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Acharei Mos

In this week’s parashah, the Torah describes, in detail, the order of the Service of the Kohain Gadol (the High Priest) in the Tabernacle and the Temple on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Since, unfortunately, we no longer have the Holy Temple, we recite the Service in the repetition of the Mussaf Prayer on Yom Kippur. After the description, we say, “Fortunate is the eye that saw all of this; indeed to hear about it makes our souls grieve.” In other words, the recollection of what things were like and how they were done at the time of the Temple makes us lament its destruction and yearn for its restoration. And this yearning is what encourages us to do that which we have to in order to merit the coming of Moshiach and the renewal of the Beis Hamikdash.

The first time I was privileged to visit the Kosel Hama’aravi (the Western Wall), I was a guest in the home of the tzaddik, Reb Shalom Shvadron zt”l. He asked me if I saw the pool which is said to be the mikveh (ritual bath) where the Kohain Gadol would immerse himself five times throughout the Yom Kippur Service. Reb Shalom told me that, being a kohain himself, seeing that sight fills him with tremendous emotion as he thinks to himself – right here, at this very spot, is where it all happened!

Surely, being at the Holy Wall and its surroundings makes it easier for us to stimulate our imagination and envisage what went on there. But just suppose we had a video, two thousand years old, in which we could actually see the ceremony itself. How exhilarating that would be. It would certainly cause us to grieve over what is no more and to yearn for its return. Well, unfortunately we don’t. However, the closest to it is an eye-witness account written by a Roman who lived in the Holy City of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple. It is brought in the siddur of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, after the Tashlich prayer. He, apparently, found it in a book called Shevet Yehudah. At the end, Rabbi Emden explains that he included this description “So that we should know what we lost because of our sins; to grieve and supplicate; to return to our G-d. May He return and have mercy upon us; may He gather together our dispersed. And may He restore the Service to its place, choose for us our estate, and may our offerings be sweet to Hashem as in days of old; may He accept our sacrifices, and renew our days as in ancient times, Amen.”

The following translation is from the book “The Yom Kippur Avodah,” by Rabbi Menachem Moshe Oppen, published by C.I.S. Publishers.

The second service is the coming of the Kohain Gadol to the Beis Hamikdash. They did not tell me how he served in the Beis Hamikdash, but they told me about his going in and of his departing from the Beis Hamikdash. I saw some of it with my own eyes and was astonished. I then said “Blessed is the One who shared His Honor with these people.”

Seven days before the (special) day called Yom Kippur (which is the most honorable of all days for the Jewish people), they prepared in the Kohain Gadol’s house seats for the Beis Din, the Kohain Gadol, the deputy to the Kohain Gadol and the king. Aside from these, seventy chairs were prepared for the seventy members of Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court).

An old sage of the Kohanim would stand up and say to the Kohain Gadol words of admonishment. He said: “Be aware before Whom you are entering. Consider that if you don’t perform as intended, you will fall and die. Consequently, the forgiveness of all of Israel will be lost. Behold, the entire nation of Israel is turned towards you. Scrutinize your ways lest you have even a small sin, for sometimes one sin can outweigh many Mitzvahs. The balance is known only to Hashem, the G-d of all thoughts. Also, inquire of the Kohanim, your brothers, and purify them. Pay heed that you are coming before the King of Kings who sits on a throne of judgment and seeks out with His eyes all evil. How can you come if the enemy is with you?”

The Kohain Gadol then answered that he had already scrutinized himself and repented from anything which seemed a sin. The sage also gathered his brothers the Kohanim in the Azarah (courtyard) of the Beis Hamikdash and made them swear in the Name of the One Who dwells in the Beis Hamikdash that everyone should report whatever wrong he sees in his friend or whatever fault he himself has. The sage would assign to each of them the method to achieve proper atonement.

The king encouraged the Kohain Gadol and assured him of honor upon his peaceful departure from this holy place.

After this, they would announce in which direction the Kohain Gadol would go to his special room in the Beis Hamikdash. Then all the people would go out to accompany him. They walked in a certain order. This is the order in which I saw them walk before him:

First went the descendents from the Kings of Israel, because those closer to the Kohain- in the procession are more important.

After them went members of the royal family of Dovid, all in a proper order, one after the other. A crier went before them and proclaimed: “Give honor to the royalty of the House of Dovid.”

After them came the House of Levi and the crier proclaimed: “Give honor to the House of Levi.” They numbered thirty-six thousand. Their deputies wore blue silk clothing. The Kohanim wore white silk. These numbered twenty-four thousand.

Then came those Levi’im who sang in the Beis Hamikdash, followed by musicians, trumpet blowers, the keepers of the gates, the makers of the perfumes for the incense, the makers of the paroches, guards, officers and a group called Cratophilus.

They were followed by anyone who worked in the Beis Hamikdash, the Sanhedrin of seventy and one hundred police who held silver rods in order to make a path.

After them walked the Kohain Gadol.

He was followed by the elders of the Kehunah who walked in pairs.

At the entrance to each street the Roshei Yeshivah (heads of Talmudic academies) rose saying: “Sir, Kohain Gadol, may you come in peace. Pray to our Creator that He should sustain us in order that we should be able to learn Torah.”

When the procession reached the gate of the Har Habayis (the Temple Mount), they first prayed that the Kingdom of Dovid should continue and then they prayed for the welfare of the Kohanim and for the Beis Hamikdash. The sound of the multitudes was so powerful, that when they answered “Amen,” flying birds fell to the ground. Then the Kohain Gadol bowed towards the people and turned away in tears and awe. Two deputies of the Kehunah walked him to his room where he was separated from all his brothers, the Kohanim.

This took place when he entered. However, when he left, the honor he received was double as much, for all the people in Yerushalayim passed before him. Most of them had torches of flaming white wax. All wore white clothes. All the windows were decorated with embroidery and full of lights.

The Kohanim told me that many years the Kohain Gadol couldn’t reach his house before midnight because of the great numbers of people who came and the great congestion. Even though the people were all fasting, they would not go to their houses till they tried to reach and kiss the hand of the Kohain Gadol.

The following day, the Kohain Gadol hosted a great feast. He invited his friends and relatives and made a day of festivity to celebrate his safe emergence from the Kodesh Hakodoshim (the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple). Afterwards, he would have a craftsman make a golden tablet and engrave it to read: “I, So-and-So, the Kohain Gadol, the son of So-and-So, the Kohain Gadol, served as Kohain in the Great and Holy House, for the service of He Who caused His name to rest there, in Such-and-Such a year after creation. May the One who granted me the merit of this service also grant the merit to my children after me to stand in the service of Hashem.”

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel