Masechet Yoma 16a-22b

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20 Jun 2006

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

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Yoma 16a-b

Much of this daf (=page) is devoted to a description of the plan of the Temple Mount itself, with detailed descriptions of the area from the ezrat yisrael (=Court of the Israelites) and south of it. The furthest north that a Jewish person who was not a kohen could enter was the ezrat yisrael. Kohanim were allowed in the ezrat kohanim (=the Priests’ Courtyard), as well. Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’akov reported on the set-up of the Temple:

The ezrat nashim was an open square of 135 cubits by 135 cubits. In each corner of the square were small, open courtyards, each of which was 40 square cubits. Each of these courtyards served a specific purpose:

With all the detail that appears in the Gemara, there are still a number of things that are left unexplained. For example, the azara – an area that included not only the altar, but the area of the slaughterhouse, as well – is not clearly detailed.  The Gemara teaches that the altar was in the middle of the azara, opposite the entrance to the Holy and the Holy of Holies (see diagram).  Since there had to be room for the apparatus of the slaughterhouse, including taba’ot (=rings to hold the animals), shulhanot (=tables on which the animals were butchered), and nanasim (=hooks on which the animals were hung), the Rambam explains that only part of the altar was opposite the entrance to the ulam and the heichal. The kevesh (=ramp) leading to the mizbe’ah was to the south, leaving room on the northern side for the tables, rings and hooks.

Yoma 17a-b

In the second perek (=chapter) of Masechet Yoma we will learn how the different jobs in the Temple were divided up among the kohanim who were working in the Mikdash at a given time. As we learned earlier (14a), the Mishnah in our perek teaches that during the week before Yom Kippur it is the kohen gadol who burns the ketoret, arranges the menorah, and sacrifices the korban tamid (=“perpetual” daily offering) on the altar. The Mishnah adds that throughout the year it is the prerogative of the kohen gadol to choose which korbanot he wants to sacrifice and be the first to choose his portion from the korbanot.

The Gemara on our daf (=page) quotes a baraita that describes how the kohen gadol would walk through the Temple and claim the right to sacrifice a given korban by saying, “I will sacrifice that Olah” or “I will sacrifice that Mincha.” He chooses what portion he will receive by saying, “I will eat that Chatat” or “I will eat that Asham.” Similarly, he receives one of the two loaves that are brought on Shavuot and four or five of the loaves of showbread that is distributed weekly from the shulchan. Rebbi‘s position is that he always gets five, since he deserves half of the ten loaves that are distributed, based on the passage in Vayikra 24:9 “And it shall be for Aharon and his sons,” which he understands to mean that Aharon (the High Priest) shares equally with his sons (the other kohanim).

The Rashash points out that there is support for the idea that the kohen gadol received five loaves of the lehem ha-panim from the story related in Sefer Shmuel (21:4) when David is running away from King Shaul, and arrives in Nov, the city of kohanim. Upon asking for food, Achimelech, who was apparently the kohen gadol at the time, tells David that he only has “holy bread.” David agrees to take the lehem ha-panim (after assuring Achimelech that his men are in a state of ritual purity), and he receives the five loaves that he requested.

Yoma 18a-b

The Mishnah on our daf (=page) teaches about the kohen gadol‘s final preparations before the Yom Kippur service. Aside from reviewing the text of the commandments as described in the Torah (Vayikra 16), the sages would also bring him the various types of animals that were going to be sacrificed so that he would be able to practice. They also monitored his diet on erev Yom Kippur, limiting the amount of food that he ate so that he would not become tired.

The Gemara quotes a series of baraitot that describe other limitations that were placed on his diet. Among the items that are mentioned – milk products, eggs, and wine – are things that the sages feared might bring about a seminal emission, which would make him tamei (=ritually defiled) and unable to perform the avodah – the Temple service.

The Jerusalem Talmud asks why this is a concern, since the Talmud lists ten miracles that took place in the Temple during its years of operation (see Yoma 21a), and one of them was that the High Priest never became a ba’al keri (someone who experiences a seminal emission). The first answer given simply explains that, in general, we cannot rely on miracles and need to do our utmost to avoid potentially dangerous situations. The second answer given distinguishes between the first Temple, when the priests were on a high level, and the second Temple, when they were not deserving of such miracles.

Another food that was restricted was the gargir. Eruca sativa, popularly known as “rocket salad,” is an annual grass that grows to a height of 10-60 centimeters. During the second Temple period the seeds of this plant were used in place of mustard. It grew both as a domesticated plant and in the wild throughout Israel. In several places in the Talmud it is mentioned as being a particularly good
medicine for the eyes.

Yoma 19a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Herman Greenberg (30 Sivan)

According to the Mishnah (18b), when the preparations of the kohen gadol were done, he was transferred by the sages to the priestly elders who had him take an oath that his performance of the service would be done according to the teachings of the Sages. The Mishnah concludes that following the oath, both the kohen gadol and the elders who executed it turned away and cried.

The Gemara on our daf (=page) explains why each of them cried.

The kohen gadol cried because he was suspected of belonging to a sectarian group, the Tzedukim. The Tzedukim were one of a number of sects that lived during second Temple times, who had different interpretations of the passages that described the avodat Yom ha-Kippurim (=Day of Atonement service), and they wanted to ensure that he would carry out the service properly. It was a particular concern because some of the essential parts of the service took place in the Holy of Holies where no one could see what was being done aside from the High Priest himself.

According to our Gemara, the elders cried because they were forced into a situation where they had to actively suspect someone of bad intentions, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught that someone who suspects another without cause will suffer for having done so. According to the Jerusalem Talmud the elders cried because of the deterioration of the second Temple period, when even the High Priest could not be trusted to carry out the Temple service properly.

The main argument between the sages and the Tzedukim revolved around the definition of the passage (Vayikra 16:2) “for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.” The Tzedukim interpreted this to mean that the incense cloud of the ketoret had to be lit by the kohen before entering the Holy of Holies (the Sages understood that the ketoret was lit only after the kohen gadol was inside). According to the Me’iri, lighting the ketoret outside appears to be a form of avodah zara, as it looks like the kohen is lighting the incense to honor a power outside the kodesh kodashim as well as the One inside the Holy of Holies.

Yoma 20a-b

On Yom Kippur, as on every day, the very first activity in the Temple was terumat ha-deshen – removing ash from the altar. The Mishnah on our daf (=page) teaches that on an ordinary day, the terumat ha-deshen took place around the time of keriyat ha-gever, but on Yom Kippur it was done earlier, at about midnight.

The Gemara asks a simple question of definition. What is keriyat ha-gever?

Two answers are offered by the Gemara:

Some of the commentaries understand that this is a question of semantics, and that the time of the terumat ha-deshen would be the same, no matter how the term keriyat ha-gever is defined. The Me’iri, however, argues that the crowing of the rooster begins well before the official time, and that there is a practical difference between the opinions of Rav and Rabbi Sheila. Our Gemara does not reach a conclusion about this argument. In the Jerusalem Talmud a proof is brought to support Rav. It appears that the name of the individual whose job it was to announce the time for the terumat ha-deshen was “ben gever,” which could not possibly mean that he was the son of a rooster. Others point out that the halakhah at the time the Temple was standing forbade raising chickens in Jerusalem, making it more likely that the term keriat ha-gever refers to the man’s announcement.

Following this argument, the Gemara recounts an incident where Rav was visiting Rabbi Sheila’s community, and there was no amora there at the time to present Rav Sheila’s lecture, so Rav stepped in to do so. When Rabbi Sheila taught our Mishnah, which says that the terumat ha-deshen takes place at the time of keri’at ha-gever, Rav translated it according to his own opinion – that it referred to the person who announced the time. This led Rabbi Sheila to enter into a discussion with him, until he realized that Rav had taken the position of amora on his behalf.

It was common practice in the time of the Mishnah and the Gemara that the head of the academy would lecture while sitting, usually in Hebrew. It was the task of the amora, or meturgeman, to translate the lecture into Aramaic and repeat it in a loud voice to the listeners. The sages of the Gemara called themselves amora’im because they saw their job as merely clarifying and translating the teachings of the true masters – the tanna’im.

Yoma 21a-b

Rav Yehudah taught in the name of Rav that when the Jewish people came to Jerusalem to fulfill the commandment of aliya la-regel on the holidays of Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, there was always enough space for everyone to bow at the appropriate time, even though there was little room on the Temple grounds and people needed to stand close together. This was one of the ten miracles that are
recorded by the Mishnah in Masechet Avot (see Chapter 5).

These miracles include:

Although these are all described as miracles, in his commentary on Aggadah, Shem-Tov ibn Shaprut argues that they can all be explained rationally.  In his opinion, these “miracles” were not unnatural events, but rather it was the care and concern engendered by the holiness of the Mikdash that kept these things from taking place. For example, the kohanim were so careful and committed to their work that they made sure that the sacrifices were brought in a timely fashion to prevent the meat from spoiling or attracting flies, the communal sacrifices were never found to have problems, and the kohen gadol never became impure. Jerusalem was such a popular and busy place that snakes and scorpions never found ruins or abandoned areas to breed. And thanks to the high level of friendliness and concern for others, the people looked out for one another and made sure that there was always room for everyone.

Yoma 22a-b

There is a long-standing debate among the commentaries as to whether the kohen gadol performed every part of the Temple service on Yom Kippur, or if other kohanim participated in performing parts of the service that are not directly connected with the unique avodat Yom ha-Kippurim (=Day of Atonement service). The Ramban argues that the second perek (=chapter) of Masechet Yoma, which begins on our daf (=page), appears to support the position that other kohanim were involved as well, since the entire discussion in the perek revolves around how to choose which kohen will perform what part of the avodah. Others argue that this is simply a discussion of the procedure that took place on other days, and it is brought here as a tangent, since the last Mishnah in the first perek discussed terumat ha-deshen, or cleaning the ash off of the altar.

In any case, the Mishnah on our daf teaches that there was a race every morning in the Temple, as all of the kohanim interested in performing the terumat ha-deshen would line up and race up the ramp to the top of the altar. The one who arrived first had the honor of cleaning the ash. The Mishnah tells of the excitement that surrounded this race, which led to an incident where one of the kohanim was jostled while running up the ramp and broke his leg as a result of falling down.  From then on they switched to a lottery system instead.

The Me’iri explains that this curious method of choosing the kohen stemmed from the fear that no one would want to perform this particular avodah, as cleaning the ash from the altar hardly seems to be a great honor. Nevertheless, other commentaries ask how such a contest could be instituted in the Temple, a place where an atmosphere of solemnity should prevail. The Tosafot Yeshanim explain that this wasn’t a normal race. In fact, the kohanim were obligated to walk up the ramp as they ordinarily did, placing heel in front of toe and again, heel in front of toe. The kohen who succeeded in doing this most quickly in a dignified manner was crowned the winner and rewarded with the opportunity to clear the altar to begin the day’s Temple service.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

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