Before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., on Yom Kippur, and only then, the High Priest would enter the most sacred space of the sanctuary, the section of the Temple called “the Holy of the Holies,” and beg forgiveness—first for sins that he and/or members of his house had committed, then for expiation for the trespasses of the priestly clan, and finally, he would beg for pardon for the iniquities of the entire people of Israel. As part of each of these three invocations, he would pronounce the most hallowed of the names of God, the tetragrammaton, a privilege restricted only to the High Priest, and to him only on Yom Kippur, and only for these specific petitions for forgiveness.
This annual religious pageant created an almost magical atmosphere with a combination of fear, reverence, and exhilarant joy—fear for the safety of the High Priest during his encounter with an ultimate holiness, reverence for the Creator of the universe, joy and hope at the potential for the remission of sin.
In later generations, when all that remained of the ceremony was perhaps an inflated memory of its glory, the synagogue service for Yom Kippur incorporated a section describing in words and music the magnificent drama of past Yom Kippurs. The magic was to some degree re-created, as is borne witness to by the epilogue to the drama—a description of the appearance of the High Priest after he left the Holy of the Holies.
[How magnificent the High Priest looked when he completed his task and emerged from the Holy of the Holies—complete, whole, at peace; unharmed by his encounter with the sacred.]
This is how he appeared to those who saw him:
...like the beauty reflected in the tents of celestial beings;
...like glorious lightening emanating from animated angels.
...as sparkling as the bright blue fringes on the four-cornered garments of pious men.
...like the image of a rainbow in the middle of a cloud.
...like the glory with which God the Creator had clothed His newly created creatures.
...like a rose planted in a most favored pleasant garden.
...like a wreath placed on the forehead of a king.
...like the grace glowing on the face of a bridegroom.
...like the purity enveloping the headband of a priest.
...like Moses secreted from all, pleading for his people before God the King.
...like the morning star greeting the rising sun at its entry from the east.
Translation: Rabbi Morton M. Leifman
Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.