Either the place to which it was sent was called Azazel, or the goat was: the etymology is not certain. But difficult though the terminology is, the theology is even more vexing.
Is it really fair – or possible – to transfer human sins to an innocent animal? Should we not work through our deeds and defects ourselves and face up where necessary to our own guilt?
First the Azazel problem. Stressing the az (“strong”) part of the name, the Talmud understands it as hard and rocky mountainous terrain (the New English Bible calls it a precipice). Radak thinks it is the mountain’s actual name. Because Lev. 16:22 calls it eretz g’zerah, “a land cut off”, some translators call it “a desolate region”.
Those who believe that Azazel is the name of the goat derive it from ez azal – “a goat that goes”. NH Tur-Sinai suggests “wild goat”. In folklore, the goat was consigned to the place where two fallen angels, Uzza and Aza(z)el, had been banished (Yoma 67b).
The Torah text says that the high priest drew lots, one saying LaShem, “for the Lord”, and the other L’Azazel, “for Azazel”, which might be understood as a technical term for “condemned goat”: i.e. “This goat is designated as this year’s Azazel“.
Some scholars (e.g. Ibn Ezra) identify Azazel as a goat-like demon of the desert (see also Hayyim Schauss, “Guide to Jewish Holy Days”, 1962, pages 300-1).
There are Midrashim (e.g. Pir’kei D’Rabbi Eliezer 46) which regard Azazel as a power antithetical to God.
A third approach understands Azazel as “entire removal” (Brown, Driver & Briggs’ lexicon, using an Arabic root for “to remove”); JH Hertz offers the rendering “dismissal”.
Why is it a goat that carries the people’s sins?
Maybe goats were deemed almost human in terms of evolutionary process. Rashi (on the Joseph story, Gen. 37:31) claims that goat’s blood is similar to human. The Midrash (on the Jacob and Esau story, Gen. 27:11), linking sa’ir, “a goat”, with se’ar, “hair”, suggests that sins get tangled up in our hair.
The Mishnah (Yoma 6:4) states that the high priest had before him two goats which were equal in every respect. As neither had any unique traits, lots were cast. A red cord was attached to the Azazel goat; when its bones were shattered by falling off a cliff, the congregation in the Temple became aware of what had happened and knew that their sins were no longer scarlet but white (Isa. 1:18; Yoma 67a, RH 31b).
Originally the goat did not have to die, but there was a fear that it would find its way back and thus frustrate the whole ceremony. It was taken to the rocky cliff and pushed over backwards by ish itti, “a man of the time”, probably indicating a Kohen or Levite waiting ready for this task. The ish itti had various stopping stations on the way where he could refresh himself if he found it too hard to maintain his fast, but apparently no ish itti needed this provision.
The theology of the procedure has given the interpreters endless difficulties. Maimonides (Moreh N’vuchim 3:46) says that as sins cannot be taken off one’s head and transferred elsewhere, the ritual is symbolic, enabling the penitent to discard his sins: “These ceremonies are of a symbolic character and serve to impress man with a certain idea and to lead him to repent, as if to say, ‘We have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, cast them behind our backs and removed them from us as far as possible’.”
Since we are determined to eradicate all trace of our sins, we need to flush them away as firmly as we can.
What options do we have?
Allegorically we could say we wanted to put them on a fast train to nowhere. We could say we wanted to throw them into the river and let the waters wash them away, and this is indeed the thinking behind the Tashlich ceremony on Rosh HaShanah afternoon, based on Micah 7:19. In this sense the goat is not important in itself: what matters is the symbolism of a fast means of movement.
The Azazel goat has led to the concept of the (e)scape-goat, the fall guy who gets the blame for what others have done.
By a sad quirk of history the idea has rebounded on the Jewish people as a whole who have been blamed for all the ills of their environment from the poisoned wells of the Middle Ages to the economic, political and social problems of the modern world. Voltaire wrote: “If the Jew did not exist as an outlet for the wrath of those who are despoiled and frustrated, it would have been necessary to invent him”.
The Christian world espoused the scapegoat doctrine in at least two contradictory ways – on the one hand blaming the Jews (against the historical evidence) for killing Jesus and by extension ruining everything good and positive in the world, and on the other lauding Jesus for willingly taking the sins of the world upon himself and making the world a better place.
(It might be worth pointing out that there is a totally inaccurate perception that Freemasons use and ride goats in their Lodge ceremonies – a figment of popular imagination that possibly arises from Christian misinterpretations.)
Scapegoating is a widespread phenomenon. Individuals and groups – usually unable to defend themselves – are blamed for causing everything that goes wrong. Even when nothing discernible has gone wrong, finding a scapegoat reinforces solidarity and self-identity. In psychoanalytical theory it is a way to divert unwanted thoughts and feelings.
The Yom Kippur ritual of the goat has not been practised for many centuries. We read about it in the K’ri’at HaTorah and in the Avodah section of Musaf. But it is more than a historical memory. It warns against blaming others for our own failings – a tendency that began with Adam blaming Eve and Eve blaming the serpent (Gen. 3:12-13).
It is the theme of the Talmudic soliloquy of Elazar ben Durdaya (AZ 17a), who after trying to blame his problems on the mountains, the heavens and earth, the sun and moon and the stars and planets, finally admitted, “Everything depends on me myself”.
There is also a lesson in the kohen gadol’s options of “For the Lord” and “For Azazel“. The same two paths open before us when the Day of Judgment confronts us with the questions, “Will I come into the sanctuary?” or “Will I stray into the desert and end up in degradation and desolation?” (see SR Hirsch’s commentary on Lev. 16:10).