“And it will atone for him and for his house.”
We have made our way through Passover and the spring rituals of collecting half-shekels over the last few months. But now, as we open the pages to Tractate Yoma, we are back into the months of early fall. I am not very observant, and for most of my life only attended services during the high holidays, and even then, without a great deal of intention in terms of truly absorbing the sanctity of the day. I very rarely lasted through the entire service.
This year was different. I attended the entirety of Yom Kippur services on zoom. It was an intense day. I immersed myself in the liturgy and developed an appreciation for how well choreographed the service was by the Rabbinic team at my synagogue who live-streamed from what seemed like a magical forest somewhere in upstate New York.
We start this new Tractate with the preparations the High Priests went through ahead of the Yom Kippur service during the days of the second Temple. It was an intense a process. The introduction to this Tractate indicates that we will be walking through the holiday chronologically, starting with seven days ahead of Yom Kippur when the High Priest was sequestered in the Temple.
The High Priest entered the Temple seven days ahead of Yom Kippur. He entered a special chamber that was especially designated for this purpose. A stand-in Priest would be chosen just in case the appointed one was contaminated by impurity. And surprisingly (or not), a stand-in wife would be appointed in case the Priest’s wife died during this period.
In an interesting aside, a chorus of Rabbis asked Rabbi Yehuda “if there is no end to the matter” when they considered the possibility that the designated replacement wife might also die. This might not have been so far-fetched during periods of plagues and pandemics, when contagious diseases were circulating. The thought is quickly dismissed as a possibility that “need not be a source of concern.”
A comparison is made with the sequestering of the High Priest prior to his overseeing the sacrifice of the red heifer. The priest would be sequestered in a special chamber seven days before the burning of the red heifer in order to preserve his purity. The chamber where he would retire to was called the “Chamber of the Stone House” which was associated with stone and earthenware vessels which were not susceptible to impurity.
The original model for the removal of priests to a special chamber was established by Aaron and his sons, who entered the Tabernacle in the desert for seven days before performing a service. The guidance for future generations can be found in this verse from Leviticus (8:34): “As has been done this day, so the Lord has commanded to do, to make atonement for you.” The verse is interpreted to apply the seven-day ritual to future generations and “to make atonement” is a specific reference to Yom Kippur.”
I am fascinated by the prospect of a stand-in wife. Who were these women who stood in the shadows in case they were needed after the tragic death of a High Priest’s wife? Were they widows that were designated as substitutes in case they were needed to step in and allow the priest to perform his duties while meeting certain stipulations that he must be married? Or perhaps they were women who fought for a hard-won divorce and agreed to have their names added to a list, just in case.
Women are so rarely mentioned by name in the Talmud, but they were the backbone of society (then and now.) Today’s Daf Yomi suggests that they were easily replaceable and when one wife died there was another patiently waiting the wings. Perhaps if the Temple were standing today (and there are people who have hope), a mannequin could be wheeled in as a substitute for the real wife and no hearts would be broken.
Perhaps the wife is not dead but has had enough with being taken for granted and travels to the sea for the high holidays. She spends a few days without the demands of her priestly husband sleeping in the laundered linens of a hotel by the sea. During the day she sits on the beach and for the first time in a long while she remembers who she was before she gave up her name.