(Written with pain, tears, and trepidation and davening for a refuah shleima for all the injured and nechama for all those who lost relatives, teachers, students, and friends)
The second chapter of Yoma opens with a discussion regarding the תרומות הדשן( removal of ashes from the altar), which was the first task given to the כהנים (priests) before dawn in preparation for the morning service.
It tells us that initially, any kohain could choose to perform this service on a first come, first served basis.
If more than one kohain wished to perform it, they would literally race along the ramp to the altar and whoever got within 4 amos of it first would receive the honor.
It once happened that while two kohanim competed for the honor, one of them pushed his friend who fell and broke his leg.
Once the בית דין (court) saw that this ”competition” brought them to danger, they abolished this custom and replaced it with a lottery system.
On reading this shocking account, one is faced with some obvious questions, among them:
- Why did it take such a disaster for the בית דין to abolish this custom- was it not clear from the beginning that it was disaster waiting to happen?
- How can one explain the behaviour of the one כהן who in his zeal to perform the מצוה, would push his friend- was it not clear to him that a מצוה which one can only perform by pushing his friend might not be a מצוה at all, but rather a מצוה הבאה בעבירה (a mitzva that comes from a sin?)
As if this episode is not shocking enough, on the next daf (Yoma 23b), a ברייתא is brought which tells how another time, two kohanim were racing towards the altar, and one of them got within 4 amos first, thus becoming entitled to the honor.
The other then took out a knife and mortally stabbed his friend.
Rabbi Tzadok stood on the stairs of the entrance hall and referenced the obligation for the inhabitants of the closest town to bring an עגלה ערופה (special calf offering) to atone for a murder that took place.
He questioned whether an atonement offering for this murder should come from the people of the city or from the Kohanim who were in the courtyard of the Temple at the time.
Meanwhile, while the victim was lying dying on the ground, his father came and announced that the victim himself would be the atonement.
If this were not astounding enough, he then told everyone to quickly remove the knife from the body of his dead son so that it would not become impure when he died.
The Gemara notes that the purity of vessels was taken more seriously by that generation than murder, and points to the period of the wicked king Menashe where murder was so common that the streets of Yerushalayim were filled with blood.
Putting the historical discrepancy between the time of Rabbi Tzadok and King Menashe aside, the depths to which a generation of the Jewish people could sink to the point at which a father seemed more concerned about the purity of a knife than the murder of his son is thankfully unfathomable to us.
Yet unfortunately, the slippery slope towards such an abomination is less difficult to imagine.
We live in a time where many presumably observant Jews certainly seem to prioritize certain mitzvot and customs over human life, if not consciously , then at least at some level.
During the Corona period, we have seen how people have insisted on attending indoor minyanim in shul, as well as mass celebrations and funerals, often without masks, in completed disregard for medical advice and legislation, and how many people have likely died as result.
We have just seen how an unthinkable, but unfortunately not unpredictable tragedy occurred because the need to allow unlimited numbers of people to attend a religious event (the significance of which is clearly subject to debate, but which is clearly significant to most who innocently went to great pains to attend it) was allowed to override the most obvious concerns for human safety and the basics of crowd control.
Chalila to believe that anyone would literally stab their neighbor in order to get into a religious event instead of him- there is no indication that anyone at this event was even pushing anyone else consciously- but many people have clearly lost perspective to the point that they don’t even realize how their obsessive observance of certain customs is actually endangering other people physically.
We can spend years analyzing what went wrong on a metaphysical level and assigning blame, but the most obvious reaction is to follow in the footsteps of Chazal and take corrective practical action to try ensuring that such a terrible event ever occurs again, – if that means limiting participation in mass events or even redesigning or abolishing them, which hopefully will not be necessary, then so be it- saving lives takes priority .
The Gemara questions which of the two events took place first.
If the murder took place first, and despite the severity of the event, the custom was not abolished, then why would it be abolished after a later less severe event were someone only broke his leg.
On the other hand, if the event in the Mishna took place first, then once the race was replaced with the lottery, how did the second event occur as described?
It answers that the murder indeed took place first.
However, the court felt that this might have been a freak event unlikely to repeat itself and refrained from abolishing the race.
Once the second tragedy took place, even though it was not as severe, it became clear that this was in fact a dangerous custom, and it was abolished.
Some might claim based on this that limiting such a popular custom on the basis of one freak incident is going too far.
However, such a claim seems both disingenuous and reckless.
It is not unfair to believe that a kohain intentionally stabbing a rival kohain in order to get his mitzva is a rather freak event which even in such a murderous period was not expected to repeat itself.
However, the tragedy in Meron was neither a freak event nor one that was not predictable.
It is something that happens all around the world where crowds become too dense, and some trigger event causes that crowd to collapse like a wave of water.
It was also the second mass casualty event in recent history to take place at the site, after over-crowding caused a balcony to collapse and kill many people at the same sight just over 100 years ago.
It is damning enough that various other considerations stopped the responsible parties, of whom it appears there are many, from taking the correct action in advance to prevent this tragedy- a certain member of parliament reportedly even pushed aside safety concerns raised by professionals by saying that the merit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai would protect everyone- it would be unforgivable if measures are not taken to at least attempt to prevent a similar or even worse tragedy happening there or anywhere else again.
הכל בידי שמיים חוץ מצינים ופחים – all is in the hands of heaven except for colds and fever.