Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Yoma 47 a, b

Perek V begins today with a much information and many anecdotes.  In amud (a) we learn a new Mishna that tells us more about how to use the spoon and coal pan and how the priest with larger hands takes larger handfuls of incense. The Gemara discusses these instructions, paying attention to their practicalities.  For example, they recognize that the priest might have to hold the coal pan in his teeth while he transfers the incense.  As this would be undignified, it must not happen.  Thus it is permitted for the High Priest to hold the spoon in his left hand, even though this would disqualify the service under other circumstances.

The mothers of High Priests are mentioned a number of times today.  Rabbi Yishmael ben Kimchit is said to be very tall, with huge hands.  He suggests that his mother's actions (perhaps her choice of flour in pregnancy; perhaps her collection of wood) caused him to be both large and accomplished.  There is a short discussion of how mothers create greatness in their wombs: the notion that G-d chose the sperm that grew inside one's mother to fashion that particular person.

Rabbi Yishmael ben Kimchit is said to have become ritually impure when the spittle of an Arab (through speech and not malice) touched his clothing in the market on Yom Kippur.*  His brother, Yeshevav, became High Priest for the remainder of the day.  Their mother saw two of her sons serving as High Priest on the same day.  When asked what she did to deserve this honour, she suggested modesty (covering her hair at all times).   The rabbis recognized that modesty alone could not account for such a rare experience.

The rabbis describe how the handfuls of flour are taken by different priests for the meal-offering. They teach the particular method used to scoop out the flour of the meal-offering and the timing/ hazards/ purpose of this ritual.  They teach us that we are in a state of 'doubt'.  We are told in a note by Steinsaltz that twilight is another instance where the rabbis experience doubt: there is no difficulty with the categories created, rather there is a difficulty with this particular thing that does not fit into our categories.**  Wondering about the technicalities of scooping the flour (most notably, suggesting that perhaps fat priests should take the flour because of their 'fleshy fingers'), the rabbis state that this is one of the most difficult Temple rites.

* Why would a High Priest be in the market on Yom Kippur, speaking with an Arab (in close enough proximity to be spit upon)?

** I have continually challenged these texts regarding the development and maintaining of distinctions in all areas of thought and practice.  Clearly the rabbis recognize the limitations of this thinking, too, but  with regard to only very specific circumstances.

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