Of Goats and Sheep
Rabbi Shimon says, “… you might think that sheep are preferable to goats… the Torah states, ‘and if he brings a sheep as his sin-offering’… this teaches that those types of animals are equal.”
Since the Torah in virtually every place writes “sheep” before “goat,” one might think that a sheep is a preferred offering when one brings a korban which the person could choose from either type of animal. However, Rabbi Shimon teaches in our mishna that since the Torah mentions goat before sheep in the section dealing with the sin-offering of an individual, we learn that both animal types are equal for the choosing. (Vayikra 4:28-32)
The gemara relates a fascinating event which occurred with King Yannai and his queen, and applies the teaching of our mishna to resolve their issue. While the king and queen sat at a meal, they disputed which animal was a better sacrifice: a goat, as per King Yannai, or a sheep according to the queen. (Rabbeinu Gershom)
They sought the opinion of the Kohen Gadol, Yissachar of Kfar Barkai, since his service in the Beit Mikdash included preparation and eating all types of animal sacrifices, including goats and sheep.
Instead of citing the ruling of the mishna that they are equal, he disrespectfully waved his hand at them and haughtily answered that sheep were better since, “if goats were of better or of equal status, they should have qualified for the daily communal sacrifice, whereas only sheep are designated!”
The king was offended by the insolent manner of the Kohen Gadol’s reply and ordered that the man’s right hand that was haughtily waved should be cut off. And when a bribe was offered, the king ordered both hands to be severed. The gemara explains that this particular form of punishment was, in fact, a Heavenly decree of a measure-for-measure sentence on the Kohen Gadol for his showing lack of respect when serving in the Beit Hamikdash with cloth-wrapped hands. By covering his hands to keep them from becoming “dirty” with the sacrifices, the Kohen Gadol showed a great lack of respect for the proper manner of serving
Rav Yosef states in our sugya that this Kohen Gadol should have known the correct answer to the royal question from our mishna, which teaches that both types of animals are equally acceptable. Ravina adds that he actually should have been able to discern this answer from the verses that serve as the source for Rabbi Shimon’s teaching in the mishna that both types of animal are equal.
We might pause and wonder: Why did the Torah give two animal options if, in fact, both types are equally acceptable? Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Chumash (Vayikra 4:27-35), explains a fundamental difference between these two “equal but different” animals, and the significance of this difference regarding an individual offering. A goat, Rav Hirsch writes, expresses individuality, whereas a sheep is a symbol of being “one of the herd.” Therefore, if a person chooses to bring a goat as a sin-offering, he is emphasizing his own individual personality within the Jewish People, and his atoning with this idea in mind. On the other hand, a person who chooses a sheep is in effect saying that he sees himself mainly as one member of a great nation of others like him, and is seeking guidance and atonement from
- Keritot 28a-b