Yom Kippur: Not Everybody Can Be A High Priest… Or Can They?

The Sages prepare the High Priest for his ordeal on every level.

Jews often call Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year, but it won’t be unless we prepare for it both spiritually and physically. Holiness requires a vessel, and we can learn much from the extreme contingency plans undertaken by the High Priests in ancient Israel.



Table for Five: Yom Kippur 

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Seven days prior to Yom Kippur the Sages would remove the High Priest from his house and install him in the Chamber of Parhedrin… Rabbi Yehuda says they would even designate another wife for him lest his wife die. -Yoma 2a, B. Talmud


Rabbi Ari SegalHead of School, Shalhevet High School

This is an unusual verse in the intensely spiritual context of Yom Kippur. These practicalities, down to the contingencies made in case something goes awry with the Kohen Gadol, feel like the equivalent of a caffeine detox before the fast. Sure, it’s part of the process, but why focus on it? 

I think the practicality of these contingency plans reveals an important spiritual insight. Even in the most mundane of circumstances, we are all well-served by coming up with “Plan B”s and “Plan C”s for our practical goals. This has become profoundly evident this year, as shuls, synagogues, shteiblach and temples around the world, make plan upon plan for celebrating Yom Kippur in the time of COVID-19. From in-person davening, to Zoom services, to at-home prayer materials, we’re all being armed with tiers of practical options for this most spiritual time of the year. 

The same should be true for our personal spirituality. We must explore multiple options for the challenging work of connecting with God. Maybe praying in shul isn’t working out for you. So what’s your “Plan B”? Do you connect with God better in nature? Through meditation, study or chesed? Don’t settle for an unsatisfying experience; make the plans that will help you succeed. 

The practical contingencies provided for the Kohen Gadol were what allowed him to bring the nation through a spiritually successful Yom Kippur. Emulating this process for ourselves can have a transformative effect on our own Yom Kippur experience.


Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”

Jews don’t rely on intermediaries to connect with Hashem. It’s up to us to forge these relationships as individuals. In my life, I have been awed to discover that my attempts to connect with Hashem have been repaid out of all proportion to my efforts. 

We also rely on prayers recited on our behalf. Our ancestors, sages, rabbis, teachers, family, friends, Kohanim, and even Jews we have never met pray for us regularly, and additionally in our time of need. With life’s uncertainties, we need all the prayers we can get! The power of prayer is bountifully documented in many studies. Sick patients who are remembered through prayer chains often have improved clinical outcomes over those without that benefit. 

The High Priest of Temple days needed to be a man of the world to actualize his full spiritual strength, and being married was vital to these credentials; hence the “spare” wife standing by in case of sudden bereavement. Who can begin to imagine what level of spiritual preparation he needed to perform the Yom Kippur service for us? 

Without the Temple, the avoda of repentance on Yom Kippur became democratized. We are responsible for our own spiritual assessments and repairs. We confess our transgressions in the plural, because even if we are innocent of hard-heartedness or gossip-mongering, someone else is guilty. We take it for the team. Israel is a community that demands both personal accountability and collective responsibility. 

May your new year be filled with blessings! 


Lori Shapiro, Rabbi, Open Temple

The Chamber of Parhedrin refers to a Roman Official (“Parhedrin”) assigned to a position of power in ancient Judea for a single year. The Parhedrin perpetuated corruption, exploited power, and yielded material reward through taxation and price gouging. The rabbis used this term as a cutting commentary on the Kohen Gadol’s corruption at that time, one who “was more interested in their honor than in the spiritual importance of the position.” The Talmud continues to describe how each distinct Kohen occupying this position “redecorated the chamber,” illustrating their wealth and position of authority; thus the Chamber of Parhedrin symbolizes the spiritual egress of our Second Temple Priests. 

The Pharisees triumphed through their recollections of Sadducee failures. These lurid details are fodder for good Talmud. But is this merely about the Rabbinic disdain for the Priestly tradition? Why would Tractate Yoma, dedicated to our most pious of days, invite us into a space of moral depravity? Perhaps it comes to remind us that the leader in question on our holiest of days is just as we are: a flawed mortal. No greater, no less. 

With Yom Kippur upon us, we are lured into distraction: fires, pandemic, civil unrest, economic distress, homelessness, the election’s political circus. The Talmud chastens us from distraction and back to the matter at hand: what are our own deeds, misgivings, transgressions, deceptions, mishandlings? We must enter our own chambers and reconcile our artifice with our aspirations towards moral nobility. 


Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

Being married was required of the High Priest in order to serve God properly on Yom Kippur. Therefore, a woman was waiting for him in case his wife died, so that he could be married. But what of love? What of romance? 

The Torah obligates marriage. It is a mitzvah. A Jewish wedding begins with a blessing affirming that God sanctified us with His commandments, instructed us about relationships and established marriage. Despite the truism that our sages teach us, that “one who lives without a wife is living without joy” (teaching us the great happiness that so many have in successful married life), marriage is nonetheless seen by traditional Judaism as an obligation. You must get married! You must have a family! This is an obligation, not just a choice. 

Great happiness in life comes from helping the needy, from hosting guests, from visiting the sick. Altruism brings happiness to people, as study after study has shown. But that is not the reason that we help the needy. The reason that we do what is right is because it is our obligation to do what is right. The most elevated and refined people, those who are worthy of guiding us are people who live up to their obligations. They love their families as we all do, and they feel the pain of the afflicted acutely, but their sense of obligation is what guides them the most. They know what is expected of them. Marriage is wonderful. Obligations always are.


Rabbi Michael BarclayTemple Ner Simcha, Westlake Village 

Yoma is primarily about Yom Kippur preparations and practices for both the leaders and people. Beginning with instructions for the High Priest, the tractate moves through details to be observed for a meaningful holiday experience. 

These teachings have never been more important. Although there is no Temple (may it be rebuilt speedily), the instructions are especially important this year, with so many Jews observing Yom Kippur at home rather than in synagogue. 

These lines remind us how spiritual preparations affect family members. With so many households observing by themselves in front of a screen, it is vital to prepare your home properly. Don’t make the mistake of just watching services on a screen while multitasking. Clean your house…make the area where you are watching services holy and special. Use the days before to create a sacred “set and setting”, and the holiday will be more impactful. 

Our synagogue has been having live, in-person holiday services, but many temples are only streaming, or even pre-recorded their services months ago. But each individual at a synagogue or watching a screen, can make services meaningful on a personal level through conscious preparation. Spend the week before Yom Kippur like the High Priest, preparing for the inherent power of the holiday for your entire family. Create a sacred space and make this Yom Kippur, in person or online, the deepest Day of Atonement yet. 

May we all be blessed to have the insights of the High Priest; to prepare fully; and have an easy fast.

With thanks to Rabbi Ari Segal, Judy Gruen, Lori Shapiro, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, and Rabbi Michael Barclay

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