According to Talmudic interpretation, the term "Azazel" designated a rugged mountain or precipice in the wilderness from which the goat was thrown down, using for it as an alternative the word "Ẓoḳ" (Yoma vi. 4). An etymology is found to suit this interpretation. "Azazel"() is regarded as a compound of "az" strong or rough, and "el" mighty, therefore a strong mountain. This derivation is presented by a Baraita, cited Yoma 67b, that Azazel was the strongest of mountains.
Two goats were procured, similar in respect of appearance, height, cost, and time of selection. Haying one of these on his right and the other on his left (Rashi on Yoma 39a), the high priest, who was assisted in this rite by two subordinates, put both his hands into a wooden case, and took out two labels, one inscribed "for the Lord" and the other "for Azazel. The high priest then laid his hands with the labels upon the two goats and said, "A sin-offering to the Lord" using the Tetragrammaton; and the two men accompanying him replied, "Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. He then fastened a scarlet woolen thread to the head of the goat "for Azazel"; and laying his hands upon it again, recited the following confession of sin and prayer for forgiveness: "O Lord, I have acted iniquitously, trespassed, sinned before Thee: I, my household, and the sons of Aaron Thy holy ones. O Lord, forgive the iniquities, transgressions, and sins that I, my household, and Aaron's children Thy holy people committed before Thee, as is written in the law of Moses, Thy servant, 'for on this day He will forgive you, to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord; ye shall be clean.' This prayer was responded to by the congregation present. A man was selected, preferably a priest, to take the goat to the precipice in the wilderness; and he was accompanied part of the way by the most eminent men of Jerusalem. Ten booths had been constructed at intervals along the road leading from Jerusalem to the steep mountain. At each one of these the man leading the goat was formally offered food and drink, which he, however, refused. When he reached the tenth booth those who accompanied him proceeded no further, but watched the ceremony from a distance. When he came to the precipice he divided the scarlet thread into two parts, one of which he tied to the rock and the other to the goat's horns, and then pushed the goat down (Yoma vi. 1-8). The cliff was so high and rugged that before the goat had traversed half the distance to the plain below, its limbs were utterly shattered. Men were stationed at intervals along the way, and as soon as the goat was thrown down the precipice, they signaled to one another by means of kerchiefs or flags, until the information reached the high priest, whereat he proceeded with the other parts of the ritual.
The scarlet thread was a symbolical reference to Isa. i. 18; and the Talmud tells us (ib. 39a) that during the forty years that Simon the Just was high priest, the thread actually turned white as soon as the goat was thrown over the precipice: a sign that the sins of the people were forgiven. In later times the change to white was not invariable: a proof of the people's moral and spiritual deterioration, that was gradually on the increase, until forty years before the destruction of the Second Temple, when the change of color was no longer observed (l.c. 39b).
The ancient rabbis, interpreting "Azazel" as Azaz ("rugged"), and el ("strong"), refer it to the rugged and rough mountain cliff from which the scapegoat was cast down on Yom Kippur when the Jewish Temples in Jerusalem stood. (Yoma 67b; Sifra, Aḥare, ii. 2; Targum Jerusalem Lev. xiv. 10, and most medieval commentators). Most modern scholars, after having for some time endorsed the old view, have accepted the opinion mysteriously hinted at by Ibn Ezra and expressly stated by Nachmanides to Lev. xvi. 8, that Azazel belongs to the class of "se'irim," goat-like demons, jinn haunting the desert, to which the Israelites were wont to offer sacrifice.
Far from involving the recognition of Azazel as a deity, the sending of the goat was, as stated by Nachmanides, a symbolic expression of the idea that the people's sins and their evil consequences were to be sent back to the spirit of desolation and ruin, the source of all impurity. The very fact that the two goats were presented before God before the one was sacrificed and the other sent into the wilderness, was proof that Azazel was not ranked with God, but regarded simply as the personification of wickedness in contrast with the righteous government of God. The rite, resembling, on the one hand, the sending off of the epha with the woman embodying wickedness in its midst to the land of Shinar in the vision of Zachariah (v. 6-11), and, on the other, the letting loose of the living bird into the open field in the case of the leper healed from the plague (Lev. xiv. 7), was, indeed, viewed by the people of Jerusalem as a means of ridding themselves of the sins of the year. So would the crowd, called Babylonians or Alexandrians, pull the goat's hair to make it hasten forth, carrying the burden of sins away with it (Yoma vi. 4, 66b; "Epistle of Barnabas," vii.), and the arrival of the shattered animal at the bottom of the valley of the rock of Bet Ḥadudo, twelve miles away from the city, was signalized by the waving of shawls to the people of Jerusalem, who celebrated the event with boisterous hilarity and amid dancing on the hills (Yoma vi. 6, 8; Ta'an. iv. 8). Evidently the figure of Azazel was an object of general fear and awe rather than, as has been conjectured, a foreign product or the invention of a late lawgiver. More as a demon of the desert, it seems to have been closely interwoven with the mountainous region of Jerusalem.
The story of Azazel as the seducer of men and women was familiar also to the rabbis, as may be learned from Tanna d. b. Rabbi Yishma'el: "The Azazel goat was to atone for the wicked deeds of 'Uzza and 'Azzael, the leaders of the rebellious hosts in the time of Enoch" (Yoma 67b); and still better from Midrash Abkir, end, Yalk., Gen. 44, where Azazel is represented as the seducer of women, teaching them the art of beautifying the body by dye and paint (compare "Chronicles of Jerahmeel," trans. by Moses Gaster, xxv. 13). According to Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer xlvi. (comp. Tos. Talmud tractate Megillah 31a), the goat is offered to Azazel as a bribe that he who is identical with Samael or Satan should not by his accusations prevent the atonement of the sins on that day.
Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (l.c.) identifies him with Samael; and the Zohar Ahare Mot, following Nachmanides, with the spirit of Esau or heathenism; still, while one of the chief demons in Kabbalah, he never attained in the doctrinal system of Judaism a position similar to that of Satan.