Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘The Avodah from the musaf service on Yom Kippur

A Goat for Azazel, and Other Scapegoats

Yom Kippur 5770

Who coined the term ‘scapegoat?

  The English word scapegoat was coined by William Tyndale who translated the bible into English, and it meant ‘the goat who escapes’. The Hebrew word for goat is seir. In Hebrew, the goat is not exactly called a scapegoat. It is the goat ‘for Azazel’.

What happened in our service on page 471?

 And then he would take two goats, marking out one of them for the Lord and marking out the other as a scapegoat for the sins of our people.

Leviticus 16:7

וְלָקַח אֶת־שְנֵי הַשְּעִרִים וְהֶעֱמִיד אותָם לִפְנֵי יְיָ. וְנָתַן עֲלֵיהֶם גּורָלות. גּורָל אֶחָד לַיְיָ וְגורֵל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל:

At the bottom of page 475 we read:

He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.

Leviticus 16:22-23

וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹתָם אֶל אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּר:

What is the origin of this part of the service?

 The Mishnah

The source for the our Avodah service is Yoma, a tractate of the Mishnah which deals with matters relating to Yom Kippur. It is quoted at length between pages 469 and 473 of the Machzor. It  tells us what became of the scapegoat.

 The man designated to lead away the goat was customarily (but not halakhically) a priest.[1] He walked with the goat a distance of twelve miles from Jerusalem to the ravine in the desert.[2] Crowds of people accompanied the man along the way until the last mile or so when he went on alone.

He divided the thread of crimson wool and tied one half to the the rock and the other half between its horns, and he pushed it from behind; and it went rolling down, and was killed before it had reached halfway down the hill[3]

The man then waited till nightfall before returning to Jerusalem. A message that the scapegoat had reached the wilderness was conveyed to the High Priest, by means of sentinel posts from which flags were waved.

Rabbi Ishmael says:

Had they not another sign also? A thread of crimson was tied to the door of the Sanctuary and when the goat reached the wilderness, the thread turned white; for it is written, Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).[4]

 אִם יִהְיוּ חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָּׁנִים כַּשֶּׁלֶג יַלְבִּינוּ

In art

The thread of crimson wool is depicted by William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, in his painting The Scapegoat. Hunt wanted to depict an authentically Judean location with a genuinely Middle Eastern goat. He went to Palestine in 1854 and painted the Scapegoat against the background of the Dead Sea. He did not neglect his homework where Jewish writings were concerned so his goat has red wool between its horns.

Around the frame of the painting, which now hangs in the Lever Museum in Liverpool, Hunt inscribed two biblical quotations, one from Leviticus and the other from Isaiah:

 And the Goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a Land not inhabited. (Leviticus 16, 22)

 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.’ (Isaiah 53, 4)

Juxtaposed in this way, the quotations suggest that the scapegoat represents a human being, burdened with problems offloaded by others. Hunt regarded the scapegoat as a Christological symbol, whose punishment and suffering enables the guilty to make atonement, without themselves suffering the punishment and this view was probably in keeping with mainstream Christian opinion.

Who was Azazel?

A non-canonical work called the Book of Enoch dating from around the late Second Temple period developed a mythology of fallen angels, with Azazel prominent among them. Enoch appears briefly in Genesis in the pre-flood genealogies:

When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah.  And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God three hundred years and had other sons and daughters.  Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.[5]

Azazel is represented in the Book of Enoch as one of the rebellious angels who came to earth in the time preceding the flood.

And Azazel taught men to make swords and knives and shields and breastplates; and made known to them the metals [of the earth] and the art of working them; and bracelets and ornaments; and the use of antimony and the beautifying of the eyelids; and all kinds of costly stones and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.[6]

When God punishes the fallen angels, he has Raphael ‘bind Azazel hand and foot and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert and cast him therein’.

Rashi and Ibn Ezra suggested that Azazel was a place name, a rugged mountain from whence the goat was pushed.

Nachmanides commented on Leviticus 16:8 that Azazel belongs to the class of seirim, goat-like demons of the desert. The name Azazel appears in Mesopotamian mythology as one of the goat-demons, who were believed to haunt the desert. At least one  scholar[7] has made a connection with the mischievous Greek deity Pan, who was half goat, to show the prevalence of belief in supernatural goat entities in Mediterranean culture.

Propitiation of the seirim existed among  the Israelites to the extent that it was accommodated  by King Jeroboam:

[Jeroboam] appointed his own priests for the high places and for the goat and calf idols he had made.[8]

 וַיַּעֲמֶד לוֹ כֹּהֲנִים לַבָּמוֹת וְלַשְּׂעִירִים וְלָעֲגָלִים אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.

In a later work – perhaps first century CE – the Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel appears as a bird of prey which came down upon the sacrifice which Abraham prepared, with reference to Genesis 15:11 “Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.”[9]

When Isaiah foretells desolation in Babylon , he speaks of the land being overrun by wild goats and birds of prey.[10]

But desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about.

In the mythological background of the region there seems to be an association of the ideas of dry and desolate places with wild goats, birds of prey and possibly minor demons, such as Azazel.

Another suggestion is that the spelling עזאזל is a defective version of  עזז אל, which sounds the same, and means ‘strong God’ or ‘fierce God’. This interpretation is more in keeping with Jewish monotheism.

The Scapegoat in Psychology

In 1997, a group of therapists formed the Scapegoat Society, as a resource  for people who have experienced being a scapegoat, and for people working professionally to resolve scapegoat problems.

They defines scapegoating thus:

Scapegoating is a hostile social – psychological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group. It is also a practice by which angry feelings and feelings of hostility may be projected, via inappropriate accusation, towards others. The target feels wrongly persecuted and receives misplaced vilification, blame and criticism; he is likely to suffer rejection from those who the perpetrator seeks to influence. Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. Distortion is always a feature.

The act of scapegoating involves a separation of good and bad, just as the two goats are separated and sent each to its own destiny. The badness is projected onto a scapegoat person or group, so the one who is doing the scapegoating can feel they are in the right and the scapegoat is in the wrong, the guilty one, the troublemaker.

Aaron Esterson, a colleague of RD Laing, wrote a book called The Leaves of Spring: Schizophrenia, Family and Sacrifice in 1970. Like Laing, he believed that so-called insanity was a rational response to extreme problems in the family, and he made a study of a Jewish family of five, where the parents projected negative feelings on to one of their daughters,  aged 23. This was a family where hostility was covered up so that the family should appear united and well-regulated in the eyes of other people. When the daughter undermined this united front, preventing the parents from ‘keeping up appearances’ in the way that seemed normal and right to them, they considered that she must be mentally ill and brought her for psychiatric evaluation.

According to the Laingian school of psychiatry, schizophrenia was a construct used to explain away the patient’s reaction to an intolerable family situation. Members of the family failed to acknowledge existing problems among themselves and acted as if the problems would disappear if the so-called patient, the scapegoat, was removed.

Subsequently, trends in biological psychiatry and genetics detracted from Laing’s reputation and his views were widely rejected. It was thought that he scapegoated the families of patients, particularly the mothers whom he blamed for their children’s dysfunction. In recent years there has been some rehabilitation of Laing’s approach, his validation of  patients and their experiences being considered by many a valuable contribution to psychiatry.

In literature

Disturbing families

In her novel The Elected Member, Bernice Rubens wrote about  a Jewish family in which the gifted adult son is driven to mental breakdown by the burden of his family’s expectations. Writing in 1969, she quotes Laing’s soundbite: ‘When patients are disturbed, families are often disturbing.’ Notice that Bernice Rubens uses the term ‘the elected member’ to designate the scapegoat of the family, as if the requirement for the rôle of scapegoat existed before someone was chosen to play the part.

The controversial American feminist Andrea Dworkin wrote a book called Scapegoat: The Jews, Israel, and Women’s Liberation, published in 2000, in which she links misogyny and anti-semitism, pointing out parallels between these two forms of scapegoating  through history. Dworkin argues that while Jews are scapegoated by non-Jews, Palestinians are scapegoated by Israelis, and women are scapegoated by men.

In anthropology

A pair of goats, a pair of birds and a pair of brothers

Mary Douglas, the anthropologist, writes about the scapegoat in her book Leviticus as Literature. She sees the pair of goats as an example of a binary pairing which occurs elsewhere in Leviticus: for example, in a ritual involving two birds where one is sacrificed and the other released.

The priest shall order that two live clean birds and some cedar wood, scarlet yarn and hyssop be brought for the one to be cleansed. Then the priest shall order that one of the birds be killed over fresh water in a clay pot. He is then to take the live bird and dip it, together with the cedar wood, the scarlet yarn and the hyssop, into the blood of the bird that was killed over the fresh water. Seven times he shall sprinkle the one to be cleansed of the infectious disease and pronounce him clean. Then he is to release the live bird in the open fields.[11]

Mary Douglas relates this ritual pairing in Leviticus to the narratives of the book of Genesis, where the narratives are  concerned with pairs of brothers. Isaac, who was prepared as if for sacrifice on Mount Moriah, has a brother Ishmael who is sent out into the desert, to survive and become the father of a nation. Jacob has a brother Esau who is so unloved by his mother Rebecca that she conspires to have him dispossessed of his inheritance by Jacob.

James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough  was first published in 1890, a defining work of anthropology, examining cultic myths and magic in  places which were at that time accessible only to intrepid explorers. He found scapegoat-type rituals in the East Indian islands, in China, in Central and South America, East Africa, India and New Zealand.  Frazer considered  the rituals primitive, saying:

The notion that we can transfer our guilt or sufferings to some other being who will bear them for us is familiar to the savage mind.[12]

In some societies, where human sacrifice was practised, the scapegoat figure may have been a person, who was put to death, to ensure fruitful harvests. Some of you may remember the film The Wicker Man, on this theme. Human scapegoats were sometimes believed to have divine status. Consider the symbolism of Hunt’s scapegoat.

Frazer noticed that scapegoat rituals usually occurred on a yearly basis ‘…and the time of year when the ceremony takes place usually coincides with some well-marked change of season.’[13] The onset of dangerous conditions such as drought or flooding may be behind seasonal acts of propitiation.

In Midrash

Who was the prototype for the scapegoat?

לָקַח אֶת־שְנֵי הַשְּעִרִים

Midrash identifies the scapegoat (seir) with Esau who was called Seir, meaning  hairy, and whose descendants lived in territory called Mount Seir, named after him. The connection with the seir for Azazel is unmistakable. Midrashic legend treats Esau  unkindly, describing him as wicked, even from the womb and weaving many stories where Jacob represents goodness while Esau represents evil.

Rebecca tells Jacob to put the hairy skin of a kid on his hands in order to pass himself off more credibly as Esau and obtain the blessing from his blind father Isaac.  With a mother like Rebecca, Esau really fits the Laingian view of the scapegoat.

Scapegoats and brothers

Ishmael and Esau are not the only scapegoats to be found in the Genesis narrative. Why was Cain’s face fallen?[14] Why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice and not that of Cain? We should remember that Abel died and Cain was sent away to become a wanderer on the earth.[15] 

Staying with Genesis, we might consider the twelve brothers who became the twelve tribes of Israel – Joseph and his brothers. All the tribes flourished and, after the slavery in Egypt and the years in the wilderness, each tribe held territory in the promised land, so you might think there is not a scapegoat among them. However, we all remember how Joseph was roughly treated by his brothers and cast into a pit, to be sold to Ishmaelites.[16] When they returned to their father Jacob, how did they account for Joseph’s disappearance?

 וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת כְּתֹנֶת יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁחֲטוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים וַיִּטְבְּלוּ אֶת הַכֻּתֹּנֶת בַּדָּם

Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood.[17]

Jacob, who used the skin of a goat to deceive Isaac, is himself deceived by the skin of a goat.

A goat is slaughtered by Joseph’s brothers, but Joseph is brought alive to Egypt.

There is a Christian tradition of identifying Joseph with the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and of reading Christological symbolism into the Joseph narrative of Genesis.

Religions as well as families require scapegoats so that sins may be expiated, but the scapegoat plays a vital rôle in the ritual and is by no means an object of hatred.

We should note that only in the Mishnah is the scapegoat pushed over a cliff. According to Leviticus  the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and [they] shall let go the goat in the wilderness.[18]

The scapegoat may be burdened, symbolically, with the transgressions of the Israelites, but once it reaches the wilderness, it is home free.

[1] Yoma 6:3


Yoma 6:4

[3] Yoma 6:7

[4] ibid 6:8

[5] Genesis 5:21-24

[6] 1 Enoch 8:1-3a

[7]  The High Places of PalestineW F Albright

[8] 2 Chronicles 11:15

[9] Apocalypse of Abraham 13:4-9

[10] Isaiah 13:21

[11] Leviticus 14:3-6

[12] The Golden Bough OUP p557

[13] ibid p587

[14] Genesis 4:6


Genesis 4:12

[16] Genesis 37:27

[17] Genesis 37:31

[18] Leviticus 16:22

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