15. The Bull, the Incense, and the First Sprinkling

The Kohen Gadol positioned his bull between the Sanctuary’s entrance hall and the copper altar, with its head to the south and facing west toward the Sanctuary. The Kohen Gadol stood to the east of the bull, facing the Sanctuary, placed his two hands on the head of the bull and leaned on it. It was as if he was saying, “What should have been done to me, as punishment for my sins, will be done to this bull which I am bringing to atone for my sins.” Then he recited the first vidui.

The Kohen Gadol’s vidui on Yom Kippur was unique, as in it he would pronounce the Divine Name, which is normally prohibited. Some say that the name he pronounced was the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter name, yudhehvavheh, as written in the Torah), while others maintain that it was the forty-two-letter name (R. Hai Gaon). Each of the three times the Kohen Gadol pronounced the name, the kohanim and the people standing in the courtyard would kneel, prostrate themselves, and proclaim, “Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed.” This was a profound articulation of self-effacement and repentance. The formulation of the vidui was as follows:

Please, Lord, I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have rebelled before You – I and my family. Please, by Your name, grant atonement for the sins and for the wrongs and the rebellions that I have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You – I and my family. As it is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant, at the word of Your glory: “For on this day, you will be atoned for and made pure of all your sins before the Lord.”

Following his personal vidui, the Kohen Gadol could atone for all of Israel. First, he cast lots over the two goats: the one “for God” to atone for Israel’s sins against the sanctity of the Temple, and the other, “for Azazel,” to atone for all other sins. The Kohen Gadol declared the goat designated by lot to be for God as “a sin offering to the Lord” using the Tetragrammaton. Thereupon, the kohanim and the people standing in the courtyard would kneel, prostrate themselves, and proclaim, “Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed.” He then tied a scarlet ribbon around the neck of this goat and another around the horns of scapegoat.

However, the Kohen Gadol still could not atone for Israel, because he had not yet atoned for his fellow kohanim, who were responsible for all sacred matters in Israel. To that end, he returned to his bull, leaned on it with both hands, and confessed on behalf of the kohanim. This was the formulation of the second vidui:

Please, Lord, I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have rebelled before You – I and my family and the children of Aharon, Your holy people. Please, by Your name, grant atonement for the sins and for the wrongs and the rebellions that I have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You – I and my family and the children of Aharon, Your holy people. As it is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant, at the word of Your glory: “For on this day, you will be atoned for and made pure of all your sins before the Lord.”

After confessing, the Kohen Gadol slaughtered the bull and collected its blood in a vessel, but he still could not enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to sprinkle it, because he had not yet offered the special incense of Yom Kippur, which expressed the covenantal bond between God and Israel. Yet he could not enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim with the incense until he had confessed over the bull and slaughtered it. Now that he had done so, he could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim and perform both the incense offering and the sprinkling. The Kohen Gadol handed the vessel of blood to another kohen and entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to offer the incense, as the Torah describes:

He shall slaughter his bull of sin offering. And he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of finely ground aromatic incense, and bring this beyond the parokhet [into the Kodesh Ha-kodashim]. He shall put the incense on the fire before the Lord, so that the cloud from the incense screens the kaporet that is over [the Ark of] the Covenant, lest he die. (Vayikra 16:11-13)

After the smoke from the incense covered the kaporet (as explained above in sections 7-8), the Kohen Gadol left the Kodesh Ha-kodashim and briefly prayed in the Sanctuary. His prayer had to be brief, because had he stayed inside for too long, people would have panicked, thinking that he had died in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim.

The Kohen Gadol then took the vessel of bull’s blood and re-entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. He stood facing the two poles of the Ark and sprinkled the blood toward (but not on) the kaporet – once upward and seven times downward. As we read, “He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger over the kaporet on the east side; and in front of the kaporet he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times” (Vayikra 16:14). He would count the sprinklings out loud (as explained in section 11). Unfortunately, near the end of the First Temple period, the Ark was hidden away. From then on, and during the Second Temple period, the Kohen Gadol would sprinkle toward the Even Ha-shetiya.

Though he had not yet completed the sprinkling of the bull’s blood to atone for himself and his fellow kohanim, he put down the bowl of bull’s blood on a golden stand in the Sanctuary and left it in order to slaughter the goat for God on behalf of Israel. This interruption was necessary because atonement for the kohanim and atonement for Israel were integrated. The atonement of the kohanim was for the sake of Israel, so it was inconceivable to complete their atonement without combining it with the atonement of Israel.