Nomi Berman


From Sacred Garments to Everyday Clothes

Rabbanit Nomi Berman 

Director of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program, Midreshet Lindenbaum

The details are dizzying.  First in the Torah and then mapped out in seven chapters of Mishnah.  Beginning seven days before Yom Kippur, the schedule of the Kohen Gadol is regimented and intense.  In the world of Halacha, the most mundane of details is laden with significance.

The Torah tell us that, before beginning the Yom Kippur services, the Kohen Gadol “shall be dressed in a sacred linen tunic, with linen breeches upon his flesh, he shall gird himself with a linen sash and cover his head with a linen turban, they are sacred vestments, he shall immerse himself in water and then don them (Vayikra 16:4).  Subsequently, several sacrifices later, we are told that “he shall remove the linen vestments that he had worn when he entered the Sanctuary, and leave them there.  He shall immerse himself in the water in the sacred plan and don his vestments…” (Vayikra 16:24).

Chazal understand from these verses that each time the Kohen dons “sacred vestments” he is required to immerse himself in a mikveh.  On Yom Kippur, the Kohen changes his clothing multiple times, wearing the more ornate priestly garments for the avoda in the outer sanctuary, and the simpler white garments for the avoda in the inner sanctuary.  Throughout the year – and Yom Kippur is no exception – the avodot in the Mikdash are preceded by sanctification of the hands and feet.  The wearing and removing of the sacred clothing is part and parcel of the avoda of the day, and therefore the Kohen must not only immerse himself each time he changes, but also must sanctify his hands and feet.

The net result, the Mishnah tells us, is that “The Kohen Gadol immersed himself five times and sanctified himself ten times on that day… (Yoma, Chapter 3, Mishnah 3).”

The Mishnah elaborates: “They spread a linen sheet between him and the people.  He undressed, went down, and immersed himself, came up and dried himself.  They brought him the gold vestments and he put them on and he sanctified his hands and his feet.  They brought him the daily Tamid… (Chapter 3, Mishnah 4).”

After the description of the Tamid sacrifice, the Mishna tells us that once again, “They spread a linen sheet between him and the people.  He sanctified his hands and feet, and he stripped off.  He went down and immersed, he came up and he dried himself.  They brought him white garments, he donned, and he sanctified his hands and his feet (Chapter 3, Mishnah 6).”

The gemara (Yoma 32a) points out a lacuna in the Mishnah. In Mishnah 6, there is a sanctification “sandwich.”  The Kohen Gadol sanctifies his hands and feet both before and after the immersion.   In Mishnah 4, however, for the first immersion of the day, there is only one hand and feet sanctification.  If this is the case, the math simply does not add up.  At the outset, the Mishnah calls for five immersions and ten sanctifications, but in reality the total in only nine!

The Rabbanan of the gemara reply:  the final sanctification takes place when he removes the sacred garments and wears his daily clothing.  The long day of avodat Hashem is over and the exhausted Kohen Gadol dresses in his own regular clothing, leaving the Mikdash behind and heading home.  Before that final change he sanctifies his hands and feet for the tenth time that day.

The gemara has not only resolved the mathematical “error,” but has also, in its inimitable subtle way, taught us something critical about the nature of avodat Yom HaKippurim.  Sanctification of hands and feet always precedes avodat Hashem.  On Yom Kippur, the last avoda is wearing daily clothing.   As Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch writes, “The thought to be taken away by the final word of the whole great day is… that the whole life inside the Sanctuary and all the rituals which are performed in it only have meaning and value in the concrete life outside the sanctuary … that which is striven for in the sacred clothing must wait for its true meaning for what is accomplished in the regular, daily clothing.”

It’s true in our public lives; there are campaign promises and then there is the presidency.  And it’s also true in our private lives: there are the New Year’s resolutions and then there is the year that follows.

The final avoda of Yom Kippur is to return to our “daily clothing.”  The real work is not in how we spend Yom Kippur, but how we live the moments after, how we bring the inspiration into our daily lives.

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