09. The Two Goats and the Bull

The Yom Kippur avoda includes an astonishing aspect. The bull and one goat, the only offerings of the entire year whose blood was sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, atoned for tum’a (impurity) of the Temple and its offerings – that is, for someone who knew he was tamei and nevertheless entered the Temple or ate sacrificial meat. The bull atoned for kohanim, while the goat atoned for the rest of the people. The other goat – the “scapegoat” that was cast away in the wilderness – atoned for all other sins. How could it be that the bull and goat, whose blood was sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, atoned for only one sin, while the scapegoat atoned for all other sins?[2]

This reflects a very deep and important concept. The root of all sin is a lack of faith, a defect in one’s connection with his Creator, the Source of life. The Temple and its sacrifices manifest faith in the world. Therefore, atonement was primarily dependent upon repairing faith at its root, in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. After faith itself is purged of its impurities, all other sins fall away from a person, because he reconnects with God, yearns to cling to Torah and mitzvot, and understands that all his sins were mistakes, stemming from external temptations. His sins are no longer his. They are consigned to oblivion, sent to Azazel.

The goat sacrificed to God atoned for Israel’s sins of defiling the Temple, but the kohanim, who were responsible for preserving the bond between the Jewish people and God, needed additional atonement, so their offering was larger – a bull as a sin offering. It was also offered first, because the Kohen Gadol had to achieve atonement for any sacrilege that he or his fellow kohanim may have committed before he could achieve atonement for Israel’s defilement of the Temple and its offerings. About this, we read:

He shall take some of the blood from the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the kaporet on the east side; and in front of the kaporet he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood beyond the parokhet, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the kaporet and in front of the kaporet. Thus he shall atone for the Kodesh from the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Ohel Mo’ed, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity…. He shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and atone for it. (Vayikra 16:14-18)

After the Kohen Gadol atoned for impurity in the Temple, all the rest of the sins fell away, and he could cast them away to Azazel in the wilderness. Thus, we read:

When he has finished atoning for the Kodesh, the Ohel Mo’ed, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward (which was waiting to be sent off). Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be cast away in the wilderness. (ibid. 20-22)


[2]. The bull atoned for the kohanim for any defilement of the Temple or sacrifices. According to R. Yehuda (m. Shevu’ot 2:2), the scapegoat atones for all the other sins of the kohanim and the entire nation. Rambam writes this as well (MT, Laws of Sin and Guilt Offerings 11:9; and implies it in Laws of Repentance 1:2) as does Me’iri (Ḥibur Ha-teshuva 1:2). However, according to R. Shimon, all the sins of the kohanim are forgiven with the sacrifice of the bull. Radbaz (4:1108) maintains this as well, as does Rabbi Ḥizkiya da Silva (author of Pri Ḥadash) in his work Mayim Ḥayim.

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Translated By:
Series Editor: Rabbi Elli Fischer

The Laws of Shabbat (1+2) - Yocheved Cohen
The Laws of Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Women’s Prayer - Atira Ote
The Laws of Pesach - Joshua Wertheimer
The Laws of Zemanim - Moshe Lichtman

Editor: Nechama Unterman