Shabbat Shuva: The scapegoat ritual of Yom Kippur

Shabbat Shuva: The scapegoat ritual of Yom Kippur

Rachel Friedman is dean of Lamdeinu (, the center for adult Torah learning in Teaneck.

‘Tis the season of Yom Kippur and everyone is talking about kapparah — atonement. What does kapparah mean? Is it about throwing our sins into a body of water in the tashlich ceremony? Is it about swinging kapparot — chickens or money — around our heads and declaring that our kapparot are a substitute for our sins? Is it about praying, asking God and our fellow human beings for forgiveness and giving extra charity?

As a practical matter, it is all of the above. But as students of the Bible and language, we need to understand the semantic meaning of kapparah in Hebrew, and the reason that Yom haKippurim is the title of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

The meaning of kapparah is captured in a strange ritual that was the climax of the afternoon Temple service on Yom Kippur in ancient times. Leviticus 16, which is also read in synagogues on Yom Kippur, describes this complex ceremony. In a nutshell, two male goats are selected by the high priest. One is sacrificed to God and the other is sent to the wilderness bearing the sins of the people of Israel.

What is the significance of the scapegoat ritual? Why are the sins of the people of Israel dramatically transferred to a goat, which is driven into the wilderness, never to return?

Historically, two different kinds of answers have been offered to this question. The first is that the scapegoat ritual is a rite of riddance. That is, it is a metaphysical process by which sins and impurity are actually removed from Israel and its Temple.

A second approach sees the rite of the scapegoat as symbolic rather than metaphysical. In and of itself, the rite did not eliminate evil from Israel and its Temple. Instead, it was practiced for its dramatic effect. It was intended to impress upon the individuals who performed it, witnessed it and knew of it, the need to purge sinfulness from the midst of the people. Only in this way could the nation retain the holy character of its Sanctuary and maintain its special relationship with God.

Viewing the scapegoat ritual as a metaphysical process through which sin was actually removed from within Israel is intriguing but it did not resonate with many scholars, traditional and modern alike.

In the late twelfth century, Maimonides rejected the metaphysical approach to the rite of the scapegoat in “The Guide for the Perplexed” and explained what he saw as its symbolic significance: “No one has any doubt that sins are not bodies that may be transported from the back of one individual to that of another. But all these actions are parables serving to bring forth a form in the soul so that a passion toward repentance should result: We have freed ourselves from all our previous actions, cast them behind our backs, and removed them to an extreme distance.”

To Maimonides, the rite of the scapegoat was not intended to affect the physical location of sins but rather the emotions of the people. It was intended to arouse us, to catch our attention, to motivate us to repent and put our sins behind us so that on Yom Kippur each of us can make a fresh start.

Building on the approach of Maimonides in the Guide, I would like to share my own thoughts on the meaning of the scapegoat ceremony. I believe that the scapegoat rite is the key to understanding the deeper meaning of kapparah and the essence of Yom haKippurim.

The Hebrew root kpr, the root of kapparah and kippurim, is repeated numerous times in Leviticus 16’s description of the Yom Kippur Temple service. In the Torah, the root kpr has two levels of meaning. On the one hand, it denotes the “price of life” as reflected in the term kofer — a ransom. For example, in the process of counting the Israelites, God commands that each male above age 20 pay one half shekel to the Sanctuary. This payment is called kesef hakippurim —ransom money in place of each individual.

A second meaning of kpr is “to wipe off or to cleanse”. It is in this sense that the root is used repeatedly in the Torah’s description of the Yom Kippur Temple service:

“For on this day He shall atone (yekhaper) for you to cleanse you of all of your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord.” Lev. 16:30

I would suggest that the timeless message of the scapegoat ritual is that to truly achieve kapparah (atonement), there must be both aspects — the payment of a price and a cleansing of our sins. That is why there are two goats in the scapegoat ritual — one that is sacrificed to God as a sin-offering and one that is sent to the wilderness bearing the sins of the people.

The first goat is sacrificed as a sin-offering to convey that, in principle, we must pay a price for our sins. Sacrifice, however, served as a kopher — a ransom or substitute — in the real, human world.

The second goat in the scapegoat ritual is sent to the wilderness bearing the sins of the people, to remind us that we must remove our sins from our repertoire and personal space. The high priest placed both of his hands on the head of the live goat and confessed over it all of the sins of Israel. He thus symbolically placed the sins on the head of the goat and sent it off to the wilderness, never to return. This is the ultimate image of catharsis — a complete confession and removal of our sins so that they are no longer part of our being or our space. This second aspect of kapparah — a cleansing of our very selves — can be achieved only through reflection, confession and a resolve to cast away our sins.

The idea that to truly atone for our transgressions we must both pay a price and confess is intuitive. As a psychological matter, a human being who knows he or she has done something wrong, will not feel a sense of personal resolution and closure unless he has confessed and owned up to the misdeed on the one hand and made amends or paid up to the extent possible on the other.

Appropriately, the requirements of both payment and confession are the conceptual prerequisites for atonement in Jewish law. As Maimonides notes in the Laws of Repentance, even capital punishment will not achieve kapparah without the prerequisites of confession and repentance. By the same logic, it is not enough to apologize to our fellow human beings for wrongs that we may have done towards them. Rather, it is up to each of us to “make things right” to the best of our abilities.

In this season of repentance and atonement, may each of us recognize the timeless message of the scapegoat ritual. May all of us confess our sins and make amends for our sins so that we may achieve spiritual closure and communal peace. Gemar Chatimah Tovah!

Dean Rachel Friedman will deliver a lecture on “Shedding Sin: The Scapegoat Ritual of Yom Kippur” on Monday, September 17, at 10:15 a.m. at Lamdeinu in Teaneck. It will feature a more extensive discussion of the scapegoat ritual and the meanings of Azazel and Yom Kippur. Check out the full roster of classes at

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