Chariots of Fire

The Gemara in the second chapter of Yoma returns again and again to the story in the opening mishnah of the perek, a story about relay races in the Beit Hamikdash. As someone who likes to run, I think the story is worth retelling.

The first mitzvah that had to be performed in the Temple in the mornings was trumat ha-deshen, the removal of the ash from the altar. This job fell upon one of the kohanim serving in the Temple on that particular day. Barishona, in the beginning, says our mishnah, kol mi she-rotzeh litrom et ha-mizbeach, torem. In the beginning, anyone who wanted to clear off the ashes could do so. However, then this task became popular, and many kohanim began to compete against one another for the job. They used to run up the ramp that led to the altar, and whoever got to the altar first was the winner. And what if two kohanim tied for first-place, asks the Mishnah? Well, then the referee [memuneh], would say to them, “Stick out a finger” [hitzbiyu]. Each of the two tying kohanim then had the option of sticking out one finger or two [achat o shtayim], and the referee would count off to see who was the winner. I imagine that this count-off was something like eeny-meeny-miney-mo or rock-paper-scissors. (Were there scissors in the beit hamikdash? Was there paper? Maybe it was more like rock-vessel-ladles, but you get the idea.) The mishnah then adds, as a sort of parenthetical, ein motz’i’in agudal bamikdash: It is forbidden to stick out a thumb in the Beit Hamikdash. What was so offensive about sticking out the thumb? Perhaps it was forbidden to hitchhike? (Doubtful.) Or maybe the thumb was sort of like the middle finger today, as hinted at in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet (“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”)? Hard to know. In any case, this eeny-meeny-miney-mo game involved fingers but no thumbs.

Maaseh she-hayu, says the mishnah next, introducing a particular anecdotal instantiation of the general practice described above. Once upon a time, two kohanim ran neck-and-neck up the ramp in a race to win the right to do trumat ha-deshen. (It’s still not clear to me why removing the ashes was so desirable a task; maybe in the days before movies and video games, sweeping up soot was a popular pastime.) One kohen pushed his fellow kohen, and the fellow kohen then fell and broke his foot. Did kohen #1 deliberately try to trip kohen #2? Did kohen #2 fall off the ramp? The mishnah, ever sparing in its language, does not elaborate (although the Gemara does go on to relate another story in which one kohen actually knifes his competitor). The story ends here, and we move on to the moral.

V’cheyvan she-rau beit din she-vau lidei sakana, and whereupon the court saw that the kohanim were becoming endangered, they instituted a change in practice: From now on, the person who cleared off the ash would be chosen not by race but by lottery, and this was the first lottery that took place in the Beit Hamikdash.

The Gemara has a lot to say about this mishnah – far too much for me to summarize here. The topics covered include:
– Are people more inclined to stay up late or to wake up early?
– When is it permissible to count Jews?
– How many times did Saul and David sin in the Bible?
– Should Jews take revenge on one another?
– What if a person has a disability that enables him to stick out only one finger at a time?
– Which mitzvah was taken more seriously: the prohibition against murder, or the commandment to purify vessels?
– Who is allowed to wear the kohen gadol’s hand-me-downs?

The next mishnah in this perek is about the second lottery, which determined who got to slaughter the animal for sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on the altar. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Chariots of Fire

  1. Philipos says:

    Two questions: firstly, do the authors of the mishnah favour the lottery or the running race? Secondly, what is the sakanah from which the cohanim were being saved?Prima facie, the running race is preferable because it rewards religious zeal, and was only stopped because of the physical danger to the cohanim. However, the unwrapped message of the mishnah is that the running race was replaced because of the detrimental effect it had on the character of the cohanim; and the sakanah was not physical.


  2. BZ says:

    My understanding is that this game was like horsengoggles: each person throws out a number of fingers, and then you add the numbers together and count around the circle until you reach that number.For example:Player A puts out 4 fingersPlayer B puts out 0 fingersPlayer C puts out 3 fingers4+0+3 = 7Count to seven: A B C A B C ASo it’s Player A!


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