Akiva Lane

Goats of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a holy day.  We spend the day in synagogue fasting, looking inside ourselves, and trying to repent.  The parsha in Achrei Mos describes the service of the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur.  At one of the high points of the day, the High Priest takes two goats that must look alike.  Using lots he chooses one goat to be the ‘goat to Hashem’, and other to be the ‘goat to Azazel’.  The goat to Hashem is slaughtered as a sin offering.  The High Priest confesses the sins of the Jewish people on the goat associated with Azazel, and then sends that goat to the desert where it is thrown off a cliff to its death.  As soon as that goat dies, a red thread that has been tied to its horn turns white, and this indicates that Hashem has forgiven the Jewish people.

At the pinnacle of the year, in a main portion of the Day of Atonement, two goats play a central role.  What do these two goats symbolize?

To add to the question, the Talmud in Yuma 67b asks what the name Azazel means.  The Yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael answers that the goat ‘of Azazel’ brings about forgiveness for the action of Aza and Azel.   Rashi explains that Aza and Azel were two destructive angels referred to at the end of parsha Bereshis that ‘came down to the earth’, and were attracted to women.  Og Melech Habashan was one of their children.

This makes our questions even more puzzling.  What does Aza and Azel have to do with Yom Kippur? And again, what is the significance of the two goats?

Let’s start by pointing out a similarity between the two goats of Yom Kippur and two other animals that appear in parsha Metzorah, the parsha that precedes Achrei Mos. The Talmud in Arachin 16a says that there are seven sins that cause the skin disease called Tzoras.  All are interpersonal sins such as loshon hara, stealing, and stinginess. A person who has Tzoras has to leave the community, separating him from a society to whom he did something anti-social. When his symptoms disappear, the Metzora brings offerings that include two birds.  One of the birds is killed, and the other bird is sent away to fly away over a desolate field.

Notice the similarity between the two birds and the two goats.  For Tzoras, one bird is killed and the other bird is sent away over a desolate area.  On Yom Kippur, one goat is killed and the other is sent away to a desolate area.

What is being communicated to us through this dual symbolism? In both cases there are two animals, one killed, and the other is sent away. What could they signify? Let’s remember that Tzoras is caused by anti-social behavior.  Is there an anti-social act in the Bible that describes two people, where one is killed and the other is sent away?

The first anti-social act in the Bible is between Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel and is sent away to wander.  Similar to the two goats and the two birds, one is killed and the other is sent away. Perhaps the two goats and the two birds are to remind us of Cain’s anti-social behavior, and of the serious consequences of interpersonal sins.  Interpersonal sins can result in one person being a victim, and the other person being punished. If we think about the terrible consequences of such sins, we should be inspired to improve ourselves and repent, especially in relation to how our actions affect other people.

Another question: what does Aza and Azel have to do with Yom Kippur?  Aza and Azel were angels in Heaven, and they were very unusual in that they were attracted to doing sins in the physical world. What was their main sin?  The main sin of Aza and Azel was that they were not satisfied with being in Heaven. They were in a lofty spiritual place, and they were tempted to be involved with the sins of the physical world.  This is the main problem whenever we sin.  Our soul is on a high spiritual level, but sometimes we are attracted to the temptations of sin in the physical world. Therefore, on some level, the action of Aza and Azel symbolizes all our sins.  Our soul, instead of being satisfied with the spiritual joys of Torah and good deeds, descends and gets sullied by the temptation of sins in the physical world.

The goats of Yom Kippur are powerful symbols.  When we see one killed and the other sent away to its death in a desolate place, it can remind us of interpersonal sins, such as what Cain did to Abel, where one person is hurt and the other is punished. The goat of Azazel reminds us that our soul is better off enjoying spiritual pursuits rather than doing sins in the physical world.

It could be that the Torah is using the goats as symbols to communicate these powerful messages to us.  But most people are not consciously aware of the meaning of these symbols. Why use symbols that people are not consciously aware of?  It may be that our soul understands these symbols more than we are aware of.  Our soul comes from Heaven.  Perhaps our soul understands the language of symbols.

The Torah may be using the goats to communicate these important messages directly to our souls.  Perhaps at a subliminal level, when our soul sees what happens to the two goats, and hears the name Azazel, perhaps it understands the message very well.  Our soul knows all too well about the dangers of illicit temptations. Sin is often very attractive and seductive at first, but it ultimately leads to downfall and destruction. This is symbolized by the goat of Azazel being led into a desert, and being thrown down from a height to an ignominious death. This realization, even on a subliminal level, inspires us to repent.

May we all take the lesson of the two goats and of Aza and Azel to heart, and remind ourselves that we are much better off remaining on a lofty plane.  We should remember to resist the shmutz that the Evil Instinct tempts us with.  It may at fist appear tantalizing, but is ultimately destructive. May this insight inspire us to repent not only on Yom Kippur, but every day of the year.
About the Author
Akiva Lane grew up in New York. He lived in Monsey with his family for 18 years, and made Aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh in 2004. He is a computer programmer — mainly connecting Java to mainframes — and is also an inventor, having invented and patented a perpetual calendar and a foldable bookstand - . He also has some interesting websites , & He can be reached at
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