This week, our portion is titled Aharei Moth (Leviticus 16-18), meaning “after the death of”, and I’m going to do something a little different. I want to look at a few passages in the Babylonian Talmud about the Day of Atonement which present some interesting implications concerning the death of Christ.

Now before I go on, I just want to say that I’m aware of the accusations out there that the Talmud is an evil, perverted, blasphemous text. I’ve spent some time looking into the veracity of these allegations for myself, and have found them to be largely untrue (and to a great extent, the work of anti-Semites seeking to prejudice the ill-informed). And while I don’t intend to start a debate or write an essay here defending the Talmud, I do, at the same time, want to write a little bit about what it is and what it actually contains, to set the context and for fairness’ sake.

The Talmud is the written record of the oral laws of the Jewish people. It has its origins in the fact that since the time of Moses, teachers of the law in Israel had passed on interpretations, practical applications and elucidations of the Torah through relational discipleship rather than printed scholarship. This was so they could ensure that future teachers of the law would receive their education in the right context – that is, straight from the horse’s mouth and in living practice – and to minimise the chances of anyone twisting or distorting these teachings, which is wont to happen when words are committed to writing.

But with the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth and the second Temple in 70 AD, this needed to change because there was no longer a centre for studying and teaching the Torah in Israel, to say nothing of the fact that the numbers of Jewish rabbis still remaining who could pass on their traditions were being decimated by persecution. So around 200 AD, after centuries – even millennia – of oral transmission, these traditions finally began to be written down.

The Talmud consists of 2 parts: the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna is the core of the oral law, and is typically brief, concise, and quite closely Scriptural. It records unattributed rulings which are generally understood to be consensus views, and presents short accounts of legal opinions and debates. The Mishna was written first, then in the 2-3 centuries which followed, rabbis in Judea and Babylonia analysed, debated and discussed it, resulting in the Gemara. The Gemara is, in many respects, the opposite of the Mishna: it’s long, involved, even laborious, exhaustively analysing the statements of the Mishna and recording all kinds of opinions, thoughts and comparisons from different rabbis and schools on them, whether they were normative or not.

There are 2 Talmuds, the Jerusalem and the Babylonian. This is because there were 2 major centres of rabbinic scholarship at the time, based in Galilee and Babylon (so the Jerusalem Talmud is a bit of a misnomer, since it wasn’t actually done in Jerusalem – but it was based in the land of Israel as opposed to Babylon), and so the Gemara writing process occurred in 2 separate locations, resulting in 2 different works.

The Jerusalem Talmud was redacted earlier than the Babylonian (around 350-450 AD), and focuses much more on the agricultural laws of the land of Israel, since that was where its writers were located. It’s an incomplete work, but because it was so much closer to home, it’s an indispensable source of knowledge on the development of Jewish law in Israel itself. The Babylonian Talmud was redacted around 450-500 AD, and edited for some time after that. It’s much longer, as a result, and more accessible to read; it also contains a more comprehensive collection of rabbinic opinions spanning more generations. As a result, and due to the decline of the Jewish community in Israel, the Babylonian Talmud is, by far, the more influential. According to Maimonides, Jewry in the latter half of the first millennium formally accepted the Babylonian Talmud as authoritative and binding upon themselves, while today, the majority of Jewish practice follows its conclusions in areas where the two Talmuds conflict (in fact, when used without qualification, the word “Talmud” is usually taken to refer to the Babylonian).

Now with the bare facts stated, we come to the controversial part. Typically, the Talmud is accused of being anti-Christian or anti-Gentile; teaching nonsensical or sexually immoral things; and falsifying Scripture. I had to deal with these charges some time back in a Facebook discussion with an individual who leaned considerably towards replacement theology, so I started reading the relevant sections of the Talmud for myself; and straightaway I found that almost all of the examples cited by this person were actually baseless, while the few that required further verification turned out to be less clear-cut in their alleged meaning than they were supposed to be.

Since then, I’ve come across quite a few other people making or passing on essentially the same accusations, and each time I found that they could be attributed to the same factors: ignorance/unfamiliarity with how to interpret the Talmud; quotations taken grossly out of context; or deliberate misrepresentation (I don’t have time to go into actual examples of what I mean here, but for those who’re interested, you can read more in this article, or this website).

Which is not to say that the Talmud is a completely blameless or perfect text; I haven’t read anywhere near the whole thing yet, but from my own observation of the parts I have read, the Talmud is legitimately erroneous and problematic in places – in my opinion, due to the following:

  • Babylonian influence – while the Jerusalem Talmud was written in Israel, the Babylonian Talmud was compiled by rabbis living in the diaspora. This had a marked effect on them spiritually, psychically and even culturally, resulting in a form of Judaism that was distinctly coloured by the fallout of exile. … In other words, the Judaism of the Talmud became shaped by the need to adapt to life outside of Israel, and so it doesn’t uphold, follow or centre itself around the Torah in all the ways that it should.
  • The intermingling of tradition with inspiration – from Exodus 18:25-26, Numbers 11:16-17 and Deuteronomy 1:9-17, we know that Moses appointed certain leaders in Israel to judge the people; they were wise, knowledgeable and had the same Spirit placed on them by God as Moses, to hear cases and settle disputes in Israel (Deuteronomy 1:17, in fact, explicitly states that whatever judgement they made was the judgement of God). The Talmud, therefore, actually records wisdom and knowledge that was given by the Spirit as it was exercised at the hands of the religious authorities in Israel, to give rulings and enforce the Torah. … Many Christians don’t realise this because all they’ve ever heard is how the rabbis made the law of no effect with their customs and traditions, when they turned the law into a heavy yoke that no one could bear. But this is not the entirety of the Talmud (the Mishna, especially, struck me as being quite Scriptural in many places). So while it isn’t God-breathed in the same way that Scripture is, parts of the Talmud are profitable for instruction and illumination. The problem is that the Spirit didn’t rest on the religious authorities of Israel in the same way throughout the nation’s history because of sin and backsliding, and so there are parts that’re the product of imperfect human thinking and mere tradition. But the need here is to try and discern when and where this occurs, as opposed to writing off the whole Talmud.
  • The nature of the Gemara – while the Mishna is the heart of the oral law, the Gemara is, in a sense, commentary or exposition on the oral law. And because it’s a discussion and analysis of the law, it records a very broad range of rabbinic opinions, not all of which are Biblical, or which even agree with each other. Moreover, the Talmud is a wide-ranging document that touches on many subjects, with Talmudic statements being traditionally classified into two broad categories: halakha and aggadah. Halakhic statements relate to questions of Jewish law and practice, while aggadic statements are exegetical, homiletical, ethical, or historical in nature. This can cause problems for readers who don’t know how to navigate the text, or who’re unaware that not every part of the Talmud is to be taken the same way, or with the same level of regard. 
  • Rejection of Yeshua of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel – this quite significantly affected the theological thinking and discourse of the rabbis, leading them to make doctrinal statements which they very likely wouldn’t have done otherwise, in order to avoid accommodating any possibility that Yeshua was divine, or the Messiah. This didn’t just impact on the immediate subject of Yeshua’s legitimacy, but also issues of how to interpret and understand Scripture which might hold implications for it, and this pervades a considerable portion of rabbinic speech and thought (though at the same time, one should recall that Romans 11:25 says the Jews have been blinded in part, not totally – so not every part of the Talmud is questionable).

So while there are parts of the Talmud that do contain error, it holds much that is of interest and value because it’s not a monolithic text (see this article for more), as long as one reads it with care and awareness, and without neglecting the Bible.

Now with all this said, I don’t anticipate going to the Talmud very often because generally, I want to focus on the actual Scripture itself in these blog posts, but because Aharei Moth covers the Day of Atonement, I thought I’d look into something that I’ve heard many believers talk about which actually comes from the Talmud, and write an account of it so I can familiarise myself with the facts, and understand them personally. It’s this passage from Yoma 39b:

Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves…

According to this, there were 4 signs which indicated that something fundamental had changed about Israel’s status before God from 30 AD onwards. 2 of them had to do with the Day of Atonement, and 2 with the Temple.

  1. The casting of lots for the scapegoat – Leviticus 16:8 says that on Yom Kippur, Aaron was to bring 2 goats before the Lord and cast lots, one lot “for the Lord” and the other “for Azazel”. It was considered a good omen if the lot “for the Lord” came up in the right hand of the High Priest; indeed, Yoma 39a records that in the days of Simeon the Righteous, a very early rabbinic figure, this is precisely what happened: for 40 years, the lot always came up in the right hand, but after he died, this only happened sometimes, while in the 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple, it didn’t happen at all.
  2. The crimson strap – this was a tongue of wool, dyed scarlet, which was tied to the door of the Temple. Rabbi Ishmael (Yoma 68b) and Rabbi Nahum ben Papa (Yoma 67a) reported that this was originally how the people knew that the goat for Azazel had reached the wilderness; the wool on the door would turn white, and this was taken as a sign that God had forgiven Israel’s sin, as per Isaiah 1:18 (“If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white wool”). Later on, it became a custom for the person driving the scapegoat into the wilderness to divide the wool: he would tie one half of it between the horns of the scapegoat, and the other on a rock, and push the goat down a hill. And again, the wool would turn white to signify forgiveness of the sins of Israel. In the days of Simeon the Righteous, this happened every year also, but in the last 40 years before the Temple was destroyed, it never did.
  3. The westernmost light – this was the lamp on the menorah in the Sanctuary which was used to light the other branches. The menorah was lit in the evening from the westernmost light, and it contained the same amount of oil as the others; but by morning, the other lamps would’ve burned out (whereupon the priest would come and clean them out, replace the wicks and pour fresh oil into them, ready for kindling in the evening) – while the western lamp continued to burn throughout the day, until the time came for the lamps to be kindled again in the evening. Then they were kindled from the western lamp, after which it, too, was extinguished and cleaned out, replenished with a fresh wick and oil, and relit. … This miraculous occurrence was taken as a sign that the presence of God rested over Israel (Menahoth 86b), but for 40 years before the Temple was destroyed, it stopped happening – in the morning, the westernmost light went out, just like the other lights on the menorah.
  4. The doors of the Temple – in the 40 years preceding the Temple’s destruction, the front doors, which were locked at night, were found open by themselves in the morning. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai took this as a sign that the Temple would be destroyed, as per the prophecy of Zechariah 11:1, “Open your doors, O Lebanon, that fire may devour your cedars” (Lebanon, according to Rabbi Zutra ben Tobiah, was a reference to the Temple as per 1 Kings 10:21, where Solomon’s Temple was called the House of the Forest of Lebanon).

In all these accounts, one thing is clear: God stopped receiving the Yom Kippur atonement, and His favour no longer rested on Israel. It would be tempting for proponents of replacement theology (or anti-Semitism) to point and gloat at this, probably… but the real lesson one ought to take away from all this is that Yeshua’s sacrifice, which was sufficient to take away the sins of all Israel – and indeed, the world – had been offered, around the same time these signs began to take place. And hardened Jews may put it down to coincidence, asserting that said signs were an expression of God’s extreme displeasure rather than the result of a once-for-all atonement being accomplished; but as I see it, the two are linked. 2 of the signs were connected to Yom Kippur, and 2 to judgement. And Jesus said in John 8:21-24:

Then Jesus said to them again, “I am going away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin. Where I go you cannot come.” … And He said to them, “You are from beneath; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.”

This is precisely what happened to the nation and city that He wept over, 40 years after He was crucified – 40 years during which the above-mentioned 4 signs recurred over and over, without fail – and when one looks back, it’s both amazing and frightening to think that God would offer such a Gift to humanity, and be so terrible in His judgement on those who refuse to recognise it.

Apropos of which, Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are taking place next week, which is a good time to meditate on these things. … The Torah cycle is suspended during holidays, so there will be a break here on Household Scribe as well. But next time, we’ll be looking at the ethical laws, which I heartily love (and if you want something thematically appropriate for next weekend, here’re some posts on this blog which mention Passover, and one from my personal blog on Unleavened Bread).

… See you in 2 weeks. :)