Word of the Day / Azazel: What the Hell Does It Mean?

Israelis use this word all the time but have no idea that it’s a name of an ancient desert goat-demon worshiped by their ancestors.

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Israelis use the word a-za-ZEL all the time, but they don’t know what it really means.

It appears in phrases like le'azazel eem zeh which translates to “the hell with it” and lekh le'azazel which translates as to “go to hell” - but azazel doesn’t actually mean hell. There's also sa'ir le'azazel, which means scapegoat, but azazel doesn’t mean scape either. It is a very mysterious word indeed.

It first appears in Hebrew texts in the Book of Leviticus as a part of the Temple worship on Yom Kippur. Among the many rituals the High Priest had to officiate on this holy day was a lottery among two goats. One was designated to God and the other to Azazel. The goat designated to God was immediately taken to the altar and slaughtered, and its blood splattered in the Holy of Holies.

The goat designated to "Azazel" had a different destiny.

A specially-appointed man, usually a priest, would take the hapless beast on a 12-km walk east to the Judean Desert, accompanied by the city’s dignitaries. En route they would stop at 10 specially erected booths, in which food and drink was offered and rejected.

The last leg of the journey was made by just the priest and the goat, until they reached the edge of a cliff. The priest would turn his back to the valley below, hoist the goat and toss it down. The goat would tumble down the hill, smashing on the sharp rocks as it fell, and dying by the time it reached the bottom.

The meaning of the name Azazel puzzled the ancients. The Talmud said it was the place from which the goat was hurled, while the Greek translators of the Septuagint avoided the issue, translating it as the “the goat set free.”

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) saw past this, but didn’t explain its meaning explicitly, only giving a hint: “And if you could understand the secret of the word Azazel you will know its secret and its secret and the secret of its name as it has friends in the Bible, and I will reveal to you a bit of the secret with a hint: When you turn 33 you will know it.”

If you are bewildered by this, you aren’t alone. Luckily, Nahmanides (1194-1270) provided the answer: If you count 33 verses from the verse in Leviticus where Azazel is first mentioned (16:8), you reach a verse that reads “And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto devils, after whom they have gone a whoring. This shall be a statute for ever unto them throughout their generations.” (17:7) Nahmanides explains: “And this is the secret of the issue, that they worshipped other gods, they the messengers sacrificed to them.”

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The rabbi went on to explain that this wasn’t idolatry, since “the scapegoat wasn’t a sacrifice from us to him, God forbid, but rather we did what our God commanded us to do, like when holding a banquet and the master orders that the person holding the meal serve his slave.”

So who is this demon worshiped by the ancient Israelites? Well, originally he was named Azaz’el, with the letters alef and zain swapped in order to hide the ending “el,” which means god. The original non-obfuscated name appears in the Samaritan Bible and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We learn more about Azazel from the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch, where it says :“And Azazel taught men to make swords and knives and shields and breastplates; and made known to them the metals [of the earth] and the art of working them; and bracelets and ornaments; and the use of antimony and the beautifying of the eyelids; and all kinds of costly stones and all colouring tinctures. And there arose much godlessness, and they committed fornication, and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.” (8:1-3)

The first reference to the use of the phrase Lekh le'azazel is in the book Khavat Yair by Rabbi Yair Chayim Bacharach (1701-1638). Bacharach writes of a mother who hit her son and said “Go to Azazel in the desert!” The phrase gained popularity among the users of Hebrew. It appears twice in the novel Ayit Tzavua (1858) by Abraham Mapu, the first Hebrew novelist.

The phrase reached the apex of its popularity in the early 20th century. One day in 1927, the poet Haim Nahman Bialik and his friend the publisher Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky were walking on a Tel Aviv street talking in Yiddish with one another. Aharon Nachmani, a young and zealous member of the Battalion for the Defense of the Language, a group dedicated to policing the exclusive use of Hebrew among Palestine Jews, approached Bialik and shouted “Bialik, speak Hebrew!” to which the annoyed Bialik responded, “Lekh le'azazel!”

This could have been the end of the story, but Nachmani went to court and sued Bialik for insulting him.

In his defense, Bialik wrote: “It is possible that the word is a bit harsh according to its regular use in the marketplace, but according to its accurate and real meaning, it is a name of a mountain in the desert, not far from Jerusalem a two-three hour walk in the Judean Desert. And this place, in my opinion, is pretty dignified place for that man to take a walk in.” Nachmani withdrew his lawsuit and was charged 180 prutot in court fees.