Mishnah Yoma Chapter 1 Mishnah 4 Pt. 1

by Micah Buck, SVARA Fellow

כָּל שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים לֹא הָיוּ מוֹנְעִין מִמֶּנּוּ מַאֲכָל וּמִשְׁתֶּה
Throughout all the seven days [that the High Priest was in the Parhedrin chamber], they would not withhold from him any food or drink.

The Kohen Gadol’s preparation for Yom Kippur is ramping up! And so is the role of the Elders of the Beit Din in the preparation. In our previous mishnah, the Sages imagined the these Elders, whoever they were, held expertise in the sacrificial rituals, reading the instructions for the day to the High Priest and prompting the High Priest to read the rituals out loud, and bringing a series of animals before the High Priest just for review. In today’s text, the stakes are raised again. We learn that during the seven days of preparation, the elders do not prevent the High Priest from eating.

Our word to explore today is מוֹנְעִין, a qal present participle from the root מנע. The core meaning of the root is “to cut off,” and in the qal form it holds the meanings “to refuse,” “to deny,” or “to refrain.” The verb can be used in the qal to deny something to someone else or to deny/refrain oneself. Eventually as Hebrew morphs into Aramaic, the word comes to also take on the meaning of “to diminish” or “to cease.” Here, “to deny” or “to diminish” both work, and in either case, the Sages – i.e. non-Priests – are not denying or limiting the food that the High Priest can eat in the week of preparation before Yom Kippur. 

Wait, what? What a strange concept! I would expect that the High Priest would not need to be prompted on how to fast or when to begin fasting, let alone to identify the various animals that were part of the rituals. And even granting that this once-a-year high-stakes ritual did indeed require preparation, it seems so strange that the High Priest is being prompted by “the Elders” rather than by other priests. This is part of the Rabbinic project of claiming authority over (and therefore authority to change) Jewish practice. These texts are being created and recited well after the destruction of the Temple, and are meant to provide the community’s living memory of the Before Times, even as Jewish practice had to radically evolve into a new reality. But the Sages remember the past in very particular ways, and insert themselves into the past in ways that support the role they wish to claim in the present. Part of me feels very uncomfortable with this. And part of me knows that memory and history are slippery things, and our memory of the past is always shaped by our present. And it makes me wonder: how will we eventually tell the story of this moment of growth and transition? And in the unrecognizable future that we are creating, what will we look back on as sources of strength?

Check out the rest of the Yoma Learning Guide here!

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