Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Aharei Mot- Kedoshim

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parshat Aharei Mot- Kedoshim 5758/1998

Parshat Aharei Mot: The Ritual for the Day of Atonement?

Menahem Ben-Yashar

Department of Bible

Chapter 16 of Leviticus is known as the sacrificial service for the Day of Atonement, and indeed it was set as the Torah reading for the morning of the Day of Atonement. So it appears on the surface, but closer inspection raises a question: generally the sections on the laws of the holidays begin with the date of the holiday, which explains why the festivals are also known as "appointed times," mo'adim, and these sections often also include the name by which the festival is known. For example, regarding Passover, Exodus (12:3) reads, "... on the tenth of this month"; and Leviticus (23:5), "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord". In a somewhat different style, but still beginning with the appointed time, Deuteronomy (16:1) says, "Observe the month of Abib and offer a passover sacrifice to the Lord your God." The same goes for the reference to the Day of Atonement in the listing of the holidays in Leviticus (23:27): "Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement."

In contrast, chapter 16 of Leviticus, Parashat Aharei Mot, begins by mentioning the death of Aaron's two sons and immediately thereafter sets forth the details of the sacrificial worship to atone for the sanctuary, the priests and the congregation. Only at the very end of the chapter is the date mentioned: "And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial" (16:29).

This peculiarity, among other perplexing things in the chapter, has been discussed by some of the more eminent Talmudic scholars of later generations (aharonim). At the end of Hokhmat Adam, as part of an appendix on the rules of mourning (after the author mentions that the death of the righteous brings expiation just as the Day of Atonement does), Rabbi Abraham Danzig cites the Vilna Gaon's opinion that the sacrificial worship set forth in this reading is not unique to the Day of Atonement. Aaron the high priest, who is mentioned at the beginning of the reading, could enter the Holy of Holies, "behind the curtain," whenever he wished; rather, we should say, whenever he saw it proper and necessary. Proof of this is found in Leviticus Rabbah (21.7, Margaliyot edition, pp. 483-484), which cites Rabbi Judah b. Rabbi Simon: "It is not as you might think, ... rather any time he wished, he could enter, provided he entered according to this procedure."[1]

Indeed, we can find support for this opinion in a careful reading of the text itself: the only one addressed directly in the beginning of the reading is Aaron, and only Aaron himself is commanded to perform the service of expiation, and described as he who performed it, in the first part of the reading. In contrast, the latter part of the reading, from verse 29 on, addresses the entire congregation of Israel, commanding them to celebrate the tenth day of the seventh month as a fast day for expiation of their sins, a law for all time. This being so, it would concern not only Aaron, but also any high priest "who has been anointed and ordained to serve as priest in place of his father" (16:32). This passage alone deals with the Day of Atonement for all generations, obliging the entire people to fast and refrain from work on the very day on which the high priest performs the annual service of atonement on their behalf.

The author of Hokhmat Adam uses this fine distinction, cited in the name of the Vilna Gaon, to resolve an halakhic difficulty concerning the atonement service, between the law as detailed in the Torah and its implementation in practice as established by the Sages in the Talmud. The difference lies in the order of the actions, and consequently also in the number of immersions to be made by the high priest. The Torah lists two immersions (verses 4 and 24), whereas the halakhah requires five: one rabbinic--the immersion that any priest performs before ministering--and another four that were unique to the service of the day.[2]

This is what the Vilna Gaon answers: The order as set forth in the plain meaning--the peshat-- of the Torah, applies to the first part of the reading, which is addressed entirely to Aaron in person; indeed, this is how Aaron was to perform the service, "at any time he wished," in the stated order of rituals [seder ha-avodah] and with only two immersions.[3] But there was a difference between this and the sacrificial service of the Day of Atonement for later generations, which is the subject of the second part of the reading on atonement and to which the Talmudic halakhah set forth by the Sages, both as regards the order of service and its five immersions, applies.[4]

The Vilna Gaon's hiddush raises the following question: Could Aaron really perform this ritual "at any time he wished"? In its very nature and purpose it was an act of expiation, as set forth in verse 16: "Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites; and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness." Was Aaron indeed permitted to enter with incense into the Holy of Holies at any time, if not for the purpose of atoning for specific ritual transgressions and uncleanness?

The answer seems to lie in the opening verse of the reading, in which Moses is addressed "after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord." This introductory verse serves to point out that the service of expiation performed by Aaron was tied to the sin and death of his sons. By bringing alien fire into the Sanctuary that had not been commanded (Lev. 10:1), they violated the sacred service in the Tent of Meeting. As a result of this violation they died in the sacred precinct (ibid., vv. 2-5), making it unclean, so that the Sanctuary had to be purified. This was the act that Aaron was commanded to perform here in our Parasha, immediately after the sin and death of his sons, that is, in the month of Nissan-- not on Yom Kippur. Indeed, that he did so is attested by the last verse of the chapter (34): "and he did as the Lord had commanded Moses."[5]

Perhaps Aaron also had to expiate the Sanctuary and purify it on other occasions, such as after the episode with Korah and his followers, for which the incident of Aaron's sons served as a precedent and warning.[6] In the Korah episode as well, people who were not priests brought incense in their pans within the precinct of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 16:18), and died there in a fire (v. 35). Afterwards, Aaron may have again performed an act of expiation similar to that which he was commanded in this week's reading.

The main service of expiation performed by Aaron was thus to purify the Tabernacle and to purge it of the uncleanness caused by the Israelites. On the other hand, the set service of the Day of Atonement performed every year acquired a new motif: to make expiation for all of Israel and cleanse them of their sins (v. 30), and this was to be an everlasting law, for all generations (v. 34).[7]

Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai's point seems well-taken,[8] that the fixed Day of Atonement was set for the tenth day of the seventh month, in preparation for the Feast of Tabernacles, which begins on the 15th of the month.[9] The Feast of Tabernacles is called The Festival, He-Hag, in the language of the Bible[10] and in the language of the Sages.[11] It is the Feast of the Harvest (Exodus 23:15; 34:22), the festival of thanksgiving, after gathering in all the grain and most of the fruits from the fields. Hence, it is this festival that has the longest,[12] most joyous, and most massive[13] pilgrimage. In anticipation of that pilgrimage festival, of that great meeting between the Lord and the people who had come to visit His presence, the Day of Atonement made expiation for both: the people of its transgressions, and the Sanctuary of the uncleanness that had come to be in it.[14]

The fast of theDay of Atonement is self-denial that expresses confession and repentance. But fasting also reveals another, special motif for Yom Hakkippurim: on this day the high priest enters the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple represented the continuation of the Revelation on Mount Sinai in the time of Moses; that is, the place where the Divine Presence was focused: in the cloud at Sinai (Exodus 19:9; 24:15-18), and in the Holy of Holies, "for I appear in the cloud over the cover of the Ark" (Lev. 16:2).[15]

The place of the Divine Presence on earth is beyond the realm of human beings, therefore it is said of the time Moses spent atop Mount Sinai -- the middle and last forty days spent to atone for the sins of Israel-- that "he ate no bread and drank no water" (Exodus 34:28). Likewise, on the day the high priest enters the Holy of Holies he neither drinks nor eats. There he atones for the people, and the people show their identification with him by refraining from food and drink and other needs of the flesh.

To conclude, we return to the point with which we began: Our Parasha portrays a ritual which was broader than the annual atonement on Yom Kippur. Moses was like a member of the family with the Lord, "trusted throughout My household" (Numbers 12:7). Three times Moses entered the cloud of the Lord's presence on Mount Sinai.[16] The last two times were to atone for the sins of Israel. His brother Aaron, his successor in the high priesthood,[17] was granted the special privilege of entering the site of the Lord's presence in the Tent of Meeting whenever necessary in order to atone for sins. Aaron's successors in the priesthood were limited in this privilege to a single day in the year, the Day of Atonement.

[1] Cf. also Exodus Rabbah 38.8; Pesikta de R. Kahana, Buber ed., p. 176; ??? 10.7 (48b-49a, Buber edition). Some commentators on Midrash Rabbah have said that this meant whenever he wished on the Day of Atonement. Some read "any year" instead of "any time." Still others interpreted the text as referring to entering the sanctuary[heichal], not necessarily the Holy of Holies. This does not seem to be correct, since the reading is precisely about the Holy of Holies: moreover there would be nothing remarkable about entering the sanctuary, since any priest was entitled to enter there to minister the sacred service.

[2] Mishnah Yoma 3.3.

[3] Hayei Adam lists three immersions, adding the rabbinically ordained first immersion prior to entering to minister, to the two immersions explicitly mentioned in the reading.

[4] On the reasons for the differences between the two types of atonement, see Rabbi M. Breuer's remarks in Pirkei Moadot, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 512-516.

[5] Exodus Rabbah 38.8, near the discussion of Aaron entering "the Holy of Holies at any time," presents a parable of a pedagogue who enters the king's presence to defend the king's son. It also mentions the garments worn by the high priest when he enters the Holy of Holies, which resembled the clothes worn by the ministering angels: white garments, resembling the garb of a common priest.

[6] See Tanhuma, Buber ed., Korah 11.44b-45a; Tanh. Korah 5; Numbers Rabbah 18.8.

[7] It is with great hesitation that I suggest the hypothesis that the Torah's commandment of the sacrificial service for all generations on the Day of Atonement only went into force after entering the Land, like the rest of the commandments concerning the holidays, mentioned along with the Day of Atonement in the section on the holidays (Leviticus 23), according to Menahot 4.3. Sending the Azazel goat off to the wilderness seems to stand for clearing the sins and their consequences out of the agricultural land, off to a barren place. This would only apply in the Land of Israel. Be that as it may, when the passages of the Torah on atonement and on the festivals were given to the Israelites (both occur in Leviticus, before the sin of the spies), they were supposed to enter the land immediately, not to tarry in the wilderness for forty years.

[8] Presented by S. Loewenstam, under Yom ha-Kippurim in Encyclopedia Mikrait , vol. 3 (Jerusalem 1958), p. 595. The bibliography there (p. 600) does not mention Tur-Sinai.

[9] Perhaps this is parallel to Passover, preparations for which are begun on the tenth of the first month (Ex. 12:3), in anticipation of making the paschal offering at the close of the 14th of the month and eating it on the fifteenth (vv. 6, 8). This connects the two ways of dividing the month: into two halves, the first concluding at dusk on the 14th and the second commencing on the eve of the 15th; and into thirds, the first third concluding on the tenth day of the month.

[10] I Kings 8:2; 65.

[11] E.g., Sukkah 4.2;5.

[12] Seven days, according to Deuteronomy 16:15, but actually eight if one includes Shemini Atzeret, as opposed to one day in the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Deut. 16:7-8) and the Feast of Weeks.

[13] Cf. S. Safrai, Ha-Aliyah le-Regel be-Yemei ha-Bayit ha-Sheni, Tel Aviv 1965, p. 190.

[14] When Ezekiel, in his vision of the future, sets the atonement of the Sanctuary (also?) at the beginning of the first month, Nissan, in anticipation of Passover (Ezekiel 45:18-21), perhaps this should be seen as going hand in hand with his vision of a change in the nature of the land, whose fruit trees "will yield new fruit every month" (47:12). When trees yield fruit every month of the year, the Feast of Tabernacles will cease to be important as the harvest festival and it will be transferred to Passover.

[15] Without getting into the interpretation of this verse according to the plain sense (peshat) and the halakhah, it appears that the use of "cloud" here alludes to the cloud that descended on Mount Sinai.

[16] Not counting the Lord's revelation to Moses at the burning bush, also on the same mount (Exodus 3:1-2), and when Moses struck the rock, at Horeb (17:6).

[17] Cf. Leviticus Rabbah 11.6, pp. 226-228; Tanhuma, Buber edition, Hukkat 21, pp. 58a-b; Pesikta Rabbati 14, p. 63b; Shoher Tov 99.4, pp. 212a-b, and Taanit 11b.