Scapegoat: The Origins of the Crimson Thread
Upon being cured of צרעת (tzaraʿat), some kind of skin disease, the Torah mandates an unusual ritual of purification:
ויקרא יד:ד וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וְלָקַח לַמִּטַּהֵר שְׁתֵּי צִפֳּרִים חַיּוֹת טְהֹרוֹת וְעֵץ אֶרֶז וּשְׁנִי תוֹלַעַת וְאֵזֹב. יד:ה וְצִוָּה הַכֹּהֵן וְשָׁחַט אֶת הַצִּפּוֹר הָאֶחָת אֶל כְּלִי חֶרֶשׂ עַל מַיִם חַיִּים. יד:ו אֶת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה יִקַּח אֹתָהּ וְאֶת עֵץ הָאֶרֶז וְאֶת שְׁנִי הַתּוֹלַעַת וְאֶת הָאֵזֹב וְטָבַל אוֹתָם וְאֵת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה בְּדַם הַצִּפֹּר הַשְּׁחֻטָה עַל הַמַּיִם הַחַיִּים. יד:ז וְהִזָּה עַל הַמִּטַּהֵר מִן הַצָּרַעַת שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים וְטִהֲרוֹ וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַצִּפֹּר הַחַיָּה עַל פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה.
Lev 14:4 The priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, scarlet wool, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. 14:5 The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; 14:6 and he shall take the live bird, and also the cedar wood, the scarlet wool, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. 14:7 He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.
This ritual of choosing two animals, slaughtering one and sending away the other, is paralleled in the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual (Lev 16), in which one animal is sacrificed as a ḥaṭṭā’t (חטאת), a “purification” offering to YHWH, while the other is sent into the wilderness to Azazel, a kind of demonic counterpart to YHWH:
ויקרא טז:י וְהַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַעֲזָאזֵל יָעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה.
Lev 16:10 And 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 the wilderness for Azazel.
This too is a cleansing ritual, but noticeably absent are the materials used to purify the metzora, the person suffering from skin disease. However, in the Mishnah’s depiction of this ritual, one of these materials, the scarlet wool (שְׁנִי תוֹלַעַת)—crimson thread (לשון של זהורית) in Mishnaic Hebrew—appears.
The Crimson Thread in the Mishnah
Mishnah Yoma gives a detailed cultic and literary description of the high priest’s tasks on the Day of Atonement that closely follows the biblical source in Leviticus 16. At the same time, it records some significant differences. The most obvious example is that whereas in the Bible the animal is simply sent into the wilderness, in the Mishnah it is pushed down a cliff and killed. Another difference is the use of a crimson thread (= biblical scarlet wool).
According to the Mishnah’s account, the thread was tied to the scapegoat twice. First, it was tied immediately following the casting of the lot for the two goats (m. Yoma 4:2; Danby):
קשר לשון של זהורית בראש שעיר המשתלח והעמידו כנגד בית שלוחו ולנשחט כנגד בית שחיטתו
He bound a thread of crimson wool on the head of the scapegoat and he turned it towards the way by which it was to be sent out.
It was tied on the animal again after it had been sent into the wilderness, immediately before it was pushed off a cliff (m. Yoma 6:6):
חולק לשון של זהורית חציו קשר בסלע וחציו קשר בין שתי קרניו
He divided the thread of crimson wool and tied one half to the rock, and the other half between its horns.
The Mishnah’s conception here fits with its interpretation of the metzora ritual in Leviticus 14. The biblical text references dipping the live bird in the blood of the dead bird, together with cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, and the Mishnah takes this one step further (m. Neg. 14:1):
כיצד מטהרין את המצורע? ...נטל עץ ארז ואזוב ושני תולעת וכרכן בשירי הלשון והקיף להם ראשי אגפים וראש הזנב של שניה.
How do they cleanse the leper? … He took cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet wool and bound them together with the ends of the stripe [of wool] and attaches the tips of the wings and the tip of the tail of the second bird (i.e., the live bird) to them.
The practice of connecting the scarlet wool to the unsacrificed bird that is to be sent away parallels the custom of attaching a thread to the scapegoat for Azazel (m. Yoma 6:7).
Early Christian Sources Buttress the Mishnah’s Account
Two independent early Christian texts, which evidently drew on a common source that predates the Mishnah, testify to the practice of the crimson thread with the scapegoat. The Greek Epistle of Barnabas, probably composed in Alexandria sometime between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.) and the Bar Kochba rebellion (131 C.E.), writes (7:6–8):
Note what was commanded: “Take two goats, goodly and alike, and offer them, and let the priest take the one as a burnt offering for sins.” But what are they to do with the other? … “And do ye all spit on it, and goad it, and bind the scarlet wool about its head, and so let it be cast into the desert” (Loeb, Kirsopp Lake).
Similarly, the Carthaginian church father, Tertullian (ca. 160–ca. 225), in his Latin Against the Jews, writes (14:9):
So, again, I will make an interpretation of the two goats which were habitually offered on the fast-day …the one of them, begirt with scarlet, amid cursing and universal spitting, and tearing, and piercing, was cast away by the people outside the city into perdition... (Thelwall trans.).
These sources demonstrate that this part of the scapegoat ritual does not reflect rabbinic imagination about the past, but was part of the practice in the Second Temple. While it is absent in the Torah, it might be included among the old local traditions that were preserved by Hellenistic Judaism—what Josephus calls the “tradition of the fathers” (παράδοσις τῶν πατέρων) (Ant. 13.297) and the Sages call a tradition or oral law that possess little or no basis in Scripture (m. Ḥag. 1:8; cf. t. Ḥag. 1:9; Sifre Deut 335).
Differentiating Between Animals: Rabbinic Explanation
What is the purpose of the crimson thread? The Talmud suggests that it was intended to distinguish the sent-away animal from the slaughtered animal (b. Yoma 41b). Yet, according to both the biblical and the Mishnaic text, the goats are separated by the lots cast by the high priest, which are placed on the animal:
ויקרא טז:ח וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גּוֹרָלוֹת גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַי־הוָה וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל.
Lev 16:8 Aaron shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for YHWH and the other marked for Azazel.
The Mishnah (Yoma 4:1) states this as well, נתנן על שני השעירים, “he places them (=the lots) on the two goats.” Thus, the thread would be unnecessary for this purpose. Moreover, according to the Mishnah (Yoma 4:2), after the high priest places the lots on the animals, he also moves each to different locations, so there would be little need to add yet a third mark to distinguish between the goats.
Ancient Anatolian Crimson Thread
In my “The Scapegoat Ritual and Its Ancient Near Eastern Parallels” (TheTorah 2020), I noted how the sending away of animals in the metzora and Yom Kippur rituals have parallels in ancient Near Eastern practice, appearing in texts from Ebla (in northern Syria), Hatti (=Hittites), Ugarit, and Assyria, from the 3rd millennium to the 1st millennium B.C.E. These rituals reflect an apotropaic practice of sending away a live animal to an uninhabited region in order to ward off any malevolence threatening people or a place, such as evil, impurity, or plague.
Notably, rituals from Hatti also make use of wool tied around the sent-away animal. In these texts, which parallel the Second Temple scapegoat ritual in many particulars, the thread appears to represent the transmission of the defilement/disease from the patient to the animal who in turn delivers it away to other entities or into uninhabited region.
Sending a Tied Mouse to Zarniza or Tarpattašši
One particularly significant equivalent is found in the Hittite ritual of Luwian origin, transmitted to a scribe by an old woman named Ambazzi. The text describes how the exorcist ties a thread around the right hand and foot of the “patrons” (i.e., the patients), and then around a mouse that is sent into an uninhabited region (CTH 391.1):
She (=the exorcist) wraps a small piece of tin in a thread and binds it around the right hand and foot of the (ritual) patron[s]. Then (she) takes it from them, binding it around a mouse, (saying): “I have taken the [e]vil from you. I have bound it around the mouse. May [th]is [mo]use carry it to the high mountains, to the deepest valle[ys], to the long roads.” Then they release the mouse, (saying): “Zarni[za], Tarpattašši—You, take this for yourself, and we shall [gi]ve you (something) [el]se to [e]at”.
The thread thus facilitates the transference of the evil to the mouse, and its eventual removal. This mouse is sent into an uninhabited place, where some divine/demonic entities are requested to take it for themselves, thus releasing not only the patient, but all the inhabited world, from this evil.
Sending a Tied Ram or Bull to the Enemy Camp
Another Hittite rite of Luwian origin, designed to remove plague from the camp, involves the tying of a wreath of colored woolen threads around the head of a sent-away ram or bull. Here, the animal is sent to the “enemy camp,” and the god responsible for the plague is identified as “the god of the enemy’s land.”
Preserved in three different versions, the version transmitted by a person named Ašḫella describes how the exorcist entwines the threads of wool, while others—apparently from among the camp commanders, each of whom possesses his individual sent-away ram, upon which the exorcist places his hands—are responsible for twisting the threads together (CTH 394):
When the day turns to night, all the army commanders, whoever they may be, each prepares a ram—whether black or white, it does not matter. Then I twine a white thread, a red thread, (and) a green thread and (each of the commanders) twists it together to make it one.
The rite concludes with the release of the animal (after its neck and horns are decorated with jewelry), together with a decorated woman, a thick loaf of bread, and a beer, each representing a different apotropaic ritual (to better guarantee the halting of the plague).
Then they lead out the rams, the woman, the thick loaf of bread, and the beer through the center of the camp, and bring them out into the open field. They go and leave them on the border of the enemy’s land, in a place where we never arrive. They then say as follows:
“Now, any evil of this camp that has been found in person, cattle, sheep, horses, wild asses, or donkeys—right now, here, these rams and the woman have removed it from the camp. Whoever finds them, may that population take this evil plague for itself.”
Although the text speaks of the border of the enemy’s land, it is identified according to the standard terminology of the sent-away ritual as “a place we never arrive,” akin to the “high mountains, deepest valleys and the long roads” of Ambazzi’s ritual, where the scape-mouse is sent, and the “uninhabited land” in Leviticus, where the scapegoat is sent.
Another version—transmitted by Puliša (CTH 407)—states that the king is to place the woolen threads in his mouth before tying the ox or sheep’s head with them:
Afterwards, [they bring] one bull and one e[we… of the] enemy’s [la]nd. In the (animal’s) ears, an earring […] Red wool, yellow wool, bl[ack wool, and white wool …] from the king's mouth he [dr]aws it forth [and pronounces as follows:] “What the [kin]g has made r[ed, yellow,] [b]lack [and white …] th[at] … back to the en[emy’s] land […].
In this ritual, the animal joins a woman and a prisoner of war that serves as a substitute for the king (again, to better guarantee the halting of the plague). Their sending-away from the camp is nonetheless portrayed through the standard vocabulary:
[“May] this prisoner li[ft] the plague and take (it) bac[k] [to the land of the enemy”]… May this bull take back [this plague] to the land of the enemy.”
In these Hittite rites, the contact between the patient and thread(s) prior to the tying of the latter to the sent-away animal appears to represent—or even effect—the transfer of the malevolence from the person to the animal. Additional Luwian-Hittite rituals that involve bringing the patient into contact with a thread that is then tied to another object, or taken by the person to a far-off, uninhabited place in order to affect his/her purification, strengthen this assumption.
For example, in a purification rite transmitted by Tunnawiya (CTH 409.I), the old woman casts blue and red threads onto the impure person, subsequently removing them and placing them in a basket while uttering the words:
(Those) which make him/her dark (and) yellow (and who) made him/her impure; whether someone has made him impure before the gods, or whether someone has made him impure before the dead, or whether someone has made him impure before mankind … I am taking it away from him. The twelve parts of his evil impurity, witchcraft, sin (and) the anger of the god I am taking. The terror of the dead I am taking... the evil gossip of all mankind I am taking.
Another example is a ritual transmitted by Allī (CTH 402), that designed to purify a person from witchcraft. In this ritual, the old woman places woolen threads—each time of a different color—on the knees and head of the person, makes her utterance, and then ties the threads around figurines. When placing the red thread, for instance, she recites the words:
[Whoever] has made him blood red, whoever has bewitched him, I am taking from him blood redness and bewitching and I am giving (them) back to its [owner]…
When placing the black thread, she says:
Whoever has made [him blac]k, whoever has be[witc]hed him, now I am [taking the [sorcery] from him and am giving it back to its owner.
She then buries the figurines in the ground, bound with the threads taken from the sufferer’s body, in order to ensure that the witchcraft will not return.
This evidence thus strengthens the assumption that the thread tied to the sent-away animal in the Hittite rituals symbolizes the patient’s malevolence, sins, or illness, carried off to an uninhabited place.
Whitening the Red Sin
The idea that the crimson thread represents the malevolence is, in fact, implied also in Mishnah Shabbat 9:3, which links the color of the thread with sin:
מנין שקושרין לשון של זהורית בראש שעיר המשתלח שנאמר אם יהיו חטאיכם כשנים כשלג ילבינו:
How do we know that they tie a crimson thread on the head of the scapegoat [which is sent forth]? Since it says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow” (Isa 1:18).
Hittite rituals made use of this same imagery. For example, the rite transmitted by Ambazzi (another section of which we discussed above) states:
[He] also [ties] a piece of cloth [to them], (saying): “Just as the la[underers make th]is (cloth) [smooth] and [remove/cleanse the sta]in from it [and i]t became white, likewise [may the gods] rem[ove/cleanse the evil sickness of this m]a[n from his body].”
Another ritual, transmitted by Ḫuwarlu (CTH 398), says:
She takes soap … flattens it, kneads it and it is made into a ball. She presses it against the king and queen, over all of their bodies. She presses it onto the four corners, onto the thresholds of the gates, above and below, (and) onto the wooden bolts, and says the following: “Just as this soap cleanses the dirty cloths and they are made white, may it clean the bodies of the king, queen, princes, and palace.”
In close analogy to the ancient Near Eastern association of colors with malevolence, and especially their turning white with purification, the Mishnah brings the Isaiah prooftext to explain how the crimson thread signifies sin, while the implication is that its turning white signifies atonement. Clearly, this homily about the function of the crimson thread can’t work if the entire thread was tied to the goat, which was then pushed down a cliff. Instead, the homily must assume that part of the thread remains with people who can report on a change of color. Thus, according to the homily, the crimson thread serves not only an apotropaic function, transferring the sin from entity to entity, but also serves as an omen, communicating to people that the ritual worked.
Ancient Traditions in the Mishnah
In light of the above, the tying of the crimson thread to the scapegoat may represent—at least in its origin—the transferring of the tabernacle’s defilement, caused by the Israelites’ sins, to the scapegoat, which is sent away into the wilderness and Azazel. First described in the Mishnah and its related Christian texts, this ritual belongs to a group of rituals performed during the Second Temple period that do not derive from the biblical text nor constitute a historical development from it. Although faint traces of some of these occasionally appear in the historiographical literature, the first reference to them generally emerges in sources relating to the Second Temple period. Rather than representing midrashic innovation, these practices likely represent the preservation of alternative practices by the conservative elements of the Judean priesthood.
Laying of Hands to Transfer Sin
While the crimson thread may represent, or even carry, the malevolence “loaded” onto the scapegoat for Azazel, the act of tying it to the animal—as understood from the Luwian-Hittite rites—in fact parallels the high priest’s laying hands upon the scapegoat in order to transfer the Israelites’ sins to it as described in Lev 16:21–22:
ויקרא טז:כא וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁתֵּי (ידו) [יָדָיו]  עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת כָּל פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל חַטֹּאתָם וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה. טז:כב וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנֹתָם אֶל אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה וְשִׁלַּח אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Lev 16:21 Aaron shall lay both (his hand) [his hands] upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. 16:22 Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
In other examples of the biblical ritual of laying of hands, the person offering the sacrifice or performing the ritual laid one hand upon it in order to demonstrate ownership of the animal in which the rite is conducted, since the ritual is performed by a priest rather than the individual himself. For example, in describing how a burnt offering should be brought, the Torah states:
ויקרא א:ד וְסָמַךְ יָדוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ הָעֹלָה וְנִרְצָה לוֹ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו.
Lev 1:4 He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him.
The laying of both hands upon the animal is thus unique in ancient Israelite cultus, just like the tying of a crimson thread around it, and probably represents an ancient custom too. However, while in Leviticus 16:21 the sins are transferred to the animal through the laying on of the high priest’s hands and his confession, according to the Mishnaic description this function was also performed by the crimson thread.
This may explain why the tying of the thread does not form part of the ceremony of the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, which already contains this function. In contrast, the Mishnaic account, which faithfully follows the biblical source in Leviticus 16, interpolates another early, otherwise unpreserved tradition, thereby representing two different practices possessing the same function.
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Dr. Noga Ayali-Darshan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar Ilan University. She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University and is the the author of Treading on the Back of the Sea [Hebrew], recently published in a revised English edition: The Storm-God and the Sea: The Origin, Versions, and Diffusion of a Myth throughout the Ancient Near East (Mohr-Siebeck, 2020).
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