Crimson to White: Yom Kippur’s Miraculous Thread
Leviticus (ch. 16) describes a Yom Kippur ritual, known as the scapegoat, in which a goat is chosen by lottery to bear Israel’s iniquities, and is then sent into the wilderness as a way of atoning for Israel’s sins. The Mishnah describes how a crimson thread was tied onto the horns of the Yom Kippur scapegoat:
משנה יומא ד:ב קשר לשון של זהורית בראש שעיר המשתלח והעמידו כנגד בית שלוחו ולנשחט כנגד בית שחיטתו.
m. Yoma 4:2 He tied a crimson thread on the head of the goat which was to be sent away, and he placed it at the place where it was later to be sent away, and he placed the goat that was to be slaughtered at the place where it would be slaughtered.
The Mishnah further discusses the fate of the crimson thread at the end of the ritual:
משנה יומא ו:ו מה היה עושה חולק לשון של זהורית חציו קשר בסלע וחציו קשר בין שתי קרניו ודחפו לאחוריו והוא מתגלגל ויורד ולא היה מגיע לחצי ההר עד שנעשה אברים אברים.
m. Yoma 6:6 What did he [the one who accompanied the goat] do [when he reached the cliff]? He divided the thread of crimson wool, and tied one half to the rock, the other half between its horns, and pushed it from behind, and it went rolling down and before it had reached half its way down hill it broken into limbs.
This description seems to be historically accurate as it is alluded to in the Epistle of Barnabas an early second century work which mines the Hebrew Bible for Christological readings, as well as in the writings of Tertullian, a second century Christian church father from Carthage. Barnabas notes:
Take two goats of goodly aspect, and similar to each other, and offer them. And let the priest take one as a burnt-offering for sins. And what should they do with the other? “Accursed,” says He, “is the one.” Mark how the type of Jesus now comes out. “And all of you spit upon it, and pierce it, and encircle its head with scarlet wool, and thus let it be driven into the wilderness.” And when all this has been done, he who bears the goat brings it into the desert, and takes the wool off from it, and places that upon a shrub which is called Rachia.
This thread does not appear in the biblical depiction of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16. While the practice of tying the thread to a rock is substantiated in both the Mishnah and Barnabas, and likely reflects late Second Temple reality, it is unclear what the reason or the source of this practice was, nor do these sources make any attempt at offering an explanation.
Distinguishing Between the Animals
R. Joseph, the Babylonian amora, posits that the thread was used to distinguish between the two animals:
בבלי יומא מא: תני רב יוסף: קשר לשון של זהורית בראש שעיר המשתלח והעמידו כנגד בית שילוחו, ולנשחט כנגד בית שחיטתו שלא יתערב זה בזה, ולא יתערב באחרים.
b. Yoma 41b Rav Joseph taught: He tied a crimson thread on the head of the goat which was to be sent away, and he placed it at the place where it was later to be sent away, and on the goat that was to be slaughtered at the place where it would be slaughtered. So that they do not become mixed up with each other or mixed up with others.
Rav Joseph understands the practice in light of the typical rabbinic concern that prohibited and permitted foods, animals or at times even different categories of people, may become mixed up with one another. Indeed, two biblical stories feature the use of crimson thread for purposes of identification. At the birth of Tamar’s twin sons, Zerah and Peretz, the midwife ties a crimson string on Zerah’s arm to indicate that he was first (Gen 38:28). Rahab ties a crimson string to her window, so that the Israelite army would know to spare her house (Josh 2:18).
In the case of the two Yom Kippur goats, however, the goats already have identifying markers in the form of lots placed upon their heads:
ויקרא טז:ח וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גּוֹרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַי־הוָה וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל.
Lev 16:8 and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for YHWH and the other marked for Azazel.
Moreover, the goats are placed in different parts of the Temple, so the crimson thread would not be necessary to keep them distinct. Lastly, much of the focus in the mishnah is on the thread at the end of the ritual, during which time the animal is not even in the Temple at all.
An ANE Practice
Instead, As Moshe Weinfeld already described, and Noga Ayali Darshan has written about at length, the use of crimson thread likely has ancient Near Eastern roots. Like the animal being sent away, tying the thread to a rock symbolized the disassociation of the community from the evil.
The Symbolism of the Color: The Mishnah
While there is no biblical precedent for the practice of using a crimson thread as part of the scapegoat ritual, the Mishnah provides a biblical prooftext:
משנה שבת ט:ג מנין שקושרין לשון של זהורית בראש שעיר המשתלח שנאמר אם יהיו חטאיכם כשנים כשלג ילבינו.
m. Shabbat 9:3 How do we know that a crimson thread is tied to the head of the goat that is sent away? Because it is said, “If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa 1:18).
This mishnah/midrash is not asking why a thread is tied to the goat’s horns, rather why a crimson thread and not some other colored thread. It turns to a verse in Isaiah which connects sin with the color red.
The mishnah merely cites a verse that uses the metaphor of sins turning from red to white. In a later addition to (a different) Mishnah, however, we find the claim that the thread itself miraculously turns from red to white.
How Did They Know the Ritual Was Performed?
In the context of the practical question of how those in the Temple would have known that the goat had reached the wilderness, allowing the Temple service to continue, the mishnah reads:
משנה יומא ו:ח אמרו לו לכהן גדול הגיע שעיר למדבר.
Yoma 6:8 They said to the high priest: the goat has reached the wilderness.
ומניין היו יודעין שהגיע שעיר למדבר דידכאות היו עושין ומניפין בסודרין ויודעין שהגיע שעיר למדבר.
And how did they know that the goat had reached the wilderness? They would station relays and wave flags, and they would know that the goat had reached the wilderness.
אמר ר' יהודה והלא סימן גדול היה להם מירושלים ועד בית חדורו ג' מילין הולכין מיל וחוזרין מיל ושוהין כדי מיל ויודעין שהגיע שעיר למדבר.
Rabbi Judah said: but did they not have a great sign? From Jerusalem to Bet Hiduro was three mils. They could walk a mil, return the mil, then wait the time it takes to walk a mil, and thus know that the goat had reached the wilderness.
This was the original ending of this Mishnah, as indicated by older manuscripts, which end here.
A Second Crimson Thread
At some later period, the following lines were added to this mishnah, positing a second string (see appendix):
משנה יומא ו:ח ר' ישמעאל אומר והלא סימן אחר היה להם לשון של זהורית היה קשור על פתחו של היכל וכשהגיע שעיר למדבר היה הלשון מלבין שנאמר אם יהיו חטאיכם כשנים כשלג ילבינו.
m. Yoma 6:8 Rabbi Ishmael said: but did they not have another sign! A thread of crimson thread was tied to the opening of the Sanctuary, and when the goat reached the wilderness the thread turned white, as it is written, “If your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow” (Isa 1:18).
These words were likely added to the mishnah by a medieval copyist, perhaps based on a late compilation which the copyist had but is no longer available to us.
The Parallel Text: R. Elazar Hakapar
A similar text, attributed to R. Elazar Hakapar, a sage from the end of the tannaitic period, is an addendum to a long baraita (a tannaitic statement not found in the Mishnah, but found in the Talmud):
בבלי יומה סז. אמר רבי נחום בר נפח משום רבי אלעזר הקפר: בראשונה היו קושרין לשון של זהורית על פתח אולם מבפנים, וכיון שהגיע שעיר למדבר - היה מלבין, וידעו שנעשית מצותו, שנאמר אם יהיו חטאיכם כשנים כשלג ילבינו.
b. Yoma 67a R. Nahum bar Nafah said in the name of R. Elazar Hakapar: At first they would tie the crimson thread on the opening of the Portico from the inside, and when the goat reached the wilderness, it would turn white, and they would know that the mitzvah had been performed (=that the scapegoat had been pushed off the cliff), as it says, “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow” (Isa 1:18).
In both texts, the thread is attached to the opening of the Temple, and its miraculous turning to white is the automatic result of the goat arriving in the wilderness.
A further midrashic development sees this other crimson thread turning white only if the people of Israel repent, either as individuals or collectively as a group. The tradition first appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, which claims that originally every Jew would tie the thread to the windows of their own homes:
ירושלמי יומא ו:ה בראשונה היו קושרין אותו בחלונותיהן ויש מהן שהיה מלבין ויש מהן שהיה מאדים והיו מתביישין אלו מאלו.
j. Yoma 6:5, 43d At first they would tie it in their windows, and some of theirs would turn white and some of theirs would stay red. And those [whose threads stayed red] would be embarrassed in front of the others.
חזרו וקושרו אותו בפתחו של היכל ויש שנים שהיה מלבין ושנים שהיה מאדים.
They changed and tied it to the entrance of the Sanctuary and some years it would turn white and some years it would stay red.
חזרו וקשרו אותו בסלע.
They changed and tied it to the rock.
The Mishnah thus presents a three-stage history to the location of this second red thread. At first it was used in homes, as opposed to the Temple. The thread thus completely loses its connection to the goat and becomes entirely a symbol of sin and atonement.
This mishnah’s reconstruction matches the rabbis’ general theological outlook, יום הכפורים מכפרין עם התשובה “Yom Hakippurim effects atonement with repentance” (m. Yoma 8:8). Thus, the successful fulfillment of the scapegoat ritual would not be sufficient to turn the crimson thread white; only repentance can bring atonement.
The Babylonian Talmud’s version of the baraita preserves a different three-stage history of the crimson thread:
בבלי יומה סז. תנו רבנן: בראשונה היו קושרין לשון של זהורית על פתח האולם מבחוץ, הלבין - היו שמחין, לא הלבין - היו עצבין ומתביישין.
b. Yoma 67a Our rabbis taught: At first they would tie the crimson thread outside the entrance to of the Portico [of the Temple]. If it turned white, they would be happy and if it didn’t turn white, they would be sad and ashamed.
The Bavli omits the stage where the thread is tied to the windows of individual homes, probably because it did not want to disconnect the thread completely from the Temple. Instead, it begins with a more likely location—the entrance to the Temple, combining the R. Elazar Hakapar/R. Ishmael tradition with the Yerushalmi’s understanding that the change of color was a response to forgiveness. It then moves on to protect people from potential disappointment and embarrassment:
התקינו שיהיו קושרין על פתח אולם מבפנים, ועדיין היו מציצין ורואין: הלבין - היו שמחין, לא הלבין - היו עצבין.
They decreed that they should tie it to the inside of the Portico, and people would still peek and look; if it turned white, they would be happy, and if it didn’t turn white, they would be sad.
התקינו שיהיו קושרין אותו חציו בסלע וחציו בין קרניו.
They decreed that they should tie it half to the rock and half between the horns of the scapegoat.
These traditions want us to imagine a time when a thread miraculously turned from crimson to white, signaling that the people repented and were forgiven. At the same time, the text is uncomfortable with a reality in which people would actually in real time know what God has decided; certainly this is not the case for the average Jew praying on Yom Kippur for forgiveness. Thus, the miracle is gradually moved from an accessible sign, either in people’s houses or the Temple, to far away in the wilderness, witnessed only by the person who accompanies the scapegoat.
The Two Thread Theory
All the sources quoted above mention a thread tied to the doors of the Temple. In the baraitot this serves the function of letting the people know whether their atonement was effective. In the insertion into the Mishnah and the R. Elazar Hakapar source, the function is to let the people know that the scapegoat had reached its destination. But from where did these authors derive the idea that there was a separate thread, one not tied to the horns of the goat?
As far as I know, this is not a detail found in other ancient Near Eastern parallels and therefore, seems highly unlikely to be reflective of actual practice. Rather, its origins likely lie in the typical process of rabbinic invention—exegesis.
The crimson thread is mentioned in one other place in the Mishnah, which discusses which funds are used to purchase various Temple necessities:
משנה שקלים ד:ב פרה ושעיר המשתלח ולשון של זהורית באין מתרומת הלשכה.
m. Shekalim 4:2 The [red] heifer and the scapegoat and the crimson thread came out of the appropriation of the chamber.
כבש פרה וכבש שעיר המשתלח ולשון שבין קרניו …באין משירי הלשכה.
The ramp for the [red] heifer and the ramp for the scapegoat and the thread which was between its horns…. came out of the remainder in the chamber.
The mishnah mentions two threads; these cannot be identical, because different funds are used to purchase them. The identity of the second thread is clear but what is the first crimson thread? The simple reading is that this is the crimson thread thrown into the burning of the red heifer:
במדבר יט:ו וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן עֵץ אֶרֶז וְאֵזוֹב וּשְׁנִי תוֹלָעַת וְהִשְׁלִיךְ אֶל תּוֹךְ שְׂרֵפַת הַפָּרָה.
Num 19:6 and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow.
In the Yerushalmi (Shek. 4:2, 41c), commenting on this mishnah, R. Shmuel b. Nachman refers to three “strips” the last of which is the thread that is burned with the red heifer.
However, a later rabbinic exegete might have asked why the mishnah would refer to this with the word lashon, also used to describe the crimson thread tied to the horns of the scapegoat. Furthermore, the crimson thread in the first half of the mishnah immediately follows the mention of the scapegoat, and might, in the eyes of this exegete, have been connected to the scapegoat and not to the red heifer. As a result, such an exegete might have assumed that there were two crimson threads used in connection with the scapegoat, one tied between its horns and one put elsewhere.
The authors of these sources invented a second thread and then searched for a practical function for that thread. The earliest of these sources, likely the R. Elazar Hakapar source, echoed in the R. Ishmael source, used this thread to provide another answer as to how those in the Temple knew that that goat had reached the wilderness. This would explain its location in the Temple. Later authors embellished these traditions, finding deeper religious, social and psychological meaning in the crimson thread.
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Dr. Rabbi Joshua Kulp is a Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is the co-author of The Schechter Haggadah and Reconstructing the Talmud Volume 1 and Volume 2. He received his Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University and his semicha from the Hadar Institute.
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