The high priest may only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, according to this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“after the death”).1 On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the high priest must burn incense inside the Holy of Holies and flick the blood of a bull and a goat on the ark.
The bull is a sacrifice from the priests’ own herd, slaughtered to atone for anything he or his household did wrong during the past year. The goat is one of two goats (se-irim) provided by the Israelite people. The high priest (Aaron, in this Torah portion) gives one goat to God, burning its body and sprinkling its blood, to make atonement for all the people.2 The other goat carries away all the misdeeds the Israelites committed over the past year.
After the high priest bathes and puts on sacred linen garments,
Then he shall take the two se-irim and stand them in front of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. And Aaron shall place lots on the two se-irim: one lot for God and one lot for Azazel. Then Aaron shall bring forward the sa-ir for which the lot for God came up, and he shall make it the reparation-offering. And the sa-ir for which the lot for Azazel came up, it shall stand alive in front of God, to make atonement upon it. And he shall send it to Azazel in the wilderness. (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:7-10)
sa-ir (שָׂעִיר) = hairy male goat; long hair; rain shower. Plural: se-irim (שְׂעִרִם) = goats, goat-demons.
Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) pronounced Azazeil = a proper name.
The name Azazel appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, all three in the passage above. Commentators have suggested that it is the name of a place, the name of a fallen angel, the name of a desert demon, or a symbol of chaos.
Azazel the cliff
And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living sa-ir, and he shall confess over it all the crimes of the Israelites and all their transgressions for all their wrongdoing, and he shall place them on the head of the sa-ir, and send it by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness. Then the sa-ir will carry off all the crimes on itself to a cut-off land; he shall send out the sa-ir into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)
In the time of the second temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE to 70 CE), the goat for Azazel was led out past seven stations and pushed off a cliff. It died on the way down, its body broken by rocks. The Talmud, redacted circa 500 CE but including a few eyewitness accounts from the final years of the second temple, assumed Azazel was the name of the cliff.3 Rashi, writing in the 11th century CE, explained that “a cut-off land” meant a cliff.4
The Talmud offers two proposals for the etymology of the place-name Azazel. According to the sages Azazel means “rough and hard”, because it combines azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל), one of whose meanings is “strength, power”. (Therefore the Azazel place is full of rocks.) But according to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, the cliff is called Azazel “because it atones for the actions of Uza and Asael. These are the names of sons of God who sinned with daughters of men (Genesis 6:2) and thereby caused the world to sin during the generation of the Flood.” 5
Azazel the fallen angel
None of “the sons of God” are named in Genesis. The school of Rabbi Yishmael probably got the names Uza and Asael from a much later story identifying the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 with fallen angels called Watchers. The earliest extant version of this story appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch written in the third century BCE. Here Shemyaza and Asael are the two chief leaders of 200 angels who descend to earth, land on Mt. Hermon (in the Golan Heights), and fornicate with human women, producing a race of giants. Then the book focuses on the actions of Asael, now called Azazel.
“And Azazel taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates. And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all [kinds of] coloured dyes. And the world was changed. And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.” (Book of Enoch, 8:1-2) 6
Thus in the Book of Enoch, the fallen angel Azazel not only fornicates with human women, but is responsible for the human evils of war and seduction. God tells the angel Raphael to bind Azazel’s hands, throw him into darkness, and throw jagged stones on him—reminiscent of the rocks that kill the goat on Yom Kippur during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.
In another apocryphal book, The Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel is a fallen angel who serves as a satanic figure, tempting humans to lie and do evil deeds. God says: “Go, Azazel, into the untrodden parts of the earth!”7 This is reminiscent of sending the goat to Azazel in the cut-off land of the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion.
Azazel the desert demon
However, the whole concept of fallen angels was invented several centuries after the book of Leviticus was written. There are no fallen angels in the Torah. The Biblical Hebrew word for “angel” is the same as the word for “messenger”, malakh (מַלְאַךְ). All angels that visit earth are simply God’s mouthpieces.
Therefore some commentators concluded that the name Azazel in this week’s Torah portion refers not to any kind of angel, but to an ancient desert goat-demon. Later in this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites:
They must not slaughter any more of their slaughterings for the se-irim they are whoring after. This will be a decree forever for them throughout their generations. (Leviticus 17:7)
The people have not been sacrificing goats to other goats; here se-irim must mean gods or demons in the shape of goats.
The last book of the Hebrew Bible provides one other hint of a goat-god or goat-demon cult. When the second book of Chronicles retells the story of how King Jereboam builds two temples in the northern kingdom of Israel, it states disapprovingly that he furnished them not only with golden calves, but also with se-irim (2 Chronicles 11:15).8
There may well have been a tradition involving goat-demons in ancient Canaan. In the 12th century CE, Rambam wrote that some Sabeans worshipped demons who took the form of goats,9 and Ibn Ezra wrote that “lunatics who see these demons experience visions of goat-like creatures”.10
Azazel the symbol of chaos
What if Azazel is neither a place nor a supernatural being, but rather a personified concept? Let’s look again at the etymology of the word.
The Talmud’s explanation that Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) comes azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל) = “strength, power” is far-fetched, since it requires moving the letter aleph (א). In Biblical Hebrew, related words often use different vowel sounds, and weak letters may appear and disappear. But a strong letter such as an aleph is never moved to a different position.
One can, however, divide Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) into az (עז) and azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away. The participle form of azal is ozeil (אֺזֵל) = disappearing. So Azazel may mean “Disappearing Goat”: eiz (עֵז) = goat, she-goat, goat hair + azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.
21st century translator and commentator Robert Alter used this etymology, and also wrote that the lot for God represents civilization and order, while the lot for Azazel represents wilderness and chaos. Thus the goat who carries the misdeeds of the Israelites symbolically takes them to the chaos, the tohu and bohu, that was present in Genesis 1:2 before God began creating the universe.11
Whether Azazel is a symbol, a demon, a fallen angel, or a place in the wilderness near Jerusalem, the goat (sa-ir) that gets the lot Azazel becomes the goat (eiz) that goes away into a land that is cut off from humans and disappears forever. What could be better than to have all the crimes the community committed over the past year disappear forever?
Alas, our own wrongdoing does not completely disappear. Even after we make atonement with God through whatever means our religions offer, we still remember our guilt. And even if we are conscientious about acknowledging our bad deeds against other people and obtain their forgiveness, our former victims sometimes remember as well. It is hard not to slip back into guilt or resentment.
But if we remember Azazel as the Disappearing Goat, perhaps we can turn our memories of missing the mark into reminders that humans can change and make new choices.
- The opening sentence of this week’s portion is: “God spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who came too close in front of God and died.” This opening underlines the danger of entering the Holy of Holies without permission. See my post Shemimi: Fire Meets Fire.
- See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.
- Talmud Bavli, Yoma 67b, William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org.
- Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- After the mating of the “sons of God” and human women in Genesis 6:2, God sees in Genesis 6:5 “that the wickedness of humankind abounds on the earth”, and resolves to destroy everyone except Noah and his family.
- Translated by Miryam T. Brand, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, p. 1370.
- Apocalypse of Abraham, translated by Alexander Kulik, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, pp. 1465-1466. This apropcryphal book was originally composed in Aramaic in the first or second century CE.
- Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel after it secedes, builds two temples with golden calves as idols in 1 Kings 12:28-30.
- Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46.
- 12th-century Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Leviticus.17.7.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
- Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 612-613.