Featured Post

Parshat Acharei Mot — A well-traveled goat

Surprisingly, goats offer physical and spiritual protection: their milk and their blood have worked wonders through the ages (Acharei Mot)
Illustrative image of a goat. (Free image, Klaus Hausmann/ Pixabay)
Illustrative image of a goat. (Free image, Klaus Hausmann/ Pixabay)

On October 6, 1769, James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour reached New Zealand. He was on the first of his three voyages to the Pacific He had been sent by King George III to observe the transit of Venus, and then to continue on to discover the unknown southern continent.

When they set sail, Cook was a 39-year-old junior naval officer who was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant to allow him to take command of the ship. The Endeavour left Plymouth on August 26, 1768, and didn’t return to Britain until July 12, 1771. The ship carried 94 people, including the official astronomer Charles Green and the botanist Joseph Banks.

The most experienced sailor on board the ship was the third lieutenant John Gore, an American born in the British Colony of Virginia. Gore had previously sailed around the globe twice on the HMS Dolphin, first under John Byron and the second time with Samuel Wallis as captain. His previous visit to Tahiti was the reason he was appointed to join the crew of the Endeavour and he was invaluable to Cook for his knowledge of the island.

The second-most experienced seafarer aboard the Endeavour, and no less important for the journey, was a she-goat who provided the officers with milk for the almost three years they were at sea. This goat, which seems to have had no name, had previously circumnavigated the globe with Wallis and Gore and had also visited Tahiti.

Replica of Captain Cook’s Boat “Endeavour” leaving Whitby Harbour. (CC BY-SA, colin f m smith/ Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone knows that Cook was concerned about his crew’s diet, and he is credited with combatting scurvy while at sea by feeding his shipmen citrus fruit. But not everyone knows that goat’s milk was also an important part of his diet.

Shortly after the Endeavour returned to England an anonymous letter appeared in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine which contained the following lines about the goat,

Before I conclude, I must not omit how highly we have been indebted to a milch goat: she was three years in the West Indies, and was once round the world before in the Dolphin, and never went dry the whole time; we mean to reward her services in a good English pasture for life.

Ofifcial portrait of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) by Nathaniel Dance-Holland. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Normally goats (and cows and sheep) only produce milk for a short while after giving birth. They must breed every year or so in order to continue providing milk. Yet this goat apparently never went dry for several years. That would have seemed miraculous to the farmers of the time.

It is possible that this miraculous goat inspired Cook to introduce goats to New Zealand on his second voyage on the HMS Resolution so that they could provide milk and meat for future visitors. Unfortunately, introducing goats to New Zealand caused untold ecological damage to the flora and fauna of the islands.

In Chambers Book of Days by Robert Chambers and first published in 1864 we learn that this unnamed miraculous goat did not live long enough to truly enjoy her hard-earned reward.

On the 28th April 1772, there died at Mile End a goat that had twice circumnavigated the globe; first, in the discovery ship Dolphin, under Captain Wallis; and secondly, in the renowned Endeavour, under Captain Cook. The lords of the Admiralty had, just previous to her death, signed a warrant, admitting her to the privileges of an in-pensioner of Greenwich Hospital, a boon she did not live to enjoy. On her neck, she had for some time worn a silver collar, on which was engraved the following distich, composed by Dr Johnson.

‘Perpetui ambita his terra praemia lactis,
Hac habet, altrici capra secunda Jovis.’

James Boswell gave the following expanded translation of Samuel Johnson’s words, which compared the goat to Amalthea, the she-goat who according to Greek mythology, nursed the god Zeus (he subsequently used her horn to make the cornucopia — the horn of plenty):

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove,
This Goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

This she-goat may be the most-traveled goat in history.

This week’s Torah reading describes a ritual involving two identical male goats, one of which is offered as a sacrifice and its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies, while the other is sent out to the desert, where (according to Nahmanides) it makes an incredible journey to placate the planet Mars.

The Torah (Leviticus 16:7-8) describes how, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest takes two identical goats and draws lots to decide their fate.

He takes the two goats, and stands them before God at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. And Aharon places lots upon the two goats, one lottery for God and one lottery for Azazel.

While in modern Hebrew the phrase “la’azazel” is equivalent to “go to Hell,” the medieval commentaries do not make any mention of the netherworld in their explanations of the phrase.

Avraham Ibn Ezra (on Leviticus 16:8) says that the word contains a kabbalistic secret.

The goat which is sent is not a sacrifice because it is not slaughtered. But if you want to understand the secret behind the word “Azazel” know that it is a secret and its name is secret. For there are similar ideas in the Torah and I will reveal part of the secret to you, when you are 33 you will know it.

Nahmanides (Ramban) explains the secret of 33. If you count 33 verses from Leviticus 16:8 you come to Leviticus 17:7 which states:

They shall no more offer their sacrifices to the goats which they lust after them. This shall be an eternal statute for them for all generations.

Nahmanides explains that the deeper meaning of the Ibn Ezra’s secret is known only by the necromancers and he cannot explain it. But he does explain the simple meaning of the secret.

They used to worship other gods, i.e. angels. They would make sacrifices for them… But the Torah completely forbids accepting their divinity or any service to them.

But the Holy One, blessed is He, commanded that on the Day of Atonement we should send a goat to the desert to the angel that rules desolate places. It deserves this because it is the master [of desolation] and through its power comes all destruction and ruin. For it is the embodiment of the destructive stars, the blood, the wars, the battles, the wounds, the violence, division and desolation. It contains the soul of the sphere of Mars. And among the nations, it is Esau, who inherited the sword and wars, and among animals, it is goats and sheep. It also controls the demons referred to as damaging agents in the words of our Rabbis…

The goat is not sent as a sacrifice from us to [this angel], Heaven forbid, but our intent should be to fulfil the will of our Creator who commanded us to do so.

Nahmanides explains that the goat must be designated through a lottery, rather than chosen by a person, to show that it is not designated by humans as a sacrifice, but chosen by God to placate the angel of violence.

For the ancient Romans, Mars was the god of warfare and violence. Although the month of March is named for Mars, he was really worshipped primarily in October, the end of the harvest, when the season for military campaigning would begin. The red planet was by the Romans after their god of war, and the rabbis (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 156a) also saw a connection between the planet (named Ma’adim for its red color) and bloodshed.

Someone who was born under the sign of Mars will be shed blood. Rav Ashi said, ‘either a bloodletter, or a bandit, or a slaughterer, or a ritual circumciser.

According to Nahmanides, the goat on the Day of Atonement was sent to the desolate desert where it was pushed off a cliff to its death. In this way the violent spirit of Mars was removed from the Temple ritual of purification and holiness.

The milk goat that twice circumnavigated the globe provided milk to the sailors. But the goat for Azazel had to protect the entire Jewish nation from violence and destruction as it was sent to the placate the bloodthirsty planet Mars.

Thanks to No Such Thing as A Fish for an excellent podcast and for first telling me about the goat.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
Related Topics
Related Posts