The Extreme Sanctity of the Holy of Holies–Revisited

In parashat Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s double parashiyot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we learn of the prohibition to enter the Holy of Holies for any non-sacred purpose.

The Torah, in Leviticus 16:2, records that G-d tells Moses to speak to Aaron his brother, and warn him,  וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת, כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת, that he [Aaron and all future High Priests] 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 should not die; for in a cloud will I [G-d] appear upon the Ark Cover. 

The only time that anyone is allowed into the Holy of Holies (except for repairs) is on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. But even on Yom Kippur, הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל, haKohen haGadol, the High Priest, may not enter the Holy of Holies at all times, but only when he is actively performing the sacred Yom Kippur service.

During only four points of the sacred Yom Kippur service may the High Priest enter the Holy of Holies: 1) To offer his personal sacrifices; 2) To bring the blood of his sacrifice into the Holy of Holies; 3) To bring the pan with the incense; 4) To remove the incense pan from the Golden Altar.

A priest, even a High Priest, who entered the Holy of Holies on any day other than Yom Kippur was subject to the penalty of כָּרֵת, karet, excision by the hands of heaven (Tzav 5767-2007).

The Sefer Hachinuch declares that the prohibition to enter the Holy of Holies was meant to ensure the sanctity of all holy places in both the Tabernacle and the Temple. Not only were ordinary people and ordinary priests prohibited from walking around the Temple plaza without a purpose, but even the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies only at specified times on Yom Kippur.

The Kli Yakar claims that the High Priest was not allowed to enter the Holy of Holies except on the Day of Atonement, because during the entire year the people of Israel were under the influence of the יֵצֶר הָרַע, Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination. Consequently, the High Priest was prohibited to enter since he was a representative of a sinning nation. On the Day of Atonement, however, when Israel has the ability to overcome its evil inclination and even rise to the level of angels, the High Priest, as a representative of the people who have repented and come back to G-d, is permitted to enter the Holy of Holies.

The verse (Leviticus 16:2) specifies that Aaron is only allowed into the Holy of Holies, כִּי בֶּעָנָן, kee beh’anan, in a cloud. The literal meaning of this is that the High Priest may only enter the sanctuary because G-d’s glory has manifested itself there in the “Cloud of Glory” that hovers over the Ark.

The rabbinic sages explained that this also indicates that after the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur he was required to ignite incense to create a cloud, as G-d’s glory appeared on the Ark Cover.

Interestingly, the timing of the lighting of the incense became a subject of a major dispute between the traditional sages (Pharisees) and the Sadducees.

As explained in the Talmud, tractate Yoma 19b, the elder priests would require the High Priest to swear before entering the sanctuary on Yom Kippur that he would not change the order of the traditional High Holiday ritual. The Mishna (Yoma 1:5) describes that the High Priest would often cry because he was suspected of being unfaithful to the traditional beliefs, that he might follow the Sadducee tradition and change the order of the Yom Kippur rituals. The elder priests would also cry because they might have unnecessarily suspected an innocent priest.

The Sadducees would explain the verse, כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת , that I, G-d, will appear upon the Ark Cover in a cloud at the קְטֹרֶת, ketoret, meaning that the incense offering must be lit outside of the actual sanctuary and placed in the Holy of Holies on coals only after the priest enters.

The traditionalists, the Pharisees, would insist that since no one but the High Priest himself is allowed to enter the holy area when the ritual of the Yom Kippur service is performed, the incense needs to be lit in the first chamber of the Tabernacle/Temple before the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies. Therefore, they made the High Priest swear that he would not change the order of the ritual.

It is important to note that even to this day the area of the Temple Mount is regarded as exceptionally sanctified. Therefore, according to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, it is forbidden to stand upon the Temple Mount even though the Temple has been destroyed and a mosque stands upon the mountaintop. Since the rabbis have declared that all Jews today are regarded as טְמֵאֵי מֵתִים, t’may may’tim, defiled by contact with the dead, and hence are both physically and spiritually unclean, they may not stand on the Temple Mount.

There are, however, other authorities who maintain that the prohibition does not apply to the entire Temple Mount, but only to certain sacred areas. While others prohibit visiting entirely, these authorities do allow visitors to visit limited parts of the Temple Mount.

Unfortunately, the Temple Mount today is a highly-volatile area, and under the authority of the Muslims. Consequently, Jews are not allowed to pray or even move their lips while they are on the Temple Mount, even in those areas where they are permitted to visit.

May the day soon arrive that the Temple Mount will be returned entirely to Jewish authority and the Temple rebuilt. We hope and pray that not only Jews, but all inhabitants of the world, will flock to Jerusalem to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah who prophesied (Isaiah 27:13), “And all who were lost in the land of Assyria and all the dispersed in the land of Egypt will bow down to the L-rd in the Holy Mountain at Jerusalem.”

May you be blessed.

This Saturday evening, April 28th through Sunday evening, April 29th is Pesach Shay’nee, the second Passover. Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.