Last Wednesday, a demonstration of the the Yom Kippur Temple Service was held in Hebron adjacent to the Cave of the Patriarchs. The rare display allowed participants to get a glimpse of what was once the glory of the Temple service.
The reenactment was initiated by the Midrasha L’Ad Hamikdash, headed by Mordechai Persoff, and the nascent Sanhedrin. Rabbi Hillel Weiss, spokesman for the nascent Sanhedrin, explained to Breaking Israel News that the reenactment was not just for benefit of the spectators.
“In the days of the Temple, for one week before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) practiced the service in order to prepare,” said Rabbi Weiss. “One opinion stated that this was a commandment from the Torah, as part of the holy day itself.”
The essence of the day is atonement. The Kohen Gadol asked for forgiveness for himself, for his household, and for all of Israel.
For the demonstration, the Kohanim (priests) used silver horns that are ready to be used in the Temple, and wore clothes that are specially prepared use in the Temple. The belts worn by the regular Kohanim are shatnez, a mix of wool and linen that is forbidden except when used to make clothes for the Kohanim. In the demonstration, the Kohen Gadol wore a representation of the Choshen Hamishpat (breastplate) and the golden headband upon which was inscribed “Kodesh La’Hashem” (Holy to God). Behind the Kohanim, on the left side, is the seven-branched menorah that was lit every evening in the Temple. To the right are two models of the racks that held the show-breads. In the center is a model of the small, golden altar, upon which the incense was burned.
In preparation for the Yom Kippur service, two identical goats without blemishes were selected. Shani (scarlet wool) was wrapped around their horns. Lots were chosen to determine the fate of the goats. One goat was sacrificed on the altar and the other was taken to a cliff named “L’Azazel”, where he was thrown over the edge. If the sacrifice succeeded in atoning for Israel’s sins, the wool on the horns of both goats miraculously turned white.
The goats are arranged on either side of the Kohen, who chooses the two lots, putting one in his right hand and the other in his left. One lot says “L’Azazel”, described in the Talmud as a “harsh place”, and the other says, “La’Hashem” (to God). He then places the lots on the forehead of the goats, indicating the fate of each goat.
After the goat that received the lot inscribed “La’Hashem” is ritually slaughtered, the blood is caught in a special container and brought to the altar where it is sprinkled on the white stones. The container used for this must be swirled so the blood will not coagulate, hence the bottom is pointed so it cannot be rested on flat surface. The demonstration did not include slaughtering the goats, which were not suitable to be brought as a Yom Kippur sacrifice in any case.
Yom Kippur is the only time when the Kohen Gadol goes into the Kodesh Kedoshim (Holy of Holies) the inner sanctum of the Temple where the aron habrit (ark of the covenant) is kept, covered in gold and capped with two cherubim. The aron habrit contained the stone tablets inscribed by Moses, and the remains of the tablets inscribed by God. Before the Kohen enters, the room is filled with smoke from the incense, made from eleven ingredients. The incense can only be burned in the Temple.
The Kohen Gadol changed clothes several times during the Yom Kippur service, immersing in a mikveh (ritual bath) between changes. The Talmud specifies that he entered the Holy of Holies wearing white clothes, since gold may remind God how Israel sinned with the Golden Calf.
Certain parts of the Temple service required the priests and all those gathered to bow down. In the days of the Temple, bowing down was performed by prostrating oneself completely, lying flat on the stones with arms stretched forward. It is now forbidden for Jews to do so outside of the Temple.
An aspect of the Temple service that is still practiced is birkat hakohanim (the priestly blessing). The kohanim did not wear shoes inside the Temple, and even today, before performing the priestly blessing in synagogue, kohanim remove their shoes. To the extreme right is Rabbi Baruch Kahane, who has played a major role in previous Temple reenactments and in an ongoing program to train Kohanim to serve in the Temple.
The event took place directly beneath the Cave of the Patriarchs (Ma’arat Hamachpela in Hebrew) in the holy city of Hebron, an ancient Jewish city now largely populated by Arabs.