top of page

Yom Kippur:

The Drama of the High Priest


On Yom Kippur, at the climax of the Avodah (the description of the Temple service on Yom Kippur), we sing:

אֱמֶת מַה נֶּהְדָּר הָיָה כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל. בְּצֵאתוֹ מִבֵּית קָדְשֵׁי הַקָּדָשִׁים בְּשָׁלוֹם בְּלִי פֶגַע. 

"How radiant was the high priest's face when he emerged from the Holy of Holies unscathed."

The song sings of the High Priest's face shining like the face of a bridegroom, like an angel, like a candle, etc etc.

But did the Kohein Gadol's face really shine radiantly?

Whose face shone? - Moshe Rabbeinu.

Moshe Rabbeinu descended Mt. Sinai on Yom Kippur with the 2nd Luchot (Tablets), and with a message of divine forgiveness (Shemot ch.34) : "And Moses' face shone."

ומשה לא-ידע, כי קרן עור פניו--בדברו איתו


On Yom Kippur, the High Priest, who enters the Temple's inner chamber - the Kodesh Kodashim - simulates Moses' ascent to Mt. Sinai. This manifests itself in several ways:

1. The Kodesh Kodashim reflects the top of Mount Sinai:


  • Ramban (Ex 25:1; Num 1:1)) says that the Temple symbolizes Mt. Sinai; The Sanctuary structure is restricted to non-priests; just like Mount Sinai (Ex.19:22,24); the inner chamber - the Kodesh Kodashim - symbolizes the Mountain-top. It is the place that Moses encounters God, and the place in which the Law was transmitted. In the 1st Temple, th ekodesh kodashim contains those same Tablets of Stone - the Law.

  • On Yom Kippur the High Priest must enter the innner chamber with a cloud (Lev 16:2) of incense. The peak of Mount Sinai was covered by a cloud, symbolic of God's presence. (Ex 19:9, 16)

The High Priest enters the forbidden sanctuary, just like Moshe did at Sinai, to encounter the Divine.

2. The High priest is fasting just as Moses "He did not eat bread, nor did he drink water" (Ex.34:28)

3. The text mentions that the High priest must enter the Kodesh Kodashim unaccompanied. The same instruction was given to Moses when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets:


שמות לד:ג וְאִישׁ לֹא-יַעֲלֶה עִמָּךְ, וְגַם-אִישׁ אַל-יֵרָא בְּכָל-הָהָר

ויקרא טז:יז וְכָל-אָדָם לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ--עַד-צֵאתוֹ; וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ, וּבְעַד כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל.


4. The High Priest discards his golden garb before entering the Holy of Holies. Why? As the Talmud explains: "The prosecutor cannot act as the defense attorney." What does this mean? The golden garb accuses is Israel for the Golden calf; The High priest enters without any gold upon him.

I am suggesting that the main focus of Yom Kippur is the High priest entering the "virtual" zenith of Mount Sinai; reenacting Moses' encounter with God upon Mt. Sinai, on Yom Kippur, as he received the second set of Tablets.

Moses is invited to the top of Mount Sinai after the debacle of the Golden Calf. It had been Israel's greatest sin; the symbol of the covenant - the two tablets - were smashed.

But now, some time afterwards, God forgives. He invites Moses to craft, together with Him, a second set of tablets just like the first. (Ex 34:1-2)

The High Priest does not receive the Second Tablets. But he emerges with God's blessing, God's covenant of forgiveness. The High Priest's face shines because he is emulating Moshe Rabbeinu after the Egel (Golden Calf).

On Mt. Sinai, God taught Moshe the 13 Attributes of Mercy:

ה' ה' - אני הוא קודם שיחטא האדם, ואני הוא לאחר שיחטא האדם ויעשה תשובה

The covenant renewed AFTER the Great Sin of the Golden Calf means that God knows we are human, we are flawed, we sin. ""I am He before man sins, and I am He after he has sinned and done Teshuva"" But if we show our earnest commitment, God promises to renew the covenant; to forgo the strict law (Din) and to acknowledge that we are merely flesh and blood, אין אדם בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא... כציץ נובל וכענן כלה... we are fallible. God knows that. He wants the covenant to continue despite our flaws. This is an act of great divine love.

Yom Kippur is the day that God forgives us although we are human.

For 25 hours on Yom Kippur, we will seek God's closeness, we will bow (emulating Israel's remorse after the Egel. see Ex.33:7-11) and confess as a sign of remorse for our sins, and God in turn will demonstrate his love and forgiveness.

כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' תִּטְהָרוּ.

As we emerge, purified, our faces will shine as well with the renewal of our relationship with God.

אמר רבי עקיבא, אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מטהרין, ומי מטהר אתכם, אביכם שבשמים

As we close Yom Kippur, Halakha advises us to move directly to the next mitzva; the building of the Sukka. How poignant!   Hazal say that the day after Yom Kippur, Israel began to build the Mishkan. On motzaei Yom Kippur we build our Sukkah that symbolises the Mishkan.

Wishing you all a wonderful year! Gmar Tov!

bottom of page