“The Sanctity of The Holy of Holies”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s double parashiot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, the Torah recalls the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Abihu, and warns the remaining priests to protect the sanctity of the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.

The sanctuary of the Mishkan, the temporary, portable Tabernacle, which the Jews used as they wandered in the wilderness, and the sanctuaries of the First and Second Temples, were divided into two. The front chamber, which contained the Menorah, the Candelabra, the Table of the Showbread and the Golden Altar, was called the “Holy,” whereas the back, smaller chamber contained only the Ark and was called the “Holy of Holies.”

After the death of Nadav and Abihu, G-d speaks to Moses and says, Leviticus 16:2, “Dah’bayr el Aharon ah’chee’cha, v’ahl yah’voh v’chol ayt ehl ha’koh’desh, mee’bayt la’pah’roh’chet, ehl p’nay ha’kah’poh’ret ah’sher ahl ha’Aron, v’loh yah’moot, kee beh’ah’nahn ay’rah’eh ahl ha’kah’poh’reht,” Speak to Aaron your brother–he shall not come at all times into the Sanctuary, within the Curtain, in front of the Cover that is upon the Ark, so that he shall not die; for in a cloud will I appear upon the Ark Cover.

The connection between the deaths of Nadav and Abihu and the commandment prohibiting entry into the Holy of Holies seems rather nebulous. Rashi, commenting on Leviticus 16:1, clarifies the connection by citing the parable of Reb Elazar ben Azarya, who compares it to a sick person, who was warned by the doctor not to eat cold food or sleep in a damp place. A second doctor also warned him to be careful, but, in addition, reminded him that another patient had died from not heeding his warning. The second doctor’s admonition was far more impactful than the first. By mentioning the death of Nadav and Abihu, the message of guarding the sanctity of the Sanctuary and the punishment for its violation registered more powerfully on the priests.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch identifies, and elaborates on, the mitzvot that are derived from the prohibition of entering the Holy of Holies “at all times.” The Chinuch notes that even priests are prohibited from entering any part of the Sanctuary, except during the actual service. The High Priest is also warned not to enter the Holy of Holies, except during the ritual parts of the Yom Kippur High Holiday service. Lay priests who enter the sanctuary when not performing the actual service, or even a High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies on any day other than Yom Kippur, would be subject to the penalty of “Mee’tah bee’day shah’mah’yim,” excision at the hands of G-d.

The High Priest was permitted to enter the sanctuary and Holy of Holies only on the Day of Atonement and only to perform four specific parts of the service: 1. To offer his personal sacrifices; 2. To bring the blood of the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies; 3. To bring the firepan with the incense; 4. To remove the incense pan from the Golden Altar. Entering at any other time would be a violation, and would subject the High Priest to Karet, premature death. The Kli Yakar raises the question of why the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only on the Day of Atonement and not at other times. The Kli Yakar argues that the reason for the prohibition is because during the year most of the people of Israel are in a possible state of sinfulness. However, it is assumed that on Yom Kippur, all of Israel would be in a state of purity and Teshuvah, making it an appropriate time for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies.

By strictly limiting entry into the Holy of Holies, the sanctity of the Tabernacle was not only maintained, but also elevated. There is no question that limiting entry into the Holy of Holies to one day a year created a special aura and mystique that would impress the people greatly and would significantly help effectuate the Teshuvah process on Yom Kippur.

An interesting question is raised about the role of the Levites, whose responsibility it was to erect and disassemble the Holy of Holies many times throughout the course of the forty year trek in the wilderness and the early times of the Judges, until the more permanent Tabernacle was established in Shiloh. Were the Levite workers able to enter the Holy of Holies? It could very well be that the Tabernacle did not become sanctified until it was completely assembled and erected, and therefore the Levites could go in and out of the not-yet-sanctified chamber without a problem. Or, it may very well have been that the Levites were able to assemble the columns and the covers from outside the Tabernacle without ever entering the Holy of Holies.

The Midrash reports that the permanent Temple of Solomon and the Second Temple had a storage location, or a second floor, on top of the Holy of Holies, on top of the Sanctuary itself, to store boards and supplies. Through holes in the roof or a trap door, the workers were able to lower themselves in a large box, supported by a rope, into the Holy of Holies. Being surrounded on all sides by the box, the workers were completely blocked off from the sanctity of the Holy of Holies, except for the parts of the walls that needed repair.

From the highly restricted entry into the Holy of Holies, we learn much about the idea of sanctity. Rashi’s comment on the second verse of this week’s second parasha, parashat Kedoshim, notes the “secret” of sanctity. Leviticus 19:2,“Kedoshim tee’yoo,” You shall be holy, says Rashi, means “perushim,” you shall be separate! Of course, it means to separate from any sin, illicit relationships or immorality. Separate also underscores the exclusivity that is reflected in the idea of holiness.

People often want what they cannot have. The cache of exclusivity makes an item or a location more desirable. The sanctity of the Sanctuary and of the Holy of Holies was meant to raise the worshipers’ desires and establish a special relationship with what the sanctuary represents–the Shechina, the Divine Presence. Even though worshipers themselves could not enter the Sanctuary, the priest or High Priest became their surrogate, representing them, allowing the worshipers to feel that they had a part in the rituals and to take pride in knowing that the rituals were being performed on their behalf.

This is an important message for contemporary times that is repeated quite often in my messages. If we Jews lose our exclusivity, our sanctity, by acting and behaving like everyone else, our “Jewish days” will be numbered. Although it is often unpleasant to be judged by a higher standard, we dare not give up those higher standards, allowing ourselves to be judged like all other people.

A Jew should always be one who strives to better him/her self to such a degree that the very inner soul of the Jew should itself be transformed into a Holy of Holies. May you be blessed.

Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, is observed this year Sunday night, April 14th, and all day Monday, April 15th.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day,will be observed on Monday night, April 15th, and all day Tuesday, April 16th.

Yom Ha’atzmaut Samayach!