MISHNAH 1:1: Seven days before Yom Kippur, they remove the High Priest from his house [and sequester him] in the Parhedrin Chamber. And they prepare another priest to stand in for him lest he come to be disqualified. R Yehudah says, “They also prepare another wife for him, lest his wife die, for it says, He shall make atonement for himself and for his household (Leviticus 16:6). ‘His household' refers to his wife.” The Sages said to [R. Yehudah], “if so, there is no end to the matter.”
For Jews today, Yom Kippur is a quiet day of fasting and long prayers in synagogue. Some people spend the entire day in synagogue. Others take an afternoon break to walk outside or nap at home. The tone is serious, if not even somber. Our prayers beseech God to forgive the wrongs we have committed during the past year; our fast atones for them. On Yom Kippur, we rehearse our death: we neither eat nor drink; we wear white (some Jews wear the actual shroud in which they will be buried); we abstain from sex, bathing, pleasure, and entertainment; we focus solely on our lives from a spiritual perspective.
For Jews living during the time of the Second Temple, Yom Kippur was quite different. The rituals in the Mikdash in Jerusalem were elaborate, complex, and dramatic. People gathered to watch, hear, and smell it all. Sacrifices were made. The High Priest recited formulas of atonement for himself, his household, the priests, and the people before entering the Holy of Holies where he utters the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. We briefly recall these rituals during the Avodah service, attempting to imagine what is temporally and culturally distant from us. The climax of the day came when two goats were chosen, one to be sacrificed and one to be exiled to Azazel in the wilderness, carrying the sins of all the people. The morning Torah reading recalls this ritual. The day had an air of celebration because it conveyed to people God’s forgiveness.
The first mishnah in Yoma, the tractate on Yom Kippur, describes the preparation of the High Priest a week prior to Yom Kippur. Given his importance in the dramatic rituals of the day, the need for preparation is not surprising.
The mishnah has three parts: (1) We are told that the High Priest leaves his home and resides in a special location on the Temple Mount called the Parhedrin Chamber for the week prior to Yom Kippur. On Yoma daf 8 the Gemara derives the name “Parhedrin” from a term for Roman officials who were appointed annually for a one-year term, suggesting that high priests were appointed this way during the Second Temple period. The High Priest was sequestered here to prevent his becoming disqualified to serve on Yom Kippur. Why seven days? In Leviticus 8:33-34 Moses instructs Aaron and his sons to remain in the Tent of Meeting for seven days prior to the consecration of the Tabernacle, a ritual that involved kapparah (atonement). This is taken as a model for the High Priest’s sequestration in preparation for Yom Kippur. Reish Lakish, however, derives the seven days from Moses’ envelopment in a cloud on Mount Sinai, as described in Exodus 24:16. The most likely source of disqualification would be having sexual intercourse with his wife were she to become a menstruant. There are other substances that could render him ritually impure, as well. Confining the High Priest to the Temple Mount reduces the chances that he comes into contact with them. Yet, despite all precautions, it is not impossible, and so another priest is prepared simultaneously to take over should the High Priest become defiled or otherwise unable to perform his duties.
(2) Leviticus tells us that the High Priest must “make atonement for himself and for his house[hold].” R. Yehudah understands the term “house” to mean “wife”—the Rabbis commonly understood the term this way—and concludes that this means that the High Priest needs not only a standby to perform his rituals, but also a standby wife in case his wife dies just prior to, or during, Yom Kippur.
(3) The Rabbis say that R. Yehudah’s call for a backup wife goes too far. If we must be concerned that his wife will die, ought we not be concerned that the standby wife will also die? And if we entertain concerns on this level, there is no end to the concerns that could be raised to which we would have to respond. Yet we should give R. Yehudah his due: An entire nation was relying on the High Priest to facilitate atonement with God for them. Were the High Priest’s wife to die, he would become a mourner, highly distracted by his loss, and possibly unable to perform his crucially important duties on behalf of the entire nation of Israel.
Perhaps the Rabbis’ intent is to draw a line between reasonable and excessive preparations and precautions. Hence, worrying about the wife suddenly dying is not reasonable, but concern about him become ritually impure is less unlikely and hence more reasonable.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Can you imagine a spiritual purpose to the High Priest’s week of separation in the Parhedrin Chamber? If you were the High Priest, in addition to avoiding ritual defilement and reviewing the rites of Yom Kippur, how would you have used the time? How do you prepare for Yom Kippur?
- Is it reasonable to sequester the High Priest in the Parhedrin Chamber for a week prior to Yom Kippur? If you don’t think it is, how should the needs of the individual High Priest be balanced with the needs of the nation?
- Are there times when you, or those around you, have difficulty distinguishing between preparations and precautions that are reasonable and appropriate and those that are overblown and unreasonable? How do you determine what is justified and rational, and what is not?