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Entering the Sanctum: Yom Kippur and the Quest for God

Rav Elyakim Krumbein
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The entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, is the defining element of the Yom Ha-kippurim service. This is the sole opportunity in the year for such an act, as God relates to Moshe: "Speak to Aharon your brother [the High Priest], so that he shall not enter the sanctum at every time" (Vayikra 16:2). The unique permission of Yom Ha-kippurim begs the question: what is the nature of this singular mission?

At first glance, we all know the answer (Vayikra 16:29): "For on this day He will atone for you, to purify you from all your sins..." The Torah tells us that this incursion is designated for one purpose, namely the realization of a degree of atonement that is unique to Yom Ha-kippurim, one which purifies the entire nation of Yisrael from all of its sins. Achieving this atonement requires both a unique communal effort - the entire congregation undertakes to "afflict their souls" by fasting - as well as a unique act: that on this holiest of days, the High Priest, the holiest of all people, enters the inner sanctum, the holiest of all places, for the purpose of achieving atonement "before God."

However, this answer, which springs from our long acquaintance with Yom Ha-kippurim, is perhaps misleading. If we attempt to set aside our ideological baggage and preconceptions and take a fresh look at the service described in Vayikra chapter 16, we will recognize a surprising fact: that the Torah describes the entire procedure of the service, from beginning to end, without mentioning one word about Yom Ha-kippurim. Only as a coda is the date and nature of the Day of Atonement appended at the paragraph's close. If we look at the first section of this unit alone, the section that precedes the mention of the holy day, we will reveal that it can be understood, on its own merits, in a very different way.

The Torah opens with the following (Vayikra 16:1): "The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons, when they had drawn close to God and died." Rashi explains,

"Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya would express it in a parable: an invalid goes to a doctor, who tells him, 'Do not eat cold food and do not sleep in the dew.' Another doctor, however, tells him, 'Do not eat cold food and do not sleep in the dew, so you won't die like X.' Naturally, the latter inspires the patient more than the former."

Similarly, Rashi continues, God declares to Moshe (16:2),

"'Speak to Aharon, and he shall not come' — so that he shall not die the way his sons perished."

Here we gain a different perspective on the entrance into the sanctum: it appears not as part of a ritual of atonement, but rather as an expression of man's desire to experience God's proximity. When the Torah mentions Aharon's two sons at the beginning of this passage, we immediately picture two enthusiastic priests whose fervent yearning for holiness could not be reined in - to the extent that they presumed to express their burning love for the Creator and their desire for His closeness via the kindling of an alien fire. The simple meaning of the text before us, as Rashi explains it, intimates that Aharon too was susceptible to commit such a rash act, and therefore he needed to be warned against it. From here it appears that Aharon identified with his sons' basic motivation. It is even feasible that he himself was the source of his children's character trait; this great yearning resounded in his soul as well. In fact, every person's heart should pulsate with a faith which craves to experience Divine immanence; this faith should stand as the foundation of one's spiritual reality and nourish his moral actions. It is incumbent upon man to draw from his depths the primeval desire to cling to the Divine Presence, and to seek any method to realize this intimacy.

It is the fear of negative results of this desire, in its unbridled form, which motivates the Torah to warn (16:2): "He shall not come at all times to the sanctum." Yet, Scripture does not lower an inviolable curtain before the holy drive of Aharon. It does not say: "Enough, human, do not trample here." On the contrary, it lends a basic legitimacy to this inclination; and this observation shines a very different light on the Yom Kippur service. Its sacrifices are not tedious obligations to be discharged at a set time, but rather oblations designated to permit the entry of Aharon into the innermost sanctum, an entrance that is a spiritual imperative. Only at the close of this section does the Torah reveal that this service is occasionally mandatory — namely, once a year, on Yom Ha-kippurim.


This dichotomy is expressed by the divergent approaches of Rashi and the Gra (Vilna Gaon) in understanding this Biblical portion. At the beginning of the parasha, the Torah states simply (16:3), "Only thus shall Aharon come into the sanctum: with a bull of the herd for a chatat (sin-offering or purification-offering) and a ram for an ola (burnt-offering or elevation-offering)." No time is specified for this ritual until the very end of this section (16:29). Rashi (16:3) immediately comments that we must read the beginning in light of the end:

"Even this form should not be employed at all times, but rather only on Yom Ha-kippurim, as is explained at the paragraph's close (16:32), 'In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month.'"

On the other hand, the Vilna Gaon (quoted in Rav Avraham Danzig's "Chokhmat Adam") feels that this is not the simple meaning of Scripture. Rather, he quotes Rav Yehuda ben Simon's statement in Midrash Rabba: "Any time [Aharon] wishes to enter, he may, as long as he does so according to this procedure." Similarly, the midrash notes (Shemot Rabba, end of Tetzaveh), "Aharon would enter the Holy of Holies at any time." Although the Gra admits that the accepted law is that even the High Priest may not enter into the innermost sanctum except on Yom Ha-kippurim, he nevertheless feels that the Torah indicates that another law applies to "Aharon your brother," the subject of the beginning of the unit. Aharon is permitted to come at any time, as long as he brings the required bull and ram and performs the entire procedure described here. After all, as the Gra points out, it is difficult to understand why Scripture does not mention at the outset that these sacrifices are an obligation of a specific day, as it does regarding all holiday sacrifices in Vayikra 23 and Bamidbar 28-29. (For an additional proof to the Gra's approach, see footnote #1 below.)


According to the Gra, then, the Yom Ha-kippurim service is merely a means to permit the incursion into the sanctum. Even if we accept Rashi's assumption that Aharon, like any other succeeding High Priest, was forbidden to enter on any other day, this entrance still bears a dual character. On the one hand, it is an absolute precondition to the realization of the atonement of all Yisrael. Yet we can still accept the simple implication of the unit's opening: this entry is also an opportunity to realize the aspirations of the High Priest, the person who characterizes the yearning for holiness. He is granted permission to experience the presence of God, and to merit spiritual exaltation and closeness to God. But in addition to the sacrifices, Rashi claims, there is another precondition to this incursion that the Torah demands: the license is given only on Yom Ha-kippurim, the most singular day in the Jewish calendar.

It is incumbent upon us to digest the implications of these ideas. One might well question the Gra's assumption, explicitly stated in the above-mentioned midrashic sources, that the procedure of the service is essential in order to expedite the High Priest's entry into the Holy of Holies. Hthe Torah required that he bring only his personal sacrifice — the chatat-bullock and the ola-ram — we would have no problem; however, the Torah does not deem these animals sufficient. Aharon is forbidden to enter the sanctum unless he also takes with him sacrifices "from among the children of Yisrael, two he-goats as a chatat and one ram as an ola" (16:5). Why must he offer communal sacrifices as well? This is even more perplexing when we face the unique mission of these two goats: the sweeping atonement of the entire Congregation of Israel, not simply the High Priest, which includes the sending of the community's sins "to a wasteland." Why is the priest unable to enter the Holy of Holies without all of Israel first being purified from every transgression and sin?

It appears that Scripture is offering us crucial information about the nature of seeking God. As stated above, the Torah honors and praises, on a basic level, man's need to satisfy his spiritual thirst. Indeed, the great power of these yearnings is a blessing for man. However, when the Torah asks of the priest who enters the sanctum that he bring with him the goats which atone for the nation of Yisrael, it is essentially saying: If you came only for yourself, to satisfy your personal desire for holiness, and you have left the entire nation of Yisrael outside, then you are not welcome here.

In the Torah's eyes, the true desire for holiness cannot exist without it being joined to a high degree of love for one's fellow Jew. The identification with the group must parallel the level of spiritual seeking; otherwise, the quest becomes pure egotism — and egotism does not merit this unique opportunity simply because its motivation is "spiritual." The highest expression of intimacy with God, the entry into the Holy of Holies, must accompany heartfelt prayer on behalf of the community for the greatest and most comprehensive good: total purification and atonement for all of the sins and all of the sinners.

This moral may well influence our understanding of this holy day. That our prayer for the merit of that purifying intimacy with God be heartfelt is necessary, but not sufficient. We must also ask: do we come before God only in our own name? What about all those who remain outside, those who are found in a spiritual "wasteland," without any way to approach or relate to the holy? Even when we do pray for them, is our prayer free of smugness? Do we really accept that we could just as easily have been in their shoes? Do we truly accept the pithy observation, "There, but for the grace of God, go I?" But for an accident of birth, we would not have been exposed to the spiritual richness of our heritage. And this accident, directed by the Divine Hand, undoubtedly obligates us to use our good fortune for a higher purpose.

Yet, I do not come here to preach, but only to point out some of the issues raised by a careful analysis of this deceptively simple chapter. The dialectic of the High Priest's spiritual journey into the holiest of places, at the same time both intensely personal and profoundly universal, engages us today, two millennia removed from the Temple, as deeply, if not more so, then it did our ancestors.

May it be His Will that we, as a community and as individuals, merit to perform a personal accounting of our souls, and that the Merciful One will accept graciously our repentance and our prayer, and will inaugurate upon us and all of Yisrael a good and sweet year.

(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)


1) The Gra finds additional proof for his approach in a seemingly strange command in the Torah. After the High Priest, wearing white linen garments, has completed the main service of the day, the Torah commands: "Aharon will come to the Tent of Meeting, and he will remove the linen garments which he wore upon coming into the sanctum, and he will leave them there" (16:23). What is the purpose of coming to the sanctuary at this point? Is it conceivable that Aharon would enter a sacred place merely for the purpose of disrobing?

The Sages explain that "coming into the sanctum" means returning to the Holy of Holies, for the purpose of removing the incense-scoop and the fire-pan that had been left there before. The cloud of incense was meant to protect the High Priest from a direct "vision" of God when entering the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle the blood of the sin-offerings before the Ark of the Covenant (or, in the Second Temple, the stone on which it had sat). When entering the Holy of Holies, the High Priest wore only four garments of linen, as opposed to his standard uniform of eight garments, four of which were made of gold (worn during both the other rites of the day as well as during the services of every other day of the year). Every time the High Priest changed his garments, he had to wash his hands and feet, immerse his entire body, and then wash his hands and feet a second time after donning new garments. According to tradition, this occurred five times over the course of the day, i.e., there were two instances when the High Priest had to exchange his gold garments for linen clothing, then change back to gold (thus ending up with the sequence gold-white-gold-white-gold). The first such occasion is the famous one, the sprinkling of the blood of the chatat under a cloud of incense. The second one was for a bit of Temple housekeeping — the removal of the scoop and pan after the incense had been completely consumed. It is to this second entrance into the Holy of Holies that the verse which so troubles the Gra refers as "coming into the sanctum;" afterwards, the special linen garments of that year's Yom Ha-kippurim were put away, never to be used again.

This is the halakhic interpretation of verse 23. However, it does not follow the sequential order of the text, an idea which, according to the Gra, puts it beyond the pale of the text's simple meaning. Indeed, as per his understanding, the Sages never intended to state that this verse is not found in its halakhically proper place. The verse is indeed where it belongs, if we assume that the opening of this unit is referring to Aharon's entry to the Holy of Holies on a day other than Yom Ha-kippurim. In this case, the removal of the scoop and the pan is performed at the close of the service of the sin-offerings, as is implied in the order of the verses. The Sages only fixed the requirement of five immersions when this service is performed on Yom Ha-kippurim, and therefore on Yom Ha-kippurim there is a need to implement the removal of the scoop and the pan at a later stage.


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