Purpose of the Service of Vayikra 16


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For the People or Place?

 Vayikra 16 describes the rituals of Yom HaKippurim in great detail, including the bringing of sin-offerings, the lottery, incense, and dispatching of the goat for Azazel.  The exact purpose of the ceremony, though, is left somewhat ambiguous. The end of the chapter describes the goal of the day as follows:


(ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי י״י תִּטְהָרוּ... (לג) וְכִפֶּר אֶת מִקְדַּשׁ הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ יְכַפֵּר וְעַל הַכֹּהֲנִים וְעַל כׇּל עַם הַקָּהָל יְכַפֵּר.

(30) for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before Hashem... (33) Then he shall make atonement for the Holy Sanctuary; and he shall make atonement for the Tent of Meeting and for the altar; and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.

These verses highlight that the day is one of כפרה, generally understood to mean atonement. Interestingly, the object of this atonement is not only the priest and nation, but also the sanctuary itself.

Earlier in the chapter, a different aspect of the day is highlighted:


(טז) וְכִפֶּר עַל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִפִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכׇל חַטֹּאתָם וְכֵן יַעֲשֶׂה לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד הַשֹּׁכֵן אִתָּם בְּתוֹךְ טֻמְאֹתָם... (יח) וְיָצָא אֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי י״י וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו ... וְטִהֲרוֹ וְקִדְּשׁוֹ מִטֻּמְאֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

(16) and he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so he shall do for the Tent of Meeting, that dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness.... (18) “He shall go out to the altar that is before Hashem and make atonement for it... and cleanse it, and make it holy from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.

These verses focus on purification of the Mikdash, mentioning the purging of not only impurities but also iniquities.

What is the relationship between these dual goals of atonement and purification?  Does the day revolve around cleansing the people from sin or purging the Mikdash from impurity?  Or, might both processes apply to both the people's sins and the Mikdash itself?

Specific Rites

What is the role of each of the unique rites of the day?

  • Clothing – Most of the rituals of the day are performed while the high priest is clothed in linen rather than his usual golden garb.  Why does this ceremony require a special outfit?
  • Sin-offerings – The priest is told to bring a bull as a sin-offering, while the nation brings a goat. The blood of both is sprinkled inside the Sanctum while their flesh is burned outside the camp. Is there a significance to this choice and unique protocol?  Why does not one offering suffice for both groups?
  • The goat to Azazel – How do both of the sin-offerings relate to the goat which is dispatched to Azazel?  Why does the ceremony involving the former take place inside the sanctuary, while the goat to Azazel is uniquely sent away? Finally, who or what is "Azazel" and what does sending it a goat accomplish? 
  • Olah Offerings – What is the purpose of these offerings?  Are they connected to the man rituals of the day, or are they distinct from them?1

One Day of Atonement?

Even though the service described in the chapter is linked to Yom HaKippurim, the text does not make this clear from the outset. The opening verses state only that Aharon could not enter the Sanctum whenever he pleased, but only after performing the rite laid out in the chapter.  This might imply that as long as he followed the protocol, he could enter whenever and how often that he wished. It is first in verse 29 that the reader is told that this ritual is meant to be performed only once a year, on the tenth of Tishrei, and that it is to be accompanied by afflictions and cessation from labor:


(כט) וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם וְכׇל מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. (ל) כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי י״י תִּטְהָרוּ. (לא) שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם.... (לד) וְהָיְתָה זֹּאת לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכׇּל חַטֹּאתָם אַחַת בַּשָּׁנָה וַיַּעַשׂ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה י"י אֶת מֹשֶׁה.

(29) “It shall be a statute to you forever: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and shall do no kind of work, the native-born, or the stranger who lives as a foreigner among you: (30) for on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before Hashem. (31) It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls; it is a statute forever.

Why is the date and these extra aspects of the day mentioned only at the very end of the chapter?2 Additionally, why does the chapter conclude with, "וַיַּעַשׂ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה י"י אֶת מֹשֶׁה", implying that Aharon immediately complied with these commands, if in fact he first did so only several months later on Yom HaKippurim?3

Text in Context

The context of the chapter might shed light on the nature of the ritual as well:

  • Deaths of Nadav and Avihu –The chapter opens by connecting the commandment to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Is this merely a technical time marker, telling the reader when the rite happened to be commanded,4 a practical warning lest Aharon be lax in cultic practices and die like his sons, or is the text more fundamentally connecting the two events? What about the death of the brothers might have prompted the directives of this chapter?
  • Laws of Purity – Despite the chapter's opening, the immediate context of the chapter is not the death of Nadav and Avihu but the laws of purity found in Chapters 11-5. These discuss the impurity of animals, a birthing mother, one who has tzara'at and one who had a bodily emission. Is there a relationship between these laws and the rituals of Yom HaKippurim?