Yoma 22-23 Religious zeal and preventing disaster

(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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

Shabbos 82  Health and safety  matters (excuse the pun)

On this daf, we are told how Rav Huna asked his son Rabbah, why he did not go to learn anymore by Rav Chisda, who was particularly sharp in his learning.

Rabbah replied that Rav Chisda used to always teach them “worldly matters”, and he preferred to focus on only Torah during his studies .

For example, he used to tell them that when one goes to the toilet, one should not sit down too quickly or push too hard, as it could cause injury .

Rabbah’s response was that he was teaching him matters of health (the life of people ) , and that was even more reason to go learn with him!

The most obvious explanation of this is that the Torah commands us to look after one’s health and safety and avoid danger, in the passuk

 ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם ( be very careful with your lives.) ( Devarim 4/9) 

The Rambam is generally presumed to hold that anything one does that is bad for one’s health or a danger to his life will usually be a transgression of this Mitzva ( See for example  Hilchos Deos chapter 4 and Rotzeach ushmiras hanefesh chapter 14 and 11/4, though he might also have other sources for this- another discussion for a different post, perhaps )

If the Rambam’s definition is correct, than anything which is health or safety related is part of this Mitzva and thus considered Torah, so Rabbah’s claim that he preferred to focus on “Torah” was ill informed, seeing as this very much WAS Torah !

In truth though, even if this particular passuk is not referring to avoiding physical danger, but rather spiritual danger as in its context (see Torah Temima on the passuk for different views on this ), there are plenty sources that avoiding danger is a Torah requirement, and in fact that it is MORE important than avoiding sin (חמירא סכנתא מאיסורא -see Chullin 10a.)

However, if one takes a more careful look, one still needs to explain :

1. What was Rabbah was initially thinking?- did he really not know that looking after oneself is a Torah requirement?

2. Why does Rav Huna say that it was even MORE reason to go? If health and safety is just another Mitzva , then why should it be even more important than learning Brachos  or Shabbos or Yevamos?

This is only one of many statements of Chazal that venture into the realm of health and medicine, to the point that one often finds what seem like clear contradictions between the views they express and those of modern medicine (more on this perhaps in a different post.)

In order to address this problem,  Rabbeinu Avraham son of the Rambam (Maamar al Derashos Chazal)  tells us that such contradictions should not worry us, as Chazal did not get their medical knowledge from any form of Torah  tradition or prophesy, but rather based their advice on the medical knowledge available to them at the time.

The Rambam himself wrote similar things regarding Astronomy (Moreh Nevuchim 3/14.)

Perhaps precisely for this reason, Rabbah was of the view that medical issues should be left to the doctors and Rabbis should focus on teaching Torah only, stating the mitzva to look after oneself , but not going into the practical details, which one should rather learn from the doctors of the time .

Rav Huna, however , knew that if Rabbis don’t take health matters seriously and teach it to their Talmidim, the talmidim won’t take it seriously, and it is therefore their absolute obligation to become as familiar as they can with the medical knowledge of the time, and under the guidance of their medical consultants, drill it into their students .

Alternatively, perhaps Rabbah held that such details, being subject to change as medical knowledge develops,  cannot be part of a timeless Torah ,that never changes .

Rav Huna taught him that although the facts and knowledge one has available to apply to the Mitzva might change , the Mitzva itself is timeless and part of that timelessness is the need to constantly apply new knowledge to how it is carried out.

In fact, Rav Huna might be suggesting that studying  a theoretical mitzva  which does not include practical ways of fulfilling it in each time and environment, is an inferior form of Torah study itself .

As such, he tells his son, destined to become a leading Amora in his own right , that on the contrary, the fact that Rav Chisda doesn’t just teach the mitzva out of context, but emphasizes the  contemporary wisdom required to carry it out in each place and time, is EVEN more of a reason to learn by him, as such Torah is actually superior – it is not enough to learn about the Mitzva of being healthy- one has to study health itself in order to be able to fulfill the mitzvah properly , and that is not a secondary level of Torah, or a mere הכשר מצוה , but Torah itself !

This also explains the Mitzva of learning astronomy which we discussed in a previous post re כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם , and is summed up incredibly by the famous statement of the Vilna Gaon  that “all categories of (secular) wisdom are required for our holy Torah and are incorporated with it” (See  “הגרא” מאת דב אליאך   chapter 19 for references and detailed discussion)

And while it could be argued that this is only necessary later in life once one has completed a basic understanding of Torah , perhaps also the initial feeling of Rabbah bar Rav Huna, it seems that Rav Huna was teaching him that, on the contrary, one has to study these wisdoms in one’s youth, at least as they come up, in order for one’s learning to be of a more superior quality!

P.s. one could go a simpler route and argue that Rav Huna was simply teaching his son that looking after one’s health is NOT just another Mitzva, but more important than other Mitzvos, given the precedent of וחי בהם and pikuach nefesh,  but one would then have to explain how Rabbah bar Rav Huna was not aware of such a simple principle such as “danger is more severe than prohibition .”

In light of recent events where we have seen plenty people who learn regularly but seem to be unaware of this rule, at least on a practical level, that might seem less far-fetched  than our initial feeling, but I would still rather not attribute such a view to any one of the Amoraim, even in their earlier years of study !