In Yoma on 67a, in the middle, it talks about the where the strip of red wool should be tied before sending the goat off the side of the mountain.

As far as I understand (and with the help of the Artscroll's commentary), it is saying that half of the strip should be tied to the rock and half to the goat's horns.

This appears to be because "when the strip turns white, the designee may be satisfied that atonement has been achieved, and he may neglect to push the Azazel goat off the cliff." (Rashi + Artscroll)

My question is: How could such an instance possibly happen? Isn't the change of color of the wool a miraculous occurrence? It is not like it is a "natural" function of atonement that wool should turn from red to white. And if it is something miraculous, we understand that it is beyond nature and certainly something that Hashem would not let happen a second too early or a second too late. So, how could the Gemara even consider the possibility that the strip would change color before the person with the goat has finished his duty?

And, I suppose a second, related question is: If the strip did turn white before he pushes the goat, then what purpose need he continue to do the Azazel service? It seems like atonement has been achieved.

2 Answers 2


Rashi (ibid) clearly distinguishes between the whitening of sin and the commandment of the goat. This strongly implies that while the two may be correlated, they are ultimately independent and one does not necessarily cause the other.

In other words, The whitening of sin was not necessarily always the direct result of the goat's death. Likewise, the commandment of the goat was not dependent on the goat's death causing the whitening of sin.

Maimonides in his explanation of the Mishnah mentions the Talmud's question. He explains that the cloth is not all tied on the cliff because "maybe it will whiten before the pushing of the goat, and they will think that the sins are atoned for before the pushing of the goat". They will think in this instance implies that they err in their thought. This suggests that even once the sins are shown to be atoned for by way of the cloth's color, there is still more that must be done. I have come across two possible understandings of this:

1. See Zevahim 6a and 7b, concerning 'floating atonement', (as opposed to full atonement). I have done some research in the past on this concept. It seems that a floating atonement provides such, but is not desired, so to speak, to the extent that one would fulfill and obligation to bring a sacrifice.

So perhaps the bringing of the goat to the desert provided the essential atonement, however the full on atonement and obligation would not be entirely met until the goat was pushed.

2. See also Zevahim 7b, where the elevation offering is said to be a 'gift'. Rabbi Simeon explains that it is generally brought after the sin offering, because the sin offering is like the defender that sues for pardon. Once the pardon is achieved the elevation offering follows as a gift.

I take this to mean that even once a person has attained forgiveness in judgment, and will no longer be punished, there may still be an emotional blemish in the relationship; a lack of trust or the like. There may also still be a flaw within the offender, from the poisonous act they committed. The elevation offering serves to restore a person to their original state of favor before Gd, and to remove the blemish of one's sin.

So perhaps the bringing of the goat to the desert serves as a sin offering would, while the throwing of it over the cliff acts as the elevation offering, which does not formally atone, but still does much in the way of repairing our bond with Gd!

  • Thank you for clarifying this. So, do we understand that the whitening of the red wool must happen at the exact moment of the "whitening of sin"? I guess I am trying to understand how, if the whitening of the wool is miraculous anyway, it could possibly happen before the entire procedure is over. As I am typing this, I think that I understand, but I am curious if there is a source that thoroughly explains this. Is there?
    – chaimp
    Jan 15, 2014 at 17:10
  • @Chaim I'm looking! This is a great question. I'm gonna head over to the Beis Midrash and poke around. If I find anything, I'll edit it in.
    – Baby Seal
    Jan 15, 2014 at 19:03
  • Thank you. I appreciate that and am curious what you find. I hope that if anything, it at least leads to some interesting discussion at your Beis Medrash.
    – chaimp
    Jan 15, 2014 at 22:51
  • @chaimp so the Bartenure seems to say similar to Rashi. Rambam threw me for a loop though. I've edited in his words and my thoughts.
    – Baby Seal
    Jan 17, 2014 at 20:34

Look further the gemara:

בראשונה היו קושרין לשון של זהורית על פתח אולם מבפנים וכיון שהגיע שעיר למדבר היה מלבין וידעו שנעשית מצותו

Originally they used to tie the thread of crimson wool to the entrance of the Ulam within, and as soon as the he-goat reached the wilderness, it turned white. Then they knew that the commandment concerning it had been fulfilled, (Translation: Soncino)

In earlier times, the thread would change color, before the goat was pushed off the cliff. See also Rabbeinu Elyakim who writes that the commandment was fulfilled when the goat reached the cliff:

וידעו שנעשת מצותו, שהגיע לצוק

See also the Netziv in his מרומי שדה who says something similar:

היו קושרין לשון של זהורית כו' וכיון שהגיע שעיר למדבר היה מלבין וידעו שנעשית מצותו. ואף על גב שעדיין יש להגיע לעזאזל, מכל מקום בזה כבר נעשה המצוה... דא״צ רק שיגיע למדבר שהיא עיקר המצוה

The Netziv proves his point from Rashi on 68b. There Rashi writes the כהן may not start another duty until the goat reaches the wilderness. The implication is that the (fundamental part of the) service is completed before the goat is pushed off the cliff.

Based on the above, I would think that the color change, if it did occur, happened before he pushed the goat off the cliff. If it did, there was a chance he would not bother to complete the (secondary part of the) service. Of course, there was no guarantee that the color would change, and in such a case, he had every motivation to complete the task.

(However, see also מדרש הגדול where the issue is disputed:

דעתיה דר׳ יהודה משהגיע שעיר למדבר נעשית מצותו, אע״פ שלא הגיע לצוק וחכמים אומרים המדברה לרבות עד שעת דחיפתו לצוק )

  • +1 very interesting. Based on this the worry that he won't push the goat is more a getting started on the right foot thing. We just got forgiven, and the first thing we do is neglect a commandment?!
    – Baby Seal
    Jan 17, 2014 at 20:37

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