Mishnah Yoma Chapter 1 Mishnah 1 Pt. 1

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

שִׁבְעַת יָמִים קֹדֶם יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מַפְרִישִׁין כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל
Seven days prior to Yom Kippur, they remove the High Priest…

This is an interesting opening, especially when viewed through our 21st civic century lens. The Mishnah is reinventing Judaism post-temple, yet its first instruction regarding Yom Kippur focuses on the Cohain Gadol / High Priest, the person most closely associated with the Temple!! Famously, the Cohain Gadol is a solo act. Here the Mishnah is reminding us of his being made even more singular for Yom Kippur!! In constrast, the modern enactment of Yom Kippur is possibly the most collective Jewish Holiday—it is certainly one of the most heavily attended. The moment that typifies the rite is the congregational recitation of all possible manners of human wrongdoing. In the moment when the collective accepts responsibility for the spiritual wreckage wrought by humanity, there is no one leader, no hierarchy, and no moral superiority. The liturgy is a naked expression of regret, humility, and grief. (With a light dusting of collective shame, if I’m being honest.) I wonder how we are going to get there from this Mishnah’s commencement!

My first Yoma word-of-the-day is מַפְרִישִׁין / mafrishin. Here we have the masculine plural participle form, in the causative aspect Hiphiel, meaning “they separate or remove”. It originates from the root פ-ר-ש / p-r-sh, which denotes a wild array of ideas: set aside, excellence, different, lonely, distinguish, separate, remove, divide, keep off, set off across the sea (!!), explain, express clearly, define, make wonderful, or–wait for it–a quince (ostensibly because it was distinguished for being a fruit unusually well suited for cooking). Fun fact: this root is the foundation for the word parasha, AKA the weekly Torah portion.

The text says “they” remove the Cohain Gadol, but doesn’t tell us who “they” are!!  Hmmm…Is the Mishnah skirting this issue, or does it assume we already know? Does this omission leave room for us to fill in the blanks? The Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and while we don’t have an exact timeline, it is generally accepted that the Mishnah was written down in the 3rd century CE, when it recorded and codified ideas that started orally centuries before. But certainly, by the time those conversations were being preserved, the Temple was nothing more than a pile of rocks. What were the sages up to here? Why would they jump in with a reference to a long gone ritual? Are they tipping their kippot to the Judaism of the past? Are they building their endeavor on the foundation laid by their Temple oriented ancestors? Is this how they are linking themselves to Torah? Or…???

Check out the rest of the Yoma Learning Guide here!

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