Yoma, Chapter Two, Mishnah Two



In today’s mishnah we see that religious zeal can lead to violence.  There is no doubt in my mind that the mishnah is a warning against such a phenomenon, and it would seem that this is a lesson that could be more carefully heeded in our time as well.


Mishnah Two

Section one:  It once happened that two were even as they ran up the ramp, and one of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg.

When the court saw that they incurred danger, they decreed that they would remove the ashes from only by a count.

Section two:  There were four counts. This is the first count.



Section one:  The event of one priest pushing another priest in order to be the one who would perform an act seemingly as ordinary and trivial as removing the ashes from the altar was such a traumatic experience that the court decreed an end to the races up the ramp.  Henceforth, the decision who would remove the ashes would be decided by a count, as was described in yesterday’s mishnah.

There is an interesting parallel to this mishnah, one which is far more extreme.  The following source can be found on Yoma 23a:


Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that two priests were even as they ran up the ramp and when one of them came first within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and thrust it into his heart. Rabbi Zadok stood on the steps of the Hall and said: Brothers of the House of Israel, listen! Behold it says: “If a body is found slain in the land… then your elders and judges shall come forth . . .” (Deuteronomy 21:1): On whose behalf shall we bring the calf whose neck is to be broken, on behalf of the city or on behalf of the Temple Courts?

All the people burst out weeping. The father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said: “May he be an atonement for you. My son is still having convulsions and the knife has not become unclean.”  This comes to teach you that the cleanness of their vessels was of greater concern to them even than the shedding of blood.


In this fascinating and horrific story, instead of causing his rival priest merely to fall down and break his leg, one priest takes out a knife and stabs his fellow priest.  Rabbi Zadok ironically asks who brings the calf, whose neck is broken in a case where an unidentified dead body is found (see the quote from Deuteronomy), the city or the Temple courts.  Finally, in the ultimate point of religious zeal, the father of the son poignantly remarks to the other priests that at least he has removed the knife before it is defiled by his son’s dead body.  The source demonstrates well that the priests of that time had gone so astray that the issue of the purity of their vessels was more important to them then the most heinous sin of shedding blood.

This mishnah and the accompanying Talmudic story are strong lessons to us of the dangers of religious zeal which can lead to violence.  As important as ritual procedure is, and don’t forget we are in the middle of a tractate which is nearly entirely dedicated to the performance of ritual, we are not to forget that morality and the proper relationship between human beings are supreme values as well. It is not that we must choose between commandments between God and human beings and those between humans and themselves. The two are only in conflict if we let them be, and that we must not. 

Section two:  This count is the first of four counts done in choosing who performs certain tasks in the Temple. The following two mishnayot will discuss the other two.