Torah Metaphors: Yom Kippur (Part 2)


In part one, we discussed the phrase “afflict the soul” and explained that it would be more accurate to translate this as “impoverish the soul”. Furthermore, we demonstrated that literal fasting and food in general were not really the subject under discussion in relation to Yom Kippur and, in fact, this Holy Day dealt with purification and how accurately we repeated God teachings to future generations. In part two, we shall discuss the animals associated with Yom Kippur and to investigate whether or not the use these particular animals reflect the concept of teaching God’s ways in a pure fashion.


In regards to Yom Kippur I believe it must be recalled that in ancient times there was a priest and there was a judge. After the destruction of the temple many of the functions of each of these roles were combined by the Pharisees and what has developed is the modern day rabbi. Nevertheless, in the Torah what we can see is that the role of intermediary between men and God was the role of the priest, while the judges served as assistants to Moses and served as intermediaries between men and men. In other words: sins by man against God were handled by the priests, while disputes between man and man were handled by the judges. Thus what we see on Yom Kippur are two separate procedures: 1) the placing of the blood of a bull and of a goat on the “horns” of the altar by the High Priest in the Holy of the Holies. 2) The community sending a scapegoat into “the desert”.

We have touched upon Samson’s riddle and it should also be noted that a heifer was identified as the source of energy for the plow. Another important aspect to consider is that the Hebrew word for meat also means to preach. In short then, we can see that a bull represents the intellectual power needed to harvest ideas in the wheat field which will eventually produce the bread of understanding. Therefore, since we have drawn a connection between blood, communication and impurities, it is my opinion that the blood of the bull is brought into the Holy of Holies in order to symbolically remove the teachings of men from the source of communications with God.

We have also discussed that these stories are found in the Torah, not “The Wall Street Journal” and that money should be seen as a metaphor paid to workers in the field, which we explained was a metaphor for receiving lessons in a school. In fact, in modern times, one may hear in any university the question: “What is your field of study?” or references to students: “plowing through a difficult text”.

In particular, in Hebrew, the word for the metal silver also is the word for money, thus in part one, when we discussed the original conception of alchemy as being related to changing lead into gold, what we can then begin to appreciate is that the story of the golden calf represents a source of news ideas based on the religious beliefs of the Egyptians. Hence we are told that the calf was made up from the jewelry given to the Israelites before they fled Egypt. Thus, a bull represents the intellectual strength needed to study in a school, while gold would represent the highest level of teachings developed by men.

In Hebrew the word for horn also means ray of light, this is why Michelangelo mistakenly placed horns on his sculpture of Moses. When reading about the rays of light emanating from the face of Moses, apparently the translation he used gave the impression that Moses had horns. Regardless, another association with the horn is the proverbial “horn of plenty” which is a goat’s horn with fruit flowing out of it. In part one we gave references to fruit, meat, honey and bread serving as metaphors for knowledge. Summing up, I believe that it is fair to say that each individual type of food represents a different aspect of knowledge and this connection between a horn as a source of fruit and the head of Moses being a source of light is not an accident.

Thus, if the blood of a bull represents the spiritual aspects of the teachings of men, then our next question must be: What does the blood of a goat represent?

Briefly, there are three stories in the Torah that deal with goats: 1) Isaac and Esau, 2) Joseph’s coat and 3) Judah and Tamar. All three of these stories deal with deception.  We have shown that Yom Kippur is not a day to ask for forgiveness for bad deeds, but is a day to purify ourselves of false or distracting beliefs of men. We showed that the soul is something located within the blood and that its function is to communicate with God.  Accordingly, when the high priest brings in the blood of the goat into the holy of holies, this symbolizes the willingness of the Israelites to sacrifice their deceptive beliefs and to accept the teachings of God with no preconceived ideas.

So, if a bull represents the teachings of men and a goat represents deceptive teachings, then when we combine this with our previous conclusion that blood represents a medium for communicating with God (i.e. the soul is in the blood), we can then begin to better appreciate that bringing the blood of the bull and the goat into the Holy of the Holies and placing them on the horns of the altar has something to do with distancing ourselves from impurities in our religious ideas which we have developed throughout the year. Hence, the priest who is, for all intents and purposes, the medium between the people and God, must remove or relinquish any inaccurate teachings he might have inadvertently acquired during the year. This way, he may serve as a pure vessel or channel and relay to the people only the words of God and not an impure mixture of the teachings of God with the teachings of men.

Furthermore, just as we noted that the Torah is not “The Wall Street Journal”, I think we can all also agree the Torah is not “The Farmer’s Almanac”, so: Why were we told about something so trivial as the servants of Abram and Lot arguing about pasture land for the sheep? And: Why is a second goat sent to wander in the desert? (i.e. why wasn’t  the goat sent to wander throughout the streets of Jerusalem?).

To begin with, in ancient Hebrew the word for grass also meant ideas and sheep are always used as a metaphor for the Children of Israel. Furthermore, as touched upon, even in modern times the earth is considered a school and universities speak of “fields of study”. The argument between the workers of Lot and Abram about the grass takes place just after Abram received a great deal of wealth from the Egyptian Pharaoh. The argument concludes with Lot going to Sodom in the “Jordan” Valley, which, we mention in part one, is Hebrew for “going down”. Thus we have God’s Mountain representing a higher level of understanding and the Jordan Valley representing a lower level of understanding. It is my personal opinion that the “ideas/grass” that the servants were arguing about had to do with the Egyptian teachings about purification. Abram was willing to accept and incorporate some of these ideas into his lifestyle, Lot was not….

This same concept is echoed by sending the second goat out into the desert. The word desert is also a mistranslation and the proper translation is that the Children of Israel wandered for forty years in grazing lands. We have already mentioned that in ancient times the Hebrew word for grass meant ideas and this is reinforced by the Hebrew name: Sinai which means scholarship. Thus on Mt. Sinai Moses attained a high level of scholarship and as a result God presented him with the Ten Commandments, when the Children/sheep of Israel refused to enter the Promised Land they were forced to digest ideas based on scholarship (i.e. the grass of Sinai) for forty years until their old ideas died away.

Thus, God is not asking for the destruction of the deceptive ideas of man on Yom Kippur, he is simply saying that in order for the Israelites (in Hebrew this name means “straight to God”), they must disassociate themselves from these teachings and let them remain in the academic world (the fields of grass) for others to study.  For generations men have noted that it is forbidden to fast on the Sabbath, thus the question always arose: If Yom Kippur falls on the Sabbath, do we fast or do we eat? In reality, however, there is no contradiction since Yom Kippur has nothing whatsoever to do with fasting. Yom Kippur has to do with deviations from God’s teachings. The Sabbath has to do with men stopping to educate themselves and allowing God to speak. Thus we do not work on Yom Kippur and we do not work on the Sabbath, because these are days in which we receive communications from God. Thus both days are described as festivals.

On Yom Kippur, however, we don’t merely stop studying, we also attempt to remove from our souls the wealth of knowledge and deceptive ideas, accumulated during the year, which deviate from the pure teachings God provided to Abraham and Moses. What I believe needs to be considered here is that the archer did not intentionally miss the mark. The goat, after all, is a kosher animal and the scapegoat sent into “the desert” is not killed. Thus, the teacher is merely acknowledging that, in all probability, he is not a perfect teacher.  He is not asking forgiveness for deliberately misleading the people. This then, I believe, is the crucial difference between Judaism and Christianity. Christians believe it is possible “to remove sins”. On Yom Kippur we do not remove sins; on Yom Kippur we attempt to purify our souls so that we do not commit future sins. In other words: since we have defined a sin as being an inaccurate teaching, Christianity is implying that thru sacrifice or repentance we can somehow “rewind the tape, erase it and then re-record”. In Judaism, I believe, we don’t attempt to correct the past, but rather we attempt build a better future by eliminating points of confusion that have prevented us from accurately teaching God’s word to others.

Thus there are two procedures on Yom Kippur: 1) the priest attempts to purify himself so that he may relay the word of God to the people as accurately as possible by bringing the blood of the bull and the goat into the Holy of the Holies 2) the people also must purify themselves because after receiving messages from God’s appointed messengers, they too must teach these ideas, as accurately as possible, to their descendants and this is done by sending the scapegoat out into “the desert”.


Dror Ben Ami is the author of the book: THE MISUNDERSTANDING: An Introduction to Metaphors, Images and Symbols Found in the Old and New Testaments.

About the Author
Dror Ben Ami has studied English and Comparative Literature at Georgetown University, George Washington University and the University of Haifa. Building on research begun almost forty years ago, Mr. Ben Ami has written a complete commentary on Biblical Law (i.e. the Hebrew Torah) and is currently working on a complete commentary of the four gospels. Living in Israel since 1980, Mr. Ben Ami brings a unique perspective to scripture, answering many questions that few people have the background, or the knowledge, to even ask....