Why We Fight – Yom Kippur 2020

There is a tractate in the Talmud that is entirely dedicated to the day we are about to enter, to Yom Kippur. The מסכת is entitled יומא, which is Aramaic for “day”. The uniqueness of Yom Kippur makes it obvious about which day the rabbis are referring to. And the vast majority of the laws contained within the מסכת are very much specific to Yom Kippur. But there is a section at the beginning of the second chapter of יומא that not only isn’t specific to יום כיפור but may even apply on every day except Yom Kippur!

The משנה and Talmud discuss the practice of using lotteries to distribute four daily responsibilities to the כהנים, the priests, who were on duty in the Temple. Three of the jobs were obviously very important to the Temple service: the slaughtering and blood sprinkling of animal sacrifices on the altar in the Temple courtyard along with other important jobs, the offering of incense on the golden altar inside the Temple building, and the placement of the limbs of the animal sacrifice onto the fire of the altar. But the first lottery, the first פייס, as it is called by the rabbis, was a lottery to distribute the responsibility of removing ashes of yesterday’s animal sacrifices from the altar. This job is referred to by the Talmud and its commentaries as תרומת הדשן.

The משנה says that initially, there was no פייס for the job of תרומת הדשן, removing the ashes from the main altar in the Temple courtyard. Instead, if there were only a few כהנים present, they would use an ancient version of “Twenty First Finger” to determine who would be assigned the responsibility. And, if there were were more than a few people, if there was a crowd of כהנים who got up early to do תרומת הדשן, then it would be a race – whoever would run up the ramp to the top of the מזבח and get to the ashes first would have the job.

The משנה goes on to say that this system of letting people race up the ramp ended up becoming a big problem. On one occasion, one of the כהנים pushed one of the others that he was racing off the ramp and onto the ground, breaking his leg. The גמרא records an even worse situation in which one כהן actually stabbed one of his competitors for תרומת הדשן with a knife. Ultimately, says the משנה, they decided to change the policy and use a lottery instead.

The גמרא asks an obvious question. Why didn’t they use a lottery to begin with? Why use this absurd system of letting the כהנים race up the ramp to the top of the מזבח? The גמרא answers that those in charge initially assumed that most people would be uninterested in the job of תרומת הדשן because it is not performed during the day, when the Temple service is accorded more halachic significance, and because it is done at an hour of the early morning when most people wouldn’t want to wake up. They were surprised to discover that not only did people wake up, but they were willing to fight over the תרומת הדשן. It became necessary to create a new policy that would remove the need for fighting. Apparently, they waited until two כהנים even got seriously injured.

Even with the גמרא’s answer, we may still be wondering: but why not just do the lottery anyway? Why did they even wait that long to change the policy once they saw that lots of כהנים were getting up early to race for the תרומת הדשן? They must have seen the potential for danger there. What were they waiting for?

There’s a further question we should ask. Why is this law so prominently included in מסכת יומא, which is about Yom Kippur? תרומת הדשן and its lottery would happen in the Beit Hamikdash every day, not only on Yom Kippur. What is its connection to the day?

There is a debate between the commentators on the Talmud that make this second question perhaps even more perplexing. The גמרא states that every part of the Temple service on Yom Kippur must be performed by the כהן גדול, the High Priest. The commentators have a range of views about how broadly this rule should be applied. Does it include only those things which are unique to Yom Kippur, such as the special incense brought into the Holy of Holies and the sin-offerings? Does it even apply to the twice daily תמיד sacrifices brought in the morning and afternoon? What about the תרומת הדשן, the cleaning of the ashes off the altar, that we mentioned earlier?

The בעל המאור, Rabbi Zerachiah ben Isaac ha-Levi Gerondi, a 12th century Spanish Talmudic scholar, wrote that even the תרומת הדשן must be done by the כהן גדול, by the High Priest. He was of the opinion that the גמרא’s statement should be read as inclusively as possible. The רמב״ן, Nachmanides, in his commentary responding to the בעל המאור called מלחמות ה׳, agrees with the בעל המאור in principle that everything should be done by the כהן גדול. However, he asks the same question we had earlier – if the lotteries were not performed on Yom Kippur, why include them in מסכת יומא at all? Because of this question, he concludes that many of the responsibilities that are given out by lottery during the rest of the year, including the תרומת הדשן, are still distributed by lottery on Yom Kippur. In fact, if you read closely the poem describing the עבודת יום הכיפורים, the Yom Kippur Temple service, that our shul and most Ashkenazic congregations recite during the Chazzan’s repetition of מוסף on Yom Kippur, you will see that the poet follows the opinion of the רמב״ן and says that the פייסים, the lotteries are performed on Yom Kippur. Why are these jobs given out by lottery – the exception to the rule that the כהן גדול does the entire עבודה on Yom Kippur?

The opinion of the רמב״ם, of Maimonides, makes this even more difficult. At the beginning of his law code concerning עבודת יום הכיפורים, the Temple service on Yom Kippur, he writes that the כהן גדול performs every aspect of the Temple service, explicitly including every animal sacrifice brought that day. But when he describes Yom Kippur’s Temple service in great detail a couple of chapters later, he includes the lottery for the תרומת הדשן and doesn’t mention any of the other lotteries! Why would Maimonides single out the תרומת הדשן, the removal of the ashes from the מזבח, as the only part of the Temple service on Yom Kippur not performed by the כהן גדול? Why is this lottery so closely connected to Yom Kippur that it is including in מסכת יומא and done even on Yom Kippur when everything else is the High Priest’s responsibility?

Maybe there’s something about fighting and conflict resolution that is meant to be connected to Yom Kippur. The Swiss-British philosopher and author Alain de Botton writes in his book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion that Yom Kippur brilliantly solves something that would otherwise be an impossible problem. In an ideal world, when one person causes harm or offense to another, particularly a friend or family member, the offending party would do everything possible to apologize and repair the relationship.

However, the reality is often the opposite; we are ashamed to admit guilt and we often avoid approaching the person we harmed at all, an approach which comes off as callous to the offended person and may cause even further hurt. Socially, we are not programmed to resolve conflict and apologize, to be vulnerable and admit mistakes. De Botton writes that Yom Kippur addresses this problem. Jewish law insists that for us to receive atonement from G-d on Yom Kippur, to be pardoned for our sins, we need to first apologize to the people that we offended. This creates a culture, a social requirement, that family and friends apologize to each other. It’s awkward and inappropriate if you don’t reach out.

Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, in her book of essays on Yom Kippur, Yearning to Return, writes that the reason the תרומת הדשן was not originally given out by lottery and the Temple leadership allowed there to be competition for the job is because conflict is not always inherently bad. Passion, especially when it is directed toward something valuable and important, can be quite positive in motivating us to do great things and in achieving the best results. The גמרא in יומא says that the reason they did four separate פייסים, four separate daily lotteries, rather than one set of lotteries all at once to give out all of the jobs is to infuse the day with more excitement, more tension, more passion. It quotes the following verse from תהילים:

אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַ֭חְדָּו נַמְתִּ֣יק ס֑וֹד בְּבֵ֥ית אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים נְהַלֵּ֥ךְ בְּרָֽגֶשׁ׃
sweet was our fellowship; we walked together in God’s house.

The lesson of Yom Kippur is not that we should live a life of repressed emotions and swallowed anger. We are not supposed to avoid all disagreement at any cost and give up our independence. There is a value in going through the process of conflict, whether within our relationships or within institutions and our community, such as in the Temple service. But when things become too heated, we need Yom Kippur to be a time of reconciliation. As Rabbanit Mizrachi notes, the תפארת ישראל commentary on the Mishnah in יומא explains that the word “פייס,” which is used to refer to the lotteries for the תרומת הדשן and other responsibilities in the Temple, derives from the word “פיוס,” which means “reconciliation.” We need both – the heated emotion, the strong disagreements and the serious attempt at coming back together, at lowering the temperature and repairing the relationship.

That is what Yom Kippur is for and that is why the פייס and the תרומת הדשן need to be associated with Yom Kippur. The תרומת הדשן is something that is valuable but something we might not have thought there would be any fighting over. But sometimes we fight over small things, maybe even with good intentions. We need to be reminded on Yom Kippur morning that the argument, the competition, the tension had its place but now it’s time for reconciliation.

This Yom Kippur, we need to take advantage of this idea. We might have had fights with people we are close to over things large and small, over politics, over shul policies, over whether kids should return to school, over what TV show to watch. We might have been angry with G-d for something that happened to us or because of the pandemic. Our relationships go through periods of fraying and distance. The key is to take advantage of the cultural and social expectation on Yom Kippur to make amends, to attempt פיוס, reconciliation. We need to find a way to agree to remove the ashes from the altar and make room for a new day, a new year, new sacrifices, new moments of fear and joy together. May we all find it within us to forgive each other and find a way to love each other and G-d with a full heart once more.


בָּרִאשׁוֹנָה כָּל מִי שֶׁרוֹצֶה לִתְרֹם אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, תּוֹרֵם. וּבִזְמַן שֶׁהֵן מְרֻבִּין, רָצִין וְעוֹלִין בַּכֶּבֶשׁ, וְכָל הַקּוֹדֵם אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ בְאַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת זָכָה. וְאִם הָיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם שָׁוִין, הַמְמֻנֶּה אוֹמֵר לָהֶם הַצְבִּיעוּ. וּמָה הֵן מוֹצִיאִין, אַחַת אוֹ שְׁתַּיִם, וְאֵין מוֹצִיאִין אֲגֻדָּל בַּמִּקְדָּשׁ: מַעֲשֶׂה שֶׁהָיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם שָׁוִין וְרָצִין וְעוֹלִין בַּכֶּבֶשׁ, וְדָחַף אֶחָד מֵהֶן אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ, וְנָפַל וְנִשְׁבְּרָה רַגְלוֹ. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁרָאוּ בֵית דִּין שֶׁבָּאִין לִידֵי סַכָּנָה, הִתְקִינוּ שֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ תוֹרְמִין אֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֶלָּא בְפַיִס. אַרְבָּעָה פְיָסוֹת הָיוּ שָׁם, וְזֶה הַפַּיִס הָרִאשׁוֹן:
Originally anyone who wished to remove [the ashes from] the altar did so. When they were many, they would run up the ramp [of the altar] and he that came first within four cubits won the privilege. If two were even, the officer would say to them [all:] raise the finger! And how many did they put out? One or two but one does not put out a thumb in the Temple. Section one: It once happened that two were even as they ran up the ramp, and one of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw that they incurred danger, they decreed that they would remove the ashes from only by a count. Section two: There were four counts. This is the first count.
גמ׳ והא מעיקרא מאי טעמא לא תקינו לה רבנן פייסא מעיקרא סבור כיון דעבודת לילה היא לא חשיבא להו ולא אתו כיון דחזו דקאתו ואתו לידי סכנה תקינו לה פייסא והרי איברים ופדרים דעבודת לילה היא ותקינו לה רבנן פייסא סוף עבודה דיממא היא האי נמי תחלת עבודה דיממא היא דאמר ר' יוחנן קידש ידיו לתרומת הדשן למחר אין צריך לקדש שכבר קידש מתחילת עבודה אימא שכבר קידש מתחילה לעבודה איכא דאמרי מעיקרא סבור כיון דאיכא אונס שינה לא אתו כיון דחזו דאתו וקאתו נמי לידי סכנה תקינו לה רבנן פייסא והרי איברים ופדרים דאיכא אונס שינה ותקינו לה רבנן פייסא שאני מיגנא ממיקם ותקנתא להך גיסא הואי תקנתא להאי גיסא הואי דתניא מי שזכה בתרומת הדשן (יזכה) בסידור מערכה ובשני גזירי עצים אמר רב אשי שתי תקנות הוו מעיקרא סבור לא אתו כיון דחזו דקאתו ואתו נמי לידי סכנה תקינו לה פייסא כיון דתקינו לה פייסא לא אתו אמרי מי יימר דמתרמי לן הדר תקינו להו מי שזכה בתרומת הדשן יזכה בסידור מערכה ובשני גזירי עצים כי היכי דניתו וניפייסו
GEMARA: The Gemara questions the original practice of holding a race to determine which priest would remove the ashes: And what is the reason that the Sages did not initially institute a lottery for the removal of the ashes as they did for other parts of the service? The Gemara answers: Initially they thought: Since it is a service performed at night it would not be important to the priests, and not many of them would come to perform it, so a lottery would be unnecessary. Then, when they saw that many priests did indeed come and that they were coming to danger by racing up the altar’s ramp, they instituted a lottery. The Gemara poses a question against the assertion that nighttime Temple services did not normally require a lottery: But there is the burning of the limbs of burnt-offerings and the fats of other offerings, which is a service that is performed at night, and nevertheless the Sages instituted a lottery for that from the outset. The Gemara answers: The burning of those parts is not considered a nighttime service but the end of a daytime service, as the main part of the sacrificial service, the slaughtering and the sprinkling of blood, took place during the day. The Gemara asks: If so, it could be argued that this service of removing the ashes is also not a nighttime service but the start of a daytime service, as Rabbi Yoḥanan said: If a priest has sanctified his hands at night by washing them for the removal of the ashes, the next day, i.e., after daybreak, if he remained in the confines of the Temple, he need not sanctify his hands again, because he already sanctified them at the start of the service. Apparently, the removal of the ashes, though performed at night, is considered the start of the next day’s service. The Gemara responds by emending Rabbi Yoḥanan’s statement: Say the following version of the end of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s statement: Because he had already sanctified them at the outset for service. According to this formulation, Rabbi Yoḥanan did not say that the removal of the ashes is considered the start of the following day’s service. Rather, he said that although the removal of the ashes is a nighttime service, since the priest sanctified his hands before performing that service, the sanctification remains in effect for the services performed after daybreak as well, since there is no interruption between the two activities. Some say that the original practice should be explained as follows: Initially, the Sages thought that since there is a likelihood of being overcome by sleep at that time of night, not many priests would come. When they saw that they did indeed come and that they were also coming to danger, the Sages instituted a lottery for this task. The Gemara asks: But there is the burning of the limbs of burnt-offerings and the fats of other offerings, a service for which there is the same likelihood of being overcome by sleep, and nevertheless the Sages instituted a lottery for that from the outset. The Gemara answers: Lying down to go to sleep late is different from rising in the middle of the night. It is not as difficult to stay up late in order to burn limbs on the altar as it is to rise before dawn to remove the ashes from the altar. The Gemara addresses the substance of the mishna’s claim: But was the ordinance to assign the removal of ashes by means of a lottery due to that reason cited in the mishna, the matter of the dangerous incident? The ordinance was instituted due to this reason: There were other important tasks associated with the removal of the ashes that required a lottery in their own right, as it was taught in a baraita: The priest who was privileged to perform the removal of the ashes was also privileged with laying out the arrangement of wood on the altar and with placing the two logs that were placed on the altar each morning. Since these were inherently important tasks, the only way to assign them was through a lottery, which would also determine who removed the ashes. The Gemara answers: Rav Ashi said: There were two separate ordinances instituted. Initially, the Sages thought that priests would not come forward to perform the task of removing the ashes. Once they saw that many priests did come and that they were also coming to danger, the Sages instituted a lottery for this task. Once they established a lottery for removing the ashes, the priests did not come anymore. They said: Who says the lottery will fall in our favor? Therefore, they did not bother to come. Then the Sages instituted for the priests that whoever was privileged with performing the removal of the ashes would also be privileged with laying out the arrangement of wood on the altar and with placing the two logs, so that the importance of all these tasks combined would ensure that the priests would come and participate in the lottery.