Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Aharei Mot-Qedoshim/ May 1, 2004


Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




The Goat for Azazel


Dr. Michael Avioz

Department of Bible


Parashat Aharei Mot begins with instructions to the High Priest regarding the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:5-10): [1]

And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats (se’irim) for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. …Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel… while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel.

A more detailed description of the strange rite performed with these he-goats appears in Tractate Yoma, in the Mishnah and the gemara.   Reading these descriptions, one is tempted to ask, Why is this peculiar rite necessary to atone for the sins of Israel ?  Cannot confession and prayer suffice?  The wonderment evoked by this rite has caused some rabbis to include this commandment in the category of a hoq, those commandments that are simply to be obeyed, without explanation ( Yoma 67b).

Below we present several theories explaining this commandment, all of them based on investigation of the meaning of the word “Azazel”. [2]

1. According to one interpretation Azazel is a composite of two words, ez and azal, meaning “a goat goes”.  The root a-z-l is actually Aramaic, but also appears in Biblical Hebrew (Prov. 20:14 ; Job 14:11 ).  Accordingly, the Mishnah (Yoma 4.2 and elsewhere) refers to it as “the goat that had to be sent away.”   The same interpretation can be seen in the Septuagint (apopompaious; “the goat that is sent free”) and the Vulgate.  Ibn Ezra interpreted the word similarly.  Thus, “the goat that goes off” is sent to the wilderness.

This interpretation has a certain difficulty:  how can the same phrase denote both the goat that is sent off and the place to which it is sent (see verses 8, 10, 26)?

2.   Another interpretation takes Azazel to be a place name, designating the place where the goat is sent off.  Azazel is understood as “an inaccessible region,” a place of cliffs and canyons, and az is understood as meaning “hard.”   Thus it is in Yoma 67b; Sifra, Aharei Mot 2.8 (“to a hard place in the mountains”); in Targum Jonathan (“a strong and hard place”); [3] and in Rashi.  Some people suggest that azazel is derived from the Arabic azaz, meaning hard soil (see R. Saadiah Gaon, Jonah Ibn Janah, and Radak in Sefer ha-Shorashim).   Accordingly, Azazel refers to  the name of the mountain to which the goat was taken.  This interpretation attempts to reconcile the word Azazel with the practice in the Second Temple period of taking the goat to a cliff and pushing it over into the abyss. [4]   However, another difficulty arises with this interpretation:  the parallel structure of “one marked for the Lord” and “the other marked for Azazel” (verse 8) would seem to indicate that the word does not refer to a place, rather to the name of an entity.

3.   A third interpretation reads Azazel as Azaz-El, i.e., “the deity (not referring to the Lord) has power.”  According to this hypothesis, the original version of the text read AZaZ EL (the Hebrew letters ayin, zayin, zayin, aleph, lamed) but was changed in the Masoretic Text to AZAZeL (ayin, zayin, aleph, zayin, lamed) switching the order of the letters alef and zayin in order to obscure the pagan character of this entity, since the Bible does not recognize the existence of other deities and certainly would not call them El, G-d. [5]   In support of their thesis, the proponents of this approach cite the Samaritan Pentateuch, where the spelling AZaZEL appears, as well as texts from Qumran (11QT 26:13; 4Q180: 7-8).

4.   We find the interpretation most in line with the plain sense of the text to be the one that takes Azazel to be the name of a demon. [6]   According to Leviticus 16:8, Aaron casts lots, “one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel.”   Likewise, Leviticus 17:7 says, “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons (se’irim) after whom they stray.”  The wilderness as the residence of demons appears in the Book of Isaiah (Is. 13:21 -22; 34:11-15), as well.   This explanation has the advantage of enabling us to understand why the goat is sent off to the wilderness.

A demon by the name of Azazel or Azael occurs in post-Biblical literature.  Enoch and other works of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha tell of a minister of the angels called Azael, who was among those who were attracted by the daughters of men (see Gen. 6:2,4).  Azael was the angel who reigned, among other things, over magic, war, and harlotry; the angel Raphael had been ordered to cast him into the wilderness, to live there, imprisoned under rocks and boulders, until the Day of Judgment (Enoch 8:1, 9:6, 10:4-6, 13:1-2, 54:5, 55:4, 69:2). [7]

Traces of this tradition can be found in the literature of the Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 67b):  “It is taught by Rabbi Ishmael:  Azazel, since it atones for the deeds of Uzza and Azael,” the sinful angels who were cast out of Heaven.  In other works of Midrash (Midrash Avkir; Yalkut Shimoni on Genesis, par. 44) Azazel is mentioned as the seducer of women and as the one who taught them to adorn themselves with makeup and jewelry.  According to Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 46, the goat is given to Azazel = Samael to bribe him not to act as the prosecutor against the Jewish people (also cf. Zohar, Aharei Mot).  There it says, “The lot of the Holy One, blessed be He, is the burnt offering, and the lot of Azazel is the he-goat sin offering.”  The contraposition of these two goats alludes to a contest, as it were, between the demons and the Lord.

The idea that the sins of the children of Israel were loaded onto the goat finds expression in Mishnah Yoma (6.4): [8] “And they made a causeway for him because of the Babylonians, for they used to pull his hair and say to him, ‘Bear [away our sins] and go forth! Bear [away our sins] and go forth!’”

Nahmanides was of like opinion:

For they used to worship other gods, namely the angels, and would offer them sacrifices...  But the Torah utterly forbade accepting them as deities and worshipping them in any manner; however, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that on the Day of Atonement we send a he-goat into the wilderness to the Minister ruling in the places of desolation, ... but the intention regarding the goat that is sent off is not that he be an offering from us to him, Heaven forefend, but that our intention be simply to do the bidding of our Creator who thus commanded us. [9]

Ibn Ezra’s commentary on verse 8 hints at the possibility that there once was a demon by the name of Azazel, [10] but in our weekly reading of the Torah all that remains is the name, since demons remain in our consciousness only as a metaphor and expression of speech, long after we have ceased to believe in them.

It should be noted that the Torah does not relate to the Azazel-goat as a sacrifice.  Were this the case, we would have expected the goat to be slaughtered and its blood to be sprinkled around, and that all the usual rights of purification pertain to it. [11] Thus it seems to us that the purpose of the rite of the Azazel-goat was psychological, not mythical.  The object is to persuade the children of Israel that their sins will indeed be wiped away, and to remove from them any alien ideas, so that they direct their hearts solely to improving themselves and that they make themselves subservient to their Father in Heaven. [12]


[1] According to Menahem Ben-Yashar (Parashat Aharei Mot, “The Ritual for the Day of Atonement?” in A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Vol. II  [Bar Ilan University, 2002], pp. 307-312), one should distinguish between the instructions given Aaron for that moment and the instructions that pertained for later generations:   initially, the rite described in Leviticus 16 was performed on various occasions when the Tabernacle had become contaminated, and not necessarily on the Day of Atonement.  The rite to be observed throughout the generations, however, was specifically to be performed only on the Day of Atonement. This explanation seems to be correct.

[2] Commentators generally distinguished between the meaning of the word Azazel and the significance of the rite of sending off the goat.  Hizkuni comments on verse 8:  “The reference is to Samael; so that he not spoil their offering, they bribe him.”  R. Hayyim Ben-Atar, author of Or Ha-Hayyim, also took a similar approach.  The author of Kli Yakar believed that the two goats reflected the struggle between Jacob and Esau.

[3] Targum Jonathan adds the name of the place:   Beit Haruri or Beit Hadudi (resh and daled being similarly shaped letters).   A. Sasson believes this place to have been in the vicinity of Ma’aleh Edumim (see his article, “Darko shel ha-Se’ir ha- Mishtale’ah le-Or Mekorot Hazal:  Iyyun Geographi-Histori be- She’elah Pulhanit,” Mehkarei Yehudah ve-Shomron, 5 (1996), pp. 121-133.

[4] See S. Ahituv, “Azazel,” Encyclopedia Mikra’it, Vol. 6, Jerusalem 1972, col. 114.

[5] Jacqueline C. R. DeRoo, “Was the Goat for Azazel Destined for the Wrath of G-d?” Biblica 81 (2000), pp. 233-243.

[6] Thus in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46; Ibn Ezra; Nahmanides; J. Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16 (Anchor Bible), New York 1992, p. 1021.

[7] For further sources see R. D. Levy, The Symbolism of the Azazel Goat, Bethesda 1998; Esther Eshel, Ha- Emunah be-Shedim be- Eretz Israel bi-Yemei ha- Bayit ha-Sheni (Doctoral Dissertation), Jerusalem 1999.  Also see Azazel in K. Van der Toorn et al. (eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Vol. II, (DDD) LeidenGrand Rapids 1999.

[8] Also cf. Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 66b; Mishnah Ta’anit 4.8.

[9] Nahmanides relates to the nature of demons in his commentary on Lev. 17:7.   Also see Sforno on this verse.

[10] “If you could understand the mystery behind the word Azazel, then you would know its secret… but I shall reveal the secret to you in a clue; when you are thirty-three you shall know it.”  This mystery is revealed to us by Nahmanides:   the reference is to what is said in Leviticus 17:7:  “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons (se’irim – also simply goats),” and Ibn Ezra explains that the reference is to demons ( shedim).

[11] See Y. Kaufman, Toledot ha-Emunah ha-Yisraelit, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv 1964, Vol. 1, pp. 571-572; Z. Weinberg, Ha-Korban be-Yisrael al pi ha-Mikra ve-ha-Minhagim shel ha- Amim ha-Shechenim, Jerusalem 1987, p. 295;  J. Hartley, Leviticus (World Biblical Commentary), Texas 1992, p. 238.

[12] In this regard we tend to agree with Weinberg (note 11, above; p. 295):   “It [the goat] does not serve for atonement, and sending it off in the wilderness does not release those who have sinned of responsibility, … it seems that the goat serves as a symbolic “method of transport” for carrying off the sins of the children of Israel to a distant place.”  Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Lev. 17:7, wrote regarding the goat-demons that “whoever seeks them and believes in them is being unfaithful to his Lord, thinking that there is an entity who brings good or bad, other than our most awesome and venerated Lord.”