The different approaches to understanding the ritual of the sending of a goat to Azazel reflect fundamentally diverging world outlooks. 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, uncomfortable with the notion that such supernatural powers exist or that a sacrifice might be offered to them, look for alternative explanations. Thus, Rambam attempts to view the action as being part of the regular sacrificial service of the day, which only for technical reasons occurs 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, and Ralbag explains that this enables the nation to start afresh with a clean slate. Abarbanel looks more comprehensively at the ritual as a whole, seeing in the entire lottery a representation of the people's choice to turn to God or away from Him.
Offering to a Demonic Being
The goat is sent as an offering to a supernatural power named Azazel. This approach subdivides regarding both the purpose of the offering and whether Azazel really exists:
Bribery or Punishment of an Actual Satanic Power
The goat is sent either as a bribe to the Satan so that he will not hinder Israel from performing the Day of Atonement purification rite, or as a punishment to the demonic power of Azael for continuously instigating sin in the world.1
Meaning and identity of "עֲזָאזֵל" – All of these sources understand the word to be a proper name referring to a supernatural power. They likely assume that the theophoric "אֵל" ending parallels the names of other angelic beings, and that the full name connotes a fierce (עַז) godly power.3 They differ, though, regarding the exact identity of this being:
Demon ruling over the wilderness – Ramban, in contrast, thinks Azazel refers to a demonic power who ruled over the wilderness and other desolate places. He relates him to the "שעירים" mentioned in Vayikra 17:7 to which the nation used to sacrifice.5
Satan – Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer views the name Azazel as merely an alias of Satan or Samael.
Belief in demonic beings – This approach assumes that there exist demonic powers with the ability to harm humans,6 and that the Torah prohibits sacrificing to demons precisely because they exist.
"לַה'" vs. "לַעֲזָאזֵל" – One of the advantages of this position is that it reads these two terms as parallel, with each referring to the proper name of an addressee who is to receive one of the goats.
Is the goat a sacrifice? Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer appears to maintain that the Azazel goat is a sin-offering.7 However, most of these sources, presumably motivated by a desire to avoid the possibility that one would be allowed to sacrifice to demonic or idolatrous beings, posit that the goat is not considered a sacrifice at all. According to Bereshit Rabbati and Yalkut Shimoni the sin-laden offering is instead a means of punishing Azazel, while Ramban emphasizes that the people are simply acting as Hashem's servants to present a gift from Him to one of his ruling officers, much like a king would send a servant to reward a loyal vassal.8
Is the goat left alive or killed? Although these sources do not say so explicitly, they could assert that the goat was sent alive to Azazel, as the simple understanding of the term "הַשָּׂעִיר הֶחָי" might indicate.
Transfer of sins? Bereshit Rabbati and Yalkut Shimoni appear to understand that there is a literal transfer of sins. The booby-trapped goat carries the sins back to their originator, who is ultimately responsible for the entire world's transgressions.9 According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer and Ramban, the goat carries away the sins so that the Satan will see a sin-free nation and have nothing to say against them.10
Efficacy of a bribe – R. Moshe AlshikhVayikra 16About R. Moshe Alshikh challenges the approach of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, questioning both the legitimacy and utility of a bribe. He notes that either the nation does not deserve a punishment, in which case the prosecution of the Satan should have no effect regardless, or the nation does deserve a punishment in which case even the silence of the Satan should not protect them. If it did that would be a travesty of justice!11
A punishment? One might also question how giving more sins to some demonic being who encourages sin regardless, serves to punish him. Why would this being care?12
"אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" – The goat is sent to the barren wilderness since that is the abode of demonic beings.13
Role in Atonement? According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer and Ramban, the offering to Azazel plays a significant role in the nation's attainment of forgiveness, as it ensures that no one will prosecute them before Hashem.
Concession to Erroneous Human Fears of an Imagined Force
The goat is sent as a gift to Azazel, despite the fact that such a being neither exists nor has any power. The ceremony is intended merely to calm the nation who erroneously believed that this demonic creature would contaminate the Mikdash, and thereby sabotage the purification accomplished through the rituals of the Day of Atonement.
Meaning of "עֲזָאזֵל" – The Hoil Moshe understands it to be a proper name referring to an evil deity. He suggests that it might be a combination of the two words, "עַז" and "אזל", meaning one who walks14 with strength and cruelty.
Belief in demonic beings – According to the Hoil Moshe, although no such beings exist, the people in the time of Moshe strongly believed that evil spirits ruled over the wilderness, as evidenced by their practice of sacrificing to such "שעירים".15
"לַה'" vs. "לַעֲזָאזֵל" – The parallel language of these two terms is a key factor which leads the Hoil Moshe to conclude that "עֲזָאזֵל" must refer to the name of the being receiving the goat and not to a place.
Context – Hoil Moshe connects the background of the ritual to the opening words of the chapter, "אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן", positing that the nation attributed Nadav and Avihu's death and the ensuing impurity in the Mikdash to the jealousy of Azazel. It was this that necessitated a purification of the Mikdash and led to the nation's fear that Azazel might act again if not appeased.
Is the goat a sacrifice? The nation viewed the goat as a sacrifice to this evil spirit.
Is the goat left alive or killed? The Hoil Moshe could explain that while initially, the goat was set free in the wilderness like the simple reading of the verses, by the time of the second Beit HaMikdash, Chazal instituted that the goat be pushed off a cliff and break apart, in order to make it clear that Azazel was only a figment of the imagination and that there was no need to sacrifice to him.16
Transfer of sins? The Hoil Moshe does not explain what role the transfer of sins plays in the ceremony nor whether this was an actual act or a symbolic one. It would seem to be unnecessary if the sole purpose of the goat is simply to serve as a bribe to ease the nation's fears.
"אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" – The goat is sent to the wilderness, where the nation believed that Azazel ruled.
Biblical parallels – The Hoil Moshe suggests that numerous commandments were given as a concession to the nation's erroneous beliefs or low spiritual level,17 and he points to the Rambam's understanding of the institution of sacrifices18 as a prime example.19 The Hoil Moshe's claim, though, is much more radical. While Rambam asserts that a concession is made to wean the people away from idolatry, Hoil Moshe asserts that the law actually allows some form of it!
Role in Atonement? According to the Hoil Moshe, the ceremony plays no role in achieving atonement, not even in the minds of the nation. It is rather about maintaining the purity of the Mikdash. This reflects his understanding of the entire day's ritual as being a means of purifying the Temple.20
Extra-Sanctuarial Sacrifice to Hashem
The Azazel goat is a full-fledged sin offering sacrificed to Hashem. Its unique meeting of its fate outside of the Mikdash is merely for technical reasons.
Meaning of "עֲזָאזֵל" – R. Saadia Gaon suggests that the word refers to a mountain,21 pointing to the fact that other mountains also contain the superlative "אֵל" as part of their name.22 He suggests that the word is formed from the root עוז,23 with both the doubling of the "ז"24 and the ending "אֵל" acting as markers of emphasis to connote an extremely strong or hard place.25
Why not in the Mikdash?
For the masses whose abode is outside – R. Saadia maintains that each of the two goats in the ceremony provides sacrificial atonement for a different group of people. The first goat atones for the sins of the priests,26 and is thus sacrificed in their abode of the Mikdash, while the second goat atones for the nation as a whole and is thus sacrificed outside of the sanctuary where the nation resides.27
Too contaminated – Rambam and Seforno, in contrast, suggest that this sin offering which is laden with all of the sins of the entire nation is simply too contaminated to be brought into the purity of the Mikdash.28 Due to its great impurity it is sacrificed as far away as possible.29
Belief in demonic beings – As rationalist philosophers, R. Saadia and Rambam deny the existence of demons and the like,30 and thus reject the possibility that Azazel refers to such a creature.31
"לַה'" vs. "לַעֲזָאזֵל" – To maintain the parallelism between the two terms,32 R. Saadia asserts that each refers to a place – the House of Hashem and the Mountain of Azazel.33
Is the goat a sacrifice? This position views the goat as a regular sin-offering.
Is the goat left alive or killed? According to this approach, since it is a sin-offering, it must die just like other sacrifices.
Relationship to Rabbinic tradition – This position matches the Rabbinic tradition that the goat is pushed off a cliff.
Transfer of sins? Both R. Saadia and Rambam, like those who adopt the symbolic approach below,34 reject the idea that there is a literal transfer of sins. Rambam interprets the verse metaphorically, while R. Saadia offers a more creative reading of "וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כׇּל עֲוֺנֹתָם", suggesting that it is the man accompanying the goat (rather than the goat itself) who is subject of the verb "וְנָשָׂא".35
"אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" – According to Rambam, this refers to unsettled territory, a location which can withstand the impurity of the offering without fear of contaminating others.36
Biblical parallels – Rambam points to the fact that other sin offerings as well, such as those brought for the sins of the high priest or entire nation, are burnt outside the camp. In contrast to a burnt offering (עולה) whose fragrance is pleasing to Hashem, the smoke of the sin offering, representing the guilt of the nation, is offensive. The Azazel sin offering differs from others only in the quantity of the sins that it bears and thus in the distance it needs to travel away from the Mikdash.
Role in Atonement? The goat serves to atone like all of the other ritual acts of the day.
Symbolic Act of Purification
The sending away of the goat is meant either to signify that the nation is being given a clean slate or to symbolize the fate of the sinner and thereby motivate the nation to repent:
Scapegoat or Proxy
The sending off of the sin-laden goat represents the cleansing of the impurity or sins of the nation, and it enables the people to feel that they have been given a fresh start rather than remaining mired in sin.
Meaning of "עֲזָאזֵל" – All these commentators agree that the goat is sent to a place rather than to some metaphysical being, but they differ in their exact understanding of the term Azazel:
Goats – Rashbam asserts that the word is related to עזים. The animal is sent to the grazing land of goats, the wilderness. He suggests that the "ל" at the end of the word is superfluous and points to other words which similarly end with an extra letter after the main root.37
Hard land – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor maintains that the word is comprised of two roots, "עַז" and "אֵל", both meaning hard or strong.38 He suggests that the term is parallel to "אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" and "מדבר", the harsh, barren place to which the goat is sent.
Destruction – According to Shadal, the word was originally used to refer to some demonic being ("אֵל עַז" - a fierce god) but was later borrowed by monotheists to refer to any great evil or destruction. R. D"Z Hoffmann similarly suggests that "עֲזָאזֵל" refers to a place of destruction, but posits that the word עזל means to distance and thus the noun refers to a distant place of desolation and loss.39
Belief in demonic beings – The commentators in this position likely have different views on this issue, with some believing and some opposing.
"לַה'" vs. "לַעֲזָאזֵל" – R. D"Z Hoffmann asserts that the two terms are opposites, with Hashem symbolizing eternal life, and Azazel referring to complete destruction.
Is the goat a sacrifice? Most of these sources would likely suggest that the goat is not considered a sacrifice but merely a symbol.40
Is the goat killed or left alive?
Killed – According to most of these commentators the goat is killed.41 R"Y Bekhor Shor emphasizes that the sin-laden goat takes the place of the sinning nation, and is thus killed in their stead.42 He maintains that the word "הַמְשַׁלֵּחַ" of verse 26 comes from the word שלח or sword and refers to an executioner.43
Alive – Rashbam maintains that the goat is sent while still alive into the wilderness.44 Like the live bird in the purification ritual of the מצורע, the Azazel goat is sent away and not killed.45
Relationship to Rabbinic tradition – Shadal attempts to resolve the discrepancy between the simple reading of the verses (that the goat was sent away alive) and Rabbinic tradition. He explains that, in the generation of the wilderness, the goat was sent to a desolate area where it died on its own. However, when the people entered Israel and spread throughout the land, there were no longer such uninhabited areas,46 and therefore Chazal instituted that the goat be sent to its death off a cliff so that it not wander back into civilization.47
Transfer of sins? Ralbag views this as symbolic and explains that such an act is needed by the people so that they can feel as if they are forgiven and cleansed of their sins. Otherwise people would feel burdened by their sins to the extent that they might become lax in their service of Hashem, thinking that they are lost and contaminated regardless.48
"אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" – The sins/impurity of the nation must be carried far away from the people and thus the goat is sent to this barren, unsettled land.
Purification of the מצורע – Rashbam points to the similarities between this rite of purification and that of the leper described in Vayikra 14. In both cases, two animals are brought, one of which is killed while the other is sent away alive.
Sale of Yosef – Jubilees49 connects this ritual to the story of the sale of Yosef. In both stories there is a כתונת, a dipping in blood, abundant usage of the verb שלח, and a שעיר עזים. Moreover, in both cases the animal functions as a scapegoat, taking the blame for another's sins.50
Ancient Near Eastern parallels – Both Hittite and Mesopotamian cultures have similar rites of transfer or disposal in which evil is transferred to another object/ person and disposed of elsewhere. In some of these, the object is considered a substitution for the original and is meant to suffer the consequences of the evil in place of the original sinner.51
Role in Atonement? The ritual is meant to help the people repent, by giving them hope and a new lease on life.
The lottery of the goats and their diverging fates represent the nation's choice to stand either with Hashem or against Him, and thus to remain on their land or be exiled.
Meaning of "עֲזָאזֵל" – Azazel is comprised of two separate words, "עַז" and "אזל" and means the one who is defiant will go.
"לַה'" vs. "לַעֲזָאזֵל" – According to this approach, the lottery is symbolic of man's choice to be "לַה'" (for Hashem) or to be "עַז פָּנִים" (against Him). Choosing Hashem involves sacrifice, but also affords the reward of coming close to Hashem, while choosing defiance results in exile.
Is the goat a sacrifice? This approach views the sending of the goat as a symbolic ritual rather than a sacrifice.
Is the goat left alive or killed? Abarbanel maintains that the goat is left alive, symbolic of the fact that even those who are exiled will eventually return, for the exile itself will atone for their sins.52
Transfer of sins – The placing of sins on the goat represents the idea that the nation's sins will come to haunt them as they go into exile.
"אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה" – Abarbanel posits that this refers to a land which was decreed to be barren when Israel is destroyed.
Role in Atonement? The entire procedure is set up to force the nation to reflect on their actions and choices, and thus lead them to return to Hashem and thereby gain atonement for their past sins.