Philosophy of Yom HaKippurim’s Temple Service


Rabbi Israel Chait (Written by student)


Rabbi Chait commenced by distinguishing the central focuses of Rosh Hashannah and Yom HaKippurim. 

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

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

Rabbi Chait stated that the very recognition of our ignorance about God’s nature atones for our sins. How so? The answer is that our recognition that we have no concept of God entitles us to existence for another year. We thereby learn that our existence depends on obtaining correct ideas, and our admission of ignorance regarding anything related to God. We cannot know God, as the Torah says, “For man cannot know Me while alive” (Exod. 33:20). So when we admit of this ignorance, we are in fact stating a truth, and when man is in line with truth, God’s providence relates to him. The more truths we accept, and the more we realize we are ignorant of God, this proportionately increases our reality before God: our worth/life increases. In other words, as we continually grow in our realization that God is not physical, that He possesses no emotions, nor any quality existent in the universe, although we attain no positive knowledge of God, we are in fact removing false notions about Him. This act of negation, places us more in line with truth. Let us now examine the ideas obtained through the Yom HaKippurim service. 

After the normal daily service, the High Priest would slaughter the ox, one of many sacrifices on Yom HaKippurim. But before enacting the central service of this sacrifice—sprinkling blood over the Kaporess (the Ark’s cover)—the High Priest 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 God and man. Maimonides states that Revelation at Sinai too was a rainy day, also a veil of sorts. The cloud at Sinai certainly teaches this lesson, that there is an infinite distance between God and man. Even when God “reveals” Himself by creating the miracles of Sinai—a closer relationship—nonetheless, a distant relationship exists between man and God, who is far exalted from anything we mortals can fathom. 

The High Priest must acknowledge that man is far removed from God, 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 God. 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 of what is God, and not the true God. For if we wrongly assume that we do in fact possess some truths about God, 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” (Yoma 69b). Rabbi Chait explained this teaches that the most powerful instinct is the “religious emotion.” It is in Temple that man is subject to forming ideas about whom he serves. Therefore, the Talmud states that from the Holy of Holies, the “fiery lion” had exited (a powerful and dangerous entity referring to the religious emotion). It is in service to God that man must be on his highest guard. For it is here that man’s 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 goat of the people. 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 nation’s goat sin sacrifice? The answer can only lie in the priests’ distinction: Temple service. Meaning, even those who serve in the Temple by God’s very command—the priests—are not immune to their 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 attraction towards Torah prohibitions.  

We learn that Temple itself requires atonement. That is, we demonstrate through the priests’ 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 (viz. contact with the dead) 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. 

Rabbi Chait also taught that even on the Day of Atonement itself—Yom HaKippurim—there are infractions committed by the priests and man who cannot control all 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 the day of Yom HaKippurim. 

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. The blood of the priests’ sacrifice and that of the goat of the people 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 brought up the Scapegoat, the Seir HaAzazael. The priest confesses the Jews’ sins and the Torah euphemistically states that the Scapegoat “carries off” our sins to the desert, where this Scapegoat is delivered to its certain death as it is dismembered upon its fall over Mount Azazael’s razor sharp vertical slopes. Through this service, we attain recognition that man’s unconscious emotions will lead him too to a most certain, spiritual death. This service is elaborated upon in Rabbi Chait’s lecture “The Scapegoat”: