Kenneth Cohen

The Mysterious ‘Scapegoat’

The Temple service of Yom Kippur was an extremely moving and uplifting experience. The entire nation was elevated to the level of angels on that sacred day.

The most perplexing part of that service was the matter of the שעיר לעזאזל, or, the scapegoat. Actually, two goats were chosen to atone for the sins of the Jewish people. By way of a lottery, one goat was chosen to be offered as a sacrifice, while the other was designated as the “scapegoat.”

This שעיר was taken into the desert, a great distance from the Temple, and was thrown off a cliff. The goat’s death was in place of the many sinners of Israel. In addition, part of this ceremony involved a red ribbon that miraculously turned white. It was an indication that Hashem had granted His people forgiveness.

The Keli Yakar noted that the brothers of Joseph, dipped his coat of many colors, in the blood of the שעיר. The meal prepared for Yakov, when he disguised himself as Eisav, involved the taking of two goats. Eisav was known as an איש שעיר, that is translated as a “hairy man.” The word for “hairy,” is spelled the same as that of the goat. Eisav ultimately lived in the mountain area known as, הר שעיר. Again, the same spelling as the goat.

It is also interesting that the word for demons, is שעירים. This was to clarify that the goats were to be offered only to G-d, and no other force. We can see that this entire issue of the “scapegoat,” was very perplexing. But we do believe that on a very deep and mystical level, it was a major part of the Yom Kippur service, that brought atonement to the Jewish people.

About the Author
Rabbi Cohen has been a Torah instructor at Machon Meir, Jerusalem, for over twenty years while also teaching a Talmud class in the Shtieblach of Old Katamon. Before coming to Israel, he was the founding rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, Los Angeles. He recently published a series of Hebrew language-learning apps, which are available at