Tractate Yoma deals with the Day, that unique day of the year, Yom Kippur. It stands apart from all other days of the year as 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.
When Yom Kippur was observed in its fullest sense, it was a day on which the three sublime sanctities, the sanctity of time, the sanctity of place, and the sanctity of man, 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 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, the most sanctified person in the congregation of Israel.
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 halakhot of offerings comprise a significant portion of the Torah, and likewise Kodashim, an entire order of the six orders of the Mishna and Talmud, is devoted to those matters. The significance of the sacrificial service in the Temple is so great that the Sages have said that it is one of the pillars upon which the world stands (Avot 1:2). Although the offerings ceased with the destruction of the Temple, they are still significant and central in Judaism. The offerings are special mitzvot that facilitate drawing nearer to God. All the types of offerings, despite the many differences between them, manifest the close relationship between man and his Creator.
The convergence of the person bringing the offering, the priest who sacrifices it, and the altar, which represents the presence of God and His participation in the offering, constitute the connection between man and God, symbolized by their partnership in the offering. There are some offerings, e.g., those that atone for sin, where the person who sacrifices the offering provides only the sacrifice and presents it as an expression of regret and appeasement. With these offerings, the blood of the sacrifice, which symbolizes its soul, “for the blood is the soul” (Deuteronomy 12:23), is sprinkled on the altar and the meat is eaten by the priests. There are other offerings, e.g., peace-offerings, where the person who brings the offering, the priests, and the altar unite in a type of celebratory feast of peace and unity. The sacrificial service is a completely symbolic form of worship, and very few of the symbols are clearly understood. However, each component and ritual in that service is a refined act of intimacy and participation.
Practically speaking, the structure of the Temple was most complex, to enable it to fulfill its numerous roles. However, its general blueprint was already found in the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness. The two Temples, the First Temple and the Second Temple, were greater than the Tent of Meeting only in terms of their size and complexity. The epicenter of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant was located. On it were the Ark cover and the cherubs, symbolizing God's seat within mundane worldly existence. The Holy of Holies is the inner sanctum, the place where the Divine Presence resides. Outside of it is the Sanctuary, whose structure represents an interior room in a house, with a table on which is arranged the shewbread, the candelabrum for illumination, and the incense altar. Outside the Sanctuary is the Temple courtyard, where the outer altar is located. It serves as an entrance and reception area, and it is there that the Jewish people came to sacrifice their offerings and pray.
The Yom Kippur service is performed in all of these areas. However, its essence 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 preparations for the entrance of the High Priest into the inner sanctum, his purification, his special garments, and the offerings he sacrifices on his behalf and on behalf of the congregation of Israel, all these are the components of the Yom Kippur service. The service culminates with the atonement for and purification from all sin, iniquity, and transgression.
The two aspects of purification and atonement are intertwined. On the one hand, the High Priest, who is the agent of the Jewish people, ascends to the highest level of sanctity and reaches the inner sanctum. On the other hand, sin and iniquity are removed and cast away from the Jewish people. The ritual that symbolizes these two aspects of atonement reaches its climax in the service of the two Yom Kippur goats. In this service, twin goats are brought to participate in a lottery. One of them expresses the sublime purifying sanctity, and its blood is brought into the Holy of Holies, while the other, which symbolizes all the sins and iniquities of the Jewish people, is sent away outside the Temple, outside the settled area to the wilderness, to Azazel. It is cast from one of the cliffs in the wilderness, symbolizing the casting away of all sins and iniquities to their source, “the waste and howling wilderness” (Deuteronomy 32:10).
The backdrop to all these rituals in the Temple, the participation of the entire Jewish people, their preparation for this day of purification and atonement, 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 when the entire people transcends the constraints of daily life and involves itself in preparation for the atonement provided by God.
Fundamentally, the tractate is arranged chronologically in describing the sacred Yom Kippur service, from the preparations for that service until its conclusion, with the final chapter addressing the halakhot of Yom Kippur that pertain to all of Israel. This is the order of its chapters:
Chapter One deals with the preparations of the High Priest for Yom Kippur, beginning seven days beforehand until the start of the service on the morning of Yom Kippur.
Chapter Two discusses the order of the morning Temple service.
Chapter Three describes the morning Temple service as it was performed on Yom Kippur and the remaining preparations for service, until the confession recited over the bull of the High Priest.
Chapter Four discusses the lottery of the goat to God and the scapegoat, the second confession and the slaughter of the bull of the High Priest, and the raking of coals from the altar.
Chapter Five deals with taking the handful of the incense and bringing it into the Holy of Holies, the slaughter of the goats, and the sprinkling of the blood in the Holy of Holies and the Sanctuary.
Chapter Six describes the great care invested in keeping the order of the sacrificial service and correcting errors in performance of that service, the confession, and the dispatch of the scapegoat.
Chapter Seven discusses the Torah reading, the performance of the remainder of the day's offerings, and the end of the service until the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
Chapter Eight deals with the laws of the fast and the prohibition against performing labor, as well as the repentance and atonement involved on Yom Kippur.