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Yom Kippur: Why the High Priest Went Home


Seven days before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”) is removed from his home to his chamber in the Holy Temple.

Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Yom Kippur Service, 1:3

[Upon concluding the Yom Kippur service, the Kohen Gadol] washed his hands and feet, removed the golden vestments, dressed himself in his own clothes, and set off for his home. The entire people would accompany him to his home. He would celebrate a festival over the fact that he had emerged in peace from the holy.

Ibid., 4:2

Holiness is transcendence, holiness is withdrawal. Holiness is disengagement from the physical, disavowal of the mundane, departure from the familiar and the everyday.IT sales banner

But holiness is not an end in itself. Holiness has an aim: to return to the very arena it has escaped and remake it in its image. To sanctify the material, to rarefy the mundane, to sublimate the everyday.

On the holiest day of the year, the holiest human being entered the holiest place on earth. To prepare for this confluence of the most sacred points of time, space and spirit, the Kohen Gadol underwent a process of sanctification. He withdrew from his home, from his marriage and family life, from his everyday self. For seven days he secluded himself in the Holy Temple, divorced from the cares and wants of physical life. Only then could he enter the innermost and most sacred chamber in the Holy Temple, the “Holy of Holies,” to draw forth the spiritual essence of life for the year, world and humanity.

When he concluded the Yom Kippur service, he went home. This is not just a fact but a halachah, a law, an integral part of the observance of Yom Kippur. The entire people accompanied him home, for this was the last of a long schedule of offerings and services he performed that day on behalf of the people. For the Kohen Gadol’s return to home life was the ultimate test and validation of the sacredness of the day. It emphasized the fact that not only had he entered into the holy, but he had also “emerged in peace”—that he had succeeded in making his post-Yom Kippur life a tranquil continuum of the day’s holiness.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Av 25, 5746 (August 30, 1986)[1]


[1]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXXII, pp. 106-111.

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With the help of the late Timothy Treadwell, “Grizzly Man”, 1957-2003, I am going to describe to you what it must have felt like to Caiaphas the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur. No one enters the Holy of Holies except for the High Priest, and that but once a year. Before the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), he had to wash himself, put on special clothing, bring burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and… Read more »