Why is the Goat Sent to Azazel?


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Who or What is Azazel?

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:


(ה) וּמֵאֵת עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יִקַּח שְׁנֵי שְׂעִירֵי עִזִּים לְחַטָּאת... (ז) וְלָקַח אֶת שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם וְהֶעֱמִיד אֹתָם לִפְנֵי ה' פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. (ח) וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גֹּרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַה' וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל. (ט) וְהִקְרִיב אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַה' וְעָשָׂהוּ חַטָּאת. (י) וְהַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַעֲזָאזֵל יׇעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי ה' לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה.

(5) And from the congregation of the Children of Israel he shall take two goats for a sin-offering... (7) And he shall take the two goats, and set them before Hashem, at the opening of the tent of meeting. (8) And Aharon shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for Hashem and one lot for Azazel. (9) And Aharon shall bring forth the goat upon which Hashem's lot fell, and make it a sin-offering. (10) And the goat upon which Azazel's lot fell, shall stand alive before Hashem, to atone for him, to send it away to Azazel into the wilderness.

This procedure raises many puzzles, of which the first and foremost is the identity of "עֲזָאזֵל" (Azazel).1  To whom or where is the goat being sent?  In verse 8, Azazel is juxtaposed with Hashem, suggesting that it might similarly be a proper noun, referring to a specific supernatural being. Verse 10, though, states that the goat is sent to the wilderness, perhaps implying instead that Azazel is a geographic location.2  Either way, it is unclear why the goat is being sent away.  If Azazel is some heavenly power, what purpose is served by offering him a goat?  Moreover, does the Torah not prohibit offering a sacrifice to anyone other than Hashem?3  On the other hand, if Azazel is a location, what is unique about this offering that permits it to be sent outside the confines of the Mikdash?4

Dead or Alive?

A second ambiguity relates to the fate of the goat.  The Torah repeatedly refers to it as "הַשָּׂעִיר הֶחָי"‎5 and speaks of it merely being sent away6 rather than ritually slaughtered or killed.  As such, this ritual would find a close parallel in the leprosy purification process described only two chapters earlier in Vayikra 14.  There, the Torah similarly mandates the bringing of two birds,7 one of which is slaughtered while the second is set free.8  Rabbinic tradition, however, dictates that the Azazel goat is to be thrown off a cliff.9  What leads the Rabbis to adopt this position, and how can it be squared with the plain reading of the Biblical verses?  Additionally, if the goat is indeed killed, does it have the status of a sacrifice?10

Transfer of Sins

The verses of 16:21-22 speak of placing the nation's sins on the head of the goat so that it can carry them away to an "אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה":


(כא) וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי יָדָו עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כׇּל עֲוֺנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת כׇּל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכׇל חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה. (כב) וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כׇּל עֲוֺנֹתָם אֶל אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּר.

(21) And Aharon shall place his two hands on the head of the living goat, and he shall confess upon it all of the iniquities of the Children of Israel and all of their transgressions in all of their sins, and he shall place them upon the head of the goat and send it away by the hand of of a ready man to the wilderness. (22) And the goat shall bear upon him all of their iniquities to an uninhabited land, and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.

What is the meaning of "אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה", and why are the sins being sent there? Is there a literal transference of sin, or is this to be understood merely symbolically? What significance, if any, lies in the choice of specifically a goat ("שָׂעִיר")‎?11 Finally, how does this ceremony work in tandem with the atonement achieved via the sprinkling of the blood of the goat sacrificed to Hashem (verses 15-19),12 and how do both of these relate to the (presumed) need for the nation to actually repent from their sins?13