The Mishna (22a) described the competition that took place on the ramp of the mizbe’ah (altar) in order to choose the kohen who would perform the terumat ha-deshen – cleaning ash from the altar – every morning. According to the Mishna, the practice was abandoned in favor of a lottery system after one of the kohanim was pushed off the kevesh (ramp) and was injured.
Our Gemara tells of an even more frightening story that was related to this competition. A baraita records that once two kohanim were racing up the ramp and one drew a knife and stabbed the other.
The father of the boy, i.e. the young priest who was stabbed, came and found that he was still convulsing.He said: May my son’s death be an atonement for you. But my son is still convulsing and has not yet died, and as such, the knife, which is in his body, has not become ritually impure through contact with a corpse. If you remove it promptly, it will still be pure for future use. The Tosefta comments: This incident comes to teach you that the ritual purity of utensils was of more concern to them than the shedding of blood. Even the boy’s father voiced more concern over the purity of the knife than over the death of his child.
This story indicates the low level to which the priesthood had fallen towards the end of the Second Temple period, that they were more concerned with the laws of ritual purity than the fact that someone had been murdered.
The baraita further records that a kohen named Rabbi Tzadok stood up and lectured the assembled people, comparing the murder that took place to a case of eglah arufah (see Devarim 21:1-9) – the ceremony that was done in a case where a dead body is found between two cities, and the murderer cannot be found. The leaders of both cities come as representatives of their respective cities to state that their city did all it could to protect this person, and to ask for atonement.
The Gemara points out that the case in the Temple was not truly analogous. In our case, the identity of the murderer was known, and the murder took place in Jerusalem, a city that is excluded from the regulations of eglah arufah. The Gemara explains that the purpose of the analogy was to make the people realize the severity of what had happened. As the Ritva explains, if in the case of eglah arufah, where it is not clear that anyone from the nearby city was responsible for the man’s death, nevertheless the city’s representatives had to accept a level of responsibility, in our case there is certainly a need for soul-searching after such a murder had taken place.
It appears that the Rabbi Tzadok of this story lived at the very end of the Second Temple period, and is the same individual about whom the Gemara in Gittin relates that he fasted for 40 years in the hope that the Temple would be saved. The Gemara in Gittin also tells that one of Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai’s requests from the Emperor Vespasian was to send doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok. Nevertheless, some identify Rabbi Tzadok as someone who lived in a much earlier period.