י״ג בשבט ה׳תשע״ד (January 14, 2014)

Yoma 67a-b: Commandments That Do Not Seem Logical

The focus of the sixth perek of Massekhet Yoma has been the se’ir ha-mishtale’ah – the scapegoat – which is not sacrificed in the Temple like a regular korban, but is taken to the desert where it metaphorically takes the sins of the Jewish people with it to its death. This process, which is a central part of the Yom Kippur service, is not explained by the Torah.

The Gemara on our daf lists the se’ir ha-mishtale’ah together with a number of other ritual acts that are perceived as being ones which the evil inclination and the non-Jews of the world point to as indicative of the lack of logic in Jewish law. The baraita opens with a passage in Vayikra 18:4 that obligates the Jewish people to perform both mishpatim and hukim. The baraita interprets mishpatim as logical commandments, ones that man would establish even if there was no Biblical command to keep them, e.g. idol worship, sexual depravity, murder and stealing. Hukim, on the other hand, are commandments that do not seem to have a logical basis, like our case of the scapegoat, eating pork, wearing or making use of forbidden mixtures, or the process of readmitting a recovered leper into the community.

Some point to certain similarities in all of these cases, in that they either are things that are forbidden even as something points to their permissibility (pigs have split hooves – one of the signs of a kosher animal; sha’atnez, the mixture of wool and linen is made up of two permissible items) or involve permissibility stemming from something forbidden (the leper being readmitted to the community or the scapegoat erasing the sins of the community). It is clear that all of these cases appear to be some kind of magic and do not fall into the normal categories of halakha, which leads to the possibility of their being questioned.

Aside from the above mentioned cases, variant readings of the Gemara include other examples of halakhot that appear to be similarly strange, which may be added to the list of things about which non-Jews or the evil inclination ridicule the Jews. They include egla arufa (the calf that is beheaded as part of the ritual when a dead body is found between two cities), removal of the hair as part of the process of the nazir who completes his nezirut, and the prohibition against mixing meat and milk.

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