Masechet Yoma - An Introduction to the Tractate

June 09, 2006

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Tractate Yoma deals with the Day, that unique day of the year, Yom Kippur. It is a time of special sanctity that exceeds the sanctity of all other Festivals. Yom Kippur is the day when reality transcends standard boundaries and conventions, as it is stated in the Torah: "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to purify you; from all your sins shall you be purified before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30). It is the Festival celebrating the elimination of all flaws and transgressions and a return to the initial state of purity.

And you shall not go out from the opening of the Tent of Meeting seven days, until the days of your consecration be fulfilled; for He shall consecrate you seven days. As has been done this day, so the Lord has commanded to do, to make atonement for you. (Leviticus 8:33-34)

When Yom Kippur was observed in its fullest sense, it was a day on which the three sublime sanctities would converge: the sanctity of time, as this day was established as the day of purification and absolution for transgressions; the sanctity of place, as "once each year" (Leviticus 16:34) the sacred Temple service was performed in the most sacred place, the kodesh kodashim (Holy of Holies), where it is prohibited for any person to enter under any other circumstances; and the sanctity of humanity, as the Temple service is performed on this day exclusively by the High Priest (kohen gadol), the most sanctified person in the congregation of Israel.

And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak unto Aaron your brother, that he come not at all times into the Sanctuary within the veil, before the Ark cover which is upon the Ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud above the Ark cover. (Leviticus 16:2)

The convergence of these three sanctities is the primary activity on Yom Kippur, as it is described in the Bible, the Mishna, and the Talmud. Therefore, most of the matters addressed in Tractate Yoma pertain to the sacred Temple service, the numerous and complex offerings sacrificed on that day, and the preparation and service of the High Priest. Consequently, most of the subject matter in this tractate belongs in the talmudic order of Kodashim, in terms of the problems raised and in terms of its unique methodology. Only a relatively small section of Tractate Yoma addresses the halakhot of Yom Kippur that relate to the entire Jewish people.

The essence of Yom Kippur and its primary element is the entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies to burn the incense and sprinkle the sacrificial blood, to atone for and purify the Jewish people once each year. The ritual that symbolizes these two aspects of atonement reaches its climax in the service of the two Yom Kippur goats.

The backdrop to all these rituals in the Temple is the Sabbath of solemn rest [Shabbat shabbaton], a day of rest from all labor, a day without eating or drinking, a day of abstaining from all the pleasures of this world. It is a day to transcend the constraints of daily life in preparation for the atonement provided by God.