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The Inner Sanctum

Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16-18 )


"God spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons, when they approached before God and they died: And God said to Moshe – Speak to Aharon, 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 should not die; for in a cloud will I appear upon the Ark-cover." (Vayikra 16:1-2)

After the death of the two sons of Aharon, who perished when they approached God in an inappropriate fashion, the Torah provides instructions for the proper entrance to the holy area "within the curtain." This is a place where God is manifest; the symbol of the epiphany is a cloud. The inner sanctum, the place of extreme holiness, can only be approached when performing the proper rites; the consequence of inappropriate entrance is death.1 Toward the end of the narrative we are told that this service may only be performed on one day a year, a day that has become known as Yom Kippur:

"This shall remain for you an eternal decree – In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and you shall not do any work, neither the native nor the proselyte who dwells among you: For on this day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you; from all your sins before God shall you be cleansed: It is a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; an eternal decree." (Vayikra 16:29,31)

The Torah enumerates many rites that must be performed on that day, but the inner sanctum, the cloud, and the death sentence for violating it are mentioned only in the context of one action – the entry into the area behind the curtain, which is therefore considered the apex of the ritual.

"He shall take a shovelful of fiery coals from atop the Altar that is before God, and his cupped handsful of finely ground incense-spices, and bring it within the Curtain. He shall place the incense upon the fire before God – so that the cloud of the incense shall blanket the Ark-cover that is atop the [Tablets of the] Testimony – so that he shall not die." (Vayikra 16:12-13)

The cloud that envelops the area is a result of the K'toret – the incense that is brought inside. Regarding this central service we find a difference of opinion between mainstream rabbinic authorities and the Sadducees. Two groups, called by historians Pharisees and Sadducees, vied for control of the Temple and religious leadership during Second Temple times.2 Each claimed to know the proper way to perform the Yom Kippur service; each claimed to be the bearer of the true tradition. The mainstream approach to the argument has been that the Pharisees followed the Torah as explained by the rabbis through the generations, while the Sadducees felt themselves unconstrained by rabbinic exegesis.3 The Rabbis taught that the Kohen Gadol should enter the inner sanctum and then perform the service, namely the incense should be offered only in the Kodesh haKodoshim, while the Sadducees taught the incense was prepared outside and carried in already lit. This "minor" distinction sufficed to pit the two groups against one another. As far as we can ascertain the pharisaic approach was almost always the one performed, even though the high priesthood became a position that could be bought for money4 during the Second Commonwealth, and many a corrupt or unlearned priest5 craved the opportunity to be bedecked in finery and be the star of the production. Yearly, the leaders would instruct the kohen gadol in the laws which he needed to know to represent the people. At the end of the instructions they would make the Kohen vow that he would perform the procedure according to tradition and not in the manner of the Sadducees:

The elders of the court handed him over to the elders of the priesthood and they took him up to the upper chamber to the house of Avtinas. They adjured him, took their leave, as they said to him: Sir High Priest, we are messengers of the court and you are our messenger and the messenger of the court. We adjure you by Him that made His Name to dwell in this house that you do not change anything of what we said to you. He turned aside and wept and they turned aside and wept. (Yoma 18b)

Why this became the center of the controversy is unclear; perhaps the Sadducees felt the need to express their beliefs and dictate and control the service on this holiest of days more than any other. However, other episodes reported in the Talmud indicate that the difference went beyond the technical, beyond any struggle for control. In one of the most tragic episodes of the Second Temple period, the longstanding incumbent Kohen Gadol abandoned Rabbinic tradition, which he had himself had practiced for many years:

Have we not learnt: Believe not in thyself until the day of thy death? For lo, Yohanan Kohen Gadol officiated as High Priest for eighty years and in the end he became a heretic?6 [Brachot 29a] (See Yoma 9a, Sotah 33a, 47a-b)

What was it that pulled this religious leader to abandon his own long-held traditions and practices? Perhaps it is significant that the method of the service according to the Sadducee rite was technically simpler: Performing the service as mandated by the Halacha required far greater dexterity. Could ease alone have provided the motivation? Such a position may be supported by evidence of the arguments raised by a different, contemporaneous sect regarding a different issue:

For the Boethusians held that Shavuot must always be on the day after the Sabbath. But R. Yohanan ben Zakkai entered into discussion with them saying, 'Fools that you are! whence do you derive it'? Not one of them was able to answer him, save one old man who commenced to babble and said, 'Moshe our teacher was a great lover of Israel, and knowing full well that Shavuot lasted only one day, he therefore fixed it on the day after the Sabbath so that Israel might enjoy themselves for two successive days'. (Menachot 65a)

While the convenience of long weekends is no trifle, it is hard to believe that such an argument would tempt a long-standing kohen gadol to adopt Sadducean practice. Moreover, the Talmud records a case of a Sadducee who finally had the chance to perform the rite according to his beliefs, with devastating results:

Our Rabbis taught: There was a Sadducee who had arranged the incense without, and then brought it inside. As he left he was exceedingly glad. On his coming out his father met him and said to him: "My son, although we are Sadducees, we are afraid of the Pharisees." He replied: "All my life was I aggrieved because of this scriptural verse: 'For I appear in the cloud upon the Ark-cover.' I would say: When shall the opportunity come to my hand so that I might fulfill it? Now that such opportunity has come to my hand, should I not have fulfilled it?" It is reported that it took only a few days until he died and was thrown on the dungheap and worms came forth from his nose. Some say: He was smitten as he came out [of the Holy of Holies]. For R. Hiyya taught: Some sort of a noise was heard in the Temple Court, for an angel had come and struck him down on his face [to the ground] and his brethren the priests came in and they found the trace as of a calf's foot on his shoulder, as it is written: And their feet were straight feet, and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot. [Yoma 19b]

It is hard to believe that small pleasures or convenience would be worth forfeiting one's life for, as did this renegade Kohen Gadol. Can it be possible that any kohen, or any Jew, did not know the consequences of improper service in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur?7 Surely, this Kohen Gadol must have believed that his method of performing the Yom Kippur ritual was the correct one; indeed, this gemara reflects the well-known tradition that the death sentence for inappropriate service in the Holy of Holies is both absolute and according to some, immediate.

The two versions of the demise of the Kohen recorded in this gemara may be associated with two different aspects of the sin. The first, "worms came forth from his nose", relates directly to the K'toret and its pleasant scent: this person who performed the rite in an inappropriate manner had worms come from his nose. The sense of smell was the only one of the senses not corrupted8 in the sin of eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This last, pure sense may be the vehicle through which mankind regains purity Yom Kippur. The Sadducee Kohen Gadol, then, sullies the K'toret, transgressing with the sense of smell, and is therefore punished in kind.

The second approach spoke of an imprint of a calf's foot on his shoulder. The calf relates to the sin of the Golden Calf (which was confused with the calf's foot from the vision of Yechezkel). The Golden Calf is the prototype of inappropriate worship; therefore it is the Calf from the vision of Yechezkel that comes down to stomp on this "Golden Calf" worshiper. We must recall that Yom Kippur was the day that the Jews were finally forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf.9

The Sadducee Kohen Gadol in this episode sounds incredibly sincere: He attests to having waited his entire life for this moment, to fulfill this verse. Mere pragmatism, even fear of retribution by the Pharisees, could not sway him. He insisted on fulfilling the Torah as he understood it. This should be our strongest indication that the difference between the two methods of Yom Kippur service are more than cosmetic, more than technical. The divergence between Rabbinic practice and Sadducean practice was based upon something much deeper, much stronger.

Amazingly, the speech given by this kohen gadol is echoed by none other that the great Rabbi Akiva when he chooses death over submission to the Roman decree to cease Torah study:

When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the Kingship of Heaven. His disciples said to him: "Our teacher, even to this point?" He said to them: "All my days I have been troubled by this verse, 'with all thy soul', [which I interpret,] 'even if He takes thy soul'. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it?" He prolonged the word ehad until he expired while saying it. (Brachot 61b)

Both speakers express a lifelong ambition to fulfill a verse, and now with the opportunity presented it would not be lost. How ironic that the great gesture of martyrdom of Akiva is thus linked to this wrongheaded rebellious priest. The literary allusion was most likely not lost on Akiva's audience: Their master was subtly telling them what is worth dying for, and what is a sad waste of life. People are willing to sacrifice their lives for all types of causes; who is the true martyr and who the fool?

What, then, is at the heart of the argument between the Sadducees and tradition? The rabbis claimed that the K'toret was burned inside, while the Sadducees argued that it was to be lit outside and then carried in. Apparently, the Sadducees felt that only when covered by a cloud of smoke can man enter that awesome place; it is inappropriate for man to stand before God in the Holy of Holies while uncovered. Perhaps the deaths of Aharon's sons served as a warning to stay away from brazenly approaching holiness.

Rabbinic tradition stands in contrast to this viewpoint: When man follows the Word of God, he is sufficiently equipped to enter, and then to create the cloud within the Holy of Holies.10 We recall that in Eden, only after partaking of the forbidden fruit did man feel the need to hide from God.

"And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day; and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the Garden." [Bereishit 3:8]

The cloud of K'toret alludes to Torah as the link between man and God: this image of entering the cloud reminds us of the Revelation, when Moshe entered the cloud to receive the Torah. Rashi explains the relationship:

"For in a cloud will I appear" means, for I constantly show Myself there with My pillar of cloud, and because the revelation of My Shechinah takes place there he should take care not to make it his habit to come there. This is the literal meaning of the verse. The Halachic explanation is; He shall not come into the Holy of Holies except with a cloud of incense on the Day of Atonement. (Rashi 16:2)

Rashi draws a line between this cloud of incense and the cloud that hovered above Sinai, the "pillar of cloud". The Ramban goes even further, explaining that the entire idea of a Temple was for the cloud from Sinai to have a permanent resting place: This singular Sinaitic experience was meant to have a yearly repetition. The date of Yom Kippur also points in this direction, for on the Tenth of Tishrei the People of Israel was forgiven for the sin at Sinai, the Golden Calf. It is the day that the Torah was finally accepted on earth, when Moshe descended with the new Tablets.11

The Sadducee Kohen Gadol felt the need to cover himself, to enter the Holy of Holies hidden in the cloud of K'toret. In this view, God's greatness makes Him unapproachable; even on that one day a year when man does come close he must cover up. Perhaps this argument represented the entire Sadducee approach: Man must be distant from God because of His greatness. Man therefore cannot be a part of the halachic process, creating new interpretations and applications of the Word of God. In the philosophy of the Sadducees, man is incapable of ongoing dialogue with God.

While the Sadducees saw God as overly distant and ultimately non-approachable, the Rabbis taught that man could enter, as Moshe did, and form a partnership with God, and even have a say in the understanding of Torah. Through the study of Torah we can approach God. All of this is encapsulated within the ritual of the K'toret on Yom Kippur, and is expressed by the order in which the various steps are carried out: Does the Kohen Gadol enter "as is", or covered by the cloud of K'toret?

It is no coincidence that the story of Rabbi Akiva's martyrdom for the sake of Torah study is read each year as part of the Mussaf prayer on Yom Kippur, immediately following the description of the rites of the day performed by the Kohen Gadol. The verse of Shema which perturbed Rabbi Akiva, declaring God's oneness and unity, also commands us to be one with God, and is the most universal and enduring refutation of the philosophy of the Sadducees.

As the Yom Kippur service comes to an end, there is a moment of special closeness with God. The Ark is open and the entire congregation stands, looking at the Torah within. We conclude our prayer with the Shema, then calling out in unison "Blessed be the glorious Name of the King forever and ever." With perfect faith we declare "God is the Lord"; the shofar is sounded, hearkening us back to the moment when the Torah was given at Sinai, and we conclude: Next year in Jerusalem! The entire community returns to their homes purged of sin, cleansed. They feel one with God. This time, the hour of Ne'ilah, is our own version of the inner sanctum, the closest we can get to God on this special day of approaching Him. The vehicle of the K'toret is no longer available to us, but God maintains His ties to us, and we may draw near to Him through Torah. Rabbi Akiva must surely be quite proud.

  1. Rashi 16:2 writes "For if he comes into the Holy of Holies at any time other than Yom Kippur he will die."
  2. The Rambam (commentary to Pirkei Avot 1:3) understood that the Sadducee leadership was for the most part the former Hellenized Jews who preferred new Greek ideas to "old" Jewish ones. When the Greeks were expelled, these Jews – who in reality had rejected the Oral and the Written Torah – felt unable to publicly reject the written Torah, so they rejected what they could, namely the Oral Tradition.
    Whether this analysis would stand up to critical scholarship, especially in light of the scrolls unearthed in the Judean Desert, is questionable.
  3. The Sadducees should not be confused with the Kararites, both for historical reasons, and for ideological reasons. These heretical groups were separated by hundreds of years. The Kararites rejected the existence of Oral Torah, while the Sadducees rejected the Rabbinic tradition of the Oral Torah; Sadducees did follow an oral "tradition", though it was not the same as the rabbinic tradition.
  4. The Talmud (Yoma 18a) tells of one transaction: A tarkabful of denars did Martha, the daughter of Boethus give to King Yannai to nominate Yehoshua ben Gamala as one of the high priests.
  5. The ignorance of some of these priests is illustrated by the fact that at times they didn't even know how to read: If he were a sage he would expound, and if not, the disciples of the sages would expound before him. If he was familiar with reading [the scriptures] he would read. If not they would read before him. From what would they read before him? From Job, Ezra and Chronicles. Zechariah ben Kubetal said: Often have I read before him from Daniel (Yoma 18b).
  6. The generic term for heretic, min, is used here in the published text, implying Sadducee. In his commentary to Kiddushin 66a, the Ritva quotes this passage, actually using the term Sadducee.
  7. Following the Rambam's identification of the Sadducees with Hellenized Jews, we might see hints of hedonism in this position. Nonetheless, such a position is incongruous with the life-ending gesture taken by this Kohen, unless he never believed that he would perish.
  8. Bnei Yissacher, Purim.
  9. The clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur in the inner sanctum were not to be made of Gold so as not to serve as a reminder of the sin of the Golden Calf see Rashi 16:4, based on Rosh Hashana 26a R. Hisda said: Why does not the High Priest enter the inner precincts in garments of gold to perform the service there? Because the accuser may not act as defender.
  10. Rabbenu Bachaya (commentary to 16:2) says that once inside the cloud is needed so that one not look brazenly at the holiness.
  11. See Taanit 26a and Rashi "Zeh Matan Torah." 


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