Acharei Mot


The high point of the year for the High Priest was Yom Kippur. On that day, he would perform the entire Temple service. In fact, he would change, no less than five times, from his elaborate gold garments to simple white garments made from linen.


Rav Hisda in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 26a) quotes the proverb, ein kategor na’aseh saneygor, “the accuser cannot become the defender.” Gold is a reminder of the sin of the golden calf. When the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies it would not be appropriate for him to wear items that would be associated with the time that the Jewish people went so seriously wrong.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (d. 1966) asks an obvious question. Why does the High Priest wear gold at all on Yom Kippur? Let him wear white all day! Why does he wear gold when officiating in the Temple courtyard and white when going in to the Holy of Holies? In our shuls, the rabbi and chazzan and many congregants wear the white kittel throughout Yom Kippur. They don’t change into regular clothes for some parts of the service.

Rabbi Sorotzkin explains that the High Priest was performing two distinct functions on Yom Kippur. When he was in the Temple Courtyard, he was officiating in full view of the other priests and the many people who had gathered to watch the service on the holiest day of the year. It was appropriate that he should then be wearing gold robes. Indeed they would remind people of the sin of the golden calf, and rightly so! The people should be humble and appreciate how easy it is to sin. By remembering how severely they failed G-d at Mount Sinai, they would be motivated to repent sincerely.

The second role of the High Priest was a private one. When he entered the Holy of Holies, he was completely alone. No-one else was allowed to accompany him there. This was his private audience with G-d when he came to pray on behalf of the entire Jewish people. It was an occasion when he would want to find every opportunity to present the people in the best possible light. Therefore, any symbol of sin – especially a garment of gold, recalling the golden calf – would be removed so as not to associate his prayers with the failings of the community. He wore white, which is a symbol of forgiveness. In the words of Isaiah: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall turn white as snow.” (1:18)

Two fashion statements: One a message to the people, urging them to be humble, and the other, a message to G-d, urging Him to forgive.

Dayan Ivan Binstock