High Holidays: The Scarlet Tongue and the Goats of Yom Kippur

The Biblical Holiday – Purity and Goats

Unlike Rosh Hashanah, which receives minimal mention in the Torah, Yom Kippur is dealt with at length. Leviticus 16 describes the annual Yom Kippur ritual, centered on a series of sacrifices and sprinklings of blood on the altar, all to purify the Mishkan (the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Temple in Jerusalem) and make it fit for the Shechinah (God’s presence) to dwell among Bnei Yisrael.

A unique part of the ceremony is the selection by lot of two goats, one to be sacrificed as a sin-offering, the other to be sent out to Azazel in the wilderness (Source 1). The role and fate of the latter, the “scapegoat,” is described in vs. 21-22 (Source 2). According to these verses Israel’s sins were transferred onto the goat’s head and it was sent off to the wilderness, a process of purification by riddance.

Leviticus 16 presents ritual impurity and indeed sinfulness as external ritual defects that can be removed, like chametz before Pesach, through religious ceremony, in an almost “magical” way. The main focus of the purification process was the Mishkan, not the people as individuals or as a collective. The ultimate goal of the passage was to keep the holy space of the Mishkan pure, lest God withdraw and distance Himself, a very fearful idea.

To us the ritual described here seems “technical,” unrelated to the processes of introspection, the taking of accounts, and the attempts to improve and make amends which we associate with Yom Kippur today. Clearly this major holiday has undergone a transformation which radically changed its focus and meaning.

The Appearance of the Lashon shel Z’horit (the Scarlet-Dyed Tongue of Wool)

Tractate Shekalim deals with the annual collection of the half shekel per person, to fund the Temple and the sacrificial services. Mishnah 4:2 specifies:

The red heifer, the goat dispatched (to the wilderness) and the scarlet-dyed tongue of wool are funded from the Temple Treasury chamber

The red heifer and the dispatched goat are prescribed expressly in the Torah, but what is the scarlet-dyed wool? Mishnah Shabbat 9:3 explains that this piece of wool was used in the Yom Kippur scapegoat ceremony:

How do we know that scarlet wool was tied on the head of the he-goat dispatched (to the wilderness)? From the verse: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white; be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece. (Isaiah 1:18)"

Mishnah Yoma 4:2 relates that the scarlet wool was tied around the throat of the sin offering goat (to be slaughtered in the Temple area) and around the head of the scapegoat. The wool’s function at this stage was purely technical – to distinguish between the two he-goats, each set aside for the purpose chosen for it by lot (v. 8). It also prevented the scapegoat from getting mixed up with other goats on the way to the wilderness (otherwise tying the wool on one goat would have sufficed). Mishnah Yoma 6:6 reports that before the person accompanying the scapegoat would cast it into the deep precipice, he would divide the red wool and tie half to the goat’s horns and half to a rock (Source 3). According to the Gemara this was done to assure the completion of the ceremony.

The procedure, however, posed an intriguing logistic problem. The elaborate ceremony in Mishnah Yoma follows the sequence of Leviticus 16 methodically; Mishnah 5:7 says “Every act of Yom Kippur is done in order; an act done out of order is invalid.” So, if the High Priest could not continue with the sacrifices until the goat had arrived in the wilderness, how could the people in the Temple, several miles away, know when that had happened?

Mishnah Yoma 6:8 (Source 4) provides a fascinating set of answers. The first opinion holds that there was physical notification relayed back visually, the second (R. Judah) that the time needed for the goat to arrive in the wilderness could be calculated. R. Ishmael reports a means of communication of a very different sort: “a strip of scarlet wool tied to the door of the Sanctuary turned white when the he-goat reached the wilderness.” According to R. Ishmael the scarlet wool was no longer merely a sign of the goat’s identification, like an ancient name tag. The scarlet wool received the first text or tweet, a message relayed magically 2000 years ago, indicated by the wool’s change of color. Once the wool had turned white, “the show” (the Temple service) could continue.

From Divine Certainty to Human Involvement

The rich imagination of the rabbis took this a step further. If the lashon shel z’horit could receive technical information in a supernatural way, the medium could become the message. The Talmud brings a baraita (an early rabbinic saying) that provides a fascinating “background” to the role of the scarlet wool (Source 5). It was used in the Temple to report the God’s response to the Yom Kippur purification ritual. If the wool turned white, it was a sign that Israel’s sins were forgiven and the people rejoiced. If it remained red, it meant their sins were not forgiven, and they were distraught. This is a fascinating development.

The process of atonement was no longer automatic, the predictable result of carefully executed ritual. Uncertainty had entered the picture, and with it a new interpretation of sin and a new concept of expiation. It was no longer purely external, something that could be purged mechanically by a goat being sent to the wilderness. There is also an internal, human element. The community was deeply concerned about the result, and sensed that it indeed had a role in determining it. The control of the process of atonement was beginning to shift; humanity, according to the rabbis (here and in many other sources), is being accorded a significant role, and with it responsibility.

Little wonder then that the lashon shel z’horit assumed broader significance. The Talmud (Yoma 39 a-b, Source 6), in an abbreviated account of Jewish history, uses the scapegoat and scarlet wool as the measuring stick of the “state of the nation,” In “the good old days” (the time of Shimon HaTsadik, a very early rabbinic figure), it always turned white. There was then a period when sometimes it whitened, sometimes it did not. And in the period before the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), when Israel, according to tradition, was full of moral shortcomings, the wool never whitened.

From Communal to Individual Responsibility

One more text is worth noting: the Jerusalem Talmud (“the Yerushalmi”) Shabbat 9:3 (Source 7) provides a different version of the background of the scarlet wool. It was placed in the window of each person’s home, and judgment was given (supernaturally) on an individual basis. This is a very different type of account before the Lord from that in Leviticus 16. The Yerushalmi reports that this caused embarrassment to those whose “test scores” were unsatisfactory, and for this reason it was decided to place the scarlet on the door of the Temple Chamber.

The Yerushalmi source is particularly interesting because it shows that the rabbis, some two thousand years ago, were moving the focus of the Yom Kippur sin-cleansing process from the community to the individual, and from the magical/ritual to the intellectual, emotional and spiritual. The ceremony in Leviticus 16 served to cleanse the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, so that God’s Presence would dwell therein. With the destruction of the center of worship in Jerusalem, every Jew became a vessel in which that Presence could potentially be found. Self-examination and sincere attempts to make amends and to improve our behavior (commonly called teshuva) replaced the goat sent off to the wilderness as the means for achieving this result. In the absence of a “litmus test” such as the scarlet-dyed wool, to convey the results of our efforts “on-line,” for better or worse, we live today with both the uncertainty of how God views our efforts and the hope that we can do better.