“The High Priest’s Dilemma–What to Wear on Yom Kippur?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Torah reading from Leviticus 16:1-34 that is read on Yom Kippur morning in synagogues throughout the world describes the death of Aaron’s two sons and details the Yom Kippur service performed by the High Priest.

On the 17th of Tammuz, less than six weeks after having received the Ten Commandments on the 6th of Sivan, the Children of Israel sinned with the Golden Calf. On the first day of Elul, Moses went up to heaven for forty days and nights to beseech the Al-mighty for forgiveness for the Jewish people, and finally returned on the 10th of Tishrei with the second set of Tablets, assured of G-d’s forgiveness. This fateful day was ordained for posterity as Yom Kippur, the eternal day of forgiveness.

Yom Kippur was to be celebrated (it was considered a happy day) in future years in the Tabernacle and in the Temples with elaborate rituals of forgiveness. The comprehensive ceremony of forgiveness, which was very demanding on the High Priest, consisted of, among other things, the bringing of the שְׁנֵי שְׂעִירִים, the two he-goats.

For the highly symbolic ritual of atonement on Yom Kippur, the High Priest wore two sets of vestments. One set of clothing, known as בִּגְדֵי זָהָב, the golden vestments, consisted of eight garments, four of which contained gold. The other set of garments called בִּגְדֵי לָבָן, white vestments, were made entirely of white linen.

During the Yom Kippur ceremony, the High Priest changed his clothes five times, each time immersing himself in a Mikveh and washing his hands and feet, both before and after changing garments. Thus, the High Priest went to the Mikveh five times on Yom Kippur, and washed his hands and feet ten times.

The Torah, in Leviticus 16:3-4, provides highly specific instructions regarding the manner in which the High Priest is to enter the קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים, the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum. בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ, Thus, shall Aaron come into the sanctuary, with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for an elevation offering. Regarding the vestments of the High Priest, the Torah in Leviticus 16:4 states: כְּתֹנֶת בַּד קֹדֶשׁ יִלְבָּשׁ, וּמִכְנְסֵי בַד יִהְיוּ עַל בְּשָׂרוֹ, וּבְאַבְנֵט בַּד יַחְגֹּר, וּבְמִצְנֶפֶת בַּד יִצְנֹף, בִּגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ הֵם, וְרָחַץ בַּמַּיִם אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ וּלְבֵשָׁם, He shall don a sacred linen tunic; linen breeches shall be upon his flesh, he shall gird himself with a linen sash, and cover his head with a linen turban; they are sacred vestments–-he shall immerse himself in water and then don them.

Why was it necessary for the High Priest to change his garments so frequently? Apparently, when performing the basic rituals of Yom Kippur, the High Priest wore the golden garments. However, during the portions of the service when the High Priest sought forgiveness for sin for the Jewish people, he wore the white garments. The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 26a explains that the reason for this was to conform to the Talmudic principle that אֵין קָטֵגוֹר נַעֲשֶׁה סַנֵּגוֹר, a prosecutor cannot become a defender.

In the early 1970s, Carl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, authored a book called, Whatever Became of Sin, decrying the fact that people at that time no longer called bad things “evil,” often preferring to simply explain evil away. Debby Boone said it best in the famous song of the 70s, You Light Up My Life, singing the words, “It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right.”

Today, we are quick to assume that mass murderers are “sick,” and Jihadists are “abnormal.” While some of these people might well be mentally ill, there are certainly those who are simply evil, and we should not explain away their actions by attributing them to a malady. These are people who are evil, who perpetrate evil for the sake of evil. These actions must be recognized as evil, and the perpetrators punished for their wickedness.

Even in Jewish life today, many rabbis argue that we no longer have the ability to properly fulfill the mitzvah of תּוֹכָחָה, Tochacha, of reproof. Therefore, it is often best to withhold reproof. Unfortunately, many of us fancy ourselves as modern-day Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, would-be Chasidic rabbis who often focus on a Jew’s personal merits, thereby covering up or explaining away the improper actions of that person.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin speaks out strongly against those who justify every infraction committed by a Jew, too often finding excuses to explain away their sinfulness. A doctor who refuses to disclose the true diagnosis to the patient, argues Rabbi Sorotzkin, is often harming the patient, rather than helping him or protecting him.

Therefore, says Rabbi Sorotzkin, when the High Priest addresses the people of Israel, he must wear his golden vestments, reflecting strong leadership and unimpeachable authority. This way, the High Priest can speak firmly to the people, and reprove them for their sinfulness, enabling them to reflect on their sins and repent. However, when the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) communes directly with G-d, beseeching the Al-mighty to intercede on behalf of His flock and to forgive them for their misdeeds, he must wear the simple white linen vestments, the symbol of virtue, purity, modesty and humility.

That is obviously the reason for the custom of Jews to dress in white on Yom Kippur, and to wear a white Kittel, as a symbol of purity, to meekly beseech forgiveness.

May we all be granted the Divine pardon with great love.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה Shanah Tovah and a גְּמַר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה, a very Happy and Healthy New Year. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

Yom Kippur will be observed this year on Friday evening, October 3rd through nightfall on Shabbat, October 4th, 2014. Have a most meaningful fast.

The first days of Sukkot will be observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, October 8th, 9th and 10th, 2014. The intermediary days (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.