Sending a Goat to Azazel

Sending a Goat to Azazel

Vayikra 16

Interactive Learning Module

Goat to Azazel / Mechon HaMikdash

1. Introduction

  • לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו כאן.‏
  • Vayikra 16 describes at length the rituals of Yom HaKippurim. Among the various rites and sacrifices which come to atone for and purify the nation, one in particular stands out, the offering to Azazel. This module will explore the goal and meaning of this ritual.
  • An in depth analysis of the issue can be found at Why is the Goat sent to Azazel. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.
  • Let's access the Mikraot Gedolot on Vayikra 16:5-10 to explore the verses inside.

2. A Goat for Azazel

  • Vayikra 16:5-10 describe a lottery in which one goat is set aside for Hashem and one for Azazel, but they neither identify Azazel nor explain why it is being sent a goat.
  • What in the passage might suggest that Azazel is some sort of supernatural being? What might suggest that the name refers to a geographical location?
  • If one adopts the first option, how and why can a sacrifice be offered to any being other than Hashem? And even if one takes the second option, what about this offering uniquely allows it to be sent outside the confines of the Mikdash?

3. Transfer of Sins

  • Using the verse buttons in the column on the right, access verses 21-22 which describe the second half of the rite.
  • What do these verses suggest about the role of the goat in expiating the nation's sins? Do the verses refer to a literal or a symbolic transferring of sin?
  • How does the purpose of this rite relate to the earlier ritual prescribed for the first goat that was set aside for Hashem (described in verses 15-20)?
  • Do they serve the same or different functions? If the former, why the need for two goats and distinct rituals? If the latter, what is the relationship between them?
  • Finally, is there any significance to the choice of specifically a goat?

4. A Gift to a Demonic Being: Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer

  • Let's explore how our commentators answer these questions.
  • Access Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer from the Library by clicking here. Read the Midrash starting from a bit more than halfway through, from the words, "אמר סמאל לפני הקב"ה".
  • With whom does the Midrash identify Azazel? Why is he being sent a goat? According to the Midrash, is there a literal transfer of sin? What purpose does this play?

5. A Gift to a Demonic Being: Ramban

  • Now, let's return to the Mikraot Gedolot on Vayikra 16:8 by clicking here.
  • Compare what we saw in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer with the approach of Ramban here who agrees that Azazel is some form of demonic being, but attempts to mitigate the theological problem inherent in offering him a sacrifice. How so?
  • According to Ramban, why was specifically a goat chosen?
  • According to each of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer and Ramban, how does this ritual assist Israel in its quest for forgiveness and atonement?

6. Extra Sanctuarial Sacrifice: R. Saadia

  • Unsurprisingly, not all are comfortable with the notion that supernatural demonic powers exist or that a sacrifice might be offered to them. Thus, several commentators offer alternative explanations of the rite.
  • See R. Saadia Gaon's Tafsir on verse 8. With what does he identify Azazel?
  • He does not explain the etymology here, but he does explain it in his Emunot veDeiot, accessible from the Library here.
  • R. Saadia compares the name Azazel to the names of other mountains which similarly end with the superlative "אֵל", connoting strength or greatness. Do you think his comparison is valid; why or why not?

7. Extra Sanctuarial Sacrifice: R. Saadia

  • According to R. Saadia in his Emunot veDeiot, what is the relationship between the two Chatat offerings – the goat offered to Hashem and the goat sent to Azazel? Why is one brought in the Mikdash and one outside?
  • R. Saadia maintains that the first goat atones for the sins of the priests and is thus sacrificed in their abode of the Mikdash, while the second goat atones for the nation as a whole and is therefore sacrificed outside, where they reside.
  • What difficulty does this explanation encounter in light of verses 15-16? [To return to the Mikraot Gedolot, click here.]

8. Extra Sanctuarial Sacrifice: R. Saadia

  • As the verses clearly imply that the first goat, too, is connected to the sins of the nation, R. Saadia's reading is somewhat difficult and an alternative explanation might be preferred.
  • Let's scroll up to Vayikra 16:5 and, using the gear icon in the top red bar, select "Seforno" so that his commentary will appear (click outside the box to return to the Mikraot Gedolot).
  • How does Seforno explain why the goat is offered outside the Mikdash?

9. A Scapegoat: Rashbam

  • Let's turn now to a third general approach.
  • Scroll down in the Mikraot Gedolot to verse 10 (or use the verse button column on the right side of the screen to navigate) and read Rashbam's commentary there.
  • How does he understand the word Azazel?
  • To what does he compare the ritual as a whole? What does this suggest is the purpose of the rite? According to him, is the goat killed or left alive?

10. A Scapegoat: R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ralbag

  • Now, let's turn to R"Y Bekhor Shor. According to him, what is the goat's fate? What is killing it meant to accomplish? [See Ramban's understanding of the Purpose of the Sacrifices who adopts and applies this reasoning to sacrifices as a whole.]
  • Finally, scroll down to verse 22 and press "Show Additional Commentaries" so that Ralbag's commentary will appear.
  • Why does Ralbag think that a symbolic transference of sin is crucial for the nation's repentance? What would happen had no such ritual been instituted? [See in Purpose of the Sacrifices that Ralbag is consistent in similarly understanding the need for the entire sacrificial process.]

11. Summary

  • In summary, we have seen three approaches to the rite:
  • Mystics, like Ramban, identify Azazel as a demonic being which needs to be appeased before the Day of Atonement so as not harm Israel when they are being judged.
  • Rationalists, like R. Saadia and Seforno, uncomfortable with such a notion, attempt to view the sending of the goat as a regular sacrifice to Hashem. It is only because of the enormity of sin that the goat bears that it is sacrificed at a distance from the Mikdash.
  • Others view the rite more symbolically. Rashbam, looking to the leper's purification for inspiration, views it as a sending away of impurities, while R"Y Bekhor Shor and Ralbag suggest that it acts as a scapegoat which enables the nation to start afresh with a clean slate.

12. Additional Reading