Mishnah Yoma Chapter 1 Mishnah 3 Pt. 5

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

וּמַעֲבִירִין לְפָנָיו פָּרִים וְאֵילִים וּכְבָשִׂים כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּהֵא מַכִּיר וְרָגִיל בָּעֲבוֹדָה
And they pass before [The High Priest] bulls and rams and sheep, so that he will be familiar and will become accustomed to the service.

Oh Joy!! In honor of Pride month, today’s word of the day is going to take us on a short and Queer road trip. I’m talkin’ about אֵילִים/eilim which means “rams” here. But the rabbis came up with an interesting genderfluid twist when they tweaked the singular form אַיִל, normally an masculine noun, into a feminized version, אַיְלוֹנִית/Ay’lonit to mean a masculine woman; my teacher and friend, R. Jane Litman translates it as “Butch”. The rabbis often use it to describe a person who appears to be female but who, at puberty, develop masculine characteristics by which they suggest that they may not possess the biological plumbing necessary to become pregnant. In a eye popping Talmudic snippet (Yevamot 64b), Rav Nachman says in the name of Rabba bar Abbuha that Sarah’s barrenness was because she was Ay’lonit!! We ARE family!!

I am picking up the suggestion that this is an ancient ritual dress rehearsal. It is as if the Elders are doing the final fluffing of the High Priest, and the decade of experience supporting myself (or at least trying to) as a free-lance musician is flooding my memory banks as I read this scene. I remember how it felt to go over a difficult passage both in practice and in thinking it through. As a percussionist, my craft included a lot of choreography; having only two measures to move from crash cymbals to the bass drum required a physical set up that would allow me to silently put down the cymbals, pick up the BD stick, move into position and hit the note with the exact amount of force. I imagine the High Priest assessing the animals, and readying himself for executing a flawless sacrifice.

Once again, I am watching the moves of the rabbis here. Where are they finding the leverage points to shift from Temple rites to a new liturgical language? What foundation stones are they pulling from the rubble of Temple times upon which to build a new ritual world? How are they imagining authority, power, and expertise will be distributed and disseminated? What machinations are they going through to be both respectful of the past and yet unapologetically launching into the future? I think we have a treasure trove in this tractate for surfacing these questions and even discerning a few answers!! Stay tuned!!!

Check out the rest of the Yoma Learning Guide here!

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