Masechet Yoma 37a-43b

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13 Jul 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.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, The Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan

Yoma 37

The Mishnah on our daf describes the preparations for the lottery that took place during the Yom Kippur service, where the kohen gadol drew lots to determine which of the goats would be sacrificed on the mizbe’ach and which would be the scapegoat, who would be sent to Azazel.  The Mishnah records that a kohen gadol named ben Gamla exchanged the traditional wooden pieces that were used for the lottery with golden ones, an action that met with the approval of the Sages.

The kohen gadol about whom this story is told is Yehoshua ben Gamla, who served in the mikdash towards the end of the second Temple period. While he was still an ordinary kohen, he married the wealthy widow, Martha bat Baytus, who used her influence and affluence to arrange for him to be appointed kohen gadol. Although the Sages berated him for the means that he used to receive the appointment, they acknowledged his positive accomplishments in that position. Aside from the story in the Mishnah, Yehoshua ben Gamla is best known for his role in establishing a public school system in which every Jewish child, rich or poor, would be able to study, commenting that were it not for his efforts, the Torah would have been forgotten.

It appears that he can be identified with the kohen gadol Yehoshua ben Gamliel, who was among the last of the kohanim gedolim, who was killed during the destruction of the Temple.

The mention of Ben Gamla’s contribution to the mikdash leads the Mishnah to enumerate a number of other individuals who made other changes that were praised by the Sages. Among them were King Monbaz, who donated money so that the handles of all of the vessels used in the Yom Kippur service were made of gold, and his mother, Queen Heleni who contributed a golden chandelier to be hung at the entrance of the Temple.

Heleni was the queen of Adiabene, a small kingdom in the north of Syria on the banks of the Euphrates. In the generation prior to the destruction of the second Temple, Heleni, together with her sons Monbaz and Izates, began to study Torah with Jews who traveled through their kingdom, and eventually converted to Judaism. It appears that other members of the ruling elite did so, as well. Heleni visited Jerusalem a number of times and made donations both to the Temple and to the destitute people living there. Her children followed in her footsteps, and even sent troops to support the Jewish uprising during the Great Revolt.

Yoma 38

Following the previous Mishnah (37a) that complimented the people whose contributions to the Temple enhanced its service, the Mishnah on our daf lists individuals whose behavior was criticized by the Sages. Among them are two families of kohanim – Bet Garmu, who were responsible for baking the lechem ha-panim (show bread) and Bet Avtinas, who were responsible for the ketoret (incense). The condemnation of both of these families focused on their refusal to share the knowledge of their craft with others.

The Gemara on our daf relates that in each case the Sages removed them from their positions and brought in experts from Alexandria in Egypt who were to teach how to do these things. In each case the experts could not create the same effect as the priestly families – they could not bake bread that would not become moldy, nor could they succeed in creating an incense whose smoke would rise in a straight line to the heavens – and the Sages eventually had to return them to their original positions – with a significant raise in their salaries.

In their defense, the baraita record their explanation for their behavior – that they feared that with the ultimate destruction of the Temple this knowledge would be put to mundane uses if too many people knew about it.

Rabbi Akiva records the story told to him by Rabbi Yishmael ben Loga, who once was picking herbs with the descendant of the Avtinas family, who began to cry and to laugh. He explained that he had seen the plant that was used to make the ketoret rise directly upwards, which reminded him of the loss of his family’s prestige, but encouraged him to believe that it would be returned one day in the future. When asked to point it out, he refused saying that the family had sworn never to reveal the secret to others.

The plant seen by the descendant of Bet Avtinas is referred to as ma’aleh ashan. Although the tradition identifying this plant has apparently been lost over the centuries, the generally accepted identification is with a weed called leptadenia pyrotechnica, a plant that grows in the southern part of the Jordan Valley and in the northern Sinai. This plant ignites very easily, and local Arabs have used it to make gunpowder and explosives. Lighting even one branch of the bush will cause it to burn up entirely in a very short amount of time, with flames reaching as high as ten meters.

Yoma 39

Having finished describing the preparations for the avodah, the fourth perek of Masechet Yoma begins on our daf with a portrayal of the service itself, beginning with the lottery where the kohen gadol drew lots to determine which of the goats would be sacrificed on the mizbe’ach and which would be the scapegoat, which would be sent to Azazel. The kohen gadol stood with his assistant to his right and the head of the family of kohanim who were serving in the Temple to his left. If the lot indicating that the animal was to be sacrificed to God appeared in his right hand, the assistant would call out “raise your right hand.” If it appeared in his left hand, the head of the family of kohanim would say “raise your left hand.”

The Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches that for the forty years that Shimon ha-Tzaddik served as the kohen gadol, the lottery always came out with the animal to be sacrificed in his right hand. After his death, it occasionally came out in the right hand and occasionally in the left. The baraita continues with a list of other miraculous events that took place during Shimon ha-Tzaddik’s tenure and stopped after his passing.

It is difficult to identify Shimon ha-Tzaddik with certainty, since there were two kohanim – a grandfather and grandson – who were both named Shimon ben Honyo. It is possible that both of them were called by this name.

According to the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, Shimon ha-Tzaddik was one of the last members of the Anshei Knesset ha-Gedolah, and from him begin the traditions of the Sages who we identify by name. The Talmud is replete with stories of his piety.

His contemporary, Shimon ben Sira waxes eloquent when describing Shimon ha-Tzaddik

The greatest among his brothers and pride of his people…

Who is concerned for his people, and strengthens them when threatened…

How beautiful he is when he steps out from behind the parochet (curtain),

As a shining star among the trees and as the full moon on a Holy day…

(Ben Sira 49)

It is clear that even during his lifetime he was held in great esteem by his peers.

Yoma 40

We learned previously (daf 39) that a number of miracles took place in the Temple during the time that Shimon ha-Tzaddik was serving as the kohen gadol. One of them was that the lottery always ended up with the animal that was to be sacrificed to God coming up in his right hand.

The Gemara on our daf records a baraita which describes how Rabbi Akiva‘s students asked him whether it would have been recommended for other kohanim gedolim who found that the lottery for the sacrifice came up in their left hand to switch it to their right hand. Rabbi Akiva’s response was an enigmatic “do not allow the minim the opportunity to rule.”

During the latter part of the second Temple period there were sects of Jews who strayed from the traditional path of the Sages on one level or another. Among these minim were the early Christians, but mainly it was a variety of Gnostic sects. While there were major differences between the groups, all of them were similar in their rejection of the tradition as it was taught by the Sages. Among their accusations against the Sages was the claim that the Sages did not truly follow the Torah properly.

The simple meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s statement was that he wanted to defend the Sages from the accusation that they did as they chose. Rabbenu Chananel explains that if the lottery always turned up in the kohen gadol’s right hand, this may – in their minds – offer support to those sects who believed that there was two powers ruling the world, God and Azazel. Were the lottery to always appear in the kohen gadol’s right hand, that would show the supremacy of God over His “rival” – Azazel. Since it sometimes came up in the left hand, their “proof” was destroyed.

The Meiri‘s explanation is that the minim would argue that the Sages were engaged in witchcraft and magic, were the lottery always to appear in the kohen gadol’s right hand, so it was important that it should be presented honestly.

Yoma 41

We learned previously (daf 39) that a number of miracles took place in the Temple during the time that Shimon ha-Tzaddik was serving as the kohen gadol. One of them was that the lashon shel zehorit – the red ribbon that was tied around the head of the scapegoat and the neck of the goat that was to be sacrificed – always turned white after the scapegoat was sent off to Azazel, indicating that the Yom Kippur service has been successful in obtaining atonement for the people.

The Mishnah on our daf describes how the lashon shel zehorit was placed on the two animals. In the Gemara, Rav Dimi quotes Rabbi Yochanan as teaching that there were two other occasions where a lashon shel zehorit was used, in the case of a metzorah (someone suffering from Biblical leprosy), where it was used as part of the purification process (see Vayikra 14:4), and in the case of a parah adumah (the red heifer) where it was used as one of the ingredients for making ashes that would be used in the purification process (see Bamidbar 19:6). In both of those cases, the Biblical sheni tola’at is identified with the lashon shel zehorit.

This lashon shel zehorit [literally “a tongue of red”] was a bundle of combed wool that was rolled into the shape of a tongue, and dyed red (carmine) with a crimson pigment derived from cochineal insect. These insects are found infesting various types of wood, and its blood is the source of this dye.

One of the questions raised by the commentaries is how was placing this ribbon on the animal permitted, wouldn’t it be considered making use of an animal that belongs to the Temple, which is forbidden. The answer that is presented is that since this was done so that the Jewish people could get the satisfaction of seeing that the sacrifice was successful, and furthermore it is not true “work” to have a ribbon around an animal’s neck or head, it is permitted.

Yoma 42

Although we know that the entire Yom Kippur service is performed by the kohen gadol, nevertheless, Rav believes that he need not be the one who slaughters his par – the bull that is brought as a sacrifice by the kohen gadol. Rav explains that shechita – slaughtering – is not actually considered avodah, thus is can be done by anyone, even someone who is not a kohen.

At the same time, Rav rules that a parah adumah – the red heifer that is burned and whose ashes are used as part of the purification process for someone who came into contact with a dead body (see Bamidbar 19) – can only be slaughtered by a kohen. This is true, even though a parah adumah is not considered to be a korban at all. It is not slaughtered in the precincts of the Temple, rather on the Mount of Olives, and is considered kodshei bedek ha-bayit – holiness that stems from its use for the Temple, not an actual sacrifice.

This anomaly is explained by Rav Shisha the son of Rav Idi, who compares the case of parah adumah to the case of marot nega’im – evaluating the signs of leprosy. Evaluating marot nega’im is not an avodah – it is not part of the Temple service – but is still cannot be done by anyone aside from a kohen.

The Torah describes Biblical leprosy as a condition that can only be evaluated by a kohen. When a person sees a mark on his body that he suspects might be a nega tzara’at – a sign of leprosy – he shows it to a kohen who decides whether the nega should be disregarded, kept watch on, or declared to be leprosy. Even in generations where kohanim were not expert in evaluating the nega’im, they played an essential role. The trained Rabbi who examined the spot would offer his opinion about whether the nega was in fact leprosy, or not. In any case, the person remained tahor until such time as the kohen – basing himself on the recommendation of the Rabbi – would declare the individual to be ritually impure.

Based on this we can conclude that there are halakhot that are the unique purview of the kohen, even though they are not connected directly with the Temple service. Rav suggests that parah adumah is a similar case.

Yoma 43

The Gemara has been discussing the rules for the preparation of a parah adumah – a red heifer – which is burned and its ashes used in the act of purifying someone who has become ritually defiled by coming into contact with a dead body (see Bamidbar 19). Aside from the inherent difficulty that exists in understanding this halakha, our Gemara records that the text of Bamidbar 19 is very difficult to decipher using the ordinary methods used by the Sages.

Rabbi Assi reports in the Gemara that when Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish would study the laws of parah adumah, they barely succeeded in coming up with any new insights. The expression that Rabbi Assi used was that they only came up “with the footprints of a fox on a plowed field.” This expression refers to the fact that a fox’s footprints are among the smallest ones found in nature. This is due to the fact that a fox walks on its toes, and since a fox is very light and quick, it barely leaves an impression in the soil.

The difficulty faced by the Sages was that ordinarily a methodology of Midrash can be applied to each parsha in the Torah that allows the Sages to move beyond the simple meaning of the text and derive more halakhot based on this methodology. With regard to parah adumah there is no single method that can be applied to the entire parsha, making it very difficult to go beyond the established tradition in interpreting the text.

Nevertheless, the Gemara does present some of the traditional interpretations of the parashah. For example, the parsha commands that the heifer be given to Elazar ha-Kohen. Who will play this role in the future? Can it only be a kohen gadol? Perhaps, as is the case with regard to sacrifices in general, even someone who is not a kohen can be the one who slaughters the animal. These are some of the questions discussed by the Gemara.

The Gemara is certain that participation in preparation of the parah adumah is limited to men, and women are excluded. Similarly, a tumtum or androgenus cannot participate. Both of these groups are people whose gender is unclear, the tumtum because we cannot tell whether it is a man or a woman, and the androgenus who shows both male and female sexual organs.

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.