Skip to main content

The Lottery in the Temple Service on Yom Kippur

Text file


Part 1 - The Necessity of the Lottery


The unique service of Yom Kippur entailed bringing two identical se'irim (goats) to the Beit Ha-mikdash (Temple). The fourth chapter of Yoma describes the lottery held to determine which of these two would be sent to its death in the desert (symbolizing the casting away of all sins - hence the term "scapegoat"), and which would be sacrificed in the Beit Ha-mikdash and have its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies.

Upon first glance, this selection process appears unlike any other dedication of a korban (sacrifice). Generally, an individual who offers a sacrifice designates his animal as a particular type of korban. This verbal "ma'aseh hekdesh" (act of dedication) consists merely of a declaration bestowing upon the animal the status of an offering, and hence its resultant status of kedusha (sanctity). As with all kedusha in the halakhic realm, a human being is authorized with its investiture. Just as a person confers kedusha upon a sefer Torah by writing it "lishmah" (with proper intention), similarly he may endow his animal with kedusha by dint of a verbal declaration.

Apparently, the se'irim on Yom Kippur are an exception to this rule. In this instance, it is the outcome of the lottery and not a human action which determines the status of the animals. This article will determine whether "amira" - the person's verbal articulation, which is so vital in other sacrifices - plays any role whatsoever in this selection process. A later article will consider the exact structure and nature of the lottery vis-a-vis the person who performs it.

The gemara (Yoma 40b) derives the distinction between the selection of se'irim and the designation of a regular korban from the verse (Vayikra 16:9) stating that the kohen gadol (high priest) should "bring the goat upon which fell God's lot, and he should make it a chatat (sin-offering)." Though a simple reading would seem to indicate that the kohen himself should confer this identity, the gemara (based upon a Sifri) teaches: "The lottery creates the status of chatat and not the kohen himself." This categorical statement would seem to entirely exclude the kohen gadol from any active role in deciding the fate of the animal. Even though the mishna (39a) confirms that after the lottery was held, the kohen pronounced the words "La-Shem chatat" ("A sin-offering to God") upon the designated animal, this action served merely to reiterate the results of the lottery without imposing any status on its own. Closer inspection, however, reveals several opinions which nonetheless impute some role to the kohen's verbal designation.

The gemara (39b) cites an Amoraic dispute as to whether the omission of the lottery process would subvert the validity of the entire special service of Yom Kippur. According to R. Yochanan, if they omitted the lottery the rest of the service is not affected. His position raises the following difficulty: if no lottery is performed, what distinguishes between the two identical se'irim? Indeed, this issue is of such concern that Rabbeinu Chananel was forced to reinterpret the gemara. According to him, even R. Yochanan requires a lottery to confer the distinct identities. However, he does not demand that it be performed at the exact point of the service delineated in parashat Acharei Mot. Although generally the Torah's sequence must be adhered to (for example, the sprinkling of the blood of the bull must precede that of the goat), when it comes to the lottery (which is only marginally connected to the special avoda of Yom Kippur) the sequence can be altered. No one, however, can assert that the lottery itself can be omitted. Inasmuch as it confers the status of the se'irim, it is critically necessary.

Rashi, however, accepts the gemara in its literal sense. R. Yochanan indeed maintains that no lottery is necessary (bedi'avad - after the fact). In the absence of a lottery, the only technique able to confer the status is the kohen's verbal designation. When the Torah assigns the responsibility for selection to the lottery and not to the kohen, it is merely indicating the PREFERRED process. In reality, there exist two parallel tracks: the preferred one, unique to Yom Kippur (i.e. lottery), and the second-best (i.e. the standard verbal designation of the kohen gadol).

A role for the kohen gadol's verbal designation can also be discovered by examining a dissenting opinion to the first mishna of this chapter. The mishna's description of the lottery process has the kohen gadol putting both hands into the box while he faces the two identical se'irim. By picking up one name-plate in each hand, he automatically designates the role of each se'ir; if the plate with God's name was raised in his right hand, then the sa'ir to his right became the korban, while its counterpart was sent to its death in the barren desert. The kohen gadol would then lift his right hand to finalize and publicize the result. The reverse happened if the plate with God's name ended up in his left hand.

R. Eliezer is cited as the proponent of a somewhat different scenario. To ensure that the plate with God's name always ended up in the RIGHT hand (which in Halakha is generally preferred), the kohen gadol and his assistant each placed his right hand into the lottery box, and pulled out one plate. If the plate with God's name was grasped by the kohen gadol, he lifted his right hand to finalize the result. If, however, the assistant received this plate, the kohen gadol was instructed by another kohen (the acting head of the rotation of kohanim currently serving in the Beit Ha-mikdash - known as rosh beit av) to "speak his piece" (i.e., to say "La-Shem chatat"). The disparity between these two permutations within R. Eliezer's opinion is striking. If the kohen gadol received the desired plate, he elevated it, thus allowing the LOTTERY to establish the selection. If, however, his assistant grasped the plate, it seems that no one would raise his hand. The kohen gadol would simply launch into his verbal designation.

The Ritva already noted this problem. He offers a different reading of R. Eliezer's position, explaining that in each case the recipient of the plate with God's name elevated that plate prior to the kohen gadol's verbal assignment. If, however, the kohen gadol received the plate, he required a little reminder to elevate the plate; given his massive load of avoda (on Yom Kippur all the avoda was performed exclusively by the kohen gadol), he might forget. If his assistant acquired the plate, he could be depended on to raise it upward without a reminder. Hence R. Eliezer only referred to the former case in which the kohen gadol was actually reminded to raise his plate. In either case, though, the plate was immediately raised thereby fixing the identities of the se'irim prior to any verbal statement of the kohen gadol.

The simple reading of R. Eliezer's position, however, yields a very different picture. If the kohen gadol actually received the plate with God's name, his elevating of the plate established the identities. In the event, however, that the assistant received this plate, we still prefer that the kohen gadol direct the selection. Not grasping the proper plate, the only way he could confer the status of the korban chatat was by SPEAKING, not LIFTING. R. Eliezer recognizes two parallel mechanisms for fixing the identities: lottery and verbal assignment. If the kohen gadol acquired the plate with God's name, he was able to implement the former. If, however, the plate was in the hands of his assistant, he had no recourse but to employ the standard method of designating a korban - verbal designation through announcing "La-Shem chatat."

SUMMARY: Though the Torah appears to highlight the lottery and de-emphasize any verbal action, we have located two dissenting opinions that might allow a pivrole for a verbal assignment. In truth, it must be stressed that we do not rule in accordance with either opinion. We reject R. Yochanan and rule that lottery is absolutely necessary - otherwise the avoda is invalid. Likewise, we adopt the mishna's scenario and not R. Eliezer's: the kohen put both his hands in the box, and elevated whichever hand held the plate with God's name.

Even within the accepted version of the lottery, one might discover a role for the verbal assignment. The mishna records a dispute between R. Yishmael and the Sages. According to the Sages, the kohen gadol announced "La-Shem chatat," while according to R. Yishmael he said only "La-Shem." Instinctively, we perceive that the Sages' formulation is more analogous to a standard verbal assignment, while R. Yishmael's version is clearly unprecedented.

The Ritva notes this disparity and imputes the dispute to different readings of the verse (Vayikra 16:9) stating that the kohen should "bring the goat upon which fell the lot of God (i.e. the plate with God's name) and make it a chatat." What is not exactly clear is the subject of the verb "make it." Does it refer to the lottery itself (the textual antecedent) or to the kohen gadol (the logical antecedent)? According to the Ritva, herein lies the dispute between R. Yishmael and the Sages. According to the former, the antecedent is the lottery. Since the lottery ITSELF bestows the status and the kohen's verbal announcement is symbolic at best, the statement may be truncated. By contrast, the Sages believe that the designation of the chatat also receives a boost from the kohen gadol's verbal announcement; hence this announcement must take the form of a standard verbal designation. The kohen gadol must declare "La-Shem chatat." According to the Sages (in the Ritva's interpretation), although the verbal announcement isn't the sole factor in designating the status, it participates alongside the lottery in this process.



1. Often a simple dispute regarding a minute detail of a halakha might reflect a more fundamental question. Thus, the dispute regarding the formula of the kohen's declaration might reflect the nature of this declaration.

2. An ambiguous verse is often the true source for a later dispute. Sometimes the ambiguity allows for two distinct logical concepts. Who designates the korban - only the lottery or even the kohen gadol?



We noted Rashi's opinion that in the absence of a lottery, the verbal declaration of the kohen can independently assign status. Does this change our view of this assignment when the lottery is performed? Perhaps according to R. Yochanan the LOTTERY is merely a preface to the verbal assignment, which ALWAYS bestows the identity. See the Mikdash David (24:3) and the Gevurot Ari (Yoma 39b).


Part 2 - The Nature and Mechanics of the Lottery


Ostensibly, the lottery has a mind of its own and the kohen gadol merely triggers it. He plays no active role in the selection; he simply chooses two plates from the box, one of which is engraved with the name of God and one with the word "la-azazel" (to the desert). Each animal receives the status corresponding to the name written on the plate above its head. The lottery thus determines a reality of its own without substantive human input.

Two statements in the Yerushalmi, however, call this view into question.

The Yerushalmi (4:1) raises the following question. Why must the lottery involve two plates with distinct words engraved? Why can't the kohen gadol employ instead white and black ribbons or white and black stones to designate the two animals? The possibility of using non-defined ribbons raises an intriguing view of the lottery. Black and white ribbons cannot independently determine the status of each animal; the meaning of their color must be determined by a person. If the Yerushalmi actually considers this option, does it then ascribe a greater role to the kohen gadol? Instead of merely "switching on" the machine and allowing the lottery to run on its own, does he actually play a subtle yet substantive role in determining the identity of the animals? This would mean that although the kohen usually confers these identities through verbal designation, on Yom Kippur, because of a special gezeirat ha-katuv (scriptural decree), he employs the technique of a lottery. He is still, however, the driving force in imposing the animal's status. The difference between the general case and Yom Kippur is not in substance or nature but merely in METHOD. In either case, however, a person actively determines the status.

The Yerushalmi cites a verse to reject this possibility. Since the Torah writes, "Goral echad la-Shem" (One goral should be designated for God - Vayikra 16:8), we infer that the lottery must be self-defined. Instead of employing non-specific ribbons or stones, the kohen must utilize explicitly named plates. What is not clear is the logic behind this requirement. Does it reflect the fact that the goral itself and not the kohen must act alone to determine the identity of the animals? To be fully independent, the lottery must be inscribed with the two different words. If this is indeed the rationale, then the conclusion - that the goralot (lottery plates) must be defined and not generic - highlights the pivotal and exclusive role of the lottery.

However, we might alternatively assume that the gemara's ruling maintains the concept of a human-driven selection through the agency of the lottery. However, there is an external requirement that the lottery plates be clearly demarcated. This serves to add drama and publicity to the entire process. Certainly, one cannot compare the public reaction to a lottery drawing of a black and white ribbons to the reaction to a drawing of two well-defined plates.

This latter interpretation might be supported by a related restriction found in the very same passage in the Yerushalmi. Even though a BOX wasn't strictly necessary to hold the plates, it was preferable to have one since it added suspense to the event. Clearly, various steps were taken to enhance and "promote" the process. These steps, however, do not necessarily have any inherent correlatives. They bespeak nothing of the internal nature of the selection process, and are mere externals added for effect. Indeed, the Yerushalmi requires that the names be INSCRIBED on the plates rather than merely written - a detail which seems to have little impact upon the nature of the process.

What follows from these requirements is that even according to the gemara's final ruling, the demand for self-defined lottery plates might be for tangential reasons, while the spirit of the hava amina (the assumption of the question) might be preserved. In other words, we can still see the kohen gadol as utilizing the lottery as his tool in performing the selection. He theoretically could have used non-defined lottery pieces, but may not do so for purely secondary, unrelated reasons.

A subsequent deliberation in the Yerushalmi might also reveal the kohen gadol as the driving force behind the selection. The Talmud broaches the possibility that the kohen gadol should place TWO plates on EACH animal - one plate with the name of God and one with the word "la-azazel." It follows that, according to this option, the plates and the lottery have lost their ability to define independently the identity of the animals. If each animal has each plate on it, something else has to actually decide which animal will be sent where. Ostensibly, this would be the kohen gadol. He would have made the designations using the lottery as his tool.

The Yerushalmi proceeds to reject this position as well, since the Torah clearly asserts "goral echad la-Shem" - one lottery plate for God - insisting that each animal be crowned with only one plate. The same question, however, resurfaces. Does the Yerushalmi reject its hava amina on fundamental grounds, ruling that the lottery itself without the kohen gadol determines the status? As such, we understandably prefer absolute exclusivity - one plate per animal -to allow this independent designation. Or does the Yerushalmi maintain its overall view? The kohen gadol indeed is the source for this selection; however, a gezeirat ha-katuv mandates that only one plate be placed on each animal. At its essence, though, the selection stems from the kohen gadol; he replaces his standard tool of verbal declaration with the Yom Kippur tool - lottery.

INTERIM SUMMARY: Even if we focus upon the lottery as the sole decision-maker, one could search for a hidden role for the kohen gadol within the lottery. Especially when the Yerushalmi raises the possibility of non-decisive goralot, the conception of the kohen gadol as an arbiter becomes more and more attractive. When these versions of the lottery are rejected, one is left to wonder whether this essential view of lottery was also negated.

Is there any hint of this viewpoint in the Bavli? Is there any halakha which ISN'T REJECTED which might mirror this idea? The Rosh (in his summary of Hilkhot Yom Ha-kippurim) writes, "If the kohen does not actually place the lottery plates on top of the animals (hanacha), the lottery is valid, as long as he knows which plate landed in his right hand and which in his left." This is indeed a startling ruling: the kohen gadol must be cognizant of the results of the lottery. The same halakha emerges from Rashi (Yoma 40b s.v. Keivan she-ala). Possibly this added requirement - recognition on the part of the kohen gadol - reflects the fact that he isn't a passive participant in the lottery, but rather he confers the identity THROUGH the lottery. Remember the Rosh and Rashi make their claims even according to the gemara's conclusion!

One final manifestation might concern the anatomy of the actual lottery. The gemara (39b) contends that no one requires the actual placement of the plates on top of the animal (be-dieved). According to Ulla, however, the elevation of the plates from the box is required. (R. Yochanan disputes this opinion and does not even require this much; see Part I for alternate selection mechanisms.) What is interesting is that according to Ulla, not only is the actual performance of the goral (literally, throwing the lots) necessary, but also the elevation of the plates. Why must the plates be raised? Why can't someone look into the box and announce which plate landed in each hand of the kohen gadol? Might Ulla view the kohen's role as more active, maintaining that he must actually translate the preliminary results of the lottery into the final designation of respective identities? Possibly, these two aspects of lottery - that he must be conscious of the results and that he must elevate the plates - each reflect the kohen gadol's subtle role in actively designating the identities of the animals through the medium of the lottery.



1. Hava aminot are valuable because they provide novel and sometimes provocative ways to view halakhot. Even when these hava aminot are ultimately rejected, their logical foundation might be preserved. The hava amina might be slightly modified for unrelated reasons - such as a gezeirat ha-katuv.

2. Especially important are issues raised by the Yerushalmi which do not appear in the Bavli. They provide an entirely different angle on the same halakhot. Of course, one might always contend that the Yerushalmi and the Bavli disagree. This is very often the subject of debate amongst Talmudic commentators.



Could we possibly distinguish between the need for selecting the goat designated as a sacrifice, and the need to select the goat sent to its death in the desert? After all, in the case of the former the mishna describes a verbal declaration on the part of the kohen gadol, while in the case of the latter no such process is mentioned. Could the kohen be involved in actively designating the goat for God (which is akin to a standard korban), but not in selecting an animal sent to the desert? See the Ramban in Acharei Mot, who describes the purpose of lottery vis-a-vis the animal sent to the desert.


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!