How One Goat, Became Many Words

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Acharei Mos

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Why do many synagogues spend so much time reading about the High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur?

And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering. And Aharon shall offer the bullock of the sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the Tent of Meeting. And Aharon shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. (Leviticus 16:5-8)

As is evident from the verses, God demands that two special goats be sacrificed on Yom Kippur: One by the High Priest within the Temple precincts, and the other in the wilderness. The Maharil (Hilchos Yom HaKippurim, no. 18), cites the Mahari Segel, who was troubled by how Yom Kippur liturgy grants extensive airtime to the offering brought by the High Priest, which only grants atonement for violations pertaining to Temple sanctity, instead of the goat being taken out to Azazel in the wilderness, which atones for the far broader gamut of sins contained within the rest of the Torah. He offers two answers:

(1) The efficacy of the goat for Azazel is contingent on the validity of the goat brought to God within the Temple. Thus, while the benefits of the former is more far-reaching, we focus our attention on the Temple offering since it serves as a prerequisite for the other goat to be accepted. (See “Lomdus on Parshas Vaykira” for how our prayers may serve in lieu of offerings post-Temple.) 

(2) The sanctity of the Temple remains in force today, as it is written, “Lift up your heads, O you gates; and be lifted up, you everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in” (Ps. 24:7). The reason that Jews living in the Diaspora are preoccupied with the internal Temple sacrifice is out of concern for the welfare of their brethren who live in the Land of Israel and are not necessarily as careful as they should be about these matters (related to kol yisrael areivin zeh bazeh). (However, see Binyan Shlomo no. 9 who points out that the attempted hermeneutical inference from the words “you everlasting doors,” is not supported by Talmudic precedent.)

R. Mordechai Calebach offers two more possibilities as to why the goat of the Temple receives more of our attention:

(3) While it is true that the goat to Azazel atones for a far broader variety of sins, it is the atonement that takes place inside the Temple that requires higher form of maintenance. The Tosefta (Shavuos 1:2) records: 

Rabbi Shimon would say: Impurity of the Temple and its sacrificial foods is more serious than all the transgressions that are in the Torah, because all the transgressions that are in the Torah are atoned for by one goat but impurity of the Temple and its sacrificial foods is atoned for by goats. All the transgressions that are in the Torah are atoned for once a year but impurity of the Temple and its sacrificial foods is atoned for every single month, as it says, “Assuredly, as I live—said the Lord God—because you defiled my sanctuary [with all of your detestable things and all of your abominations, I in turn will shear you away and show no pity” (Ezek. 5:11). Serious were your detestable things and the abominations you did, but the impurity of the Temple and its sacrificial food is more serious than all of them.

Seeing as the sacrificial requirements of the Temple require more care and attention it is comprehensible why we would reflect that by dedicating an extensive amount of time to it in our liturgy. 

(4) The goat brought in the Temple does not only serve as a means for the Jewish people to earn atonement, but is also an integral component of the Yom Kippur Temple service. Whereas the goat being taken to the wilderness is a ma’asah chutz, an external ritual. If something were to prevent the latter from being sacrificed properly it would have no bearing on the legitimacy of the rest of the Yom Kippur worship (see Yoma 65a).  

Moreover, when the Temple stands it is certainly forbidden to perform sacrificial rituals outside the Temple precincts on private altars. Perhaps, the goat for Azazel should not be classified then as an offering to God but something else entirely. (Indeed, Ibn Ezra and Ramban on Lev. 16:8 discuss how the goat for Azazel is perhaps a bribe being given to another metaphysical entity!) If this indeed the case, then the principle of “so we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves” (Hosea 14:3), that our prayers serve in lieu of the ancient sacrificial offerings, would not apply to the goat for Azazel since it is categorically not a Temple offering (korban)! (However, see Rashba on Shavuos 13b and Kisvei HaGrach on Shekalim 4:2 who take issue with this framework.) Thus, it now makes sense why we designate significant airtime to reading about the High Priest’s goat offering, as we pray that in place of physically bringing it that our words will be adequate.

End Note: There is a much broader question about the propriety of piyutim, poetic liturgical additions, being incorporated into our prayers – especially when inserted in the middle of the Amidah. I have elaborated on this elsewhere: “Streamlining Services: What Can we Learn from High Holidays 5781?,” Lehrhaus (November 9, 2020).

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria,, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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