The Yom Kippur Sacrifices


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Many people live by the principles of “modernity”, the feeling that “anything that preceded me must be outdated”. Some espouse the opinion of “animal cruelty” in connection with Temple sacrifice. Additional rejection of the sacrifices of Yom Kippur may arise due to their association with a long day of fasting, standing, and many uncomfortable restrictions. Are the Temple’s “ancient” sacrifices just that – archaic, inapplicable, and even brutal acts, deserving our abandonment? Must our religiosity comply with our subjective feelings, or must “we” comply with these practices and ideas, regardless of our opinion of their inapplicability?

As Torah Jews who respect that all in our Torah is God’s word, applicable for all time[1], we take a different road: we seek to discover the eternal truths contained in each of our precious Mitzvahs and ideals, instead of projecting our wishes on them. As Torah Jews, we know all that God commanded does not expire, as man’s nature does not expire. As Adam was created, and as the Jews existed at Sinai when they received these commands, so are we today: possessing those identical faculties and desires. As such, we are no less in need of the Torah’s sacrifices and their lessons. The sacrifices address our human nature today, and it is only due to our sins, that the Temple is non-existent, and our levels are degraded by its absence. But we may still perfect ourselves to a great degree by understanding the underlying ideas of the Yom Kippur sacrifices; we must study the characteristics and requirements of the sacrifices. We must review the Torah, Talmud, and our sages, such as Maimonides, Ramban, Rashi and Ibn Ezra.



Two Goats

I will address just two of the Yom Kippur sacrifices: the two goats upon which a lottery was cast. Two goats – preferably with similar visual features, height, and cost – were presented in the Temple. The priest would blindly draw a lot, which contained both God’s name and that of Azazael. Each goat was designated for the lot placed on it. The scapegoat – the one sent to its death off Mount Azazael – is described as “carrying all the sins of the Jews”[2]. This goat atoned for all sins, provided one repented. The other goat dedicated as a sin offering in the Temple atoned only for the sins of the Jews in their defiled entry to the Temple sanctuary.

What is the reason for the goat’s similarity? Why was their designation for either a sin offering in the Temple, or Mount Azazael, decided by a lottery? Why do we require two goats: cannot a single goat atone for all sins? What was significant about Mount Azazael? And why was there a service of clouding the Holy of Holies where the Ark resided, included in the process of sacrificing these two goats?

Furthermore, we are struck by the Torah’s placement of the Yom Kippur sacrifices in Parshas Achrei Mos[3] immediately subsequent to the death of Aaron’s two sons who offered a “strange fire”: an offering not commanded by God. What was the gravity of their sin, that God killed them? And what is the connection between Aaron’s sons’ sin and the Yom Kippur sacrifices, that the Torah joins the two in one section? We also wonder what God means by His critique of Aaron’s two sons, “And you shall not come at all times to the Holy of Holies behind the Parochess [curtain] before the Kaporess[4] which is on the Ark, so none shall die…for in cloud do I [God] appear on the Kaporess”.[5] What is the stress of “for in cloud do I appear on the Kaporess”? What is the significance again of “cloud”? And finally, why, after concluding the section on Yom Kippur sacrifices, does the Torah continue with the restriction of sacrificing outside the Temple, with the punishment of one’s soul being cut off? In that section[6] God warns the Jews about sacrificing to demons [imaginary beings] and also warns about eating blood, which also meets with the loss of one’s soul. Maimonides teaches that the practice of eating blood was imagined by those sinners to provide them comradery with assumed spirits, and that those sinners would benefit by such a union. Although the questions are many, I believe one idea will answer the all.



The Scapegoat

What is the significance of Yom Kippur? It is the day when we are forgiven. What does “forgiveness” imply? It implies that we sin. And in what does man sin? This is where I believe we can answer all our questions.

We readily answer that we sin by deviating from God’s commands. The worst sin, of course, is idolatry, where we assume the greatest error: other powers exist, besides God. If one assumes this fatal error, his concept of God is false, and his soul cannot enjoy the afterlife, which is a greater connection with the one, true God. This explains why those sinners who sacrificed to imaginary beings – demons – and those who eat blood, lose their eternal life. And even if these exact practices are not performed, but one harbors the thought that there exists powers other than God, be they powers assumed to exist in physical objects, or even in the Torah’s words…such individuals also cross that line of idolatry.

The Scapegoat – the one goat sent to its death off Mount Azazael – was to atone for all our sins. Sin emanates from a disregard of God and His word, but in its most grave form, idolatry. The Rabbis say that the Scapegoat is not sacrificed, but hurled from a peak downwards, to prevent us from assuming it is a ‘sacrifice’ to those demons, normally associated with the wilderness where Mount Azazael is located. By destroying the Scapegoat and not sacrificing it, we actively deny any claim of those desert-based demons, or truths about comradery with spirits by eating blood from sacrifices to demons. We wish to deny any and all claims of assumed powers, other than God. Our atonement is effectuated through the Scapegoat, by admitting the fallacy of idolatry, and the rejection of any intelligent existence besides God, His angels, or man. Nothing else exists that is self-aware; nothing else besides God, His angels, and man, possess any intelligence, or capabilities other than natural laws. The Scapegoat thereby undermines and utterly rejects man’s path where he deviates from Torah practice. But there is another area of sin.



The Other Sin

“And they brought before God a strange fire, which He had not commanded them[7]”. Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu expressed the other area of sin: man-made, religious practice. Although we assume sin to be solely identified as deviation from the Torah as seen in idolatry, sin also exists when we attempt to approach God, but with our own devices, as the verse states, “And they brought before God a strange fire…”. “Before God” is the operative phrase. Nadav and Avihu intended to approach God, not in accord with His ways, but with their own. The Rabbis stated, “The Jews desired to contain the Evil Instinct. It exited as a fiery lion from the Holy of Holies. They attempted to retrain the lion by seizing its mane, but it let out a loud roar.” Regarding this Talmudic metaphor, a Rabbi once asked what was most significant. He answered, “the fact that the instincts were exiting the Temple’s Holy of Holies”. What does this mean? It means that man’s instincts are most powerful – like a fiery lion – in connection with the most religious of activities and locations: the Holy of Holies. We need not look far to realize this truth, as demonstrated in Jihads and other holy wars. Religion is a great target for man’s instincts, as in this area he is greatly motivated. In unguided religious expression, man’s emotions will take over, as seen in Aaron’s two sons who wished religious expression of their own creation. The existence of so many divergent man-made religions proves this point that man wishes subjective religious expression.

It is this sin, I believe, that the second Yom Kippur goat addresses. This second, goat sin offering was brought in the Temple, and not sent to the wilderness as the other, for it is this goat that addresses man’s sin in the Temple. Man requires recognizing his sin in both deviating from God, and in approaching God. God too addresses these two deviances with His commands not to add to, or subtract from the Torah. Subtracting from the Torah parallels the Scapegoat, where man abandons Torah and God in place of demons; and adding to the Torah parallels the sin of Nadav and Avihu who expressed an addition to the Torah’s prescribed commands, corrected by this second goat brought in the Temple to atone for the Jews’ sins in Temple.



God’s Arrangement of Torah Sections

We can now readily understand why God placed the Yom Kippur sacrifices in His Torah, between the sin of Nadav and Avihu and the prohibition to sacrifice to demons. It is because Yom Kippur sacrifice intends to address man’s two areas of sin: the over religious sin seen in Nadav and Avihu, and the lack of religiosity seen in demon sacrifice, where one does not approach God, but runs from Him towards imagined imposters. Yom Kippur atones for us by directing our attention to the two areas of human sin: non-religious, and over religious. We are alerted to apply this lesson to our own deviances. The non-religious person assumes more knowledge than God, as he feels he understands better how the world operates. He therefore creates his own demons, and worships them. He is lacking an understanding of the One Creator, as he assumes multiple forces. The over religious person feels otherwise: he feels safe, as he “approaches God” as did Aaron’s sons. He feels with his intent to serve God, anything goes. He feels he can create new modes of religious practice, and that he will find favor in God’s eyes. But the Torah’s response for both is death of some kind. Thus, “any” deviation – even when our intent is to serve God – is construed by God as sin.

Perhaps the need for two goats is derived from our two areas of deviance. And perhaps, as one goat addresses the abandoning of God in idolatry, that same goat is unfit to address our faulted approach to God: idolatry is a far greater crime: idolatry errs about God Himself, while over religiosity errs about His will. But both goats are preferably identical, to teach that either goat satisfies one or the other requirement, since there is nothing in the goat per se that atones, but it is our understanding and conviction in their respective ‘lessons’, that truly atones for us. The lottery also contributes to removing any significance to either goat, as each was picked by “chance”.




Why was there a service of “clouding” the Holy of Holies where the Ark resided, included in the service of Yom Kippur? And why was God’s response to Nadav and Avihu, “for in cloud do I [God] appear on the Kaporess”? Cloud was also present at God’s Revelation at Sinai. What is the commonality?

Nadav and Avihu violated the principle that God is unknowable, by assuming they knew how to approach God. Thus, God responds that He appears in cloud. What is cloud? It represents man’s blindness. Man is blind about God’s nature, and also about how to approach Him, without Torah. Nadav and Avihu’s sin was in their denial of their ignorance concerning God. God therefore reiterated to Moses and Aaron the concept of man’s blind ignorance, by describing how He appears in cloud. And again in our yearly Yom Kippur service, we must reiterate our agreement with our ignorant natures, by clouding the holiest of all places, the Holy of Holies. Our religious practice must contain a service that demonstrates our ignorance. Our atonement relies on a rejection of our instinctual, religious fabrication.



Application for Today

It is vital that in our approach to God, that we be so careful not to add to Torah commands, regardless of the popularity of new practices, even among religious Jews. Our barometer for what is God’s intent, is God’s word alone. We must not fall prey to our need for human approval, that we blindly accept what the masses of religious Jews perpetrate as Torah. If we are truly careful, and seek out authentic, authoritative Torah sources, we will discover what is true Torah, and what violates God’s words.

In a conversation with a dear friend recently, I was asked what I felt about certain Kabbalistic views. They included these: that cut fingernails are dangerous; that people might hurt us with evil eyes; that reciting the letters of God’s name offers man power; and other nonsensical positions. My first response was that there is doubt as to the authenticity of the Zohar, and further, Zohar is not the Torah given by God at Sinai. But regardless, I told this friend that if an idea makes no sense, it matters none if a Rabbi wrote it, for even Moses, the most perfected intellect erred. Therefore, no man alive today is infallible. So quoting the Zohar is meaningless, if the idea violates Torah and reason.

God gave each of us a Tzelem Elokim – intelligence – that we must engage, and not ignore. Regardless of the prevalence of practices in religious Jewish communities, we have intelligence with which we may discern what makes sense, and what is nonsense. It matters none if the practice is a sacrifice to demons, or a practice that includes a Torah object like a mezuza, a challah, or if one cites an accepted book authored by a Rabbi. We have the Torah’s authentic principles to guide us towards reasonable practices. Just as demons and their assumed powers are imagined, so are the powers assume to exist in challas, red bendels, mezuzas, or reciting Torah verses with the intent to heal the sick.

Religious deviance seeks substantiation by including Torah articles in man made practice, and as we learn from Nadav and Avihu, any deviation from God’s commands – even to approach Him – is a sin. If you are in doubt to the validity of a practice, study the Torah, read the Shulchan Aruch, or ask a Rabbi to show you a source. But if you find no source for a given practice, do not follow it. And many times with your mind alone, you can uncover the falsehood in popular claims.


This Yom Kippur, break free from what is popular, comfortable, or falsely promises success and health. “Teshuva, Tefila and Tzedaka”, repentance, prayer and charity, are what God deems as our correct response:

Do Teshuva from false notions and actions, regardless of their popularity, for you exist to follow God, not to impress your neighbor by copying their errors.

Pray to God to direct you to new truths, to forgive and purify you, and to help you abandon fallacy. And if your Hebrew reading is not excellent, pray in English or your own language, for prayer is meaningless if you do not understand what you recite.

And give charity to recognize your own insignificance, to break loose of our attachment to wealth, and recognize that God alone grants wealth. Assist others, recognizing them as God’s creation, and show them pity, as you wish God to show you.

Use God laws alone to secure your good life, and do not continue in the sins of abandoning God, or attempting to serve Him in way He did not command. The Scapegoat teaches that our imagination is destructive, and the goat sin offering curbs our over religious tendencies. We must learn where these lessons may apply to each one of us, for we all have false notions in connection with purely instinctual needs, and religious needs. Be guided by reason, by God’s precisely worded Torah. And may we all forgive, be forgiven, and enjoy a new year of life, health, wealth and happiness that can only come from careful Torah adherence.

[1] See Maimonides’ 13 Principles

[2] Lev. 16:22

[3] Lev. 16:1-34

[4] The Kaporess was the Ark’s lid formed of solid gold, with the figurines of two cherubim – childlike creatures with wings.

[5] Lev. 16:2

[6] Lev. 17:1-16

[7] Lev. 10:1