The Ish Itti: The Man Whose Time Has Come

The identity of the person who walks the goat to Azazel is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in mystery. The Torah puzzlingly (Vayikra 16:21) calls him an ish itti, literally a "man of time." Unsurprisingly, adopting a variety of Talmudic and midrashic views, the classical exegetes struggled to translate this term.

Rashi explains that he must be prepared for this task ahead of time, from the day before. Rashbam proposes that the same individual ought to perform the task every year, for he must successfully navigate the desert’s countless twists and turns. Another explanation, rejected by Ibn Ezra but adopted by Keli Yakar and Netziv, relies on Divrei ha-Yamim I (12:33) in identifying “itti” with a scholar, one who understands the secrets of the Azazel service (Keli Yakar) or possesses the knowledge to survive the merciless desert conditions (Netziv).

Yet Hizkuni, eschewing these more popular interpretations and basing his comments on an obscure Midrash, claims that itti refers to one whose time has come - in other words, someone who will die within the year. (Hizkuni contends that the ancient Jews knew this by utilizing astrology.) Itti, for the majority of commentators, refers to time; for Hizkuni, it refers to one whose time has come.

Technically, this position represents the polar opposite of Rashbam’s claim that the same individual led the goat year after year. For Hizkuni, after all, if every designee is destined to die within the year, by definition a new emissary is needed each Yom Kippur. More fundamentally, though, why would we select an ill-fated individual to perform this key task on Yom Kippur?

Rashbam’s interpretation may reflect a profound meditation on the role of the ish itti in the Seder ha-Avodah, in turn offering insight into our own experience on Yom Kippur.

From beginning to end, almost the entirety of the Yom Kippur sacrificial service was performed exclusively by the High Priest. Yet, as the Mishnah (Yoma 66a) notes, in principle the role of ish itti could have been occupied by anyone, and in fact was once performed by an Israelite named Arsela. Indeed, the Mishnah’s contrast between the High Priest and ish itti could not be sharper. First we learn about the High Priest’s public confession, which was accompanied by the prostration of the masses. Next, we are simply told that the Priest “handed [the goat] to whoever would bring it.” Especially alongside the towering figure of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, the ish itti is all but anonymous. Even Arsela’s identity remains a mystery; we are given no biographical information about him. What is required is not so much someone who occupies a key position or has mastered the service - though, of course, the ish itti must master the particulars of his task - but a person who appreciates his mortality. Above all, the ish itti senses the urgency of time.

On Yom Kippur, while the figure of the Kohen Gadol soars and inspires, it is perhaps the ish itti with whom we can most closely identify. We are reminded that, in the words of Rav Tzadok (Tzidkat ha-Tzadik 1), “the beginning of one’s entrance into divine worship must be with haste.” Whatever our stage of life, we are urged to imagine as if this Yom Kippur were our last: What new commitments must we make today, and cannot wait for tomorrow? What is so urgent that it simply cannot wait? Yom Kippur captures our inner anxiety and presses us toward action. The urgency is real. We are all an ish itti.

As we enter Yom Kippur, we all embark on the lonely, harrowing journey of the Ish Itti. Yet it is precisely in accepting his mission that we can take full advantage of the coming day. In so doing, perhaps we can begin to unravel some of our own internal riddles in clarifying our essential commitments for the coming year.