Masechet Yoma 51a-57b

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Kohen Gadol
27 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 51

How did the kohen gadol enter the Holy of Holies to perform the Yom Kippur service?

The Mishnah on our daf  presents the opinion of the Tanna Kamma, who believes that the Holy of Holies was separated from the kodesh by a double curtain. The kohen gadol would enter the cubit-wide space between the two curtains, walk the width of the Temple, and enter the kodesh kodashim. The double curtain was introduced in the Second Temple to replace the wall that existed in the first Temple, which was an amah thick. Rashi explains that since the second Temple was much taller than the first Temple, and the wall could not be thicker than a single cubit, it was impossible to build the wall so high, and it was replaced by the curtains. The idea of using a curtain came from the Mishkan, where there was a single curtain separating the different areas of the kodesh. Rabbi Yossi argues with the Tanna Kamma, claiming that even during second Temple times there was just a single curtain.

The Gemara quotes three opinions about how the kohen gadol crossed the area of the kodesh, which included the menorah, the mizbe’ach and the shulchan.

According to Rabbi Yehuda the kohen gadol walked between the menorah and the mizbe’ach.

According to Rabbi Meir, he walked between the shulchan and the mizbe’ach

Rabbi Yossi suggests that he walked between the shulchan and the northern wall.

The Gemara explains that the difference between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi is based on their different opinions about which side of the Temple had the opening in the curtain. Rabbi Meir’s opinion is based on his understanding of how the table was placed, and the concern that there was not enough room for the kohen gadol to walk along the wall.

When the first Temple was built, King Solomon added ten extra tables to the Biblically mandated shulchan. According to most opinions, these additional shulchanot did not exist in the second Temple, and there was certainly room for the kohen gadol to walk between them table and the wall. Nevertheless the tanna’im still argue, since the traditions of the first Temple were still kept during the second Temple period.

Yoma 52

After describing how the kohen gadol would walk between the curtains in order to enter the Holy of Holies, the Mishnah on our daf teaches that he would put the shovel containing the coals between the poles of the aron (the Ark of the Covenant).

The Gemara attempts to understand whether the Mishnah is discussing the first or the second Temple. As we learned on the previous daf, in the first Temple, there were no curtains, but a wall. In the second Temple, however, there was no aron!?

The Gemara explains that the Mishnah means to say that the kohen gadol placed the shovel in the place where the aron was supposed to be, and that it is discussing the second Temple period.

Why was there no aron in the second Temple? The Gemara quotes a baraita that the  aron had been hidden away towards the end of the first Temple period by King Yoshiyahu, who understood that the passage (Devarim 28:36) which described the exile was referring to his time.  The Radak, in fact, explains that this is the passage that was highlighted in the sefer Torah discovered during Yoshiyahu’s reign (see the story in II Melakhim 22).

Our Gemara teaches that according to that tradition, several other items that were on display in the Temple were concealed together with the ark. They included the container of manna, Aharon the high Priest’s staff and the shemen ha-mish’chah, the pitcher of oil used for anointing.

The shemen ha-mish’hah was made from afarsimon (which may be identical to the tzari mentioned in the Torah), which was, apparently the plant Commiphora apobalsamum. This is a small tree or shrub that stands from 10 to 12 feet high, with wand-like, spreading branches. The best perfume that can be extracted from it drips from the seeds, but it is usually produced by boiling the branches. The oil that is extracted from this plant was occasionally used as a medicine, but more as incense or perfumed oil. The afarsimon was considered so valuable that at one point it was literally worth its weight in gold.

The shemen ha-mish’ha was used to anoint kings and high priests. The Rosh points out that the need to anoint the high priest is a clear passage in the Torah (see Shemot 30:30), but there appears to be a prohibition to use the oil on any other person (see Shemot 30:32). How was the decision made to use this oil on kings, as well?

He answers that the Gemara in Megilla understands that it is only forbidden to use this oil on a normal person. The king is not simple an adam (man) and therefore he does not fall into the category of the prohibition.

Yoma 53

The Mishnah (52b) taught that having placed the coals and the incense in the Holy of Holies, the kohen gadol would back out of the kodesh kodashim the way he came, and, having completed his task, would say a short prayer.

The Gemara explains that it was necessary to walk out backwards out of respect to God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. Based on this, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani quotes Rabbi Yonatan as teaching that anyone who left the Temple precincts did not turn his back on it, rather walked sideways as they left. Similarly a student who takes leave of his teacher should not turn his back on him, rather he should walk sideways. The Si’ach Yitzhak explains that it is difficult – and potentially dangerous – for someone to actually walk backwards, which is why the halakhah is to walk away with one’s head still facing the Temple (or
teacher) as they leave.

A related halakhah is taught by Rabbi Alexandri in the name of Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi, that when someone finishes the daily amidah prayer, he should take three steps back. Several explanations are given for these three steps.

According to the Geonim, a person who is praying is surrounded by four cubits of Divine presence. When he completes his prayers he must step out of that setting by walking back three steps (three steps from the middle of four amot (cubits) would remove him from that area). Rav Yosef Karo in his Bet Yosef quotes Rav Hai Gaon as explaining that this relates to the three levels of stones that were on the eastern side on which the kohanim walked up and down. The Gra and the Maharsha relate this to the story that the Gemara tells about Nebuchadnezzar who honored God by taking three steps on his behalf, for which he received great reward. According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 96a) Nebuchadnezzar served as a secretary and scribe for a previous Babylonian monarch. Once, when Nebuchadnezzar was absent from work, another one of the royal scribes drafted a letter to be sent to the king of Yehuda, Chizkiyahu. The letter began: “Greetings to King Chizkiyahu! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to the great God!”

When Nebuchadnezzar returned to work and discovered how the letter was written, he objected, saying “you call Him ‘the great God,’ and then you mention Him last?!”

Nebuchadnezzar insisted that the letter be redone, writing: “Greetings to the great God! Greetings to the city of Jerusalem! Greetings to king Chizkiyahu!”

The problem was that the messenger had already been dispatched to Jerusalem with the first version of the letter in his hand. Nebuchadnezzar ran out to call the messenger back and redo the letter, running three steps to catch the messenger. The Talmud credits this behavior for his ascension to power.

Yoma 54

The discussion of the aron and its place in the first and second Temples leads the Gemara to discuss its appearance and its ultimate fate.

Rav Ketina taught that when the Jewish people came to Jerusalem on the festivals, the kohanim would roll back the curtain to the Holy of Holies, allowing them to gaze upon the keruvim (the cherubs) on top of the ark. The keruvim were seen embracing one another and the kohanim would explain that they represented the relationship between God and the Jewish People, which was as significant and real as the love of a man and a woman.

The Gemara attempts to clarify whether this story is told about the first Temple or the second one. We have already learned that there was no curtain in the first Temple, since the Holy of Holies was separated by a solid wall, yet there was no aron – and so, no keruvim – in the Second Temple.

A number of answers are given by the Gemara to this question. Rav Aha bar Yaakov says that the story took place during the second Temple period, and what the people were shown were not the actual keruvim, but a painting, as is indicated by the passages in I Melakhim (6:29, 35 and 7:36).

The Me’iri explains that the “embrace” discussed here was the wings of the
touching one-another, which represented the relationship between God
and the Jewish people. Throughout the books of navi this relationship is described by use of the symbolism of a man and a woman.

Reish Lakish teaches that when the first Temple was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar, they entered the Holy of Holies and saw the keruvim embracing, they perceived it as something sensual, if not pornographic. They carried the aron out to the marketplace and made fun of the Jews for involving themselves in such things (see Eicha 1:8).

The commentaries ask how this could have taken place, given that the Gemara teaches that the keruvim embraced only when the Jewish people were keeping the commandments. During the time when the Temple was being destroyed, certainly they were not on “good terms” with God!? Several answers are given. Some suggest that this happened specifically so that the Jews would be publicly embarrassed. Another explanation is that this referred to the painting, which always portrayed the relationship in its ideal situation. Finally, there are those who suggest that at the moment the Temple was destroyed the Jewish people had been punished – and forgiven, so their relationship with God had been repaired.

Yoma 55

The general principle that the Gemara works with is that kohanim zerizin hem – that kohanim in the Temple are always careful and efficient in their work. Nevertheless, the Mishnah (53b) presents the position of Rabbi Yehuda that there was only one stand upon which the blood could be put down, because were there to be two stands, one for the blood of the par (bull) and one for the blood of the se’ir (goat) it would be possible to mistake one for the other, and the wrong blood may be sprinkled.

The Gemara suggests that Rabbi Yehuda will not even rely on attaching labels to the different stands, because he does not suggest that two stands could be made with each of them clearly demarcated.

One place where clear designations were accepted in the mikdash was the shofarot – collection boxes for a variety of sacred purposes.

Money was collected for use in the Bet ha-Mikdash in different ways. There were actually 13 collection boxes, which were called shofarot because they were shaped like a shofar – a ram’s horn – with one end small enough for a coin to be placed into it and a larger end where the coins could be removed. (They were made in this way so that no one who came to deposit money would be suspected of stealing.) Each shofar was marked with the purpose of its money, so that no mistakes would be made. For example, one said “new shekalim” for the monies that were deposited for the fiscal year beginning in Nissan, one was marked “old shekalim” for the leftover monies from last year’s collection, etc.

The Me’iri points out that the money collected in these shofarot were only for general communal sacrifices. Other sacrifices, which needed to be “personalized” by having the owner place his hands on the animal prior to the sacrifice (semikhah) could not be collected here, since the owner needed to accompany the animal that was purchased with his money. There are a number of other sacrifices that did not have shofarot because they were brought only occasionally, and only common sacrifices had collection boxes in the Temple.

Based on the ruling regarding the shofarot, the Gemara concludes that even Rabbi Yehuda will have to admit that if the stands were clearly marked it should keep the kohen gadol from making an error. The conclusion of the Gemara is that Rabbi Yehuda fears that due to his weakness, the fasting kohen gadol may make mistakes that he would not have made otherwise.

Yoma 56

While discussing Rabbi Yehuda’s opinion about which we learned in yesterday’s daf, the Gemara introduces the concept of beraira – literally, a choice. This concept is raised with regard to a number of issues in Jewish law, and the basic question that it raised is whether a choice can be made after the fact to take effect retroactively. For example, if someone purchases wine just before Shabbat that had not been tithed, can he announce that what will be left over will be the tithe so that it can be drunk on Shabbat? In this case, tithing cannot be done on Shabbat, so it cannot be set aside now. Can we rely on what will be left over at the end to permit the wine to be drunk beforehand?

Our Gemara suggests that the question of accepting the concept of beraira is the point of disagreement between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda.

Another example of beraira brought by the Gemara involves the case of creating an eruv techumin for the purpose of extending the area outside of a city where a person wants to walk on Shabbat. Generally speaking, on Shabbat, a person is not allowed to walk more than 2,000 cubits outside of the inhabited area where he lives. This Rabbinic injunction – which is based on Biblical foundations – can be altered for a variety of reasons if the person creates an eruv techumin. This involves placing food for a meal at the edge of the 2,000 amah (cubit) limit, indicating that for this person Shabbat is being established in this place. By doing so, he will now be permitted to walk 2,000 amot from the eruv, beyond his original limit (it should be noted that he did not gain any freedom of movement, he merely transferred it from one side of the city to the other).

While the rule of eruv techumin is accepted by all, there is a difference of opinion about a case where the resident wants to keep his options open. Can he place two eruvin, one on either side of the city, and say “if the guest scholar comes to the town to the east, I would like the eruv to the east to be effective; if he comes to the town to the west, then I would like the eruv to the west to take effect.” This scenario is presented by the Gemara as another example of beraira, where we will only find out what we want after the fact.

The halakha in these cases is that in cases of Biblical law we say that beraira does not work, but in cases of Rabbinic law we allow it to be applied.

Yoma 57

Sprinkling the blood of the par (sacrificial bull) on the kaporet (ark cover) in the Holy of Holies as part of the Yom Kippur service is clearly commanded in the Torah (Vayikra 16:14). The Gemara on our daf quotes a baraita that teaches that in addition,  there is a commandment is to sprinkle the blood in the direction of the parokhet (curtain), but not necessarily on the parokhet. This teaching brought Rabbi Elazar b’Rabbi Yossi to testify that on a visit to Rome he had the opportunity to examine the parokhet, and he saw drops of blood that he recognized as being from the Yom Kippur service. This was clear to him because the drops were in a straight row, and only the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur sprinkled the blood with such precision.

The Me’iri points out that only on Yom Kippur did the kohen gadol stand close to the parokhet when he did the zerikat ha-dam. Other sacrifices that had zerikah on the parokhet were done with the officiating kohen standing behind the golden altar, a distance of more than twenty amot from the parokhet, so it would have been impossible for the kohen to sprinkle the blood with any accuracy.

Rabbi Elazar was the son of the tanna Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta, and lived in the last generation before the redaction of the Mishnah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Rabbi Elazar was, apparently, the greatest of Rabbi Yossi’s five sons, and already during his father’s lifetime he was recognized and honored by his generation.

During a difficult period for the Jews, Rabbi Elazar was part of a delegation to Rome together with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, which tried to get decrees against the Jews rescinded. Once in Rome they were miraculously given the opportunity to heal the Caesar’s daughter, who had fallen ill. They took advantage of this opportunity, and after successfully healing her, were given the opportunity to examine the Caesar’s coffers, which included the spoils of the Roman victory and sacking of the Land of Israel and the Temple. Rabbi Elazar’s examination of the Temple remains allowed him to return to the Sages with information about a number of the utensils from the mikdash, including the parokhet, the tzitz, etc.

For a description of the sprinkling of the blood in the Temple on Yom Kippur, see

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.