Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’s Yom Kippur

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Shlomo Zuckier

Does the Torah’s description of the Kohen Gadol’s ritual in Leviticus 16, commonly known as Avodat Yom Ha-Kippurim, refer specifically to Yom Kippur? Perhaps not. The first 28 verses do not mention Yom Kippur at all, only discussing the nature of “Be-Zot Yavo Aharon El ha-Kodesh,” how the Kohen Gadol can enter the Holy of Holies. After, and only after, that point, from verse 29 and on, does the Torah mention that this is to be performed annually on Yom Kippur, the “tenth day of the seventh month.” Then, the Torah teaches other aspects of Yom Kippur: that it is a Sabbath of Sabbaths, with an obligation to afflict oneself, and concludes with another reference to the Kapparah that is effectuated in the Temple on that day.

The Gaon of Vilna and Some Precedents
The Vilna Gaon (cited by the Hayyei Adam at the end of Avelut) noticed this. He made use of this literary fact, arguing that Aharon had the option of conducting the ritual within the Holy and entering the Holy of Holies at any point in time, so long as he fulfils the process delineated in Leviticus 16:1-28. In other words, it is possible to detach the beginning of the chapter from its end, to separate the ritual inside the Holy from Yom Kippur.

This insight of the Gaon is a celebrated one. But I believe it is possible to see this insight echoed, to a certain degree, in a much earlier rabbinic text – in a Talmudic dispute (Yoma 3a):

דתניא, רבי אומר: איל אחד, הוא האמור כאן הוא האמור בחומש הפקודים. רבי אליעזר ברבי שמעון אומר: שני אילים הם, אחד האמור כאן, ואחד האמור בחומש הפקודים.

It was learned—Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] says: “one ram” (Leviticus 16:5)—the one stated here is the same as the one stated in Numbers (29:8). Rabbi Eliezer be-Rabbi Shimon says: There are two rams, one stated here, and one stated in Numbers.

These rabbis dispute whether the service in the Mikdash on the day of Yom Kippur features one ram or two. The Avodah of Yom Kippur opens with this verse (Leviticus 16:3):

בזאת יבא אהרן אל הקדש בפר בן בקר לחטאת ואיל לעלה

With this shall Aharon enter the holy: with a young bull for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

Aharon enters the Temple’s inner sanctum bringing these two animal offerings. It seems simple enough, but this verse raises a certain question when considered in context of what appears in Numbers 29:7-8:

וּבֶעָשׂוֹר֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י הַזֶּ֗ה מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כָּל־מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ:

וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם עֹלָ֤ה לַֽיקֹוָק֙ רֵ֣יחַ נִיחֹ֔חַ פַּ֧ר בֶּן־בָּקָ֛ר אֶחָ֖ד אַ֣יִל אֶחָ֑ד כְּבָשִׂ֤ים בְּנֵֽי־שָׁנָה֙ שִׁבְעָ֔ה תְּמִימִ֖ם יִהְי֥וּ לָכֶֽם:

And on the tenth of this seventh month, there shall be a holy calling for you, and you shall cause yourselves discomfort; you shall do no work.

And you shall bring a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasant smell, one young bull, one ram, seven unblemished year-old sheep for you.

In discussing the offerings for Yom Kippur, we are told to bring a bull, ram, and seven sheep, all as burnt offerings. An identical set of offerings—apparently the seasonal sacrificial complement—is brought on Rosh Hashanah and Shemini Atzeret. The verse (Numbers 29:11) notes that these are all in addition to the ritual, non-seasonal Hattat unique to Yom Kippur.

The Crux of the Matter
A question emerges from the confluence of these pesukim: what about the rams? Is the ram noted in Numbers 28 (which is notably not called a Hattat) the same as the ram for Olah noted in Leviticus 16? Or are they two separate rams? No verse explicitly clarifies this matter, which then becomes subject to the dispute between Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi and Rabbi Elazar be-Rabbi Shimon noted above.

There’s a fundamental question residing at the core of this matter. The key quandary is whether the sacrifices that Aharon is told to bring into the holy in Leviticus 16 overlaps and integrates with the holiday offerings of Numbers 28. Are the offerings of the service inside the Holy defined as essentially Yom Kippur offerings, or are they merely necessary steps enabling the Kohen Gadol to enter the Holy of Holies, while holding no particular connection to the day.

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi argues that there is really only one ram, and thus a unity exists between the two passages governing Yom Kippur, held together through the nexus of this ram. Each passage emphasizes a different aspect of the complement of sacrifices of the day, but both are part of a singular whole. The passage in Aharei Mot includes an offering specific to Yom Kippur, part of the bull/ram/seven sheep structure for the Tishrei holidays, because it comprises an integral part of the sacrifices for entering the Holy of Holies.

On the other hand, Rabbi Elazar be-Rabbi Shimon rejects this unifying thread between the passages. For him, like for the Gaon many centuries later, the first 28 verses of Leviticus 16 are detachable, with no Yom Kippur-specific content. The fact that both they and Numbers 28 discuss the bringing of a ram is a complete coincidence; the rams are distinct and unrelated, and nothing holds the day together, composed as it is of unbridgeable seasonal and ritual offerings.

The Yom Kippur Trait
We might consider more deeply the ramifications of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’s position, that the service inside the Holy has essential Yom Kippur characteristics to it. In the contemporary world we live in, where there is no Temple service, do the positive effects of Yom Kippur still apply?

The more that the ritual service historically carried out on Yom Kippur is detachable from the day itself (as Rabbi Elazar has it), the more Yom Kippur becomes a mere platform for a generic process of atonement. Absent an actual ritual service in place, or some replacement thereof, it is difficult to see the tenth day of Tishrei offer atonement of its own. If one is to attain atonement, presumably one would need to invoke some sort of stand-in for the ritual process as well, and draw the atonement from there rather than from the day of Yom Kippur.

However, for Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, where the High Priest’s service inside the Holy is essentially tied to the day of Yom Kippur, there is a simpler path to contemporary atonement on Yom Kippur. For Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, as the very day of Yom Kippur is defined by this process of atonement, and the Avodat Penim is unique to Yom Kippur and definitional to the day, we might argue that in the present world we are well-positioned to receive atonement even absent the ritual process of service inside the Holy.

And sure enough, we find another statement of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi makes this very point, appearing in an important dispute about the nature of teshuvah through Yom Kippur. The Mishnah (Yoma 8:8) writes:

חטאת ואשם ודאי מכפרין מיתה ויום הכפורים מכפרין עם התשובה תשובה מכפרת על עבירות קלות על עשה ועל לא תעשה ועל החמורות הוא תולה עד שיבא יום הכפורים ויכפר:

Sin-offerings and guilt-offerings atone; death and the Day of Atonement atone along with repentance; repentance atones for minor sins: for a positive commandment and for negative commandments, and for the more severe sins it “hangs” [the sin] until the Day of Atonement comes and atones.

Yom Kippur plays a certain role in effecting atonement, but always in conjunction with teshuvah. Absent repentance, the day of Yom Kippur has no such power according to the straightforward underspending of the Mishnah. Just as in the time of the Temple, when the day was insufficient and required the Avodat Penim itself to atone, nowadays, it appears, the day is insufficient and requires a process of teshuvah to serve in place of that expiatory service in order to offer atonement. Repentance replaces ritual, providing Yom Kippur with its necessary supplement.

Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’s Yom Kippur Remedy
However, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi’s position is presented as diverging from at least the straightforward meaning of the Mishnah. (See, however, Yoma 85b, which resolves that the Mishnah can be read as similar to this position.) Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi says (Shevuot 13a):

דתניא, רבי אומר: על כל עבירות שבתורה, בין עשה תשובה בין לא עשה תשובה—יום הכפורים מכפר, חוץ מפורק עול ומגלה פנים בתורה ומפר ברית בבשר, שאם עשה תשובה—יום הכפורים מכפר, ואם לאו—אין יום הכפורים מכפר

It was taught: Rabbi says: For all sins in the Torah, whether one repents or not – the Day of Atonement atones, except for one who throws off the yoke, offends regarding Torah, or revokes his carnal covenant, where if one repents—the Day of Atonement atones, and if not—the Day of Atonement does not atone.

Yom Kippur has the power to atone for every sin, without that person even repenting! The only exception is for three especially severe and offensive violation, which do require repentance. But in general, the power of the day of Yom Kippur itself is sufficient to effectuate atonement for the person in nearly all cases. The essence of the day of Yom Kippur, all on its own, has the power to effectuate that atonement.

It is by no means surprising that Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi holds this position. The very sage who defines the service in the Holy as Avodat Yom Hakippurim, an essential aspect of the day of Yom Kippur, will view the atoning power of Yom Kippur in its fullest-force, even in a world that lacks the Temple service.

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.