10 – The Yom Kippur Avoda

01. The Kodesh Ha-kodashim and Yom Kippur

The Temple in Jerusalem was where all divine values were revealed, and from it they flowed forth to the rest of the world. The Sanctuary (heikhal) was comprised of an entrance hall (ulam) and two chambers. The outer chamber, called the Holy (Kodesh), contained the menora (candelabrum), symbolizing wisdom; the shulḥan (table), symbolizing material sustenance and wealth; and the mizbaḥ ha-ketoret (incense altar), symbolizing prayer and the yearning to be close to God. The inner chamber, called the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Ha-kodashim), is where the basis of faith and Torah are revealed. In other words, it is there that the divine foundation of the Torah and the holiness of the congregation of Israel illuminate, and through their light, God animates the entire world. For this reason, the Kodesh Ha-kodashim housed the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets (luḥot) that Moshe received at Mount Sinai and the Torah scroll he wrote. Atop the Ark was the kaporet (golden cover), with two cherubs rising from it, symbolizing the covenantal relationship and love between God and Israel. The location of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim within Jerusalem was atop the Foundation Stone (Even Ha-shetiya), which, our Sages tell us, was the rock from which the world was created (Yoma 54b). A parokhet (curtain) separated the Kodesh from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, to demarcate different levels of holiness. For the sanctity of the Kodesh derives from that of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. Without a separation, the light emanating from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim would have ascended directly to heaven, preventing it from radiating light and blessing to the Kodesh, and from there to the entire world.

Although people were not permitted to enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, nevertheless, by the light of the Shekhina (Divine Presence) which radiated from it, Israel and the whole world could return to God, correct their sins, and channel their prayers to God, as expressed in King Shlomo’s prayer at the Temple’s dedication. (See 1 Melakhim, ch. 8.)

Even after the Temple’s destruction and the ensuing exile, a trace of the Divine Presence never budged from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. The longing and yearning of the Jewish people for the Divine Presence to dwell among them in Eretz Yisrael guarantees that the redemption will arrive. Then, God’s name will be sanctified over Israel, His people; Jerusalem, His city; Zion, the home of His glory; the kingship of the house of David, His anointed one; and His home, the Temple. God alone will rule over all His creations.

The location of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim is exalted so that no person may set foot there. Anyone who enters there is liable to death at the hands of heaven, as we read, “The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aharon that he is not to come at will into the Kodesh, beyond the parokhet, in front of the kaporet that is upon the Ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the kaporet” (Vayikra 16:2). The only person ever permitted to enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim was the Kohen Gadol on the holy and awesome day of Yom Kippur. He would enter in a cloud of incense (section 7 below) to perform the day’s avoda (Temple service) on behalf of all Israel, as it is written, “Thus only shall Aharon enter the holy place” (ibid. v. 3). Over the course of Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol was required to enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim four times. But entering a fifth time – even given his lofty position and the sanctity of Yom Kippur – would have made him liable to death at the hands of heaven (MT, Laws of Entering the Temple 2:4).

02. Yiḥud Elyon and Yiḥud Taḥton: Two Ways That God Governs the World

To grasp the meaning of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur, we must understand that there are two levels to God’s governance (hanhaga) of the world: 1) governance through justice, which corresponds to yiḥud taḥton; 2) governance through unification, which corresponds to yiḥud elyon. (See above, 2:8 n. 4; 7:12; 6:4.) God’s governance of the world through justice is expressed in the laws of reward and punishment He embedded in the world, under which both the natural and spiritual worlds operate. Just as one who neglects to work becomes poor, so too, individuals and communities that choose evil are punished in this world and the next. According to these laws, it seems, at first glance, that human beings are irredeemable, since as a rule they tend to follow the evil urge. Even if there are righteous people, power is generally concentrated in the hands of those who crave power and money, following their evil impulses. It seems that there is no way to redeem the world from suffering. Death, which destroys every living being, will ultimately destroy the world as well.

Yet there is a higher, hidden way that God governs the world: through unification. This means that God directs all the world’s progress and processes for the good. Goodness will ultimately come even from the evil intentions and actions of despots and other wicked people. This form of governance exists by virtue of Israel, who are bound to God in an eternal covenant, and whose innermost desire is always to improve the world. It is thanks to this mode of divine governance that redemption is assured, as stated in the Torah and the Prophets. However, this hanhaga is hidden and can work only through the hanhaga of justice. Accordingly, how redemption will take place depends on the choices made by Israel. If they choose goodness, redemption will come quickly and painlessly; if they choose evil (God forbid), redemption will be delayed and accompanied by terrible suffering.

Because the hanhaga of unification is hidden, it is revealed in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, a place beyond place, whose very existence within the physical world is a miracle. This is the reason one may not enter there. Moreover, an attempt to enter it without permission is fraught with risk, because one who connects with this exalted level is prone to thinking that since all is anyway for the best, it is unnecessary to choose good and overcome the evil impulse. In the dazzling light of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, one may find justification for pursuing his impulses, claiming that everything is for the best and for the sake of heaven.

Only the Jewish people collectively can connect to God’s hanhaga of unification, since this hanhaga operates in the world through klal Yisrael, in that all their troubles and suffering cultivates and reveals additional principles of the Torah. However, this is an incomprehensible secret, which is revealed gradually, over the course of time. Therefore, only on the holy and awe-filled day of Yom Kippur, when the Jews abstain from melakha and detach from everything related to this world – eating, drinking, washing, applying cream, wearing shoes, and engaging in marital relations – was the Kohen Gadol able to reach such a lofty level that he could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on behalf of the nation. From there, he was able to draw down purity and atonement for any impurities that may have contaminated the Jewish people superficially. This enabled every individual to repent fully, and thus all Israel could merit a good year, and the world could proceed toward redemption.

Although the Temple no longer exists, all these exalted properties persist in a scaled-down form, through the sanctity of the day, fasting, and prayers.[1]


[1]. These two forms of divine governing are generally called yiḥud elyon and yiḥud taḥton, whereas Ramḥal (Da’at Tevunot §134 and elsewhere) calls them governance through law (hanhagat ha-mishpat) and governance through unification (hanhagat ha-yiḥud). See above, 2:8 n. 4, where we explain that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are related to yiḥud elyon. In 6:4 above, we point out that the intrinsic power of Yom Kippur is due to yiḥud elyon and governance through unification. Finally, in 7:12 above we use these concepts to shed light on the Yom Kippur custom of reciting “Barukh shem kevod” out loud.

Ramḥal describes the Kodesh Ha-kodashim as “the place of the powerful light and the tremendous blessing.” Its measurements “extend from the beginning to the end and from the end to the beginning, with twenty [amot] in each direction, so the dimensions of this chamber were twenty by twenty. When we add twenty and twenty, we get forty, which hints at the minimum amount of water required for a mikveh – forty se’ah” (Mishkenei Elyon, ch. 3). In other words, the Kodesh Ha-kodashim purified the Jews like a mikveh. Compare R. Akiva’s exposition in the Mishna, “Happy are you, Israel – for before Whom do you purify yourselves and Who purifies you? Your Father in heaven, as we read…‘God is the hope (mikveh) of Israel’ (Yirmiyahu 17:13). Just as a mikveh purifies the impure, so too, God purifies Israel” (Yoma 85b). Even though we no longer have the Temple, the intrinsic power of Yom Kippur is comparable to the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, while the fasting and praying are comparable to the Kodesh.

03. The Kohen Gadol

The function of the kohanim is to connect Israel to their Father in heaven by serving in the Temple, deepening Israel’s faith and kindness, and teaching halakha. To enable the kohanim to devote themselves to this mission and to free them from the need to support themselves, the Torah commands that they be given a variety of donations and gifts. To preserve the sanctity of the kohanim, they may not become tamei by coming into contact with a corpse (except for first-degree relatives). A kohen also may not marry a divorcee or a ḥalala (the daughter of a forbidden kohen relationship, such as a kohen and a divorcee).

There is a mitzva to appoint the most outstanding kohen to serve as Kohen Gadol. The laws pertaining to him are more restrictive than those pertaining to other kohanim. He is not allowed to mourn (or become tamei) for anyone, even his parents, and he is only allowed to marry a virgin. Once appointed, he was anointed with special oil and dressed in eight vestments designated for him, as the verses state:

The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not bare his head or rend his vestments. He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. He shall not go outside the Sanctuary and profane the Sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the Lord’s. (Vayikra 21:10-12)

The Sanhedrin of seventy-one sages would decide whom to appoint as Kohen Gadol (MT, Laws of the Temple’s Vessels and Its Workers 4:12-15).

While the other kohanim wore four special vestments when they served in the Temple, the Kohen Gadol added an additional four, for a total of eight. If he performed his duties wearing only seven of them, it invalidated his avoda. Each of the vestments represents a specific idea and helped atone for sins corresponding to that idea. Thus, our Sages tell us:

The ketonet (tunic) atones for the spilling of blood; the mikhnasayim (breeches) atone for sexual sins; the mitznefet (miter) atones for arrogance; the avnet (sash) atones for sinful thoughts; the ḥoshen (breastplate) atones for injustice; the ephod (apron) atones for idolatry; the me’il (robe) atones for (public) gossip; the tzitz (gold band worn on the Kohen Gadol’s forehead) atones for brazen deeds. (Arakhin 16a).

The Kohen Gadol must be the most pious of the kohanim, one who follows in the footsteps of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, who “loved peace and pursued it; who loved people and drew them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12). To emphasize his devotion to God, the words “Holy to God” were engraved on the tzitz. To express the Kohen Gadol’s feelings of love and responsibility for klal Yisrael, the names of the patriarchs and tribes of Israel were engraved on the stones of the ḥoshen, which he wore over his heart. The shoulder straps of his ephod also featured two precious stones on which were engraved the names of the tribes (MT, Laws of the Temple’s Vessels and Its Workers 9:1, 7-9). Additionally, the Kohen Gadol had to be superior to others in strength, wisdom, beauty, and wealth. If he possessed all of these except for wealth, his fellow kohanim would give him money, so that he would possess all these attributes (Yoma 18a).

If a Kohen Gadol was appointed who was neither pious nor virtuous, be-di’avad the appointment was valid, and the laws pertaining to the Kohen Gadol applied to him. However, it should be obvious that the more righteous the Kohen Gadol was, the more successful he would be in his work to draw Israel closer to their heavenly Father.

The Sages tell us that during the 410 years of the First Temple, eighteen Kohanim Gedolim served. Most of them were righteous, and accordingly were blessed with longevity. In contrast, during the 420 years of the Second Temple, there were over three hundred Kohanim Gedolim. Three of them were righteous and served for extended periods. Almost all the rest were not righteous. They bought their positions from the ruling powers, and their lives were cut short. Thus, we read, “The fear of the Lord prolongs life, while the years of the wicked will be shortened (Mishlei 10:27)” (Yoma 9a).

The shortcomings of the High Priests during the Second Temple period was harmful to the purity and atonement that Israel could attain on Yom Kippur. Ultimately, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews went into a prolonged exile.

04. The Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur

During the year, any kohen could perform the avoda, offering the sacrifices and incense, and preparing the menora for lighting. However, due to the great sanctity of Yom Kippur, only the Kohen Gadol was permitted to perform these duties (Yoma 32b; MT, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 1:2).

The Kohen Gadol offered three types of sacrifices on Yom Kippur. The first category included the daily temidim – two lambs, one offered in the morning, before the rest of the sacrifices, and the other offered in the afternoon as the last of the day’s sacrifices. This category also included the offering of the incense (which was done on the incense altar twice daily, morning and afternoon), as well as preparing and lighting the menora. The second category was the musaf offerings, akin to those offered on Rosh Ḥodesh and the holidays. On Yom Kippur, these consisted of a bull, a ram, and seven lambs for burnt offerings, plus one goat for a sin offering. The third category was specific to Yom Kippur. It comprised a bull for a sin offering to atone for the Kohen Gadol and the rest of the kohanim, a ram as a burnt offering (both of which the Kohen Gadol paid for himself), and two goats to atone for Israel: one goat was a sin offering, and the other was sent out into the wilderness.

The Kohen Gadol had to be married while serving on Yom Kippur, as we read, “‘To make expiation for himself and for his household’ (Vayikra 16:6). ‘His household’ refers to his wife” (Yoma 13a). This is despite the Kohen Gadol’s obligation to separate from his wife for a week before Yom Kippur, to purify and sanctify himself in preparation for the avoda. The reason he was required to be married is that someone who is not married is considered incomplete (Yevamot 63a), lacking joy, blessing, goodness, Torah, protection, and peace (ibid. 62b). The Kohen Gadol had to have one wife only; if he had two wives, he was disqualified from serving (Yoma 13a). For only within a monogamous relationship can ideal unity and love be achieved. Once the Kohen Gadol experienced this unity with his wife, he was also able to unite and connect the Jewish people with their Father in heaven.

An alternate Kohen Gadol was designated; he would step in should the Kohen Gadol become tamei or die (Yoma 2a; MT, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 1:2-3, and Laws of the Temple’s Vessels and Its Workers 5:10).

05. The Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur Vestments

The Kohen Gadol wore his eight special vestments when offering the various sacrifices, as he did on all other days. As detailed in Shemot, chapter 28, they were: the ketonet, mikhnasayim, mitznefet, avnet, ḥoshen, ephod, me’il, and tzitz. The ketonet, mikhnasayim, and mitznefet were white, while the other vestments were various colors, some also threaded with gold. (Therefore, they are sometimes called the “golden vestments.”) The ephod and ḥoshen were blue, purple, scarlet, and white, with gold woven in (Shemot 28:6, Rashi ad loc.). The bells on the me’il were made of gold, as were the tzitz, the straps and rings of the ḥoshen, and the ephod. The settings of the stones on the ḥoshen were also made of gold. Thus, the Kohen Gadol’s vestments were rich in color, expressing the spread of sanctity in this very diverse world. Each vestment represented a specific idea and atoned for a corresponding sin (section 3 above). Therefore, if the Kohen Gadol was not wearing every single one of these items, his avoda was compromised and therefore invalid.

In contrast, for the part of the Yom Kippur avoda performed in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, he wore only his four white linen vestments, as we read, “Thus only shall Aharon enter the holy place…. He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen miter. They are sacral vestments” (Vayikra 16:3-4). If he performed this avoda while wearing his golden vestments, the avoda was invalid. For the special avoda of Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had to raise himself entirely beyond this-worldly concerns. Even though every aspect of this world has positives, alongside these positives are negatives and sins. To atone for them, he had to raise himself to the level of simple unity, beyond the world’s diversity. This unity is symbolized by the color white (Maharal, Gevurot Hashem, ch. 51, and Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-Torah ch. 10).

There is another reason why the Kohen Gadol changed out of his golden vestments before entering the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. “Why doesn’t the Kohen Gadol enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on Yom Kippur while wearing his golden vestments? Because the prosecutor cannot become the defender” (Rosh Ha-shana 26a). Gold is the most glorious of metals. This is the reason that Temple items were made of it – to reveal the glory of sanctity in this world. However, along with its glory, gold also leads people to chase after money and desires, as we see from the episode of the Golden Calf. The Sages tell us that it was the wealth and gold that Israel acquired when they left Egypt that led them to follow their evil inclination and look for a physical representation of the divine, which they then worshipped (Berakhot 32a). Therefore, when the Kohen Gadol entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to purge any impurity from Israel’s faith, he needed to remove his golden vestments and wear his white vestments instead.

06. Immersion and Washing the Hands and Feet

Before a kohen enters the Temple to serve, the Torah commands him to “sanctify” (i.e., wash) his hands and feet, even if he is already tahor. The Sages further require that he immerse his entire body (in accordance with R. Yehuda in Yoma 30a; MT, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 2:3). He need not wash or immerse again as long as he serves continuously. If he urinates, he must wash his hands and feet again. If he defecates or leaves the Temple environs for a significant amount of time, he must immerse his body and wash his hands and feet again (MT, Laws of Entering the Temple 5:3-5).

For immersing, there was a mikveh adjacent to the Temple courtyard (azara), and for washing the hands and feet water was used that came out of the faucets affixed to the kiyor (laver), located between the Sanctuary and the outer altar. The kohen would place his right hand on top of his right foot and wash them together, and then place his left hand atop his left foot and wash them together. A kohen who served in the Temple without first washing his hands and feet was liable to punishment by death at the hands of heaven, as we read:

Make a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it between the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Encounter) and the altar. Put water in it and let Aharon and his sons wash their hands and feet from it. When they enter the Ohel Mo’ed they shall wash with water, that they may not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to turn into smoke an offering by fire to the Lord… (Shemot 30:18-20)

On Yom Kippur, in addition to immersing and washing before beginning the avoda, the Kohen Gadol also had to immerse each time he changed from the golden vestments into the white vestments, and vice versa, as we read, “They are sacred vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on” (Vayikra 16:4), and “Aharon shall go into the Ohel Mo’ed, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the holy place, and leave them there. He shall bathe his body in water in the holy precinct and put on his vestments…” (ibid. 23-24). Additionally, it is a mitzva from the Torah for the Kohen Gadol to wash his hands and feet twice with each change of vestments: once before removing the old set and once after putting on the new. Thus, the Kohen Gadol immersed five times and washed his hands and feet ten times on Yom Kippur (Yoma 32a). During the year, he used the laver like the rest of the kohanim. On Yom Kippur, in his honor, the water was brought to him, in a golden ewer, so that he would not have to return repeatedly to the laver (Yoma 43b).

The idea behind immersing is to become pure and to extricate oneself from an existing state to rise to a new, more elevated state. The white vestments were of a higher rank in that they could bring one to a higher, more abstract plane, and the golden vestments were higher in that they revealed sanctity within the full variety of this world. In order to transition to new, higher states, as expressed in the changing of clothes, the Kohen Gadol had to immerse.

The sanctification (by washing) of the hands and feet was meant to elevate and unite all the energies of the kohanim in service of the divine. The focus was on the hands and feet because they express the actualization of a person’s potential – working with his hands and entrenching his work in the world with his feet. The ten fingers hint at this as well. They correspond to the ten statements with which God created the world (Avot 5:1). Human beings, created in the divine image, use their ten fingers to repair and improve the world.

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had to sanctify his hands and feet twice with each change of clothing. The first time was before removing the vestments he had worn during the most recent avoda, because when a person is privileged to engage in especially holy and uplifting work, it invigorates him and amplifies all his drives, positive and negative. An intense divine light courses through him, protecting him from the amplified desires which might lead him astray. But when he finishes the work, those same desires may snare him. To protect him from them, the Kohen Gadol was commanded to wash his hands and feet before removing the garments. This allowed him to seal in all his energies with holiness, which he tapped into during the avoda. The second time he sanctified his hands and feet was after he put on the new garments. This was to purify all his energies prior to undertaking the next element of the avoda, and to ensure that they were not still preoccupied with his previous avoda (based on Orot Ha-teshuva 14:33).

07. The Incense

Alongside the daily tamid sacrifices the kohanim offered each morning and afternoon on the outer (copper) altar, they offered incense on the golden incense altar each morning and afternoon as well. The korban tamid was meant to express the overt bond between God and the Jewish people. Its blood was sprinkled and its limbs burnt on the outer altar, visible to all, thus concretely binding every creature to God. In contrast, the incense expressed the deep inner connection between God and the Jewish people. It was therefore ethereal, expressing the spiritual bond with God, and it was offered on the inner altar, within the Sanctuary.

The incense was made up of eleven ingredients, finely ground so that they would mix thoroughly and produce an even, pleasant fragrance. This alludes to the idea that fully uniting all the energies of the Jewish people in the service of holiness perfects the world. Ten of the ingredients correspond to the ten levels of holiness which were used in creating the world. The eleventh ingredient was galbanum, which smells bad, corresponding to the negative aspects of the world. However, once the galbanum was ground up and mixed with the other ingredients, not only did it not ruin the incense – it actually improved its fragrance. This teaches us that when all the energies of Israel are united in the service of holiness, the inner positives of Israel’s sinners are revealed; they join with the rest and help repair the world. (See Olat Re’iya, vol. 1, pp. 136-138.)

On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had a unique mitzva to perform: offering a handful of incense in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on behalf of all Israel. It is only for this mitzva that he may enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. As we read, “The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aharon that he is not to come at will into the Kodesh, beyond the parokhet, in front of the kaporet that is upon the Ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the kaporet” (Vayikra 16:2). Only once the smoke of the incense filled the Kodesh Ha-kodashim could he sprinkle the blood of the bull and goat on the kaporet, to atone for the defilement of the sacred. (See section 10 below.)

To grasp the meaning of this cloud of incense smoke, one must first realize that this was patterned on how God revealed Himself to Israel – in the opacity of the cloud. Thus, we read, “The cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day, He called to Moshe from the midst of the cloud” (Shemot 24:15-16). The cloud connotes an exalted and sublime divine revelation, beyond human comprehension. Yet through the fog and cloud, one can reach an understanding of the divine, albeit only partially, in accordance with his capabilities. Thus, we read that after the Mishkan was completed, “The cloud covered the Ohel Mo’ed and the Presence of the Lord filled the Mishkan. Moshe could not enter the Ohel Mo’ed, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Mishkan” (Shemot 40:34-35). Similarly, when the First Temple was dedicated, we read, “The kohanim brought the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant to its place underneath the wings of the keruvim, in the Shrine of the House, in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim…. When the kohanim came out of the Kodesh, the cloud had filled the House of the Lord, and the kohanim were unable to stand and serve because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord” (1 Melakhim 8:6, 11). First was a sublime, exalted revelation that no human being could endure, and only afterward, from within the cloud and fog, would the divine idea become revealed gradually, according to the abilities of the kohanim.

The incense offered by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim expressed the connection of all Israel with perfect faith, rooted in what lies beyond comprehension. Its first manifestation is hidden and concealed by the opacity of the cloud, but from within the cloud it gradually becomes clearer, in accordance with our ability to grasp it. Understanding this, the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to achieve atonement for all Israel.

08. The Procedure for Offering Incense on Yom Kippur

The procedure of this mitzva is as follows: The Kohen Gadol entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim with a panful of glowing coals and a ladle of incense. In the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, he scooped out two handfuls of incense which he placed on the coals. The smoke rose up, mushroomed, spread out through the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, and ultimately concealed the kaporet, as we read, “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. 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 16:12-13). This indicates that even the holiest member of Israel could not comprehend God as He truly is. The Shekhina appears only within smoke and fog, and through the fog, the divine idea is progressively revealed. Therefore, the Kohen Gadol first had to offer incense in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, and only once the Kodesh Ha-kodashim filled with smoke could he fulfill the mitzva (Yoma 53a).

Since the incense expressed the deep bond between God and the souls of Israel, the firepan of incense remained in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim until the day’s avoda was completed. That entire time, its smoke continued to rise. Upon completion of the avoda, the Kohen Gadol entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on behalf of all of Israel, picked up the shovel, and departed.

The Kohen Gadol offered two handfuls of incense, no more and no less (ibid. 48a), alluding to the idea that all his actions and intentions were devoted to klal Yisrael. The Sages tell us that scooping a handful of incense out of the ladle without spilling a single grain was among the hardest jobs in the Temple (ibid. 49b). This alludes to the idea that the Kohen Gadol must try to bind all the energies of Israel to the Kodesh Ha-kodashim without losing even a single spark.

The daily incense was finely ground, but the incense offered by the Kohen Gadol in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim on Yom Kippur was pulverized further to make it superfine. Grinding enables the unification of all the individual particles, and the incense offered in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim had to express a deeper unity.

09. The Two Goats and the Bull

The Yom Kippur avoda includes an astonishing aspect. The bull and one goat, the only offerings of the entire year whose blood was sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, atoned for tum’a (impurity) of the Temple and its offerings – that is, for someone who knew he was tamei and nevertheless entered the Temple or ate sacrificial meat. The bull atoned for kohanim, while the goat atoned for the rest of the people. The other goat – the “scapegoat” that was cast away in the wilderness – atoned for all other sins. How could it be that the bull and goat, whose blood was sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, atoned for only one sin, while the scapegoat atoned for all other sins?[2]

This reflects a very deep and important concept. The root of all sin is a lack of faith, a defect in one’s connection with his Creator, the Source of life. The Temple and its sacrifices manifest faith in the world. Therefore, atonement was primarily dependent upon repairing faith at its root, in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. After faith itself is purged of its impurities, all other sins fall away from a person, because he reconnects with God, yearns to cling to Torah and mitzvot, and understands that all his sins were mistakes, stemming from external temptations. His sins are no longer his. They are consigned to oblivion, sent to Azazel.

The goat sacrificed to God atoned for Israel’s sins of defiling the Temple, but the kohanim, who were responsible for preserving the bond between the Jewish people and God, needed additional atonement, so their offering was larger – a bull as a sin offering. It was also offered first, because the Kohen Gadol had to achieve atonement for any sacrilege that he or his fellow kohanim may have committed before he could achieve atonement for Israel’s defilement of the Temple and its offerings. About this, we read:

He shall take some of the blood from 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. He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood beyond the parokhet, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the kaporet and in front of the kaporet. Thus he shall atone for the Kodesh from the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Ohel Mo’ed, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity…. He shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and atone for it. (Vayikra 16:14-18)

After the Kohen Gadol atoned for impurity in the Temple, all the rest of the sins fell away, and he could cast them away to Azazel in the wilderness. Thus, we read:

When he has finished atoning for the Kodesh, the Ohel Mo’ed, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward (which was waiting to be sent off). Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be cast away in the wilderness. (ibid. 20-22)


[2]. The bull atoned for the kohanim for any defilement of the Temple or sacrifices. According to R. Yehuda (m. Shevu’ot 2:2), the scapegoat atones for all the other sins of the kohanim and the entire nation. Rambam writes this as well (MT, Laws of Sin and Guilt Offerings 11:9; and implies it in Laws of Repentance 1:2) as does Me’iri (Ḥibur Ha-teshuva 1:2). However, according to R. Shimon, all the sins of the kohanim are forgiven with the sacrifice of the bull. Radbaz (4:1108) maintains this as well, as does Rabbi Ḥizkiya da Silva (author of Pri Ḥadash) in his work Mayim Ḥayim.

10. Defective Faith

Many offerings are meant to atone for defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices. On every Rosh Ḥodesh and festival, we are commanded to offer a goat as a sin offering for this purpose. These sin offerings atoned for one who entered the Temple or ate from sacrifices and never knew that he was tamei. It did not atone for someone who later became aware of his impurity; that was achieved by the goat offered as a sin offering on the outside altar on Yom Kippur. Even this offering, however, did not atone for one who intentionally entered the Temple or ate from an offering, knowing that he was impure. This was atoned for by the bull and goat whose blood was sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. The bull atoned for the kohanim, while the goat atoned for the rest of Israel.

In any case, all the communal sin offerings of goats offered on Rosh Ḥodesh and festivals atoned for defilement of the Temple and sacrifices. Thus, our Sages state:

The defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices is more severe than all the sins in the Torah. All the sins in the Torah can be forgiven with one goat (which is sent to Azazel), while the impurity of the Temple and its sacrifices requires thirty-two goats (offered on Rosh Ḥodesh, festivals, and Yom Kippur) to atone for it. Furthermore, all the sins in the Torah are atoned for once a year (through the scapegoat), while the defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices is atoned for every month, as we read, “Assuredly, as I live – said the Lord God – because you defiled My Temple with all your detestable things and all your abominations, I in turn will shear [you] away and show no pity. I in turn will show no compassion” (Yeḥezkel 5:11). Abominable and repugnant sins were bad enough, but defiling the Temple and the sacrifices was worst of all. (Tosefta, Shevu’ot 1:3)

Let us now elaborate: The sin of defiling the Temple and its sacrifices indicates defective faith, from which all other sins and abominations stem. For when a person’s faith is pure, free of any defect and imperfection, he clings to God’s attributes, and the life within him prevails. His every desire is directed toward increasing life and blessing to the world in accordance with the Torah’s guidance; his evil impulse cannot overcome him. However, when his faith is defective, there is a gap between his desires and faith, corresponding to its defects. He imagines that in order to enjoy life he must act against the Torah’s guidance; his evil impulse overpowers him, causing him to sin.

One might say that erroneous ideas about faith are akin to entering the Temple while impure. Thinking about faith is like entering sacred precincts, and when one’s understanding of faith is flawed and defective, whether because he did not study Torah properly or because of bad character, he is entering the Temple of faith while impure. If he then acts upon his mistaken beliefs, he is like someone who eats from the sacrificial meat while impure.

There are several gradations of mistaken beliefs. Generally, a person acts according to what he believes, without realizing that his faith lacks clarity. This is atoned for by the goats offered on Rosh Ḥodesh and the festivals. Sometimes, one is not aware of the contradictions and defects in his faith, but after he has acted upon them, he knows that he has not yet properly clarified his faith. He needs a more serious atonement, which is provided by the sin offering of the goat on the outer altar on Yom Kippur.

At some point, every person reaches a situation that inspires him to think about his life’s purpose, its meaning, and his mission in the world. If, despite one’s awareness that his faith lacks the proper clarity, he continues in his habits, without trying to understand Torah more deeply, to improve his character traits, and to clarify his beliefs, he is like an impure person who enters the Temple knowingly. If he continues on his familiar path, based on his defective faith, without engaging in soul-searching, he is like someone impure who eats from the sacrificial meat knowingly. This is the most terrible sin, because it leads to the destruction of his spiritual world. A divine light suddenly illuminated his soul, for a moment he entered the Temple within his soul, but instead of taking this opportunity to purify himself, clarify his faith, and redirect his life, he chose to remain impure and to continue with his routine. Therefore, only the sprinkling of the blood of the bull and the goat in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, together with repentance, can atone for him.

11. The Procedure of Atoning for the Temple

There are three stages in the process of sprinkling the blood of the bull and the goat to “atone for the Kodesh from the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins.”

Atonement begins in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim – that is, by repairing the root of faith, the “yiḥud elyon” associated with the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is due to this covenant that redemption does not depend on repentance, for God guides the world toward redemption. People’s choices cannot change this; they can only influence the way in which the redemption will arrive – pleasantly or painfully (as explained in 6:4 above). This corresponds to the unique aspect of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, whose existence in this world is miraculous, as it links the eternal with the present, the upper worlds with this one.

The Kohen Gadol stood facing the two poles of the Ark and sprinkled the blood toward it and the kaporet – once upward and seven times downward. He sprinkled the bull’s blood first, followed by the goat’s blood. The sprinkling of blood expresses our devotion to our covenantal bond with God, for blood is life; the blood of the bull represented the blood of the kohanim and the Kohen Gadol, while the blood of the goat represented the blood of Israel.

All the sprinklings were toward the golden kaporet that covered the Ark, which contained the Torah and mitzvot. The keruvim on the kaporet expressed the covenantal bond between God and Israel. It was called “kaporet,” which is etymologically related to kapara (atonement), as it indicates that all of Israel’s actions ultimately reveal faith and divine governance. Even when Israel violates the Torah and is punished, everything will turn out to be for the best; everything will be radiant like gold. When one taps into this level, even the most severe sins of faith are atoned for.

The Kohen Gadol had to count the sprinklings aloud. “And this is how he would count: ‘One. One and one. One and two. One and three. One and four. One and five. One and six. One and seven’” (m. Yoma 5:4). The first sprinkling was upward, to connect with the singular root of faith, the eternal covenant between God and Israel. The other seven sprinklings were downward, to draw down the power of faith and the covenant, thus enabling it to infuse the seven facets of the world, which was created in seven days – so that faith and the covenant, which are the root of redemption, can manifest in the world pleasantly and peacefully, without suffering. The Kohen Gadol always repeated the initial count of one sprinkling upward before each of the seven sprinklings downward, because all seven facets of the world must be connected to the heavenly root of faith, from which they stem.

After sprinkling toward the kaporet in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, the Kohen Gadol went out to the Kodesh and sprinkled toward the parokhet that separated the Kodesh from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, once upward and seven times downward, first with the blood of the bull, which atoned for him and the rest of the kohanim, then with the blood of the goat, which atoned for all Israel. This atonement in the Kodesh corresponded to faith on the level of yiḥud taḥton, i.e., that which appears to us through the hanhaga of justice, which hinges on our actions. (See above, section 2.) This hanhaga stems from the most high covenant, hidden in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim and corresponding to yiḥud elyon and the hanhaga of yiḥud, but its manifestation depends on our choices. If we choose good, goodness and blessing will abound; if we choose evil, good will be minimized while suffering is maximized. The Kohen Gadol first sprinkled upward, in order to connect us and dedicate us to faith in God, Who watches over Israel at all times. Then he sprinkled downward seven times, so that faith in divine providence would be drawn down into all aspects of the lives of each and every one of us.

The atonement process continued at the incense altar, as we read:

He shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and atone for it: He shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar; and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall purify it of the impurity of the Israelites and consecrate it. (Vayikra 16:18-19)

The sprinkling on the incense altar was different from that of the two previous locations. It did not involve sprinkling once upward and seven times downward because the purpose of this atonement was not to draw faith from the upper worlds down to this one, but the opposite; it was to gather up and elevate all the different tendencies in the hearts of Israel and direct them toward complete faith. For every deficiency of faith has a negative impact on people’s character traits, leading them to be angry, dispirited, arrogant, or lecherous.

The sprinklings of the blood on the four corners of the altar, representing the ingathering of faithful yearnings from the four cardinal directions, and seven times on the altar itself, representing the binding together of the seven primary character traits of the heart, link these elements to the eternal covenant that God made with us and our ancestors, as well as to faith in divine providence over us. To unify all these aspects and direct them toward complete faith, the Kohen Gadol had to mix together the blood of the bull and the goat. He then used this mixture to sprinkle the four corners of the altar, and the altar itself seven times.

12. The Two Goats

Now that we have explored the meaning of the atonement achieved by sprinkling the blood, let us explain the mitzva of the two goats, through which the primary atonement of Yom Kippur is achieved, by examining the pertinent verses: “From the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering” (Vayikra 16:5). The Sages explain that the two goats are introduced together to teach that they must be of identical appearance, size, and worth (Shevu’ot 13b). The casting of lots would determine which goat was sacrificed to God and which was sent to Azazel; divine providence is most readily apparent in what seems like fate.

Before casting the lots, the Kohen Gadol had to purify himself. Thus, he leaned on the bull designated as his sin offering and confessed his sins and his wife’s sins. Then:

Aharon shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked “for the Lord” and the other marked “for Azazel.” Aharon shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering [i.e., he brought it to the place designated for the slaughter of sin offerings]; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make atonement with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel. (Vayikra 16:7-10)

The Kohen Gadol again approached the bull designated as his sin offering, leaned on it, and confessed the sins of the rest of the kohanim. He then slaughtered the bull so he could sprinkle its blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. However, to permit his entry into the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, it was first necessary to burn the incense there, expressing thereby the covenantal bond between God and Israel. After offering the incense, the Kohen Gadol sprinkled the bull’s blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. He then returned to the goat designated for God, slaughtered it, and sprinkled its blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to atone for the defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices. As the Torah describes:

He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood beyond the parokhet, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the kaporet [i.e., one upward] and in front of the kaporet [seven downward]. Thus he shall atone for the Kodesh from the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins; and he shall do the same for the Ohel Mo’ed, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity [by sprinkling blood on the parokhet]. When he goes in to make atonement in the Kodesh, nobody else shall be in the Ohel Mo’ed until he comes out. When he has atoned for himself and his household, and for the whole congregation of Israel, he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord [i.e., the incense altar] and atone for it: he shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar; and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall purify it of the defilement of the Israelites and consecrate it. (Ibid. 15-19)

With the completion of the atonement for defiling the Temple and its sacrifices, the soul of Israel was revealed in its purity. It became clear that all the sins clinging to it were due solely to the external influence of the evil impulse. Accordingly, the Kohen Gadol, representing all of Israel, could confess those sins, shake them off, and transfer them onto the scapegoat, which was sent to a desolate, isolated place in the desert. Thus, we read:

When he has finished atoning for the Kodesh, the Ohel Mo’ed, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be cast away in the wilderness. (Ibid. 20-22)

13. The Meaning of the Scapegoat’s Atonement

There are two reasons why goats specifically were used for atonement. First, from an interior perspective, goat blood resembles human blood more than that of any other animals. This finds expression in the exceptional vitality of he-goats, and the sprinkling of their blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim expresses Israel’s yearning to cling to God devotedly. Second, from an external perspective, goats tend to be wild and destructive. The angel of destructive forces and the guardian angel of the wicked Esav are called “se’ir” – goat – because their specialty is destruction and mayhem. When idolaters wanted to save themselves from destruction or wreak destruction on their enemies, they offered sacrifices to goat-like deities, gods of evil and destruction. Therefore, the Torah warns Israel that they must offer their sacrifices to God alone: “They may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray” (Vayikra 17:7; Ramban on 16:8).

On the holy and awesome day of Yom Kippur, when the eternal covenant between God and Israel is revealed, and Israel elevate themselves by fasting and refraining from all bodily desires, the Kohen Gadol could enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim in the name of all Israel and sprinkle the blood of a goat before God, thus expressing the inner desire of all Israel to cleave devotedly to God, His Torah, and His mitzvot. Israel were thereby purified from the defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices. As a result, the kelipot (“husks”) that prevent the light of faith from illuminating their souls were removed. Good and evil, which had been intermingled within them, were now distinct. It became clear that all the sins they had committed were external to them, the result of evil influences that misled them to believe that they would gain by sinning. In truth, these sins wasted their energies, while providing them with no benefit at all. Once evil is separated from good, it loses its power and can no longer lead people astray. For it is only when evil is intermingled with good and life that it can destroy and devastate; when evil is isolated, it returns to its desolate place and fades away. This was expressed in the sending of the scapegoat with Israel’s sins to Azazel in the desert, a desolate and isolated place.

Another profound idea is expressed through the scapegoat sent to Azazel: It was a gift that God commanded us to send on Yom Kippur to Samael, the angel of destruction and mayhem, who dwells in the desert, a place of desolation and devastation. To make it clear that this was not an act of worship, the Torah emphasizes: “The goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make atonement with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel” (Vayikra 16:10). We see that the goat stood “before the Lord,” and it was God Who commanded us to send it away in order to atone for Israel. In the formulation of the Midrash:

Samael said to the Holy One: “Master of all worlds, You gave me power over all the nations of the world, but not over Israel?!” God responded, “You have power over them on Yom Kippur if they have any sin; but if they do not, you have no power over them.” Therefore, we bribe [Samael] on Yom Kippur so that he will not prevent Israel from offering their sacrifice. (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46)

Let us delve deeper into this. All year long we struggle with the evil impulse, but on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol enters the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to bind all Israel to the root of faith, it becomes possible for Israel to consider the entire world from a broad, complete perspective. We can see that the forces of evil are also created by God and have a function; it is because of them that human beings have free will, so it is due to them that people can grow, attain higher levels, and give expression to the image of the divine within them. Nevertheless, these thoughts about the positive value of evil can end up being destructive. People can fool themselves into thinking that when they sin, they are really doing something good. Therefore, only on Yom Kippur, when we deprive ourselves and refrain from all bodily pleasures, did God command us to send a goat to Azazel. Only on Yom Kippur can we show Samael that we understand his importance without being tempted by him. At that moment, Samael is gratified that Israel finally understands him. For the rest of the day, he no longer wants to tempt and accuse us, for he really wants Israel to choose good. He even joins in the effort of defending us.[3]


[3]. The midrash goes on to describe Samael’s defense of the Jews:

Samael saw that they were without sin on Yom Kippur. He said to God: “Master of all worlds, You have one nation that is like the ministering angels in heaven. Just as the ministering angels do not eat or drink, so too, the Jews do not eat or drink on Yom Kippur. Just as the ministering angels go barefoot, so too, the Jews go barefoot on Yom Kippur…. Just as peace reigns among the ministering angels, so too, peace reigns among the Jews on Yom Kippur. Just as the ministering angels are free of all sin, so too, the Jews are free of all sin on Yom Kippur.” God hears the prosecutor petitioning on Israel’s behalf, and he forgives them… (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46)

Maharal, at the end of his homily for Shabbat Shuva, emphasizes an interpretation of evil that views it as absence and lack, as I write in my first explanation in the main text. So states Sefer Ha-hinukh §95 as well. Ramban’s commentary to Vayikra 16:8 follows Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer in emphasizing the bribery theme.

  1. Levi in the Talmud also understands the accuser in a positive light: “The accuser and Penina both had good intentions. When the accuser saw that God was inclined to favor Iyov, he objected: ‘God forbid that He should forget His love for Avraham and Israel!’ (This is why the accuser argued that Iyov was not as perfect as Avraham.) Penina, as it is written (1 Shmuel 1:6), ‘her rival would taunt her to make her miserable” (i.e., Penina taunted Ḥanna so she would pray to God). R. Aḥa taught this idea in Epiphania, and the accuser came and kissed his feet (Bava Batra 16a) – in gratitude for explaining his good intentions.

Nevertheless, the plain meaning of the midrash is that the scapegoat is a bribe in the ordinary sense of the word. Since the forces of evil follow the path of falsehood, trickery, and flattery, we give them a taste of their own medicine with the scapegoat, and they forget their accusations and enjoy the bribe. Thus, we read in the Zohar on Aḥarei Mot, “When the goat reached the mountain [in the wilderness], how happy [the evil forces were]. They were all intoxicated and became sweet-tempered from it, and the accuser who went to prosecute Israel reversed himself and praised them instead. The prosecutor became a defender” (Zohar III 63a). However, this, too, can be understood in a deeper way: The evil forces are elevated to a higher level and remove their masks, showing that they, too, want what is best for the world. Since they are permitted to take a day off from their evil mission, they are happy to come to the defense of Israel.

Perhaps both interpretations of this midrash are correct, each applying to a different scenario. If Israel repent out of fear, then the scapegoat served as a bribe in the plain sense, but if they repent out of love, then just as knowing sins are transformed into merits, so too, the forces of evil are turned into good. This idea may be implied by Zohar, Ra’aya Mehemna on Aḥarei Mot (III 63a-b), which declares that the evil inclination is “very good” (Bereishit 1:31). However, the Zohar goes on to say that the accuser continues to fulfill his role on Yom Kippur, but since all of Israel’s sins were cast to Azazel, the accuser finds Israel free of sin, and he thus comes to their defense. This leads to the cancellation of harsh judgments against the Jews. An additional passage from Zohar (II 184b-185a, on Tetzaveh) compares the scapegoat to a banquet given to an accuser so that he does not disturb the king’s joy in spending time with his son. This banquet is also a sort of bribe, as it blinds the accuser. His accusations rebound on him and his wicked legions. The midrash is thus correct on both levels. As long as the world has not reached ultimate perfection, the inner goodness of evil – the essence of repentance out of love – remains secret. What is recognizable is repentance out of fear. On that level, the scapegoat served as a bribe, tricking the accuser into defending Israel against his will.

Since the person who took the scapegoat to the wilderness encountered the forces of evil, he had to purify himself afterward, as we read, “He who set the Azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may re-enter the camp” (Vayikra 16:28). Zohar on Aḥarei Mot states that the person chosen for this job was especially capable of dealing with the forces of evil (Zohar III 63b), which would explain why he had to purify himself afterward. Even if we contend that the positive aspect of evil was revealed at that moment, as long as the world has not reached ultimate perfection, this is a dangerous secret. Therefore, the man who carried the scapegoat still had to immerse before returning to the camp. See further on this in the book by my friend R. Moshe Odess, Ve-hashev et Ha-avoda, ch. 5. In chapters 2 and 3 he presents a comprehensive overview of the Yom Kippur avoda and explains that the functions of the bull, the goat, and the incense are intertwined. Each stage is a prerequisite for the next one. I have incorporated his important explanations into this chapter.

14. The Complete Order of the Avoda

Now that we have dealt with the special aspects of the Yom Kippur avoda, we will briefly review the chronological order of the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur avoda.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol had to stay awake, to ensure that he would not become impure while sleeping. Throughout the night, he would study Torah together with Jerusalem’s greatest and most honored Torah scholars. If he knew enough to teach, he would teach; if not, they would teach him. In addition, throughout the night, people would sing prayers and praises to God before the Kohen Gadol. If he started falling asleep, young kohanim would snap their fingers to wake him up. If that did not work, they would suggest that he stand (barefoot) on the cold floor. If that did not work either, they would suggest that he do kida – that is, bow so deeply that his head touched the ground while he remained standing on his feet (Yoma 19b; above, 7:14).

Every part of the avoda on Yom Kippur was performed by the Kohen Gadol, to elevate and connect everything to the root of holiness in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim (section 4 above). As on every other day, the first offering was the morning tamid, and the last was the afternoon tamid. When dawn broke and the time came to offer the tamid, the Kohen Gadol stripped off his weekday clothing and immersed in preparation for the day, then donned the gold vestments and washed his hands and feet. He slaughtered the tamid, received its blood, and sprinkled it on the altar, like on any other day. He then entered the Sanctuary to offer incense on the golden altar. He then cleaned and prepared the menora for lighting. He went back out to the copper altar and placed the limbs of the tamid in the fire. He then offered the minḥat ḥavitin (the meal offering that the Kohen Gadol was obligated to bring every day) and poured on it the libation that accompanies the tamid each day.

Next, he sacrificed the additional (musaf) offerings of Yom Kippur: one bull and seven lambs. As we learned, the sanctity of the Yom Kippur avoda had three levels: first, the daily tamid; second the musaf offerings, as on Rosh Ḥodesh and festivals. Having completed these, he could continue to the third level, the special Yom Kippur avoda.

He washed his hands and feet, removed his golden vestments, immersed, put on the white vestments, and once again washed his hands and feet. But before he could offer the goat for God and enter the Kodesh Ha-kodashim to atone for the Jewish people, the Kohen Gadol first had to atone for his own sins by confessing and offering a sacrifice. The Gemara explains, “This is how the divine attribute of din (judgment) works: Better for someone innocent to come and atone for someone guilty than for someone guilty to come and atone for someone else who is guilty” (Shevu’ot 14a). Therefore, the Kohen Gadol was commanded to first bring a bull as a sin offering and confess his sins and his wife’s sins over it, as we read, “Thus only shall Aharon enter the Kodesh: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering” (Vayikra 16:3). Unlike the other Yom Kippur offerings, which were bought with communal funds, the Kohen Gadol had to pay with his own money for the bull of the sin offering and the ram of the accompanying burnt offering. Thus, his personal atonement would be complete, as we read, “Aharon is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to atone for himself and for his household” (ibid. v. 6).

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.

16. The Goat for God and the Final Sprinkling

The Kohen Gadol left the Sanctuary and slaughtered the goat designated for God. He collected its blood in a vessel and re-entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim. He stood facing the two poles of the Ark and sprinkled the goat’s blood, once upward and seven times downward. As we read, “He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood beyond the parokhet, and do with its blood as he has done with the blood of the bull: he shall sprinkle it over the kaporet and in front of the kaporet. Thus he shall atone for the Kodesh from the impurity and transgression of the Israelites, whatever their sins” (Vayikra 16:15-16).

The Kohen Gadol then exited the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, placed the vessel of goat’s blood on a second stand, and picked up the vessel of bull’s blood. He sprinkled it toward the parokhet separating the Kodesh from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, upward once and downward seven times. He then did the same with the goat’s blood. These sprinklings fulfilled the mandate, “He shall do the same for the Ohel Mo’ed, which abides with them in the midst of their impurity” (Vayikra 16:16).

After that, the Kohen Gadol took the vessels and mixed the blood of the two animals together. He walked from the parokhet to the golden altar in the Kodesh and sprinkled blood on its four corners. He cleared away coal and ash from the altar until its golden color became visible, whereupon he sprinkled it with blood seven times. As we read:

He shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and atone for it: he shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar; and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times. Thus he shall cleanse it of the impurity of the Israelites and consecrate it. (Vayikra 16:18-19)

He then went out to the copper altar and spilled what was left of the blood on the western side of its base. Having finished atoning for the defilement of the Temple and its sacrifices, the Kohen Gadol began the process of atoning for all other sins. He approached the scapegoat, placed both hands on it, and confessed in the name of all Israel, as we read:

When he has finished atoning for the Kodesh, the Ohel Mo’ed, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat. (Vayikra 16:20-21)

This was the formula of the third vidui:

Please, Lord, Your people, the house of Israel, have sinned, have done wrong, have rebelled before You. Please, by Your name, grant atonement for the sins and for the wrongs and the rebellions that they have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You – Your people, the house of Israel. 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.”

A we learned, each time the kohanim and the people heard the Tetragrammaton, they would kneel, prostrate themselves, and proclaim, “Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed.” Thus, during the course of the three confessions, the people prostrated themselves nine times. Together with the prostration when the Kohen Gadol pronounced the Divine Name upon casting the lots, we reach a total of ten prostrations.

The Kohen Gadol then sent the scapegoat to the wilderness with a designated agent, as we read, “It shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be cast away in the wilderness” (Vayikra 16:21-22). The man walked to a mountain that was approximately twelve mil (about 11 km) into the wilderness. He then divided the ribbon that was tied to the goat’s horns in two, leaving one part on the goat’s horns and tying the other part to a rock. He cast the goat off the cliff; before it got halfway down the mountainside, it was already dashed to pieces (Yoma 67a).

17. The Conclusion of the Avoda

In the meantime, the Kohen Gadol was removing the ḥelev (certain fats) of the bull and goat (whose blood he had sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim) and placing them in a vessel. Later he would offer them on the outer altar, together with the other offerings of the day. (This was the procedure with all offerings: in addition to sprinkling their blood on the altar, their ḥelev was burnt on the outer altar.) The remaining flesh of the bull and goat were taken outside the Temple precincts to be burned. Many people went to watch the burning, as it vividly expressed the eradication of their sins.

The Kohen Gadol waited while the remains of the bull and goat were burned. When he was informed that the scapegoat had arrived at its destination in the desert, he began reading aloud from a Torah scroll. He read the three sections of the Torah which relate to Yom Kippur: 1) The description of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur, in Parashat Aḥarei Mot (Vayikra 16); 2) the section beginning “On the tenth” that deals with the mitzvot of Yom Kippur, in Parashat Emor (Vayikra 23); 3) the section dealing with the musafim of Yom Kippur in Parashat Pinḥas (Bamidbar 29). Since this section was in a different part of the Torah from the other two, he would recite it by heart, so as not to burden the congregation with the need to roll the Torah scroll.

The Kohen Gadol recited two berakhot, one before and one after the reading, as is typical when reading from the Torah. Afterward, he added seven more berakhot, on the following subjects: the avoda, thanksgiving, forgiveness, the Temple, the nation, the kohanim, and prayer in general.

He then washed his hands and feet, took off his white vestments, immersed, put on his golden vestments, and washed his hands and feet again. Then he went to the outer altar and slaughtered a goat for a musaf sin offering. This was like the goats offered as musaf sin offerings on Rosh Ḥodesh and the festivals (section 10 above).

He offered his ram and that of the nation, both as burnt offerings. He also offered up the ḥelev of the bull and goat whose blood he had sprinkled in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim.

Once again, the Kohen Gadol washed his hands and feet, took off his golden vestments, immersed, put on his white garments, and washed his hands and feet. He entered the Kodesh Ha-kodashim one last time, to remove the firepan and incense he had left there. He did not remove them immediately after sprinkling the blood in the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, because the incense expressed the covenantal bond between God and Israel, so it was necessary for its smoke to continue ascending throughout the Yom Kippur avoda. Presumably there was a special sanctity associated with the last entrance of the Kohen Gadol into the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, which concluded the process of atonement and purification of the Jewish people.

He exited, washed his hands and feet, changed out of his white vestments, immersed, put on his gold vestments, and washed his hands and feet. He concluded the avoda as on any other day: he offered the afternoon tamid, burnt the afternoon incense, and lit the menora.[4]

He washed his hands and feet, took off his golden vestments, and put on his own clothes. He then walked home, escorted by a crowd, celebrating that he had emerged unscathed from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim.


[4]. According to most Rishonim, the afternoon tamid was offered after the Kohen Gadol’s fifth immersion, i.e., after he put on the golden vestments for the last time (Sha’arei Heikhal commentary on Yoma, ed. R. Azarya Ariel, §175). However, Rambam maintains that the afternoon tamid was offered after the third immersion, before the removal of the firepan and incense from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim (MT, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service 4:2). For more about the menora’s cleaning, preparing, and lighting, see Sha’arei Heikhal §20. For everything concerning the avoda of the Kohen Gadol, I made use of R. Yisrael Ariel’s Maḥzor Ha-Mikdash and consulted with his son R. Azarya.

18. The Yom Kippur Avoda in Prayer Today

As part of our Musaf service, the ḥazan describes the avoda of Yom Kippur in the Temple (SA 621:4). According to the Gemara, the ḥazan must be careful and precise in his recitation, to ensure that it conforms with the views that are accepted as halakha (Yoma 36b and 56b), for the recitation of the order of the sacrifices is considered a substitute for actually offering them.

The Sages tell us, “Whoever engages in the study of the sin offering – it is as if he offered one; whoever engages in the study of the guilt offering – it is as if he offered one” (Menaḥot 110a). The Sages also tell us that when our patriarch Avraham learned that Israel continues to exist by virtue of the sacrificial offerings, which keep them bound to God, he asked, “What will happen if the Temple is destroyed?” God responded, “I have already established the sacrificial procedures for them; whenever they recite them, I will consider it as though they are sacrificing to Me, and I will forgive all their sins” (Ta’anit 27b; Megilla 31b). The idea is that every action has a soul, and the soul of each mitzva is what the Torah says about it. Therefore, when it is impossible to offer the sacrifices, if we recite the Torah’s words pertaining to them, it is, in a certain sense, as if we have offered them. This is especially true when we do so publicly, at the time when they would have been offered. The more we understand the halakhic and philosophical meaning of a sacrifice, the greater the value of our recitation.

It would seem that even when the Temple is rebuilt (may it happen speedily, in our day), we will continue to recite the prayers that correspond to the sacrifices as well as the descriptions of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur. During the long exile since the destruction of the Temple, we discovered the power of prayer and the recitation of the offerings, which emphasize the spiritual side of the avoda. They have become too meaningful to give up. Rather, in every synagogue, people will continue to pray, and the ḥazan for Musaf will continue to recite the description of the avoda with awe and trepidation. The prayers and intentions of all worshippers will be combined with the avoda of the Kohen Gadol in the Temple. Those kohanim and people fortunate enough to secure a place to stand in the Temple courtyard will represent all Israel as they witness the avoda with their own eyes. These observers will not need to recite the prayers, because they will be participants in the avoda itself – for they, too, take part in the mitzva. Likewise, in the days of yore, the kohanim and the people standing in the Temple courtyard did not recite the prayers.

May God gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth, return His Shekhina to Zion, sanctify us with His mitzvot, give us a share in His Torah, and purify our hearts to worship Him in truth. May we merit the rebuilding of the Temple speedily in our day. May the sanctity of Yom Kippur be revealed in its full glory, and may God forgive all our sins and bring atonement for all our iniquities. May the light of truth and faith shine forth from the Kodesh Ha-kodashim and illuminate the entire world. May peace and love spread throughout Israel and throughout the world. Thus, God will comfort Zion and its ruins, as it says:

Truly the Lord has comforted Zion, comforted all her ruins. He has made her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the Garden of the Lord. Gladness and joy shall abide there, thanksgiving and the sound of music…. Those redeemed by the Lord shall return and shall come with shouting to Zion, crowned with joy everlasting. They will attain joy and gladness, while sorrow and sighing flee. (Yeshayahu 51:3, 11)

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