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At Leviticus Chapter 16, there is a strange ritual that takes place on Yom Kippur. The high priest takes two goats. After a lottery, the one designated for Hashem is sacrificed as a חטאת. On the other one, the high priest puts both hands on its head and confesses the sins of the entire nation. He then sends it לעזאזל via an appointed man who takes it to the “midbar.” The goat ends up taking all those sins to an “eretz gezeirah” (=a land that is cut off).

In the Torah we are told four times that the goat is sent off. There is nothing at all about it being killed. But in the Mishnah (Yoma, sixth chap.), the end of the procedure is that the goat is pushed off a mountain cliff to a certain death.

The widespread explanation for the different endings is that in Biblical times it was possible to send the goat to an area where it could not wander back. But in later times this was no longer possible, so the animal had to be killed. See, e.g., Pentateuch of R. Hertz, p. 483.

The ending of the procedure in Mishnaic times is interesting because the Torah seemed to go out of its way to imply that the goat was not going to be killed. (Perhaps there was a ritual in some other culture at the time of the Torah that killed the animal to whom the culture’s sins were transferred. The Torah was perhaps declaring that its ritual was different. This suggestion is made by I. Sassoon, in his remarkable work “Destination Torah,” p. 169.)

(The Mishnah does recognize that the official ritual was over once the goat reached the “midbar.” See Mishnah Yoma 6:8.)

(There is a statement in Sifra Acharei Mot 2:6 that derives from verse 16:10 that the goat needs to be killed. It is paraphrased at Rashi on this verse. But the statement in the Sifra is most likely merely a homiletical justification for what had become the accepted practice.)

As to the purpose of this “escapegoat” ritual, we will discuss this more below. (This ritual is the origin of our word “scapegoat.”)

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What about the word עזאזל? At 16:8, we are told that Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one goat “to Hashem” and the other לעזאזל. Based on this verse, it seems that Azazel is a demon or spirit. Based on the other verses, if it is a demon or spirit, it would seem that it resides in the desert. This is the view of many rabbinic figures and scholars, and I agree. (The word עזאזל only appears in Tanach in this chapter.)

If עזאזל is the name of the demon/spirit of the desert, it is not that important to figure out its etymology. But it has been suggested that it originated as עזז + אל, “strong god.” See, e.g., H. Tawil, ZAW 92 (1980), and Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, p. 128.

For those who reject the demon/spirit approach (and there are many), it is important to give the word a meaning. Here are some approaches.

—עזאזל is a combination of עז plus אזל: “the goat went.” This is the view of Radak. Many preceded him with this view.

—There is a root in Arabic עזל that means “remove.” A reduplicative form of this root would be עזלזל. The reduplicative emphasizes, so the meaning is: “entire removal.” Our word derived from this. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, and Rabbi Hertz. (But explaining Biblical words with words from Arabic, where sources are only from the seventh century C.E., is not so convincing.)

—The root is עזז, with the meaning “strong.” The word describes the hard (=rocky) mountaintop from where the goat was pushed. The aleph and lamed are just added letters that do not affect the meaning. See Daat Mikra. (Other examples of lameds added include: כרמל and ערפל.) But this approach is just an attempt to give the word an etymology consistent with the practice as described in the Mishnah where the goat is led to a mountaintop. In Lev. Chapter 16, “midbar” and “eretz gezeirah” are not mountain-related words.

Moreover, the key issue for all the alternative interpretations is whether we can fit them into 16:8: “goral echad la-Shem ve-goral echad la-Azazel.” The first certainly does not work.

Yoma 67b has two interpretive statements: עז וקשה and קשה שבהרים. (See also Rashi on Lev. 16:8.) It is unclear whether these statements are based on עז only, or on אל as well, which also means “strong.” But these interpretations of the Talmud seem to be proposed only to give the word an etymology consistent with the mountaintop practice described in the Mishnah.

Most creative is that of Rav S. R. Hirsch: He views the meaning of the word as: firmness has disappeared (עז + אזל), and that Azazel represents a “sinking into the power of sensuality, in contrast to attachment to God [and] obeying His laws of morality.” See also his comm. to 17:7.

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If Azazel was a demon/spirit of the desert, what was the purpose of the original ritual? Was the goat meant as a gift for Azazel? Why would Azazel be given a gift laden with sin? Does the gift reflect homage to Azazel? Or perhaps it reflects a complete rejection of Azazel?

Nachmanides suggests a compromise. The sin-laden goat is not a rejection of Azazel, but neither is it homage to him. Rather, we are following God’s instructions to send sins to the sar who rules these matters and was their source.

A very interesting verse is Lev. 17:7. Here we are told that the Israelites are no longer to sacrifice to “seirim.” (But see II Chr. 11:15 mentioning such worship in the time of Rechobam.) R. Hertz writes that the worship of the goat prevailed in lower Egypt at the time the Israelites were there. It is at least possible to suggest that the sending off of the goat to Azazel (without any sacrifice) was a lesser form of worship, as part of a weaning process from old rituals. But again the goat is a sin-laden one, so it would be an unusual form of worship and homage.

Rambam (Moreh 3, 46) writes that the sin-removal is only symbolic. But it serves to encourage people to repent because it impresses upon them the idea that their sins have been removed as far as possible. (The idea that God can cast away all our sins to the depths of the sea is mentioned at Michah 7:19.)

Most unusual is Ibn Ezra who writes that he will give a partial explanation of the ritual to one who is age 33!

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Many have observed that the ritual of sending sins to a distant place is similar to a ritual involving the cleansing of the metzora at Lev. 14. One bird was slaughtered and the blood was sprinkled on the metzora. The other bird was sent off “al pnei ha-sadeh.”

For parallel goat rituals among Hittites and Akkadians, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 3:1001. For more ancient rituals involving elimination through the use of physical substitutes, see Dictionary of Deities and Demons, p. 129. For much more on our entire topic, see Rabbi Nachshoni.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Rather than killing insects that invade his home, his family typically traps them and sends them back outdoors. He hopes this is not interpreted as paying homage to the outdoors.

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