A Womb of His Own

I have long been baffled by the choice of Torah reading for minchah on Yom Kippur. Why do we read the long list of prohibited sexual relations on the afternoon of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar? Yom Kippur is a day when we are commanded rise above the physical needs of our body. We do not eat or drink, and we dress in white like angels. Moreover, this is the one day of the year when sexual relations are explicitly prohibited by the Torah. Why then do we proceed to read about all those individuals whose nakedness we are forbidden to uncover?

Apparently I am not the only one troubled by this question. The new machzor from the Conservative movement, Lev Shalem, offers two possible Torah readings for minchah on Yom Kippur – the “traditional” reading about sexual unions, and an “alternate” reading that consists of the holiness code at the beginning of parshat Kedoshim. The latter choice is a compelling one, both because it dovetails with the shacharit reading from Acharey Mot (since these two parshiyot are consecutive and are often conjoined), and also because, as the editors of the machzor explain, “this passage has been called the holy of holies of the book of Leviticus” (and Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year). In defense of the traditional reading, the editors note that “in pre-modern societies, privacy in the family rarely existed. A public recitation of the rules that define and protect the family was deemed important on this day, when the entire community gathered for prayer and reflection.” They go on to surmise that the choice of Torah reading may have been associated with the custom of young men and women going out into the fields to arrange marriage proposals on Yom Kippur in the days when the Temple was still standing.

If these reasons seem too historically specific for our timeless tradition, they are at least more satisfying than the traditional explanations, cited in commentaries to Megillah 31a, where the rabbis establish the Torah readings for the various holidays. The Talmud states without elaboration, “On Kom Kippur we read Acharei Mot and the maftir is Ki Choh Amar Ram v’Nisa; at Minchah we read the Arayot (forbidden sexual relations) and the maftir is Yonah.” Rashi comments that “We read the Arayot – so that anyone who is sleeping with someone forbidden to him (literally: who has Arayot in his hands) will separate from them, because Arayot are a prevalent sin, because man’s soul enjoys them and his evil inclination wins him over.” According to Rashi, then, the minchah Torah reading is intended as a warning against this particular sin. The Tosafot offer a rather anti-feminist alternative to this commentary: “We read the Arayot—because women dress up in honor of the day, and so we need to warn the men not to fall into their trap.” The women are wearing their new white dresses and their holiday finery, rendering them particularly seductive. I might add that since Yom Kippur is a fast day, the women don’t need to be in the kitchen but can actually set foot in shul, for a change. Caveat gever! According to the traditional commentators as well, then, the minchah reading serves as a warning against sexual sins — even though these are the sins that are supposed to be furthest from our minds on Yom Kippur.

This summer, when learning Masechet Shevuot, I was reminded of a rather startling connection between Yom Kippur at the Arayot. The second chapter of Shevuot deals with Yediot HaTumah, that is, with a person’s awareness (or his lack of awareness) that he is impure, or that he is entering a place of purity. There are several ways in which a person can sin in this regard. He or she may become impure but forget that he is impure and enter the Temple; or he may remember that he is impure but forget that he is in the Temple (apparently this was more likely the case for Babylonians, who did not have as strong a sense of Israel’s geography, and were therefore more likely to suddenly find themselves—oops!—in the Temple, of all places!); or he may forget both that he is impure and that he is in the Temple. In all such cases, the offender must exit the Mikdash by the shortest route possible and later bring a Korban Oleh V’Yored, that is, a sacrifice whose value depends on his financial state.

The Mishnah draws an explicit analogy between the way in which the impure person must exit the Mikdash, and the way in which a man must withdraw from a woman who becomes a Nidah during intercourse. In both cases, a space is entered under the assumption that this space is permitted, but it soon becomes clear that it is in fact prohibited. However, whereas in the case of the Mikdash, the person is expected to take the shortest path out, this is not the case in sex. There a man sins if he withdraws immediately, because to do so would render “his exit to be as enjoyable as his entrance.” Instead, as the Talmud goes on to relate, Rava advises that the man caught in such a situation should “stick his fingernails into the ground until it dies, which is good for him.” This is followed by a series of warnings to B’nei Yisrael to separate from their wives close to their menstrual periods. The Talmud cautions that “Anyone who does not separate from his wife close to her period – even if he has sons like the sons of Aaron, they will die.” (This is particularly interesting because as we read in the Torah reading at Yom Kippur shacharit, two of Aaron’s sons do in fact die young.) Conversely, “Anyone who separates from his wife before her period will have male children.” (The same consequence ensues if one makes havdalah, the Talmud goes on to say, underscoring the notion that separation is good.) This in turn leads to a consideration of the bizarre case of a man who is sure that he committed a sexual sin, but cannot quite remember whether he slept with his sister, or with his menstruating wife. This last case, of course, brings me back to the Arayot.

On Yom Kippur, the day we read the Arayot, much of the liturgy focuses on Temple ritual. This is especially the case during the Avodah service, which re-enacts the high priest’s activities on this day by quoting from the Talmudic tractate Yoma. Seven of the eight chapters of this tractate deal with every single step taken by the high priest as he prepares to enter the holy of holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple. The fifth chapter relates that the high priest would penetrate two levels of curtains, the outer and the inner (who says the rabbis didn’t know female anatomy?), and then heap incense on coals and wait until the whole house became full of smoke. Only after this climactic eruption did he withdraw from the Temple spent and triumphant, corresponding to the exuberant singing of “Mareh Kohen” in the Avodah service’s re-enactment.

In light of the analogy from Shevuot—in which entering the Mikdash is compared to penetrating a woman—the Yom Kippur leyning takes on a new level of meaning. The purpose of entering the Mikdash is to bring a Korban, that is, to be brought close (Karov) to God. This intimacy is analogized to sexual union. In this sense, the story of Nadav and Avihu’s death (on account of their coming too close to the altar when not in the proper state to do so) in the shacharit reading is analogous to all the improper sexual unions described in the minchah Torah reading. Entering the Temple when impure is like entering a woman who is forbidden, and in both cases, the consequences are dire. Moreover, the person enters into the Ezrat Nashim, an area named for the fact that women could not go beyond this point, but perhaps also significant because the whole Temple, with its nested chambers and vessels, was a very feminine space.

While these readings are my own, I am not the first to notice the analogy between the Holy of Holies and the womb. Bonna Devora Haberman, in her brilliant article “The Yom Kippur Avodah in the Female Enclosure,” offers a reading of the Avodah service as an erotic encounter: “The high priest may be understood as the symbolic instrument for attaining union of the Jewish people with the One…which culminates in orgasmic penetration into the holiest space.” Haberman argues that the incense is the aphrodisiac of the Avodah; and the sprinkling of blood offers atonement in much the same way that the shedding of menstrual blood allows for a new start, with the goat to Azazal cast off like a discarded egg. In learning Masechet Shevuot, I was struck by how Haberman’s reading of the Avodah service may be applied to other aspects of Temple ritual, including an ordinary person’s entrance into the Temple to bring a Korban—that is, to achieve closeness (Kirva) and intimacy with God.

The rabbis famously say that since the destruction of the Temple, our impulse to worship idols has been replaced by the sexual impulse. Instead of the temptation to enter into places of worship that are off limits, there is the temptation to sleep with those forbidden to us. The Minchah leyning about the Arayot is thus the contemporary counterpart to the Shacharit reading about entering the Temple in purity. In a nod to the psalm for Elul, the month of “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” both Torah readings remind us what it takes to merit to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our lives.

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