Yoma, Chapter Two, Mishnah One



At the end of the first chapter we learned that the high priest removes the ashes from the altar on Yom Kippur.  On other days any priest could do this.  Our mishnah teaches how it was originally decided who would remove the ashes and tomorrow we will learn the terrible problems that this system caused.


Mishnah One

1)      Originally anyone who wished to remove [the ashes from] the altar did so.

2)      When they were many, they would run up the ramp [of the altar] and he that came first within four cubits won the privilege.

3)      If two were even, the officer would say to them [all:] raise the finger!  

a)      And how many did they put out? One or two but one does not put out a thumb in the Temple.



Section one:  “Originally” in this mishnah refers to the situation which will be contrasted with the decree mentioned in tomorrow’s mishnah.  Here we learn that originally any priest that wished to could remove the ashes from the altar and they didn’t draw lots to decide who would have this privilege.  The other labors in the Temple were decided by drawing lots.  However, because one had to get up so early in the morning to remove the ashes, they feared that if they decided who was to do so by lot, few would want to do so.  Therefore, they opened it up to free competition.

Section two:  If there was more than one priest who wished to remove the ashes, they would compete by having a race up the ramp of the altar.  The first priest who came within four cubits of the altar won the privilege of removing the ashes.  In tomorrow’s mishnah we will see what problems this system caused.

Section three:  If it was a tie getting to the top of the ramp, they would play an ancient form of “eenie, meenie miney mo” (I have no idea if I spelled this right).  Every priest would stick out one or two fingers and an officer of the priests would call out a number much larger than the number of priests present.  He then would begin counting fingers and the person whose finger was counted last would win.  However, thumbs didn’t count because of cheaters who would claim that their thumb was either out or not out so that the count would end with them.  To avoid this problem they disallowed sticking out the thumbs and having them counted. 

As an aside, the mention of the thumb somewhat introduces the concept of cheating in order to perform a religious duty. This is a small form of cheating, one which doesn’t harm others.  Nevertheless, it shows how religious zeal to perform a ritual might lead a person to unethical behavior. The unethical behavior which we will see in yesterday’s mishnah is far worse.