Introduction to Masechet Yoma

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08 Jun 2006

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by: Dr. David Katzin in memory of Jack and Eva Katzin, z”l

Masechet Yoma deals with the most unique day on the Jewish calendar – Yom ha-Kippurim – the Day of Atonement. When the Temple stood, Yom ha-Kippurim was the focal point of the three highest levels of kedusha (holiness) in Judaism: the holiness of time, place and person.

The holiness of time is exhibited in the purification and atonement offered on this day. The holiness of place refers to the Temple service that takes place in the kodesh kodashim – the Holy of Holies – where no one can step foot on any other day. And, the holiness of person is embodied by the kohen gadol – the High Priest – who presides over the Yom Kippur service.

Given the focus of the day on these aspects of kedusha, the majority of our Masechet deals with the Temple service, the descriptions of the complicated sacrifices brought on this day and the preparations of the kohen gadol. Only a small part of the tractate is devoted to the rules and regulations of Yom Kippur as it affects the masses. As such, while the Masechet appears in Seder Mo’ed, as it deals with one of the holidays on the Jewish calendar, its contents are more appropriate for Seder Kodashim where the laws of the sacrificial service are examined. These laws make up a large proportion of the Torah, and their importance is reflected in the Rabbinic statement indicating that the Temple service is one of the pillars that supports the world (see Mishnah Avot 1:2). Even after the destruction of the Temple, the centrality of the sacrifices remains as a statement of the intimate connection that exists between God and the Jewish people.

The connection between the individual who brings the korban, the kohen who sacrifices it, and the altar, which represents God’s presence and participation, symbolizes the partnership between man and God. Some sacrifices (the chatat – sin offering – is a good example) are brought as a sign of repentance, and the blood of the sacrifice, representing his soul, is sprinkled on the mizbe’ach while the meat is eaten by the kohanim. When other sacrifices are brought (a shelamim, for example), the owner of the korban, the kohanim and the altar itself all receive portions of the sacrifice, sharing in a celebration of unity and brotherhood. The entire Temple service is a series of symbols, only some of which are clear to us; nevertheless it is clear that the sacrifices are an attempt to draw closer to God and interact with him in a variety of different ways.

The unique service on Yom Kippur took place throughout the Temple grounds, but its focal point was the Kohen Gadol entering the kodesh kodashim to burn the incense and to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices, in order to effect atonement for the Jewish people and purify them. The preparations for entering the domain of the Temple that is set aside for God, including his purification, the special uniform that he wore, the sacrifices that were to be brought on his own behalf and for the Jewish people, are all part-and-parcel of the avodah – the service of this special day – which culminates in the atonement and purification of the people.

The background for all this is, of course, the day itself, referred to by the Torah as Shabbat Shabbaton – the Sabbath of Sabbaths. On this day there is no mundane work, neither do we pursue normal daily activities like eating and drinking; similarly we avoid certain pleasures of this world. On Yom Kippur we leave our normal lives behind and aspire to a higher level of existence, turning to God in expectation of forgiveness.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.