Mishnah Yoma Chapter 1 Mishnah 5 Pt. 2

by Jhos Singer, SVARA Fellow

וְהִשְׁבִּיעוּהוּ וְנִפְטְרוּ וְהָלְכוּ לָהֶם
And [the Elders of the Priesthood] had him take an oath [to the High Priest], and took leave of him, and they went away.

This scene is another mysterious Mishnah moment—the High Priest is, over a 7-day period, being prepared to undertake his Yom Kippur duties. He is taken from his home to לִשְׁכַּת פַּלְהֶדְרִין / Lishkat Parhedrin (though it is written as Palhedrin) aka the Parhedrin Chamber, which seems to be some sort of an accounts receivable or assessors office. While there, he eats and drinks and gets instructions from the Elders to ready him for the big day. Now we’ve been told that he is moved to בֵּית אַבְטִינָס/Beit Avtinas, the house of Avtinas. Who was this Avtinas? Apparently this is the family name of the folks who were responsible for compounding the incense used in Temple rituals. They kept the incense recipes secret lest it be used unscrupulously, which irked some of the Rabbis. No explanation is given for why these very specific places are where he is sequestered. Accounting and incense…Hmmmm, what’s up with that?

I am loving how many angles there are in the word הִשְׁבִּיעוּהוּ/hish’viyuhu. I’ve bolded the root letters (ש-ב-ע), which are far outnumbered by the add-ons. The root points us in two directions–it either has to do with the number 7, or the concept of swearing, as in taking an oath, or otherwise pledging, vowing, or affirming something. Since we have all those other letters, it is likely that we are dealing with a verb rather than a noun, so I’d steer in the direction of oathing. In which case the other letters are probably letting us know what aspect of the verb we are working with–I’d say that the first letter/vowel combo, הִ/hi signals that we are in Hiphiel, which puts it in the causative aspect. The first וּ/oo tacked on to the root tells us that it is 3rd person plural. הוּ/hu is the third person, singular, masculine, object suffix meaning “him”. Literally in English הִשְׁבִּיעוּהוּ would mean, “caused to swear they did him.” But to smooth it out a little into comprehensible English, how about, “They had him take an oath.

Being maggidic at my core, I cannot help but see a drash happening here—first he spends a full week being well fed, watered, and coached. Sounds kinda like a spiritual retreat to me. And yet that retreat happens in a place designed for assessment & accounting. Well, that’s a pretty good drash for Yom kippur as we now know it, it’s all about accounting and assessment. However, the other thing taught about the Parhedrin Chamber is that the official who normally worked there was only given a one-year contract. This points us in the direction of our constant transformation and spiritual renewal. And then there is the metaphor of being in the house of Avtinas, another site of presence through transformation, dissolution, and ephemerality. Interesting that the oath he makes is in the realm where solid materials are vaporized through fire!! Symbolism anyone?? I think it is safe to say that our clever ancients embedded wisdom and intuited meaning into even these seemingly mundane details. May we continue to create spaces where we can assess, account, take instruction, commit, and effect transformation!! Oh, wait…that’s Mishnah Collective!!! Check!!!

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