Acharei Mot


This week witnessed the beginning of the enthronement of Naruhito as the new Emperor of Japan. What was striking was the simplicity of the ritual. In contrast to the coronation of a British Sovereign where fabulous jewels are part of the pomp and ceremony, unadorned wrapped boxes, containing a wooden scepter, a stone-bead necklace etc. were brought before the new Emperor.

It was obvious that for the Japanese, it wasn’t the intrinsic worth of the emblems that was important. It was the fact that they are associated with their history which can claim to be the world’s oldest hereditary monarchy.

We find a parallel idea in this week’s parsha.

The High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur is described. Normally, throughout the year, the High Priest wore eight colourful garments. On Yom Kippur, when he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, he was dressed only in white.

He wore four garments made of linen. Yet, when listing them, the Torah seems to single out the first item as being exclusively holy.

Ketonet Bad Kodesh Yilbash – “He shall wear a holy linen tunic” (Vayikra 16:4)

None of the other three garments are given this status.

The Netziv (1816-1893), in his commentary Ha’amek Davar, explains that we can understand this when we compare the High Priest’s tunic to other holy objects. A Sefer Torah is holier than Tefilin. Tefilin, in turn, are holier than a Mezuzah. The reason for the pecking-order is due to the amount of holy material they contain. Tefilin contain four sections of scripture whereas a Mezuzah has only two.

Similarly, the body of a High Priest is compared to a Torah scroll. Each limb is parallel to a portion of Torah. The Ketonet or tunic, covered the largest part of his body. It is therefore more holy than any other of the garments that he wore and is the only one that is described as holy.

Some of us may be fortunate enough to have in our possession, items that are very important because they previously belonged to, and were used by, people who were special to us. A simple set of candlesticks that a mother kindled every week; a slightly frayed tallit worn by a grandfather; a Kiddush cup or wine-stained Haggadah blessed by a great grandfather. Whenever we use these items, we are touching across the generations.

Our personal heirlooms, like the tunic of the High Priest and the regalia of a Japanese Emperor, acquire significance not because of their intrinsic worth but because of the people before us with whom they have been associated.