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Zev Farber





At 33, You Will Discover Azazel’s Secret





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Zev Farber





At 33, You Will Discover Azazel’s Secret








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At 33, You Will Discover Azazel’s Secret

On Yom Kippur, one goat is sacrificed to YHWH and another is sent to Azazel in the wilderness. Who is Azazel? The 12th-century commentator Abraham ibn Ezra hints that the answer lies in reaching 33.


At 33, You Will Discover Azazel’s Secret

A Goat, 123rf

The Yom Kippur service for cleansing the Tabernacle includes a ritual using two billy goats, one offered to YHWH and the other sent to Azazel:

ויקרא טז:ח וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גּוֹרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַי־הוָה וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל. טז:ט וְהִקְרִיב אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַי־הוָה וְעָשָׂהוּ חַטָּאת. טז:י וְהַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַעֲזָאזֵל יָעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה.
Lev 16:8 Aaron shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for YHWH and the other marked for Azazel. 16:9 Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for YHWH, which he is to offer as a sin offering; 16:10 while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before YHWH, to make expiation with it and to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness.

Who or what is Azazel and why is he/it being sent a goat?[1]

The Name of a Mountain: Saʿadia Gaon

R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1167) begins his gloss on the passage with R. Saʿadiah Gaon’s (892–942) explanation that Azazel is the name of a mountain.[2] According to Saʿadiah, the name derives from עוֹז “power,” with a doubling of the final root letter ע.ז.ז, and ending with the divine epithet El in the sense of “mighty to a superlative degree”:

אמר הגאון: כי עזאזל – שם הר. ונקרא כן כי הוא תקיף, כי טעם זכר השם, כטעם: כהררי אל (תהלים ל"ו:ז'), יקותיאל (מלכים ב יד:ז).
The Gaon said that Azazel is the name of a mountain, and that it is called by this name because it is mighty. And the meaning behind the mention of [God’s] name (=El) is like [its mention in] Hararei-El “the mountains of El” (Ps 36:7) and Yekut-El (2 Kgs 14:7).[3]

Ibn Ezra then quotes R. Mevaser HaLevi ben Nissi of Baghdad, a contemporary of Saʿadia’s,[4] who challenged this interpretation by noting that the spelling עזאזל does not support Saʿadia’s reading of the word:

והגאון רב מבשר הלוי תפשו, כי האלף במלת עזאזל בין שני הזיי"נין.
And the Gaon Rav Mevaser HaLevi challenged him, since the aleph in the word Azazel is between the two zayins.

In other words, Azazel does not actually contain the theophoric element אל at the end of the name. Two Dead Sea Scrolls (11QTS and 4Q180) as well as in the Samaritan Pentateuch,[5] spell the name עזזאל, with the theophoric element at the end. The MT’s spelling is likely a result of scribes consciously rearranging the letters so Azazel would not look like the name of an angel or divinity. Thus, Saʿadiah, even though he knew only the MT and not the alternate versions of the biblical text, intuited correctly the word’s meaning.

The Scapegoat is Not an Offering

After a long discussion of the ritual’s meaning, ibn Ezra turns to a comment by R. Samuel ben Hofni Gaon (d. 1034) that the scapegoat was a type of offering:

ויאמר רב שמואל: אע"פ שכתוב בשעיר החטאת שהוא לשם, גם השעיר המשתלח הוא לשם.
Rav Samuel said: “Even though the goat offered as a chatat is said to be “for God,” the scapegoat is also for God.”

Ibn Ezra argues, however, that since the Azazel goat is not slaughtered, it cannot be an offering:

ואין צריך, כי המשתלח איננו קרבן, כי לא ישחט.
But this is unnecessary, since the scapegoat is not an offering, for it is not slaughtered.

As the scapegoat is not an offering, ibn Ezra can interpret Azazel as the name of a being (as opposed to a mountain) without turning the ritual activity described in this chapter into an act of worship to a power other than YHWH.

Ibn Ezra’s Secret of Azazel

Ibn Ezra continues with a cryptic hint as to Azazel’s identity:

ואם יכולת להבין הסוד שהוא אחר מלת עזאזל, תדע סודו וסוד שמו, כי יש לו חברים במקרא. ואני אגלה לך קצת הסוד ברמז בהיותך בן שלשים ושלש (שנים)[6] תדענו.
If you are able to understand the secret that comes after the word Azazel, you will understand its secret and the secret of its name, for there are others like it in the Bible. And I will let you in on some of the secret with a hint: When you are 33, you will know it.

Ibn Ezra’s comment has goaded generations of commentators to explain his meaning.

When You Have 33 Teeth: Elazar ben Mattatiah

R. Elazar ben Matatiah (13th century), in his supercommentary (i.e., a commentary on a commentary) on ibn Ezra, was aware of a text that read שינים “teeth” instead of שנים “years,” leading to this peculiar reading of the secret:

ויש ספרים כתוב בהם "בהיותך בן ל"ג שינים תדענו" וקבלתי כונתו: העדר הידיעה מבני אדם, כאשר נעדר מן האדם להיותו בן ל"ג שינים, כי לא ימצא לאדם רק ל"ב שינים, י"ו בכל מערכה: ארבעת מלתעות בכל קצה הם י"ו, וח' אמצעיות מלמטה וכן מלמעלה, הרי ל"ב.
There are manuscripts that have “when you are a person with 33 teeth you will know it” and I have received (=was taught? figured out?) his meaning: Nobody will ascertain [the secret], just as nobody can have 33 teeth. For people only have 32 teeth, 16 in each row: 4 back teeth in each part [of the upper and lower jaw], which equals 16, and 8 front teeth, top and bottom, that makes 32.

While the reading that R. Elazar ben Matatiah interprets is almost certainly erroneous, his point is that ibn Ezra is not hinting at the meaning of the name but is teasing the reader by saying that they will never figure it out.

33 Verses Later: Worship of Goat Demons

Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, ca. 1190–ca.1270) was one of the earliest, and certainly the best-known commentator to offer an interpretation of ibn Ezra’s secret. Nahmanides begins with a playful tone, comparing ibn Ezra to the good guy in Proverbs 11:13, and himself to the bad guy:

והנה ר"א נאמן רוח מכסה דבר, ואני הרכיל מגלה סודו.
Here Rabbi Abraham is “a trustworthy soul who keeps a confidence” but I, “a tale-bearer who will give away his secret.”[7]

Nahmanides then launches into a long explanation of how the rabbis understand Azazel as a demonic figure, after which he returns to ibn Ezra’s comment:

והנה רמז לך ר"א שתדע סודו כשתגיע לפסוק: ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים (ויקרא יז:ז). והמלה מורכבת, וחביריה רבים.
R. Abraham is hinting that you will understand the secret [of Azazel] when you get to the verse (Lev 17:7) “and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” And the word is a compound, and there are many like it.

According to Nahmanides, 33 years means 33 verses, the distance between the first mention of Azazel in Leviticus 16:8 and the mention of the goat-demons in Leviticus 17:7. This is also how R. Joseph Bonfils (14th cent.), in his Tzafenat Paʿaneakh commentary,[8] explains the secret:

ופירוש דבריו כי אם תספור ממלת עזאזל ל"ג פסוקים יגיע סוף מספרם עד "ולא יזבחו עוד את זבחיהם לשעירים" (ויקרא יז:ז), ואם תבין הפסוק ההוא אז תבין כי השעירים הם עזאזל, כי העז הוא השעיר, גם אז תבין למה לא נשחט השעיר המשתלח, כי היה זה כדי שלא יהיו נראים כזובחים לשעירים...
The meaning of his words is that if one counts 33 verses from the [first appearance of the] word Azazel, one arrives at the end of the counting at (Lev 17:7) “and that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” And if you understand this verse, then you will understand that these goat-demons (seʿirim) are Azazel, for an ʿez (nanny goat) and a seʿir (billy goat) are the same. You will also understand why the scapegoat isn’t slaughtered, so that it would not look as if they were worshipping the goat demons.

This understanding is the dominant interpretation among ibn Ezra supercommentaries,[9] and likely what he meant. And yet, several commentaries interpreted the secret in line with ibn Ezra’s more famous “secret of the twelve.”[10]

A Post-Mosaic Addition in Aramaic

R. Samuel ben Solomon HaTzarfati (ca. 1160–ca. 1240), a student of R. Samuel HeChasid and his son R. Yehudah HeChasid, begins by explaining what ibn Ezra meant by הסוד שהוא אחר מלת עזאזל “the secret that comes after the word Azazel,” which is the word המדברה “to the wilderness” (Lev 16:10):

פי שמו של עזאזל שהוא כמו מדבר. וזה הפי' הפסוק לשלח אותו לעזאזל. ומה הוא עזאזל? המדבר. שכן בלשון ארמי קורין למדבר עזאזל...[11]
The meaning of the name Azazel is like the word midbar (wilderness), and this is what the verse means by sending it to ʿazazel. What is ʿazazel? The wilderness. For in Aramaic, the word for wilderness is ʿazazel[12]

But how could Moses include an Aramaic term in the Torah? HaTzarfati offers a radical answer:

ואל תתמה על מה שכתוב בתורה לשון ארמי, מפני שלא כתב הוא זה הפסוק. וזה הוא הסוד שאנו אומרים שלא אמר משה זה הפסוק אלא אחר כתבו.
Now don’t be surprised that something in the Torah was written in Aramaic, since he (=Moses) didn’t write this verse. And this is the secret, that we say that Moses didn’t write this verse but someone else wrote it.

HaTzarfati then defends this claim, by showing that other verses were also not written by Moses, as ibn Ezra implies elsewhere:

ואל תתמה על מה שאני אומר אחר כתבו, "כי יש לו חברים במקרא", כלומר הרבה יש שלא אמר משה רבינו כמו "ויעל משה" עד "לעיני כל ישראל".
Now don’t be surprised that I (ibn Ezra)[13] am saying that someone else wrote it, since “for there are others like it in the Bible,” meaning, there are many [passages] the our teacher Moses didn’t write, such as (Deut 34:1) “And Moses went up” until (Deut 34:12) “before the eyes of all Israel.”

HaTzarfati is referring here to ibn Ezra’s explicit statement, in his gloss on Deuteronomy 34:1, that the final chapter of the Torah was not written by Moses, since it describes Moses’ death:

אבן עזרא דברים לד:א ”ויעל משה“ – לפי דעתי, כי מזה הפסוק כתב יהושע, כי אחר שעלה משה לא כתב, ובדרך נבואה כתבו.
Ibn Ezra, Deut 34:1 “Moses went up” – in my opinion, from this verse and on Joshua was the author, for after Moses went up he was no longer writing, [and Joshua] wrote the passage through prophecy.

At the end of Deuteronomy, ibn Ezra is expanding upon the position recorded in the Talmud (b. Baba Batra 14b–15a) that יהושע כתב ספרו ושמנה פסוקין מן התורה “Joshua wrote his book, and eight verses in the Torah.” For the Talmud, the problem of Moses writing the entire Torah starts only with the verse saying the Moses died. Ibn Ezra, however, suggests that if Moses went up the mountain alone, he could not have written the previous four verses either, since he could not have passed on the scroll to anyone.

HaTzarfati continues by addressing the other non-Mosaic passages mentioned by ibn Ezra in his gloss on the opening of Deuteronomy, and is very explicit that Moses could not have written these.[14] While this may seem surprising for a traditionalist identify with the Chasidei Ashkenaz, Israel Ta-Shma (1936–2004) notes that members of this group were strongly influenced by ibn Ezra’s commentaries, and had little compunction speaking openly of the possibility of slight redactions and updates in the Torah, as we can see from the Torah commentary of R. Moshe Zaltman, the son of R. Yehudah HeChasid, who quotes similar ideas, ostensibly in his father’s name.[15]

An Aramaic Compound Word: R. Moshe ibn Tibbon

R. Moshe ibn Tibbon (d. 1283), the son of the famous translator of Maimonides’s Guide of the Perplexed, Samuel ibn Tibbon, dealt with this passage similarly in his (lost) supercommentary on ibn Ezra, the earliest known ibn Ezra supercommentary. The passage is quoted by R. Judah Leon Moskoni (d. 1375) in his Even HaEzer supercommentary. Like HaTzarfati, ibn Tibbon believes that ibn Ezra is translating ʿazazel as an Aramaic term for “wilderness,” but he explains why it should be understood as an Aramaic term:

ואמנם "סוד שמו" הענין בו הוא, שבזמן הבית היה שם מקום מוכן שאליו היה משתלח השעיר הנזכר, והמקום ההוא נקרא עזאזל, שבאורו על דרך באור המלות המורכבות מענין חזק ומהלך, כי המלה היא מורכבת מ"עז" ו"אזל".
As regards “the secret of his name” the matter is thus: during the Temple period, there was a set place to which the above-mentioned scapegoat was sent, and that place was called Azazel, which name can be understood as a compound name, meaning “strong” and “going,” for the word is built from the term עז [strong] and אזל [going].
ונקרא השעיר עז למה שהוא היותר חזק שבמיני הצאן, ובאור אזל—הולך, כי התרגום אזל: הולך.
The goat is called “strong” because it is the stronger of the species of צאן “flocks” (=a Hebrew term for sheep and goats). And the meaning of אזל is הולך “walking,” for the Aramaic translator (=Onkelos) renders the latter term with the former.

He then continues by noting that Moses would not have used such a term:

וזה השם לא כתבו משה ואמנם בימי הבית נכתב כי אז היה ידוע ולא היה ידוע בימי משה. ובאמרו "כי יש לו חברים במקרא" אמר שדעתו הוא, שכמו "עזאזל" יש מלות רבות, גם פסוקים רבים בתורה שלא נכתבו בה בימי משה על ידי אחר, גם לא כתבם הוא עצמו — והנה הם יורו עליו כי כמוהם כמוהו לפי דעתו.
Now this name was not written by Moses, but in truth, it was written during the Temple period, for only then was it known; it was not known in the time of Moses. And when he (=ibn Ezra) says “there are others like it in the Bible,” what he is saying is that in his opinion, Azazel is like many other words, even many other verses in the Torah that were not written in the days of Moses but by someone else, and he didn’t write them himself, and these [verses] can teach you about it [the word Azazel], for they are similar, in his opinion.

While Moskoni strongly objects to this interpretation, since he believes that it is religiously problematic to claim any verse was written by someone other than Moses, he does offer a detailed explanation to clarify ibn Tibbon’s position:

ואין דעתו שדעת החכם אבן עזרא ז"ל היא שעל כל פנים הפסוקים שיאמר עליהם שלא כתבם משה הם פסוקים שלמים. אבל דעתו, שדעת החכם אבן עזרא ז"ל בזה היא, שיש מהם פסוקים שלמים ויש מהם פסוקים שכל פסוק ופסוק מהם כתבו משה מלבד מלה אחת או מלות יותר מאחת שיש בפסוק פסוק מהם, ולא כתב משה המלה ההיא או המלות ההן,
His opinion is not that the sage, ibn Ezra’s view, is that every Mosaic addition refers to an entire verse not written by Moses. Rather, [ibn Tibbon’s] his view is that according to the sage ibn Ezra, sometimes entire verses [were written by someone other than Moses] and sometimes the whole verse was written by Moses except for one word or a few words that the verse contains, which words Moses didn’t write.
ובגלל המלה ההוא או המלות ההן יכנס הפסוק הבעל המלה ההיא או הבעל המלות ההן במספר הפסוקים שלא כתבם משה להיות בו מלה או מלות שלא כתבה או שלא כתבן הוא.
And because of that word or those words, the verse with that word or those words is included in the list of verses that Moses didn’t write, since it contains a word or words he didn’t write.

Ibn Tibbon never specifies how many verses should be counted in the list of non-Mosaic verses, but other supercommentators take up the question.

The 33 Non-Mosaic Passages

R. Isaiah ben Meir of Provence (late 13th/early 14th cent.) agrees with ibn Tibbon’s reading,[16] and explains why it was not a problem for someone to add words to the Torah:

ו[אם תאמר] לזה הפירוש שאנו אומרים שמשה לא כתבו, היאך יכול שום אדם להוסיף על דבריו, הא כתוב לא תוס(י)ף עליו (דברים יג:א)? ויש לומר שמה שמזהיר השם את משה שיזהיר ישראל שלא יוסיפו שום דבר על דברי תורה בדבר שיש בו צורך כגון במצות, אבל בדבר שאין בו צורך, כגון אלו הפסוקים שהזכרתי למעלה [אין אסור להוסיף].
And if one were to say according to this explanation that we are stating, that Moses didn’t write it, how could any person add to his words? Does it not say (Deut 13:1) “Do not add to it”?! One could answer that that which God warns Moses to warn Israel not to add anything to the Torah is relevant to something that is an essential, like commandments, but to something that is not an essential, like these verses I mentioned above, there is no prohibition to add.

He then continues with a new explanation for the number 33:

וזהו סוף מאמר הגאון: ואני אגלה לך קצת הסוד ברמז בהיותך בן שלשים ושלש תדענו. פי[רוש] שיש ל"ג פסוקים בתורה שלא כתבם משה אלא אחר
And this is what the sage ends with: “I will reveal to you some of the secret in a hint, when you are 33 years old you will know it”: it means that there are 33 verses in the Torah that Moses didn’t write, rather someone else [wrote them].

R. Elijah HaCohen of Serres (late 13th cent. Thrace) understood the number in the same way, though it appears the two scholars were not in full agreement as to how to enumerate the 33.

33 Types of Sacrifices

A third approach, first suggested by R. Shemarya HaIkriti (14th cent. Byzantium), as reported by his student Moskoni (ad loc.), is that even though ibn Ezra explicitly denies the scapegoat is a sacrifice, his secret is a hint that really it is one:

ובאמרו בהיותך בן שלשים ושלש תדעהו, אמר שדעתו היא שהמבין השלשים ושלש מלאכות הנמצאות בקרבנות הנזכרים בתורה ידע גם כן סוד הקרבן. וזה הוא קצה הסוד שיעד להודיע לנו, כי באמצעות דברים אלה הודיענו ששעיר המשתלח גם קרבן.
When he (=ibn Ezra) said “you will understand when you are 33 years old” he meant to say that in his opinion, one who understands (מבין a wordplay on בן) the 33 acts that are found in the sacrificial service mentioned in the Torah, will also understand the secret of this sacrifice. And this is the edge of the secret that he was willing to present to us, for through these words he informs us that the scapegoat is also a sacrifice.

After a long exposition, Moskoni turns to his own view, which is a tweaked version of that of his teacher, for which he apologizes profusely before explaining his adjustment, even going so far as to bring up the approbation of his other teacher, R. Ovadiah HaMitzri, as a defense of his revised explanation.[17]

33 Billy-Goat Sin-Offerings

After a section in which Moskoni emphasizes that either his or R. Shemarya’s views is preferable to the theologically problematic view of ibn Tibbon and the others who explain it as a reference to non-Mosaic verses, Moskoni coyly adds that there are 33 sin-offerings of billy goats per year:

בהיותי במראכש המדינה בשנת חמש אלפים ומאה ושלשים שניה ליצירה, בינותי עוד בסוד השעיר הנזכר, והגדלתי העיון בנמקי רמזיו במספר שלשים ושלש,
When I was in the city of Marrakesh in the year of creation 5130 (1369/1370), I again looked into the secret of the above-mentioned scapegoat, and I extended my study into the reasons behind his hint with the number 33,
ואחר הרבות החקירה והגדלת העיון הנזכרים מצאתי שלשים ושלש חטאות שעירים נקרבות בשנה... ובשעיר העזאזל שכהן גדול מתודה עליו את כל עונות בני ישראל ואת כל פשעיהם לכל חטאתם יעלה מספר מלאכות קרבנות החטאות הנעשות בשעירים שלשים ושלש.
and after much research and the extended study mentioned, I found that there are 33 sin-offerings of billy goats offered per year… with the billy goat to Azazel upon which the high priest confesses all the transgressions of the Israelites, and all their insubordinations and all their sins, the number of sin-offering sacrificial acts performed with billy goats [in a year] is 33.[18]

These explanations are all counterintuitive: Why would ibn Ezra explicitly deny that the scapegoat is a sacrifice and then come up with a tortured way of saying that it is one?[19] Connecting the secret of 33 with the secret of the (last) 12 non-Mosaic verses is also not persuasive. Instead, Nahmanides’ explanation, that this number points to the goat-demons 33 verses later, is most convincing.

Ibn Ezra’s Failed Secret

Ibn Ezra didn’t want to state explicitly that the scapegoat was being sent to a demon, for fear that the reader would think that this Yom Kippur ritual was akin to an idolatrous sacrifice to a being other than YHWH. His hint was too subtle, however, and commentators misunderstood his meaning, incorrectly adding the reference to Azazel to ibn Ezra’s list of non-Mosaic additions to the Torah.


April 26, 2023


Last Updated

September 22, 2023


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).