or a non-priest - or, of course, a woman.  A note (Steinsaltz) tells us the halacha: regarding collection of the ashes and filling of waters, a non-priest or woman (but not a deaf-mute, imbicile [sic] or minor) are permitted to collect the ashes and to fill the waters.   However, regarding sprinkling the purification waters of the red heifer, only men can serve.  This includes non-priests and minors.  We learn that women are not the only marginalized community members.  Hermaphrodites [sic], people whose genitalia are concealed (?), deaf-mutes, imbeciles, or minors who are still unaware of their actions cannot perform this rite.

It would seem that there are two broad categories of "fitness" regarding religious ritual leadership:
1) an 'ordinary looking' penis
2) full capacity to consent and understand the meaning of the rituals performed

Why is the sexual organ important in the practice of ritual?  Certainly the rituals themselves do not require a functioning, usual penis.  Thus it must be a metaphor.  Does the penis somehow represent the capacity for procreation, or for action, or for authority?  Does it stand for occupation, or for invasion, or for conquering?  Certainly our Sages did not create these social realities; learning Talmud continually reminds me that patriarchy was woven into their interpretations as it was already a well-established ideology in antiquity.  

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Yoma 41 a, b

We continue to learn about the scapegoat sent to Azazel and the sin-offering sacrificed for G-d.  In amud (a) the rabbis attempt to understand the meaning of a baraita that has informed us about how to designate an offering as a sin-offering - when that happens, who makes that declaration, what is said, etc.  The rabbis consider a number of different options: when the owner selects the offerings; when the sacrifice happens; when the lottery is performed.

Rav Chisda, who introduced this baraita's ruling, faces another challenge regarding the sanctification of offerings if the owner is impure and poor at the time that the offerings are selected.  Related to this we learn a halacha: a wealthy person who brings the offering required of a poor person does not fulfil his obligation.

Daf 41 begins with the question, "Who is the anonymous writer of the Sifra?".  Steinsaltz offers some clarification in his note.  In the Mishna, the writings of the Talmud, anonymous writings are attributed to Rabbi Meir.  The Sifra is a collection of halachic midrash based on the book of Leviticus, thought to be authored by Rabbi Yehuda.  The Sifrei are halachic midrash about the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, understood as the writings of Rabbi Shimon.  Together, these collections of writings were edited at the time of the amoraim.  Halachic midrash from this grouping of writings are usually referred to as baraitot.

With my limited background in Talmudic thought and Judaic history, it is tremendously helpful to be provided with notes like these.

A new Mishna tells us that a strip of crimson is tied on the scapegoat's head.  The scapegoat is then positioned in the place from which it will walk to Azazel, and the sin-offering is placed in the place where it will be sacrificed.  We are told that the High Priest will then place his hands on the bull's head and speak a confession on behalf of his community, his family, and himself.  After reciting these words (again, which sound like the words of Kol Nidre), the community responds: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va'ed, "Blessed  is the name of His holy kingdom forever and ever".

The rabbis explain (with help from our notes) that the crimson strip is made of dyed wool that looks like a tongue.  They discuss whether or not both goats wear this ribbon, reasons for the ribbon (including the sanctified goats becoming interspersed with others, the weight of the strips, how the strip might be burned, and the relationship between these markers and markers for lepers.

Again the rabbis choose to focus on determining the precise differences between one goat and another, between sanctified and non-sanctified goats, between different species, between ritual purity and impurity.  I wonder why I react with such negativity to this foundational method of Jewish thought.  Of course I have ideas as to why this method does not suit my ideological approach to life.  But I continue to study this material; I continue to react to what I find arbitrary and potentially harmful.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Yoma 40 a, b

We know that two goats were sacrificed on Yom Kippur, one as a sin-offering for G-d and one as our scapegoat toward Azazel.  We know that a lottery took place to designate these roles to each goat.  However, was that lottery indispensable?  Or was it not actually a required part of the Yom Kippur service?

Today's daf focuses entirely upon this question.  The rabbis wonder about the original baraitot and how previous rabbis interpreted those instructions.  They consider arguments including the sequencing of events (ie. is the lottery required in order to validate another sacrifice later in the sequence of rituals?).  They wonder about whether the lots might be switched from one hand to another and how that might be interpreted by the community.

The influence of the Sadducees, the tzdokim, seems to be critical here.  We learn in a note by Steinsaltz that the Sadducees were originally called the minim, or heretics.  They were only one of many Jewish-based religious cults that practiced in the second century.  The Sadducees believed that the Rabbis were not the highest authorities on Jewish halacha.  In fact, they believed that the Rabbis picked and chose their halachic rules; halacha was not G-d-given.  Thus when rabbis considered halachot, they had in mind the potential critiques of the Sadducees and others.

We continue to struggle with these same questions.  Rabbinic Judaism is now accepted as authoritative (by a majority of Jews - whether or not they practice halacha) - and yet Jews who observe halacha with rigour sometimes criticize other segments of the Jewish community for "picking and choosing" which mitzvot we will observe.

The thought underlying this continual criticism addresses the reality that humans have interpreted - and in that way, have helped to create - our most sacred texts.  If any part of G-d's words is interpreted by people, there will be errors, misjudgements, biases.  And if our understanding of the Tanach is imperfect, how can we practice with full confidence that we are understanding G-d's intentions?  The bottom line for me -- we can't.  And so we can do our best to learn, question and push our tradition so that we come as close as we can to whatever 'truths' we might find.  Ultimately, this process should help us live our lives with integrity - regardless of what we learn along the way.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Yoma 39 a, b

With a final discussion of sin as something that stupefies the heart, we end Perek III and move into Perek IV.  A new Mishnah speaks of the lots placed on the heads of two goats.  We learn that the two lots are placed in a non-sacred, wooden box that is only large enough to fit two hands.  With the Deputy High Priest to the High Priest's right and the head of the patrilineal family to his left, the Deputy will declare which lot is that of G-d.  The High Priest will raise the hand with that lot, either the right or the left, into the air.  Placing the lots on the goats standing on his right and left, the High Priest may or may not say, "For G-d, a sin offering" on one of the goat's heads.  After saying the name of G-d, the community will respond "Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va'ed", Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and for all time."

The Gemara discusses a number of points related to the start of this Mishnah, including:

  • the wooden lottery receptacle and its status as a non-metal utensil (Rava, Ravina)
  • why the Deputy might be taking on such an important role - perhaps this lottery is not particularly important
  • Shimon HaTzaddik was High Priest for 40 years
  • While he was High Priest, G-d's lot always fell in his right hand; the crimson yarn on Azazel's head turned white; the westernmost lamp of the menorah burned continually for a full day; the fire beneath the alter burned continually needing only the two required logs (indicating G-d's presence, affirmation, and acceptance of our offerings)
  • Priests were satisfied with small amounts of shewbread and other offerings
  • "son of a robber" may be an insult based on one's lineage or it may have to do only with the person himself
  • Shimon HaTzaddik predicted his own death after seeing a man on Yom Kippur dressed in black with a black turban who stayed with him in the Holy of Holies (before that, he always saw a man dressed in white with a white turban in the Holy of Holies who then departed) - he died after Sukkot
  • After his death, the Priests felt that the Jewish people were not worthy of the miracles that had followed Shimon HaTzaddik; they did not bless the people with G-d's explicit name in the priestly blessing
  • Closing sanctuary doors, blooms and cedar trees, Lebanon and Forests - these and other Temple metaphors are explained by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Talai, Rav Zutra ben Toviya and Rav Hoshaya. Some anti-gentile sentiment is expressed here.
  • G-d's name is said explicitly ten times on Yom Kippur: three times at the first confession, three times at the second confession (bull), three times over the scapegoat to Azazel, and one time with the lots (when placing the lot for G-d on the sin offering).
  • The distance from Jerusalem to Jericho is 10 parasangs = forty mil = just under 40 km (Steinsaltz notes)
  • In Jerusalem and Jericho women did not  need to perfume themselves because of the strong aroma of the incense (and goats in Jericho sneezed from the smell).  More rabbis speak of this same incense causing goats to sneeze even further away
  • Rabbi Yannai and Rabbi Yochanan argue along with Rabbi Nechemya and Rabbi Yehuda about whether or not the drawing of lots is absolutely required, or whether it is not a Temple service, and thus in a pinch can be done by the High Priest alone.  White robes and the repetition of the phrase "which came up" (Leviticus 16:9 and 16:10) might offer some hints, too 
The past two dapim have been like breathing the frozen air outside - I have woken up!
A practical question: what was the lot itself?  What was it made of, and did it attach to the goat in some manner?  Were they connected to the crimson threads and then tied to the hair of the goats?

And one thought: the notion of the lottery between the goats seems meaningful.  One goat goes to its death by sacrifice, the other wanders to its likely death away from community and sustenance.  And only luck decides which goat carries which fate.  Are we like these goats, destined for self-sacrifice (as the more positive option) or for wandering, disconnected from out families and friends?  How do we avoid that second fate?

And, perhaps more importantly, if both options lead us to our death, which is the better path?  Wandering in the desert, alone, or being walked toward G-d with respect and honour (only to be killed in the end)?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Yoma 38 a, b

Today we look at a number of stories and ideas, mostly with regard to righteous and wicked behaviour.  Because we are learning masechet Yoma, these conversations focus on the behaviour of priestly families.  After discussing the Gates of Nicanor (the use of gold, copper and wood), we begin a Mishna that explains this concept:

  • Some priestly families guard their official duties - some in the name of holiness and some to maintain their control
  • The protection of shewbread (House of Garmu), incense (House of Avtinas), and music (Hugrs ben Levi) led the Sages to question these priests and even hire Alexandrians
  • The quality of offerings diminished, and so the Sages returned the original families to their posts at higher wages
  • The families explained that they protected their crafts to ensure that their 'recipes' would not be profaned (used toward idol worship or their own benefit, etc)
  • "their name will rot" may refer to a decay spreading up one's arms
  • Doeg ben Yosef's father died, and his mother donated pieces of gold to the Temple with each handbreadth that he grew.  When a famine struck, she ate this child.  Apparently, this was because of the legacy of a bad name
  • the righteous are praised for their own actions while the wicked are cursed by their actions and the actions of those around them
  • The Gemara shares many further proof texts for "the memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing" and "the name of the wicked shall rot", including when one who is wicked is surrounded by righteousness
  • G-d ensures that there is one righteous person in each generation.
The details of today's daf are worthy of much more detailed descriptions.  The words of the Gemara are highly fantastical and extremely logical at the same time.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Yoma 37 a, b

The rabbis elaborate on exactly what is said and done and in what order.  They begin with questioning why a priest would break the heifer's neck, sanctify his hands and feet and then atone for the sins of the community.  The Gemara also recalls Proverbs 7:10, "The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing."  Solomon suggests that "When I mention the Righteous One of all worlds, you accord Him a blessing." This helps to explain why the priests atone to G-d at that particular time.

A new Mishnah describes the building and placement of the lottery box. It also tells us about where we should walk in deference to more respected rabbis.  The High Priest is to walk in the centre, while the deputy High Priest walks to his right.  To the left of the High Priest is the head of the patrilineal family. This is debated.  However, a note teaches us that according to halacha, the most respected of a group of three walks in the middle with the next most prominent to his right and the least prominent to his left.  We also learn that we be slightly behind and to the side of our teachers should we walk with them.

The Gemara discusses the two lots for the goat Azazel.  There is some confusion as the two lots: is one for G-d?  There are other possibilities as well.  The wood used for the lottery box is described as well.  We learn that different High Priests constructed ritual items.  For example, ben Katin made 12 spigots for the basin used to sanctify the hands and feet of the priests.  This way, numerous priests could sanctify themselves at the same time.  Finally we are told of the golden gifts of King Munbaz.

Queen Helene, King Munbaz's mother, is said to have converted to Judaism after having contact with Jews travelling through her home in northern Syria, Adiabene.  She gave many gifts to the Temple and supported the Jewish people with troops through the time that the Second Temple was destroyed.  In amud (b), some of her family's gifts are detailed.  This leads to a discussion of the proper time to recite the morning Shema: would it not be too early to recite the Shema when one sees the sun's brilliant reflection from the golden chandelier?

Queen Helene also donated a golden tablet upon which was written the sota statements.  The rabbis wonder whether it was permitted to write out verses of the Torah in this way.  In fact, the wonder whether we can even write out sections of the Torah in order to educate our children.  Some rabbis believe that this should be allowed and some believe that it is prohibited to understand the Torah as anything other than an entire document.  

I had not heard of Queen Helene before today's daf.  An image of her sarcophagus is included in the Koren notes.  I wonder what would inspire someone with power and money to convert - and to encourage her entourage to convert, as well. Was it a belief in the Jewish G-d? Or was it more complex than thatj perhaps respect for a rabbi, or love for a travelling scholar?  What was lacking in her original religious background?

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Yoma 35 a, b

Today's daf includes a number of distinct sections.  The first is the shortest amud (a) I have read since masechet Bereshit.  We learn about the word Parva.  Yesterday we had learned that the High Priest is to enter the Chamber of Parva, a sacred, outdoor chamber, as part of his Yom Kippur ritual.  The rabbis seem to believe that the word Parva refers to a Persian sorcerer.  Perhaps a Zoroastrian priest, the Parva was thought to be eager to watch the High Priest's rituals and so this sorcerer even dug a tunnel beneath the Temple to follow the High Priest.  The importance of fine linen is also discussed in this first amud.

Amud (b) begins with some interesting anecdotes regarding the linen tunic of the High Priest.  This clothing was sacred and only to be worn at specific times; the linen garments themselves had the power to sanctify members of the community.  The Gemara teaches that one rabbi's mother made him a tunic worth a large amount of money, 100 maneh.  Although it was a privately donated garment, the tunic belonged to the community following the High Priest's tasks.  Another rabbi's mother constructed a tunic that was worth 20,000 dinars.  However, it was see-through; his skin could be seen beneath the threads, though the threading was thick.  He was not permitted to wear the tunic.

The daf continues with three stories that demonstrate the importance of learning Torah.  We are told that poverty, wealth, and wickedness cannot be used as impediments to Torah study.  The connection between these two sections is via Elazar Ben Charsum whose mother made the see-through tunic.  His wealth is used as an example.

If asked in the court of Heaven why s/he didn't study more Torah, a person might say that he was too poor to study Torah.  Members of the court will ask if s/he was poorer than Hillel (the elder).  Hillel worked all day for only one-half of a dinar and then gave half of his earnings to his family and the other half to the person guarding the study hall doors.  One Shabbat eve, Hillel had had no work and thus had no money to give to the guard, and so he was turned away from the study hall.  Hillel climbed to the roof and listened at the skylight, hoping to hear words of Torah.  Much later, the rabbis in the hall noticed that the skylight was dark.  Upon the roof they found Hillel covered in three cubits of snow, a rarity in Jerusalem.  They revived him and commented on the importance of breaking Shabbat halachot for saving the life of any man - and especially Hillel.

If asked in the court of Heaven why he didn't study more Torah, a person might say that he was too wealthy to study Torah, as there were too many properties to manage.  Members of the court will ask if s/he was richer than Rabbi Elazar Ben Charsum, who was given one thousand villages.  Rabbi Eleazar travelled from town to town learning Torah; he was not known by his employees.  On one occasion, Rabbi Elazar was brought into service by his own servants.  They told him that they were arresting him in the name of Elazar Ben Charsum.

If asked by the Heavenly Court why s/he didn't study more Torah, a person might say that s/he is too wicked to study Torah - the evil inclination and his/her good looks took up too much energy and time for Torah study.  But is he more attractive than Joseph?  The Gemara tells us that Potiphar's wife tempted Joseph daily with seductive clothing changed morning and evening, with threats of jail time, with physical punishments including that which would bend him and that which would blind him.  She even offers one thousand silver coins.  For each of these, the Gemara tells us that Joseph speaks of G-d's might.  And the Gemara tells us that Joseph chooses not to submit because he knew that if he was with her in this world, he would be with her in the World-to-Come, as well.

Thus we learn that "Hillel obligates the poor, Rabbi Elazar Ben Charsum obligates the wealthy, and Joseph obligates the wicked" to study Torah.  I find it interesting that none of these people are averse to learning Torah.  Hillel craved more learning, as did Rabbi Elazar Ben Charsum.  According to the rabbis, Joseph was not overtly eager to learn Torah.  However, it would seem that he was not interested in intimacy with Potiphar's wife.

None of these examples show us the types of temptation that people typically face today. If Hillel was not interested in studying Torah but he studied nonetheless, his example would be more easily transferable.  Similarly, if Rabbi Elazar wanted to read comic books all day but instead walked from town to town studying Torah, his choices might be more inspiring. And if Joseph wanted to be intimate with Potiphar's wife - if he actually found her attractive - his resistance to temptation might be more motivational.

We end the daf with a new Mishna that describes what should be said when the bull is sacrificed.  Interestingly, the words of this Mishna are very similar to those words of the Kol Nidre prayer, which is still recited today.  I'm looking forward to learning where this is going.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Yoma 34 a, b

Again the rabbis look at the order of the High Priest's tasks on Yom Kippur.  Amud (a) focuses on other possible options ordering the offerings, libations and the incense.  Differences between the morning and afternoon services are discussed.  Again, the versions described do not match with the earlier version put forward by Abba Shaul.

In amud (b), we learn more about derivation: the afternoon libation is derived from the morning libation. Thus if the libation is not poured in the morning, it should not be poured in the afternoon.  The rabbis discuss what is meant when we learn about choosing "one" lamb.  To what does the "one" refer?  Different possibilities are debated.

Before we move on to a new Mishna, we come back to the description of an old or ill High Priest who is allowed to have heated blocks of iron placed in the Yom Kippur evening bath to warm the water.  What about the effect on the iron; hardening?  Is this action allowed on Yom Kippur, which benefits from the halachot of Shabbat?  Like regarding circumcision of a foreskin with a leprous spot, we are allowed to complete this action because it is unintentional (the hardening of the iron and the removal of the leprosy are 'side-effects').  In addition, negative, rabbinic prohibitions do not trump positive Torah law.

At the end of amud (b), we learn a new Mishna.  The High Priest is brought to the Hall of Parva, which was in the sacred Temple courtyard.  A sheet of fine linen separates him from the people so that he can sanctify his hands and feet and remove his clothing.  Rabbi Meir changes the sequence of events.  In his opinion, the High Priest first takes off his clothing, then sanctifies his hands and feet, then immerses (the second immersion), and then dries himself, changing into the white garments and sanctifying his hands and feet again.  He wore very expensive clothing - in the morning from Pelusia (Egypt) and in the afternoon from India. The rabbis disagree with the costs suggested by Rabbi Meir.  They remind us that the cost of this clothing was covered by the community, and that the High Priest could add finery if he chose.

I wonder how rich some High Priests might be... and how poor others might be.  Some rituals were said to bring wealth to the priests.   Did they need that money?  What was the cost of living when food and other necessities were provided?  Where did the families of the priests reside?  How did they make ends meet?  Sometimes I think that it would be wonderful to take on the honours associated with the Kohanim, but sometimes I think it might be more onerous than not.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Yoma 33 a, b

After my diatribe regarding the sacrifice of animals as described in yesterday's daf, today we learn a bit more: it is preferable to fully sever either the two organs in an animal or the one organ in a bird.  This is not because it causes less suffering to the creature.  It is not even because the second priest must be given the opportunity to complete the slaughter.  Instead it is because the rabbis believe that it is better to fully cut the windpipe/gullet because the blood will be allowed to flow more freely.  No blood to be sprinkled will be wasted.

I'll leave that for now.  In amud (a), the rabbis tell us a new and different order of the Temple service.  We learn in a note that this version is not considered halacha, though Abba Shaul lived through the destruction of the second Temple.  Abaye's version, described in yesterday's daf, is not the halachic version, either, though the rabbis spend some time questioning the logic of his suggestions.  A rabbinic order of events is taken as law.

During this discussion, the rabbis consider the removal of ashes from the menorah which is followed by removal of ashes from the inner Altar.  Reish Lakish shares an important thought: "ain ma'avirin al hamitzvot".  This means that it is prohibited to avoid performing a mitzvah because we are eager to perform another mitzvah.  My reading of this concept suggests that the existence of time is both a practical reality and a philosophical necessity.  We cannot put aside one mitzvah that is immediately available to us to perform another mitzvah first in a sequence of mitzvot.  Perhaps the meaning of Reish Lakish's phrase is also dependent upon knowledge of which mitzvot are somehow 'preferable'.

Amud (b) moves beyond time (well, not really) to explore the issue of place.  When we are choosing which mitzvah to perform, we are now taught to consider the order in which we encounter mitzvot.  For example, tefilin should be stored so that we see the tefilin shel yad before the tefilin shel rosh, as we are meant to don the former first.  If we see the tefilin shel rosh first, we are tempted to perform that mitzvah immediately, which is prohibited.  Similarly, the High Priest was meant to perform mitzvot in the sanctuary based upon the order in which he encountered them: first he would see the Altar, then the menorah and the table.

The remainder of amud (b) is focused on the removal of ashes and the sprinkling of blood.  Rabbis argue which was performed first and why; many proof texts are offered to support their opinions.  One interesting point that arises is Reish Lakish's hermeneutic principle regarding repetition.  He suggests that a word or phrase that is repeated without obvious reason is in fact 'misplaced'; one of the two identical words is meant to refer to another sentence.  Today's daf explores the words, "in the morning" which are repeated without an obvious reason.

It is amazing to me that the rabbis allowed each other to create rules that suited their interpretations.  Of course, we do the same continually in modern society.  We change our own rules to suit our purposes, whether those are interpretations or beliefs or ideologies.  At least the rabbis' rulebending is easy to reference and understand.  We come from a tradition that insists on integrity, even when we are far less than perfect.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Yoma 32 a, b

The rabbis want to understand exactly when the High Priest immerses, sanctifies his hands and feet, and changes his clothing, which might be golden or linen garb.  In order to do this, they have to know which services are performed on Yom Kippur and when in the day those services happen.  They must determine whether sanctification is linked to immersion, whether they occur independently, or whether they are only sometimes connected.  The rabbis wonder whether immersion is always required when moving from a inner service (in the Holy of Holies) to an outer service.  They look to the biblical directions given to Aaron as guidance.  I can follow their questions and their considerations, but I cannot repeat them back without a visual aid.  To have a maps of the Temple where I could diagram the actions of the High Priest would be incredibly helpful at this point.

The rabbis question the nature of atonement.  Perhaps the linen garb is most appropriate at services when the High Priest is attempting to maximize his humility.  Of note is the sacred quality attached to both garments, the golden and the linen.

At the end of amud (b), Rabbi Yochanan, Reish Lakish and other rabbis discuss another word in the past Mishnah, "keretz".  They decide that this word means "killing" in reference to the sheep brought to the High Priest for slaughter on Yom Kippur morning.  As we have learned, the High Priest kills the sheep by cutting the majority of the windpipe and the gullet.  Another priest completes the slaughter so that the High Priest can collect and then sprinkle the sheep's blood on the walls.

But doesn't the High Priest have to do every service on Yom Kippur?  Is it necessary for another priest to complete the slaughter, or has the High Priest done his job once the majority of the windpipe and gullet have been cut?  Reish Lakish points out that Torah law says nothing that requires another priest to complete the slaughter.  And thus we know that an animal can be slaughtered with only a hairbreadth's cut beyond half of it's windpipe and gullet.  In the case of a bird, only one of those two organs must be severed at all.

If the windpipe is only half-severed, I would imagine that an animal could continue to breathe.  So an animal could be alive as its blood is drained...?  How barbaric.  This is not the Judaism that I have learned; the Judaism that teaches that animals are slaughtered quickly and with as little pain as possible.

Now, to be honest, I have known that there are problems with my naive understanding of shechita.  And today's daf does not describe slaughter for food, but specifically slaughter for offering on Yom Kippur in the Temple.  Regardless, this disregard and disrespect for animals, who were created by G-d (according to traditional thought), is repulsive to me. I simply cannot accept that we are meant to behave with such cruelty.

Which brings me to another question: the rebuilding of the Temple.  The more I learn, the more I hope that the Temple is not rebuilt any time soon.  Fundamentalist Jews might use the rebuilding of the Temple to reopen sacrificial services.  In my opinion, even the coming of Moshiach is not worth the revival of these repugnant practices.  Anyhow, wouldn't the coming of Moshiach signify the elimination of such brutality?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Yoma 31 a, b

At the end of yesterday's daf, Rabbi Yehuda and other rabbis held different opinions regarding immersion before entering the Temple courtyard.  Rabbi Yehuda believed that immersion was not necessary while others believed that all should immerse before entering the Temple courtyard.  The case of a leper was used as an example: should the leper not immerse at all?  Should s/he immerse twice?

Today's daf continues that conversation, introducing the notion of partial entry.  The rabbis note that a leper's thumbs are not allowed to enter the Temple courtyard if the leper is still ritually impure.  Thus partial entry should not be allowed. But what about a case where someone with an extremely long knife slaughters an offering within the Temple courtyard while he has not himself entered yet?  The rabbis wish to understand whether or not one who is performing services in the Temple should immerse before entering the Temple courtyard.  The question is left unresolved.

The rabbis deduce that the height of the ground floor of the Temple is 23 cubits lower that the height of Ein Eitam, the source of water flowing to Jerusalem.  This is because we were taught in the last Mishna that the High Priest immersed five times and sanctified his hands and feet ten times on Yom Kippur.  The first of these was by his chamber, in the Gate of the Water.  Thus the rabbis can deduce measurements.  They even consider the thickness of the marble ceilings and mikvah walls.  Personally I find it very difficult to keep track of the measurements as described in the Talmud.

Amud (b) continues with the order of the High Priest's day.  He removes his linen clothes, immerses, dries off, dresses in golden clothing, partially slaughters the goat - which is finished by another priest - and collects its blood, sprinkles the blood, moves to the Sanctuary, offers the incense, removes the menorah's ashes, proceeds to the courtyard, offers the head and limbs of the sheep, and offers the daily griddle-cake and wine libations (and perhaps the meal offering of flour). In the afternoon, we know that the High Priest will offer incense again, bringing animal limbs to the Altar for further offerings.  We also learn that an old or sick priest's immersion water can be warmed with hot stones.

In attempting to understand this Mishna, the rabbis try to understand why the High Priest dries himself (perhaps to avoid the water droplets between the skin and the fabric; perhaps to avoid the pleasure of the cooling water drops thus observing the prohibition on bathing on Yom Kippur).  They wish to understand exactly when he immerses and sanctifies his hands and feet throughout the day.  Rabbi Meir holds that sanctification is related to the High Priest's change of clothing.  Through the teaching of a baraita, he understands that the High Priest must be unclothed while sanctifying his hands and feet.  Believing that this is undignified (and unwarranted based on their own baraitot), other rabbis insist that the High Priest must be clothed while sanctifying his hands and feet.

I wish that I could access the baraitot to which the rabbis continually refer.  Without knowing the context of their learnings, it is almost impossible to interpret their teachings.  I am unclear as to whether the baraitot were passed down only orally or whether they too were captured in a textual form.

Yoma 30 a, b

As I do not blog on Shabbat, here's a small note to aid my own referencing system: Daf 29 includes a discussion of Queen Esther's attractiveness.  It offers a particularly flattering comment about her womb being narrow, like that of a deer, which would obviously symbolize Ahashveros's continual attraction.

Now that my mind has been cleared of that particular image, I'll move on to today's daf.   The Gemara introduces the concept of premature services.  Rabbi Zeira, the father of Rabbi Avin and others argue about whether shewbread placed after Shabbat (late) are disqualified - they would not sit on the golden table for the seven days as required.  The conversation turns toward avoiding this situation by considering services performed at night. Are these premature services?  And if so, are the shewbread consecrated?  If they are consecrated AND placed prematurely, when might the bread be disqualified?

The conversation that follows is quite revealing.  We are told about bathroom practices in the Temple.  As we have learned already, defecation is followed by immersion.  After urination, men sanctify hands and feet with water in a basin.  Why the feet? in case of drops of urine.  Why the hands? because a hand wipes off drips that are on one's legs.  Without wiping one's legs, others might assume that one's penis has been severed and that his children must be mamzerim.

And it gets more specific.  What to do when there is excrement left on one's flesh?  Of course, reciting the Shema is prohibited in such a circumstance.  The rabbis discuss whether or not the excrement is visible, still by the anus, malodorous, or dried.  When a person leaves a meal to urinate, we are taught that it is required to wash the hand that wiped urine from the legs.  However, if a conversation interrupted this process, both hands must be washed to ensure full attention is paid to cleanliness.  In fact, hands should be washed with the table jug to publicize the practice.  Rav Chisda consider whether these rules should change if someone is drinking rather than eating.  Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak says that he can skirt the rules and wash his hands in a more private setting because all people know of his fastidiousness.

A new Mishnah notes that people should not enter the Temple courtyard for services until ritually pure and immersed.  The High Priest immersies five times and sanctifies his hands and feet ten times in the Hall of Parva on Yom Kippur.  The first immersion, however, can take place in a non-sacred place.  A sheet was held up outside of the courtyard so that the High Priest could immerse and sanctify himself with privacy.

Ben Zoma and Rabbi Yehuda offer possible reasons.  They look again to the idea of 'prematurity', like at the start of today's daf.  Does it make a difference if the priest immerses at night?  They wonder whether a High Priest who does not immerse properly might be disqualified, and whether they can learn anything about their questions from the experience of a leper.  As an aside, we learn that all people may have immersed in the Chamber of the Lepers.  The rabbis consider who must immerse, how many times, when, where... and, most interestingly to me, what the differences might be between lepers, who are accustomed to ritual impurity, and others.

Again the rabbis note delineations; categories - even as they attempt to create those categories.  

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Yoma 28 a, b

The start of daf 28 is the completion of the conversation regarding priests and non-priests performing different rituals at the Temple.  This completes Perek I.  Amud (a)  takes us into Perek II, where we begin a new Mishnah that describes the morning routine.  

Learning that light has broken, an appointed priest announces that morning has arrived as light can be seen from Hebron.  It is important to understand the time of day so that slaughtering occurs at the right time.  The High Priest is brought to the Hall of Immersion where he covers his legs (defecates) and then immerses.  We learn in this Mishnah that defecation is followed by immersion, and that urination is followed by sanctification (washing) of the hands and feet.

The Gemara begins by looking at the issue of determining the morning hour.  Rabbis consider other such determinations, including when people arise to find workers who will begin their work in the fields at dawn, and Pesach.  Using the Akedah as a proof text, Rav Safra notes that the prayers of Avraham begin later, when the sun makes dark shadows appear beside the walls.  A side argument suggests that we should not learn halacha from Avraham, as he lived before the Torah was given.  To refute this, we learn that the halacha of early morning circumcision is taken from Avraham, for he hastened to leave with Yitzchak in the morning; we had also learned from Avraham that circumcision takes place on the eighth day after birth.

But perhaps that wasn't even the difficulty!  Rava suggests that Rav Yosef had no problem with deriving halacha from Avraham.  In fact, his difficulty was with an earlier suggestion regarding the timing of an afternoon offering: we could follow Avraham's example and begin our sacrifices even earlier than suggested.

The Gemara then launches into one proof text after another regarding our learned Elders Abraham, Yitchak and Yaakov.  We are offered numerous interpretations of Biblical text that 'proove' Avraham's learned status; Yitchak's time in yeshivot.  For example, Avraham's rush to do G-d's will (the Akedah; hospitality) was because he otherwise was an elder who sat and studied long hours in a yeshiva.  Yitzchak, as well, had dim eyes in his old age (Genesis 27:1) not due to frailty or age alone but due to his Torah study (Ritva).   Yaakov, too, must have sat in the yeshivah studying, for his eyes were "heavy with age" (Genesis 48:10).

The rabbis use a particularly obscure mitzvah, the joining of cooked foods, to demonstrate that Avraham observed even the rabbinic ordinances.  As the phrase referred to my Torahs, the rabbis believed that Avraham kept the mitzvot of both the written and the oral Torah.

To observe whether or not the eastern sky was lit to Hebron, the rabbis think about one person looking from a roof and one person looking from the ground.  Each could then confirm with the other about their views of the sky. Why is this necessary?  Because occasionally moonlight would be mistaken for sunlight.

It seems that the rabbis saw moonlight as a pillar and sunlight as diffuse through the sky.  Clouds could obscure this reality, however, forcing moonlight to diffuse broadly like the sun.  They believed that the sun was most strong when diffuse and thus matzah could not be kneaded outdoors for fear of the sun's effects on rising dough.  To prove this concept of 'smaller is stronger', the rabbis suggest that the strongest smell of vinegar comes from a jar opened only slightly.

Although many of today's words are enjoyable and meaningful and 'fill the cup', they almost feel 'quaint', which is not how I like to think of our Sages.  Some of their theories have been proven wrong for hundreds of years.  Their patterns of logic that they share, however, are fascinating and simply brilliant.  I continue to wonder where they thought of their connections and proofs as creative metaphor and where they truly advocated super-natural explanations for their interpretations of the text.


Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Yoma 27 a, b

The rabbis want to understand who carries sanctified items to the Altar and who actually performs the sacred actions commanded regarding those items on or at the Altar.

The Gemara asks whether priests or non-priests are intended to perform these services.  The rabbis wonder, "is this service done for its own sake?", in which case a priest would be required to complete that action.  For every mitzvah, the rabbis determine which part of the mitzvah was intended for the priests.  For example, if placing two logs to light at the Altar is the mitzvah, then the priests must complete that action.  However, non-priests may carry the logs, one non-priest for each log. This logic extends throughout the mitzvot around Yom Kippur rituals at the Altar.

At the end of amud (a), the rabbis wonder about 'rogue' directions -- what about those mitzvot that do not match this pattern?  They speak specifically about lambs and bulls; many people would be required to carry and place - and offer - each part of these animals.

Amud (b) begins by focuses more specifically on arranging the wood.  Wouldn't a non-priest be liable to the death penalty for performing this service if it is meant to be done only by priests?  And what to do after the fact - disassemble the wood and reassemble it? Or just disassemble the wood? But if it is done at night, is it truly a Temple service?  Rabbis counter this argument put forward by Rabbi Zeira by noting the other services that are done at night.

What of nighttime services - are they bonafied Temple services?  If not, why not have non-priests help at that point?  Rabbi Yochanan had suggested that hands need not be washed again in the morning if they were washed before the service regarding incense and ashes the evening before.  Does this prove that priests only perform daytime services and thus non-priests can perform services at night?  Does it tell us that incense offerings were to be made in the day - at the end of the day, rather that in the evening?  And how does the lottery system play into these determinations?  Do bona-fied Temple services required lotteries and thus services at night required no lotteries -- or, perhaps, that the evening lottery was only introduced to the incense service due to the fighting of the priests?

So many considerations.  Toward the end of the daf, the rabbis look at the slaughtering, which is done in the morning.  They seem to agree that this is a more significant service than others, first because it is done in the morning, and also because there are a number of texts that refer to the mitzvah of slaughtering (but not to the carrying of wood, for example, as its own mitzvah).

The looming consequence of the death penalty shook me.  I take in much of this text with some degree of levity. But truly these determinations were about living and dying for our Sages.  They had to get this right; generations of lives were at stake.  I wonder if perhaps even one of the rabbis was skeptical - if one of them saw their beliefs as just one possible set of beliefs -- the Sadducees had their interpretations of Torah; who was to say that both options weren't 'right'?  But perhaps I am simply too far removed to understand the embeddedness of our Sages' ideology.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Yoma 26 a, b

Amud (a), following a gruesome description of a head and fat being presented as offering, focuses on the priestly lotteries.  It is agreed there are four daily lotteries.  Families are chosen for weekly service, and within those families, lotteries determine who completes the most lauded tasks - because they are completely consumed on the altar - burning the incense and sacrificing the burnt offering.  On Shabbat, the families would rotate service after the morning and before the afternoon watches.  This helped the rabbis to determine when the four daily lotteries were performed.

I continue to find this material confusing.  I do not understand the full workings of the lottery itself, nor do I appreciate the scope of the tasks to be done by each individual.  It is not clear to me whether families or individuals are chosen in those lotteries, and when/why each might be chosen.

Amud (b) focuses on a few specific tasks.  The water libation is not Torah-taught but 'from Moses on Sinai', meaning that it was passed down through Oral Law.  It only took place in the morning of Sukkot.  Because it was an Oral Law, of rabbinic origin, and not Torah-derived, the Sadducees did not observe this halacha. We learn about the Hasmonean Priest and King Alexander Yannai who poured the water onto his feet instead of onto the alter, causing a riot to break out where Jews threw their etrogim at the King.  The King let his gentile guards loose on to the crowd, and many were killed.

The wood offering is discussed in some detail as well.  There must have been two pieces of wood, as we learn about "eitzim", which is plural.  The rabbis try to surmize how many priests carried out and placed the wood, as the Torah refers to 'him' in the singular and plural forms at different times.

We end with a new Mishnah.  It is suggested that different animal offerings requrie different numbers of priests.  Not to flay or cut up the animal, but to put its pieces into the fire. This is derived from Torah, as the original relatives of Aaron the Priest are asked to actually burn the offerings.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Yoma 25 a, b

Using logic, the rabbis attempt to better understand the workings of the lottery system.  Continuing with questions about clothing, they wonder whether only sacred or non-sacred clothing might be worn (as we are told that the priests are wearing trousers - and what else?).  They wonder about the structure of the group, perhaps in the shape of a bracelet and perhaps in a spiral shape to ensure that noone would know where the count would end.  We learn that an outside person removes the scepter of one priest, demonstrating that he will be the first in the count.  Removing non-sacred clothing proves that non-sacred clothing was allowed! Thus the priests might have been wearing their non-sacred garb.  Also the rabbis surmise the location of the room where this happens, and that there must be door on either side of the room.  One of those doors leads to a sacred space and the other to a non-sacred space.

The rabbis are brilliant a deducing how, what, when and why.  They can piece together a reality that is believable and yet fantastical.  At the same time, they are locked in the black/white thinking of their context.  Why must sacred and non-sacred be perfectly separate?  These distinctions between things is a marker of ancient Jewish thought - but our brilliant Sages might have seen past that construction.

A new Mishna speaks of a second lottery, which invites many new questions from our rabbis.  What was determined in each lottery - was there a new lottery for each role?  What did the priests do about tasks where no specific person was chosen?  Clearly some tasks were more prestigious, more coveted, more fun.  The rabbis are concerned that people might shortcut the processes in order to avoid or prolong their work.  They are desperate to understand the precise workings of the Temple.

The rabbis determine that the person who collects the blood is the same person who sprinkles the blood.  This is confirmed when the rabbis remember that a non-priest can take part in the slaughter.  The slaughterer cannot always perform the sprinkling, while the collector of blood can - if he is also the sprinkler.

The daf ends with graphic and challenging descriptions of the preparation of animals for slaughter.  They are cut into pieces, skinned, and carried in a specific sequence to the alter, where they are burned in a particular order.  The business-like, callous descriptions of something so tremendously bloody is off-putting.  Clearly I am too far removed from the world of the rabbis to appreciate this description.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Yoma 24 a, b

How much ash should be taken out from the ashes?  A set proportion? A set amount? A handful?  Each of these opinions would involve different difficulties for the priests as they attempted to standardize their practice.  But the rabbis were the ones attempting to create these strict guidelines; we do not know the mindsets of the priests themselves.

In their discussion of which rituals are permitted to be performed by non-priests, we learn that sprinkling blood, burning incense or animal parts, pouring water (on Sukkot), and pouring wine libations on the alter were punishable by death if done by non-priests.  Some add that removing ashes results in the same penalty.  The rabbis try to understand if "everything pertaining" to the altar refers to the ashes.  They look at other specific words, including "a service of giving" and "a service of removal".  They wonder whether we are dealing with a generalization followed by a specification, which would require a different protocol in determining halacha.

The rabbis try to understand what is including in "service".  Which action is the important action; the action that is both required and is punished with death or karet if it is not performed.  Lighting the menorah is an interesting example, as there are so many tasks involved: placing the wicks, pouring the oil, lighting the wicks, lighting the fire, laying out the kindling chips, etc.  The rabbis play games with words to ensure that they understand the directives of the the Torah.  But they tie themselves in knots.  And because they are looking at things punishable by death or excommunication, this is serious business.

Finally, the rabbis turn back to the garments worn by the priests as they participate in the lotteries that determine their daily service.  The rabbis do not seem to think highly of the priests, for they suggest that the priests will fight, push, and even run against halacha toward doing a 'mitzvah' if they are fully dressed in their priestly garb while the lottery is happening.  These priests seem to be quite unworthy of their roles as spiritual leaders.  We are told that they hurt each other and that they forsake Torah law in the name of their own glory.  I wonder if the rabbis intended to speak of priests in this light.  Perhaps this was the commonly held belief about priests at that time.  Or perhaps the rabbis were asserting their own moral fortitude by suggesting that the priests were of lower character.

Or perhaps I am misreading...