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Sprinkling the Blood on Yom Kippur

Rav Moshe Taragin
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As part of the special Temple ritual on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the sacrificial blood upon the Ark of the Covenant. The Torah describes this as follows (Vayikra 16:14): "And he shall take of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the face of the ark-covering (al penei ha-kapporet)." Subsequently, the Torah describes the parallel sprinkling of the goat's blood (ibid. 15): "He shall sprinkle it upon the covering (al ha-kapporet)." Even though the verse implies that the blood is sprinkled on the kapporet itself, according to the gemara's analysis this issue is not absolutely clear.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Yoma 5:4) cites two positions as to whether the blood was actually sprinkled on the ark or just near the ark. The Talmud Bavli (55a) issues a vague statement: "When he sprinkles, he does not sprinkle UPON the kapporet, but alongside the thickness of the kapporet." Rashi interprets this statement to mean that the blood wasn't sprinkled on the roof of the kapporet, but alongside its thick part (seemingly falling to the floor). Similarly, Tosafot (Zevachim 9a) claim that the blood never touched the kapporet.

This technical question might reflect a more fundamental issue regarding the definition of this sprinkling: is the sprinkling intended specifically for the aron (ark), or for the kodesh ha-kodashim (holy of holies)? According to the opinion that the blood actually touched the aron, we would be inclined to deem this sprinkling as an "aron sprinkling." Assuming, though, that the blood never touched the aron (as Rashi claimed), we might be more likely to define the blood as a "kodesh ha-kodashim sprinkling." Interestingly, the Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishna, writes that the Kohen Gadol sprinkled the blood "in front" of the aron – suggesting that the blood is indeed connected to the aron.

An interesting offshoot of this question might be the method of sprinkling during the time of the Second Temple. The Mishna (53b) claims that in the Second Temple (after the aron had already been buried), the Kohen Gadol would sprinkle the blood on the even ha-shetiya (rock of foundation) located in the kodesh ha-kodashim. Would this practice not suggest that the blood is unrelated to the aron, and rather a halakha of kodesh ha-kodashim? This indeed is the impression given by the exegesis in Torat Kohanim allowing such sprinkling: "The extra word implies that a kodesh ha-kodashim without an aron and kapporet is equivalent to a kodesh kodashim with an aron and kapporet." This suggests that the sprinkling is related to kodesh ha-kodashim and therefore relevant even in the absence of the aron.

Alternatively, Rav Chayim Soloveitchik (in his chiddushim to the gemara) claimed that even after the aron was buried, the location still maintained the unique sanctity of the aron. This view would still allow us to define the sprinkling as aron-related; even though no physical aron existed, the location was still imbued with the unique status of the aron.

Even if we claim (as did Rashi and Tosafot) that the blood never actually touched the aron, we might still define the blood as fundamentally aron-related. Despite its not touching, it is still viewed as being sprinkled in the general area of the aron. In fact, we might impose some conditions about its location in order to ensure that it will be affiliated with the aron. For example, Rabbenu Chananel (55a) explains that the blood – though not physically sprinkled upon the aron - was nonetheless sprinkled within a tefach (handsbreadth) of the aron. Similarly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Yom Ha-kippurim 3:5) maintains that the blood was placed "close to the aron, within a tefach." If the blood relates to the kodesh ha-kodashim in general, it seems unnecessary for it to be placed in such close proximity to the aron. Evidently, these rishonim viewed the blood as relating primarily to the aron; even though physical contact is unnecessary, proximity is required.

Conversely, if we claim that the blood never touched the aron and was indeed kodesh ha-kodashim blood, we might question both the syntax of the verse as well as the halakha itself. Why does the Torah demand the blood be placed "on the kapporet" when indeed it is only meant to be placed in the kodesh ha-kodashim; why can't the blood be sprinkled anywhere in the kodesh ha-kodashim?

Evidently, the answer to this question lies in differentiating between two distinct sections of the kodesh ha-kodashim - the general area and the concentrated area in front of the aron. Indeed, the blood is related to the kodesh ha-kodashim and not the aron – but only a specific subsection of the kodesh ha-kodashim. An interesting analogy can be traced in the gemara in Menachot (27b), which quotes a debate between Rebbi Yehuda and the Rabbanan as to whether one who enters the kodesh ha-kodashim in general without invading the space of the aron receives capital punishment for unlawful entry. Rebbi Yehuda, who rules that the death penalty is administered only for entering the aron-area of the kodesh ha-kodashim, evidently subdivides the area into these two distinct sections.


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