"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21
Question:I was wondering about a story that a “Hebrew-Christian” told me recently.  He said that there was a scarlet cloth which would turn white every year when the high priest atoned for the sins of the people.  When Jesus died, around 30 A.D., the cloth would no longer turn white when the priest atoned for sins because Jesus was the final atonement.  I’ve read this story in other sources, and I wondered what you have to say about it. 

Answer:

This assertion with which you were confronted has, in the last decade, attracted wide interest in the evangelical world.  In fact, I am somewhat surprised that it has taken this long for one of our website visitors to write in with this question.

In spite of the popularity this issue has gained in the Christian world in recent years, this contention stands out as one of the most bizarre arguments used by those who seek to convert the Jewish people to Christianity.  What makes this line of reasoning so odd is that it seeks to use the Talmud to prove that Jesus is the messiah.  While many readers of our website would simply be surprised to learn that missionaries would point to the Talmud to prove the validity of the Christian religion, in reality, this misuse of rabbinic literature is widespread.

Those who have navigated through the plethora of Hebrew-Christian websites are well aware of how widespread this abuse of Jewish literature has become in recent years.  Moreover, by probing this surprising missionary approach, we can gain enormous insight into the schizophrenic technique that Christendom so often takes in its cherished work of Jewish evangelism.

Bear in mind, missionaries rarely shy away from an opportunity to condemn the Oral Law as the nimble work of men rather than the oral transmission handed down to us by Moses, our teacher.  In fact, there are few issues that seem to produce the visceral passions of the Hebrew-Christian world as does the mere mention of the Talmud.  These evangelicals fervently insist that the written Bible alone is reliable and divinely inspired and often scornfully mock traditional Jews as practicing a “rabbinic Judaism.”  Needless to say, Christians rarely use this acrid label in a manor that is meant to be flattering.

Paradoxically, whenever missionaries feel the urge to advance their position by quoting from the Talmud, they undergo a spontaneous conversion as they happily and unhesitatingly point to the works of the Talmud with a new found regard for its truthfulness and inspiration.  Yet the very same Talmud, which evangelicals gleefully use to advance their tenuous positions, also unambiguously states that Jesus of Nazareth was neither virtuous nor the messiah.  This pick-and-choose approach that missionaries unflinchingly embrace doesn’t appear to bother those dedicated to Jewish evangelism.

Nevertheless, it is essential that we examine this well-worn argument with which you were confronted.  In Tractate Yoma 39b, the Talmud quotes aBaraisa1 that discusses numerous remarkable phenomena that occurred in the Temple during the Yom Kippur service.  More specifically, the Talmud states that there was a strip of scarlet-dyed wool tied to the head of the scapegoat2 which would turn white in the presence of the large crowd gathered at the Temple on the Day of Atonement.  The Jewish people perceived this miraculous transformation as a heavenly sign that their sins were forgiven.  The Talmudrelates, however, that 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple the scarlet colored strip of wool did not turn white.  The text of the Talmud which missionaries quote states,

The Rabbis taught that forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the [high priest’s] right hand nor did the tongue of scarlet wool become white . . . .

Citing the above statement, missionaries contend that the year the scarlet ribbon ceased to turn white coincides with the time that Jesus was crucified.  They go on to insist that 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Temple corresponds to the year 30 C.E.,3 which is approximately the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  They conclude, therefore, that the cessation of the whitening of the scarlet ribbon clearly indicates that God was no longer accepting animal sacrifices, and the Jewish people, therefore, needed to turn to Jesus as their only avenue for atonement.  Ultimately, this argument asserts that reason the scarlet strip of wool did not turn white in the year 30 C.E. was due to the fact that the sins of the Jews were not forgiven because they did not accept Jesus as their messiah.

As unimaginable as it would seem, particularly for those readers who are familiar with this well-known section of the Talmud, this argument has gained widespread attention over the last few years.  In fact, the first time I heard this polemic used I watched in disbelief as a spellbound church audience turned pale when their pastor excitedly expounded on this quote from theTalmud in his sermon.  It was a particularly disheartening spectacle to observe.  Had any one of the parishioners in the audience gone to the local library and examined this entire section of the Talmud, they would have quickly realized that this quote had been misapplied and misused.

Before we examine this statement in the Talmud, there are two issues which need to be raised here.  The first point is that it is my hope that our website readers have noticed what those who advance this argument have done: They have attached an exegesis to the text of the Talmud that reflects a self-serving theology.  In essence, missionaries are claiming that the reason why the strip of scarlet wool did not turn white must be attributed to the fact that the Jews rejected Jesus.  This is a preposterous notion.  In fact, if evangelicals wish to engage in this sophomoric approach, a far more congruous argument could be made here using their same line of reasoning.  We can, utilizing the same course of logic, conclude that the reason the scarlet strip of wool did not turn white was due to the fact that masses of wayward Jews had followed the false messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  In other words, rather than attributing the reason for the scarlet strip of wool not turning white to the rejection of Jesus, it can be more steadily asserted that the reason this transformation didn’t occur was due to the fact that many Jewish people had shamefully embraced Christianity.  In fact, such an interpretation would be far more consistent with the whole of the Talmud.

Bear in mind, I am not suggesting that this is the correct understanding of this text.  It is not.  We shall soon see that this section of the Talmud is unrelated to either of these explanations.  I have made this point, however, to illustrate the self-serving nature of this circular missionary argument.

The second point, however, presents a far more serious problem for Christian apologists.  If in fact, as the “Hebrew-Christian” insisted, the reason that the scarlet wool strip did not turn white was “because Jesus was the final atonement,” and there was thus no longer any need for animal sacrifices, why then are the same animal sacrifices coming back?  Christians have very little room to manoeuvre on this matter because the Bible is quite clear that the animal sacrificial system will be restored in the messianic age.  In fact, in the last nine chapters of the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes in vivid detail the elaborate rituals and lofty ceremonies which will occur in the third and final messianic Temple.  In chapters 43-44, Ezekiel clearly states that the animal sacrifices will be reinstated in their full glory.  This simple fact should at least give Hebrew-Christians pause before they boldly proclaim that the transformation of the scarlet strip of wool had ceased due to the fact that God had done away with animal sacrifices.  Clearly, God has not done away with them as evidenced by the fact that these elaborate Temple rituals will be restored with the advent of the messiah.

Let us now examine the Talmudic discussion from which this quote was derived.  As you will discover, this text was carefully quoted out of its original context.  Once this crucial background is restored and understood, it will become clear that this quote does nothing to advance any Christian theology.

Tractate Yoma4 is wholly given over to laws pertaining to Yom Kippur.  Although missionaries cite the above statement which appears on page 39b, the discussion leading up to this quote begins on the previous page, 39a.  Quoting from a Baraisa, the Talmud begins with a discussion of the deteriorating spiritual condition of the Jewish people during the second Temple period.  Throughout this fascinating discourse, the miraculous events that transpired during the Temple ceremonies are the barometer by which the Baraisameasures the religious decline of the nation of Israel during this difficult epoch in Jewish history.  The period of time examined in this assessment begins with the era during which Shimon HaTzaddik5 officiated as the high priest until the time that the Romans destroyed the second Temple in the year 70 C.E.  More specifically, the Talmud breaks this period down into three successive stages, with the first stage being the most meritorious, the second marking a gradual spiritual decline, and the third the most deleterious.

The Baraisa begins by recounting the miraculous events that repeatedly occurred during the forty years when Shimon HaTzaddik officiated as high priest.  The Baraisa then continues to relate how the appearance of these miracles progressively diminished in the years that followed his death.  These events are as follows:

1) The lot inscribed “LaHashem, would always appear in the right hand of the high priest6 during the Yom Kippur service. 

2) The strip of scarlet-dyed wool which was tied to the head of the scapegoat always turned white during the Yom Kippur service.

3) The western-most lamp of the Temple menorah remained lit until the priest would use its fire to kindle the next day’s lamps.

4) The pyre on the altar did not require any additional wood to sustain a strong fire.

5) There was a blessing upon the first fruits of the Omer, the two loaves offered on Shevuoth, and on the loaves of the showbread so that each priest was satisfied with a portion no larger than the size of an olive.

The faithfulness and goodwill that Shimon HaTzaddik embodied during his public tenure as high priest profoundly inspired the nation.  His most famous maxim was, “The world exists on three things: the Torah, divine worship, and acts of kindness.” (Pirkay Avot 1:2)  He is described as a person who took great thought and consideration regarding his fellow man.7 His extraordinary character affected the people deeply, and this manifested itself with a host of miraculous phenomena in the Temple, the House of Shimon’s dedication.

Following his death, however, the Jewish people were unable to sustain the spiritual heights which they had achieved during Shimon HaTzaddik’s lifetime.  As a result, they digressed into a downward spiritual spiral from which they never recovered.  This decline continued and worsened as the second Temple era continued to unfold.  The Baraisa therefore relates that after the death of Shimon HaTzaddik the occurrence of these miracles became sporadic; there were some years when these miraculous signs occurred, and there were other years when they did not.  This spiritual decay plunged to its lowest point during the last 40 years of the second Temple period.  The Baraisa records that none of the above miracles occurred during these last four decades of the second Temple.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: In what dreadful sins did the children of Israel indulge during these last ill-famed 40 years of the second Temple that proved so devastating to their spiritual subsistence?  What brought about the end of the miraculous events that were commonplace in the years that Shimon HaTzaddik served as high priest and periodically in the years that followed his death?

With virtually no knowledge of the works of the Talmud, missionaries boldly insist that the scarlet ribbon not whitening relates to the crucifixion of Jesus.  As you probably suspect by now, this contention is wholly without merit.  Moreover, this Christian assertion entails a misuse of Jewish literature in order to advance a theology that is unknown to the Talmud.  The Talmud, in fact, clearly and painfully records the sins that brought about the deplorable spiritual condition of the Jewish people during this last turbulent four decades of the second commonwealth.  When quoting this Talmudic text, however, missionaries are careful to sidestep the crucial backdrop of this quote in theTalmud.  By so doing, they deprive the uninitiated listener of indispensable knowledge and the vital tools to effectively respond to this argument.

What makes the Christian use of this Talmudic quote so preposterous is the fact that the miracles in the Temple did not suddenly end in the year 30 C.E. as missionaries would have you think.  On the contrary, the disappearance of miraculous phenomena began immediately following the death of Shimon HaTzaddik, which occurred many centuries before the destruction of the second Temple.  In essence, there was not a sudden watershed event that caused supernatural events to end.  The cessation of miraculous phenomena in the Temple was brought about by a slow spiritual decay among the Jewish people that lasted for many hundreds of years.

Although there were a number of sins that were rampant among the nation of Israel throughout this spiritual decline, there was no iniquity that was as self-destructive as the interpersonal baseless hatred that was pervasive among the Jewish people during this difficult time.  This dreadful self-inflicted wound had infected the Jewish people and ultimately brought about the destruction of the second Temple.8 The Talmud bears record to this spiritual decay, and declares that this national tragedy reached its height exactly 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Temple.  It was during this turbulent time that murders became so widespread that the Sanhedrin9 ceased to judge capital crimes such as homicide.10

Under normal conditions, the Sanhedrin rarely carried out capital punishment.  In fact, the Talmud proclaims that a Sanhedrin which put more than one person to death in 70 years was unflatteringly regarded as a “Killer Bais Din.”11 The Jewish judicial system was not set up for a lawless society where murder among the nation of Israel was widespread.  It is for this reason, and under these deplorable conditions, that the glory of the Temple was dimmed, the miracles in the sanctuary ceased, and the Sanhedrin withdrew itself from adjudicating capital punishment.

Although the termination of miraculous events in the Temple was unrelated to Christian theology, it bore testimony to a time in history when Jewish people in great numbers turned against each other.

I will add one final note in order to bring all of the above parts together.  To illustrate this final point, however, I will raise a number of basic questions.  Bear in mind, missionaries insist that God had discontinued the animal sacrificial system and replaced it with Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.  How can we know that the ending of the miraculous transformation of the scarlet ribbon was not connected to the ending of the animal sacrificial system, as missionaries contend?  How can we be certain that the cessation of the whitening of the scarlet ribbon was entirely unrelated to the blood sacrificial system?  Moreover, how can we be sure that the reason this miracle ended 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple was due to the deplorable lack of social justice and brotherly kindness among the Jewish people?

Finally, what is the meaning behind this mysterious ritual of tying a scarlet ribbon to the head of the scapegoat with the hopeful anticipation that it would miraculously turn white?  Why was the wool of the ribbon dyed scarlet?  Why didn’t they color it blue or green?  Why would it turn white?  Moreover, how could the nation know that the marvelous transformation from scarlet to white was a clear indication that their sins had been forgiven?  In essence, how do the colors scarlet and white relate to social justice and brotherly kindliness?  What is the connection?

The answer to all these questions is found in the Bible.  In the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, the prophet severely castigates the Jewish people for their sins.  However, Isaiah does not condemn his people for violating the Sabbath or not eating kosher.  This was not the spiritual crisis which the nation was facing; rather, the prophet cries out that it was their lack of social justice and brotherly kindness that robbed the people of their spiritual sustenance.  They had abandoned and turned on each other, especially the most vulnerable members of society — the fatherless and the poor.  With a visceral condemnation of his people that is virtually unparalleled in the Jewish scriptures, Isaiah berates the nation with the biting words.  He compares his people to Sodom and Gomorrah and declares that if this is the manner with which you treat your fellow man, then God doesn’t desire your Sabbaths and your New Moons are unwanted.  “When you beseech Me with your many prayers, I will not hear them for your hands are stained with blood.”12 There was a time, Isaiah laments, that the city was filled with righteousness, but now it has become a harlot, filled with murderers!13

It is painfully difficult to read this chapter.  As we listen to the pounding words of the prophet, there is a mortifying and numbing sense that all hope is lost.  Reconciliation is impossible; God will never take us back.  It is, though, precisely at this most desperate juncture that Isaiah proclaims the unimaginable: Hope is not lost and God’s tender mercy is within your grasp.  What, though, should we do to possess this undeserved mercy?  How can these seemingly unforgivable sins be forgiven?  Does the prophet then announce that we must believe in a crucified messiah to gain our atonement?  Is a blood sacrifice recommended as the answer to our desperate sinful predicament?  Missionaries would have us think so, but Isaiah disagrees.  The prophet, therefore, instructs,

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”14

With the prophet’s reassuring words before us, we can now understand why the miracle surrounding the transformation of the scarlet ribbon was uniquely connected to the atonement achieved through social justice and brotherly kindness rather than blood atonement.  If your sins that are as the scarlet-colored ribbon are to be forgiven and become white, indulge in acts of kindness and put an end to murder and baseless hatred.  These precious words fell on deaf ears during the last 40 years of the second Temple.

Throughout the first chapter of Isaiah, blood sacrifices are regarded as trivial and insignificant, and the prophet encourages the nation not to depend on them.  Thus, the moving portrait of the scarlet transforming to white stands as a living monument to the prophet’s inspiring message on bloodless atonement.  This profound teaching deals a devastating blow to the core teachings of Christianity.  Missionaries attempt to counter this point by claiming that Isaiah was simply condemning insincere sacrifices; but this assertion is incorrect.  Isaiah loudly declares that charity and acts of kindness alone atone for man’s most grievous sins, as he repeatedly and resoundingly trivializes the blood sacrificial system as an efficacious means for atonement.

While Shimon HaTzaddik officiated for 40 years as high priest, the nation was inspired by his good will and they emulated him.  As a result, the atonement outlined in Isaiah was efficacious and the scarlet ribbon always turned white.  The people knew that God had forgiven them.

In the years that followed the death of Shimon HaTzaddik, the people’s dedication to his golden rule slacked off, and consequently, there were some years when the ribbon turned white and others when it did not.

Sadly, we can now also understand why 40 years prior to the destruction of the second Temple this auspicious miracle ended.  It was during these calamitous four decades when Isaiah’s words of condemnation were personified.

Even as I write this letter, in the shadow of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, it is still difficult to imagine a time when baseless hatred could have become so widespread that murders had became commonplace among my people.  I vividly recall the traumatic days that followed the death of Rabin.  It seemed as though humanity was almost overcome by a sense of stunned bewilderment.  Men and women wondered aloud how something like this could have happened.  I remember how people were appalled, not just by the fact that the leader of the Jewish State was assassinated, but almost equally as shocking, that it was a Jew who had committed this unimaginable crime.  This sort of hate should never have occurred among Jews, people thought.  Yet it did.

As we consider a desperate time in our first century history, let us free ourselves of this spiritual affliction and turn toward each other with godly affection.  May this repentance bring about the coming of the true messiah, quickly in our time.

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Tovia Singer

Footnotes:

1A Baraisa is a statement made by a Tanna which was not included by Rabbi Yehudah Ha’nasi (approximately 200 C.E.) in the Mishnah.

2See Leviticus 16:7-10.

3The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in approximately the year 70 C.E.

4The Aramaic word Yoma means “The Day,” and it refers to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

5Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon the Just) succeeded Ezra during the early part of the second Temple period and officiated as high priest for forty years.  Shimon was called “HaTzaddik” because of his faithfulness and his kindness to his countrymen (Josephus Antiquities 12:157).

6The high priest would randomly pick two lots from a box.  One was inscribed“LaHashem, and the other was inscribed, “LaAzazel, (see Leviticus 16:8-10).  It was considered an auspicious sign if the lot inscribed “LaHashem” appeared in the right hand of the high priest.

7Ecclus.  [Sirach] 1, 4.

8Yoma 9b.

9The Sanhedrin is the name for the Jewish court system.

10Sanhedrin 41a; Avodah Zara 8b.

11Makkos 7a.  “Bais Din,” literally, a “House of Law,” refers to a Jewish court.

12Isaiah 1:15.

13Isaiah 1:21.

14Isaiah 1:16-19.

 

 

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