Yom Kippur’s Temple Service


Rabbi Israel Chait (written and elaborated by student)


Today, two days before Yom Kippur 5765, Rabbi Chait gave a class on the Yom Kippur Temple service. Rabbi Chait commenced his class, distinguishing between the central focuses of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.


Rosh Hashannah focuses on G-d’s Kingship. This means we are to recognize and accept upon ourselves G-d’s absolute rule as expressed through His creation (omnipotence). G-d’s role as Creator reserves for Him the exclusive cause for all that exists. This translates to absolute Kingship over all. Rosh Hashannah also focuses on His absolute Knowledge (omniscience). G-d alone knows all, and thereby He alone inscribes us for good or evil for this coming year. G-d’s omnipotence and omniscience expressed together on Rosh Hashannah teach that G-d reigns over all, and is knowledgeable of all. Nothing is beyond His abilities, or His knowledge. There is no other cause for the universe and all that fills it.


In contrast, Yom Kippur’s distinction is “G-d’s ineffable name”: the priests would recite G-d’s ineffable name ten times in the Temple during Yom Kippur. Being prohibited to enunciate G-d’s name normally, is to serve as our demonstration that we lack any knowledge of G-d, i.e., we cannot even mention His name, which would suggest we possess some idea about Him. Any description of G-d – even the meaning of His name – is unknown to us. But on Yom Kippur, this actual name of G-d is mentioned ten times. This indicates that on Yom Kippur, there is a closer relationship to G-d. What is this relationship?


Rabbi Chait stated that the very recognition of our ignorance about G-d’s nature atones for our sins. How so? The answer is that through our recognition that we have no concept of G-d, this acknowledgement entitles us existence for another year. We thereby learn that our existence depends on obtaining correct ideas, and our admission of ignorance regarding anything related to G-d. We cannot know G-d, as the Torah says, “…for man cannot know M while he is alive.” So when we admit of this ignorance, we are in fact stating a truth, and when man is in line with truth, G-d’s providence relates to him even more. The more knowledge we attain of truths, and the more we realize we are ignorant of G-d, that is how much more our lives are a reality before G-d and “worth” existence. In other words, as we continually grow in our realization that G-d is not physical, that He possesses no emotions, nor any quality existent in the universe, although we attain no positive knowledge of G-d, we are in fact removing false notions about Him. This act of negating, positions us more in line with truth. Let us now examine the ideas obtained through the Yom Kippur service


After the normal daily service, the High Priest would slaughter the ox, one of many sacrifices on Yom Kippur. But before enacting the central service of this sacrifice – sprinkling of the blood on the Ark’s cover – the High Priests is commanded to interrupt this ox service, and offer the incense in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. Why this interruption? Additionally, the priest must wait until this room is entirely filled with the smoke of the burning incense. What is the meaning behind this waiting period?


The purpose is that the smoke is to create an opaque veil between the High Priest and the rest of the room of the Holy of Holies. This veil is an admission of the “veil” that exists between G-d and man. Maimonides states that Revelation at Sinai too was traditionally explained to have been a rainy day, also a veil of sorts. The cloud and thick cloud at Sinai certainly teaches this lesson, that there is an infinite distance between G-d and man. Even when G-d “reveals” Himself by creating the miracles of Sinai - a closer relationship – nonetheless, only a distant relationship exists between G-d, who is far exalted from anything we can fathom, as mortal, created man.


So the High Priest must acknowledge that man is far removed from G-d, and only through this realization, is the High Priest permitted to then complete his offering. There is a danger that man may think he possesses some idea about G-d. Not only is this false, but until the High Priest admits of his ignorance through the incense’s veil, he is prohibited to continue with his worship, lest he assume he is serving his own fantasy idea of G-d, and not the true G-d. For if we wrongly assume that we do in fact possess some truths about G-d, Temple worship would then be converted to heresy and idolatry. This explains the interruption of the ox sacrifice.


In another class given by Rabbi Chait many years ago, he cited the Talmud that described the most powerful human instincts as a “fiery lion exiting the Holy of Holies in the Temple”. Rabbi Chait explained then, that this teaches us that the most powerful instinct is the “religious emotion”. It is in Temple that man is subject to forming ideas about to whom he is serving. Therefore, the Talmud states that the “fiery lion” (a powerful and dangerous entity referring to the religious emotion) had exited. It is within service to G-d that man must be on his highest level of guard. For it is here that man religious emotions are heightened.


The next sacrifice is the goat of the people. So far there are two sacrifices: the High Priest’s ox, and the peoples’ goat. Why must there be two separate offerings for our sins? We derive a new insight: the priests require their own atonement. What additional atonement do they require? Why can’t they join in the nations goat sin sacrifice? The answer can only lie in the priest’s distinction: Temple service. Meaning, even those who serve in the Temple by G-d’s very command – the priests – are not immune to the instincts, which never cease to cause us to sin. As such, the priests must demonstrate that Temple service is not something that they can perform flawlessly. Therefore, they alone must be atoned through a separate animal. Had they joined the people with the nation’s goat, this lesson would not be learned.


Rabbi Chait mentioned that there is no escape from the control of our unconscious and our emotional drives. This is our nature. Other religions wish to deny this aspect of man, but Judaism does not have heroes or saints, all man’s sins are revealed in the Torah, even those of our greatest prophets. Judaism embraces the acceptance of reality, and foremost, this includes that we are instinctual by nature, that we have an unconscious, and that we possess emotional attractions for matters that the Torah prohibits. 


We learn that Temple itself requires atonement, that is, we demonstrate through the priest’s offering that Temple service is not an area in which man escapes sin - how profound an idea. In other words, we are not worthy of Temple. We make the Temple impure by not guarding ourselves from Torah defined impurities. And when we are in an impure state (contact with the dead for example) and we enter the Temple without purification, we defile the Temple, its vessels and its sacrifices. These sins all require atonement. We cannot properly relate to the requirements of Temple, so in Temple law itself, are the commands to offer atonements for Temple impurities that we commit.


I added that the Rabbis state, “the Day of Yom Kippur ‘itself’ is an atonement.” What is meant by “itself”? I suggested that this means the following: Yom Kippur’s existence as a fixed part of the calendar teaches our unavoidable need to be forgiven. We cannot escape sin, and we learn this as well from there being an eternally fixed day of Yom Kippur, even in the Messianic era. Although we will rise to a higher level of existence during this era, man’s nature will still include instincts. Thus, our recognition that Yom Kippur is essential for our forgiveness impresses us with the idea that man is inherently flawed. Such an idea carves into man’s heart his acceptance of his nature. This acceptance alone atones. How so? As we said, recognition of our nature raises us to be more in line with reality, and additionally, as we accept this reality, we may be moved to reflect o our flaws.


Rabbi Chait also taught that even on the Day of Atonement itself, Yom Kippur, there are infractions committed by the priests and man who cannot control all of their thoughts. Ironically, as we are being atoned for our sins of the year, we continue to have sinful thoughts crossing our minds, and these must be atoned for as well! This is why there are two additional sin offerings later on, in the day of Yom Kippur. To me, this is such a prime example of the honesty of Torah, that it is a system which embraces truth at every turn, and never considers there to be any area or service in which man is bereft of his instinctual nature, and thus, sin.


Now, although we stated that the priests must atone for their own Temple service infractions through a distinct sacrifice, yet, we are one people. Rabbi Chait stated that this is demonstrated by the command of the mixing of the blood of both offerings. Te priest’s animal blood and that of the animal of the nation are intermingled as one.


Returning to the idea that man cannot escape his instinctual drives, no matter how far he progresses in his perfection, Rabbi Chait mentioned the Scapegoat, the Sa-ir Ha-Azazael. The priest confesses the sins of all the Jews, and the Torah euphemistically states that the animal “carries off” our sins to the desert, where this Scapegoat is delivered to its certain death as it is dismembered upon its fall onto Mount Azazael’s rocky slopes. Through this service, we attain recognition that the unconscious emotions in man will lead him too to a most certain, spiritual death. This service is elaborated upon in the article entitled “Saeer L'azazel-The Scapegoat”.