Performing Israel's Faith: Narrative and Law in Rabbinic Theology

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
The Halakhic Theology of Atonement

Law in Narrative Form

The rite of the Day of Atonement, which effects atonement for Israel’s sins, in Mishnah-tractate Yoma, amplified by Tosefta-, Yerushalmi-, and Bavlitractate Yoma, takes the form of a narrative of the rite, rather than exposition of normative rules in abstract form. Only at the end does the Halakhah of Yoma turn from narrative to norms of action and attitude, and then it delivers a message that utterly changes the formulation of the topic.

The sequence of documents over four centuries, from the Mishnah in ca. 200, Tosefta (ca. 300), Yerushalmi (ca. 400), and Bavli (ca. 600) for tractate Yoma in the first seven chapters simply recapitulates the Halakhah of the Written Torah in Leviticus 16. Of the eight chapters of the Mishnah-tractate (which sets the division of the Tosefta, Yerushalmi, and Bavli), the first seven provide a narrative, bearing interpolated materials, of the sacrificial rite of the Day of Atonement. The eighth does little more, taking up the rules of affliction of soul, that is, fasting. But at the end, the Halakhah links atonement to repentance, completely recasting the topic at hand. There the Tosefta, as we shall see, opens the way to a profound reenvisioning of the Day of Atonement. The pertinent verses of Scripture are at Leviticus 16:134. Now, by the introduction of a theme invited by, but not present in, the narrative itself, the theme of repentance, the Halakhic exposition of the Mishnah-Tosefta-Yerushalmi-Bavli transforms the topic of atonement. Attitude in the end takes over, the attitude of repentance being the precondition of reconciliation with first humanity, then God.

The two parts of the Torah, written (Leviticus 16) and oral (MishnahTosefta-Yerushalmi-Bavli Yoma), then deliver the message by their coordina

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