For the week ending 31 January 2004 / 8 Shevat 5764

# The Probability Principle

"You shall take these two goats." (Vayikra 16:7)

This passage introduces the two goats which played a central role in the Beit Hamikdash service on Yom Kippur. One of them served as a sin offering and the other as a scapegoat which would symbolically carry the sins of the nation out into the wilderness where it would be pushed off a cliff to its death.

An interesting problem is raised by Rabbi Acha bar Yaakov in regard to this scapegoat. The Torah instructed the Kohen Gadol to determine which of these two identical goats will be sacrificed in the Beit Hamikdash and which will serve as scapegoat by drawing lots (ibid. 16:8). Since either one of them could end up serving as the sacrifice both of them must be without a physical blemish in order to qualify. A blemish consisting of serious damage to an internal organ which renders the animal a treifa can only be discovered after the animal is slaughtered. This examination was indeed possible in regard to the animal sacrificed in the Beit Hamikdash. In regard to the scapegoat, however, a postmortem examination was impossible because that animal broke into pieces before reaching half the slope upon which it was pushed.

Since the drawing of the lots which determines which one will be the scapegoat is valid only if that animal was equally capable of serving as an unblemished sacrifice we are faced with a problem: How do we know that this goat which ended up as a scapegoat did not have an internal blemish?

The answer given by Rabbi Acha is that the Torah here taught us that we follow the rule of probability in matters of halacha. Since most animals do not have internal defects we can assume that the scapegoat had none and have no need to be concerned that it was an exception to the general rule. This principle of probability is widely applied in the Talmud and many other sources for it are suggested in our gemara.

Chullin 11a

When King David recounted the sin of Jews worshipping the idol Baal Peor during their sojourn in the wilderness on the way to Eretz Yisrael, he went beyond the description of the Torah that "they attached themselves to Baal Peor" (Bamidbar 25:3). He added that not only did they attach themselves with idolatrous worship at the incitement of the promiscuous daughters of Moav but also "ate from the sacrifices offered to the dead". (Tehillim 106:28)

The term "dead" refers, of course, to the idols which have no life or power outside of the misguided minds of their worshippers. But the comparison of sacrifices to idols to the dead has halachic implications as well.

Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira saw in this comparison a source for ruling that something sacrificed to an idol contaminates a Jew with its spiritual impurity even if there is no physical contact. Just as one contracts spiritual impurity by being under one roof with a corpse so too does he acquire this status if he is under the same roof with something sacrificed to an idol.

Tosefot points out that even the Sages who disagree with this position nevertheless apply this comparison as a source for the ruling that it is forbidden to have any benefit from a sacrifice to an idol just as it is forbidden to derive any benefit from a corpse. They limit this comparison, however, to benefit, since the passage mentions only eating from these idolatrous sacrifices, which is a form of benefit, but makes no mention of spiritual contamination.

The usage of this term "sacrifice offered to the dead" is probably familiar to Jews who study Pirkei Avot on summer Shabbat afternoons. It is there, in Perek 3, Mishna 4, that Rabbi Shimon teaches us that if three Jews dine together at one table and fail to say any words of Torah they are considered as having eaten from "sacrifices offered to the dead", while if they do say words of Torah they are considered as having dined at the table of G-d.

Chullin 13b