This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Ibn Ezra Code*

Yom Kippur, as it was celebrated in the Jerusalem Temple, was full of pomp, ceremony, and a most elaborate sequence of sacrificial offerings. For me, the ritual that best expresses the quintessential theme of the day is that of the scapegoat: the High Priest confessed the sins of the people while laying his hands on the head of a goat, which was then sent out to Azazel in the wilderness.

The word Azazel is what philologists call a hapax legomenon. It is unique, found only in this passage; and therefore, its meaning cannot be easily deduced by comparing it with its usage in other places. The word sounds vaguely like a proper name, similar to names of supernatural beings that appear in Jewish mystical texts.

A most intriguing attempt to explain the text is provided by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra. In his commentary to the passage, he addresses his readers as follows:

And if you were capable of grasping the mystery that emanates from the word Azazel, then you would know its secret and the secret of its name, for it has equivalents elsewhere in the Bible. I shall reveal to you a portion of the mystery, only by way of an indirect hint. When you reach thirty-three you will know it.

At this point, it would appear that I should be checking your IDs to make sure that nobody under the age of 33 is let in on this momentous Ibn Ezra Code--which Ibn Ezra himself has nothing more to say about, not even in encoded or cryptic language.

I have no clear idea what Ibn Ezra had in mind. However, there are people much wiser than I who do claim to understand his allusion, and are willing to divulge it. (...or is this just a diversionary tactic to distract us from the real meaning of the verse?)

The security leak in this case comes from Rabbi Moses Nahmanides, the Ramban. He justifies his indiscretion by claiming that Ibn Ezra's mysterious secret is not a secret at all, and merely refers to an interpretation that was well known from the Talmud and Midrash. According to the Ramban, the thirty-three does not designate a minimum age, but rather the number of verses that we are instructed to count until we arrive at the key to the solution. Do the math, and you will arrive at Leviticus 17:7: And they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices unto the satyrs, after whom they go astray.

Most of the Jewish commentators accepted Nahmanides' solution to the Ibn Ezra Code, but there appears to be a fundamental disagreement about how to interpret his intention.

One approach, represented most prominently by Ramban himself, and by Kabbalistic commentators like Bahya ben Asher, equates both Azazel and the satyrs with tangibly demonic forces of evil. Azazel = satyr = goat = Se'ir = Esau = Sammael = the lord of metaphysical wickedness. Hence, the Torah is advising us that, though at all other times of the year we are supposed to be occupied in a relentless war against Azazel and his evil minions, only on the Day of Atonement, has God commanded us to buy them off with a generous offering of a sin-bearing goat, because the goat is Sammael's favourite animal.

A second approach to solving the Ibn Ezra Code draws a diametrically opposite conclusion. Advocates of this interpretation note that the substance of Leviticus 17:7 is an uncompromising condemnation of the practice of sacrificing to satyrs. What sense does it make, then, to claim that the Torah is allowing a concession to satyr-worship on the most solemn day of the year? The lesson must be the reverse: it is an admonition that the Yom Kippur scapegoat should not directed to a demonic being.

The latter interpretation finds support in the ways that several of the foremost commentators prefer to read Azazel as an adjective or as a name reflecting its function. Thus, Rashi (following the midrash Sifra) derives it from the root 'izzuz, meaning strong; and he explains that it is the name of the mountain cliff from which the goat was sent to its death, in keeping with the Talmud's interpretation of the ritual. Rabbi David Kimhi takes a similar approach, though his etymology is different from Rashi's. In his view, Azazel is a combination of the words 'ez and azal, and the mountain is so called because the goat--ez in Hebrew-- goes there, and the Aramaic for go is azal.

Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) claims that Azazel is nothing more than a pleasant goat-land to which the scapegoat was set free to graze peacefully and live happily ever after in the prairies. This novel interpretation should provide much consolation to those of us who are disturbed by the prospect of an innocent animal being sent to a macabre death.

Rabbi Nissim ben Abraham of Marseilles applied Kimhi's etymology of Azazel as ez azal -- the goat went--to Ibn Ezra's interpretation, in the sense that the people are now demonstratively renouncing their former perverse practice of sacrificing to satyr-goats. While Rabbi Nissim accepts the typological equation of goats with satyrs and demons, he insists that this does not reflect any objective reality, but is merely the perspective of those ignorant satanist priests who erroneously believed in the existences of demons, and directed their cults to the worship of such beings. The imaginary demons usually appear to their priests in the guise of satyrs, whether in dreams or while awake, in shadows in the dead of night and darkness. This is because those people give credence to the existence of demons.

Rabbi Nissim's explanation was inspired by Maimonides' discussion of the topic, as found in the Guide of the Perplexed. Maimonides stressed that the main reason for sending the goat to perish in the wilderness was to make it unmistakably clear that the animal was not being offered up as a sacrifice; therefore, it was not slaughtered or burned on the altar, but instead was sent away far from Jerusalem. Similarly, the imagery of transferring the sins of the people onto the head of the goat is nothing more than a metaphor. No one has any doubt that sins are not objects that can be transferred from the back of one entity onto that of another. Rather, all these actions are symbols designed to elicit an image in the soul, in order to motivate us to repent: we have freed ourselves from all our former deeds, cast them behind our backs, and removed them to an extreme distance. Rabbi Nissim explains the imagery more precisely: And just as the Lord will never again remind the sinner of his sins, so too the sinner will no longer consider them, and he will not bring them to his memory again by reverting to his sinful ways.

In reviewing the history of this exegetical dispute about how to understand the Ibn Ezra Code, my initial reaction was to dismiss it all as an arcane historical curiosity, a conflict between obsolete mythic and Aristotelian outlooks, which have little, if any, relevance to modern ideas. On further reflection, however, I am becoming increasingly persuaded that we are still struggling with those same questions, though we might express our perplexities in a somewhat different conceptual terminology.

Fundamentally, it has to do with how to envisage the evils in our world. I am not referring here to the well-trodden theological questions about how an omniscient and beneficent deity can permit evil and injustice in the world-- but rather to the immediate confrontations with evil that come with reading newspaper headlines.

There is a part of me that is sincerely convinced that evil is nothing more than a conceptual shorthand for a multitude of factors from the realms of economics, politics, technology, ideology or biology, which converge periodically to produce tragic sufferings. In some respects, this is Maimonides' approach. He denies the existence of evil as a separate reality, and castigates those puny mortals who have the chutzpah to pass judgment on the ultimate goodness of the universe, based on our limited understanding of a universe that is infinitely vast.

In its main outlines, this is an interpretation of evil that was cultivated in all those high school and undergraduate history classes where we were required to explain how major events resulted inevitably from their long-range and short-range causes. The outlook also bears a resemblance to what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, a realization that came to her while observing the Eichmann trial, that the greatest of human evils are carried out by dull grey bureaucrats.

Although these kinds of explanations might be rational and defensible on a theoretical level, there are times when they just don't seem adequate for the real world. There are occasions when rational descriptions of disconnected facts are insufficient to account for the visceral feeling that we are confronting a horror of demonic proportions that transcend rational explanation. As moral beings, the only way we can fight effectively against evil is by giving it a hideous face and by relating to it as a personal affront. This, I believe, is what Ramban was doing when he invoked crude imagery to portray the powers of evil in luridly graphic colours.

While Maimonides' nuanced analysis of a subtle conceptual abstraction might produce a more accurate account of the world's inequities, it does not inspire us to rise up and do battle against them. For that purpose, it helps to give evil an identifiable personal face and name, such as the satyr-king Azazel, or Sammael.

On the other hand, an overly personal or mythic personification of evil might drive us to apply simplistic solutions, lashing out in blind frustration by dropping bombs (for conservatives) or by pouring money (for liberals) on the complex problems that beset the world.

Perhaps both the rationalist and the mythic interpretations of Azazel are essential to our functioning as moral human beings; as each approach serves to curb the excesses of the other. In dealing with any particular situation, it is our personal responsibility to decide which is the most appropriate approach to follow.

By coming up with the appropriate response for each challenge, we may discover the ultimate solution to the mystery of the Ibn Ezra Code.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: