Acharei Mot - The Torah Reading on Yom Kippur

  • Rav Avraham Walfish

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash


Acharei Mot: The Torah Reading of Yom Kippur

By Rav Avraham Walfish


On Yom Kippur, we read two of the three sections of Parashat Acharei Mot: Chapter 16 in the morning and Chapter 18 in the afternoon. In order to comprehend these readings, I would like to examine the location and role of Parashat Acharei Mot within the structure of the book of Vayikra.


Sefer Vayikra opens with a section devoted to sacrifices and the dedication ceremony of the Sanctuary (Section I: Chapters 1-10) and continues with a section devoted to the laws of purity (II: Chapters 11-15). Chapter 19 (III) opens a new section of the book of Vayikra, often referred to as the Holiness section, because it opens with the admonition: "Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy." The first two sections treat sanctity as a ritual category, teaching Israel how the divine Presence dwelling in the Sanctuary within their midst may be safeguarded and approached. The Holiness section expands and spiritualizes the notion of sanctity, teaching Israel how to sanctify their everyday lives and activities.

Parashat Acharei Mot does not seem to fit neatly into this pattern. The three chapters of our parasha treat three major topics, none of which seems at first glance to fit either into the preceding section (II) or the following section (III): the Yom Kippur service (Chapter 16), laws concerning consumption of animals (Chapter 17), and the laws of forbidden sexual relations (Chapter 18). Chapters 16 and 17 may be seen as a kind of supplement to the laws of sacrifices in Section I, but then their placement after II is puzzling. In fact, the opening of Chapter 16 seems to acknowledge that this parasha is out of place: "God spoke to Moshe after the deaths of the two sons of Aharon when they drew near before God and died."

I suggest that parashat Acharei Mot does not really fit into any of the sections of Vayikra, but rather marks a point of transition between Sections I-II and Section III. Moreover, I will argue that Acharei Mot is a pivotal point, not only within the structure of the book of Vayikra, but in the broader context of the historical narrative regarding the redemption of the people of Israel, as well.

Insofar as the structure of Vayikra is concerned, we may note the transitional character of the topics dealt with in Acharei Mot:

(1) Chapter 16 - this chapter serves not only as a supplement to the sacrificial section, but also to Section II: "He shall purge (kipper) the Holy of the DEFILEMENTS of Israel, and of their transgressions, including all their sins, and thus shall he do for the Tent of Meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their defilement" (16:16); "For on this day he shall atone (yekhapper) for you TO PURIFY YOU; from all your sins before God you shall become pure" (16:30). Further on we will elaborate on this point.

(2) Chapter 17 - this chapter, like Section I, deals with sacrifices, but the focus is different from that in I. In Section I, the Torah deals with the question of how God is to be worshipped through sacrificial offerings. Chapter 17 opens with the opposite vantage point: "A man, a man from the house of Israel, who shall slaughter an ox or a sheep or a goat in the encampment, or who shall slaughter outside the encampment, without having brought it to the opening of the Tent of Meeting to offer it as a sacrifice to God before the Sanctuary of God - it shall be regarded as blood for this man, blood he has spilt, and this man shall be cut off from the midst of his people." (17:3-4) According to the simple meaning of these verses, here we are dealing with a person slaughtering for his own benefit, rather than with one whose aim in slaughtering the animal is to worship God. The Torah tells us that, at least as long as Israel encamps in the wilderness, in close proximity to the Sanctuary (contrast Devarim 12:20-28), they may eat meat only when it is slaughtered as a sacrifice. This sets the tone for most of the laws in this chapter, which extend the sanctity of the Sanctuary into the individual kitchen, as opposed to instructing the individual how he may draw near to the Sanctuary. This chapter thus uses the topics and categories of Section I in order to introduce us to the perspective on sanctity characteristic of Section III.

(3) Chapter 18 - the topics dealt with in this chapter, mostly related to the most serious forms of sexual offenses (arayot), are clearly related to Section III. This may be demonstrated in the clearest fashion by noting that the list of forbidden activities of this chapter is repeated in very similar form in the list of punishments of Chapter 20. Moreover, many modern commentators have noted that our chapter is marked by language normally associated with Section III, such as the frequent repetition of "I am God" or "I am the Lord your God" at the end of verses. Yet Chapter 18, despite its relationship with Section III, is clearly related to Section II, as noted already by the Ramban, in his introduction to the book of Vayikra: "and after [Section II] the Torah commanded regarding the arayot, because... its iniquity is called 'impurity' and it causes the departure of the divine Presence, as well as exile." The Ramban is clearly alluding to verses 24-30, in which God repeatedly admonishes Israel not to defile themselves and the land with the iniquities which will cause the land to spew them forth as it is about to do to the Canaanites.

Chapter 18 is transitional not only in the sense that it combines elements both of Section II and Section III, but in the use of the Section II category of tum'a (impurity) in a metaphoric, spiritualized sense, appropriate to Section III. Thus, introductory to Section III's broadening of the concept of kedusha (holiness), Chapter 18 broadens and spiritualizes the concept of tum'a.

Clearly, Parashat Acharei Mot stands at a major junction of the book of Vayikra: between Sections I-II, which teach Israel from the perspective of the Sanctuary, indicating which acts and observances represent the divine Presence and symbolize drawing near to that Presence and worshipping it, and Section III, which teaches Israel how to be holy and God-like in their everyday lives. Acharei Mot's role in the book is to serve as a kind of summary of the first two sections (Chapter 16) and to show how the topics and categories of these sections (Chapter 17 - Section I, Chapter 18 - Section II) may be broadened and spiritualized, serving as the basis for expressing holiness and divinity in everyday life.


Earlier I advanced the claim that parashat Acharei Mot also stands at a major crossroads of Israelite redemptive history. This may be seen most clearly in the opening of its last section (18:3): "Do not do like the doings of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, and do not do like the doings of the land of Canaan where I am bringing you and do not walk in their statutes." With one exception for each, neither the land of Israel nor the land of Canaan is mentioned in Sections I and II, whereas both play important roles in Section III. Here both of them are mentioned together, and not by accident. The Torah is commanding Israel here to distance themselves from the norms and customs of other nations, and makes specific reference to these two nations, Egypt and Canaan. While a case may be built for saying, as Rashi does, that these two nations symbolized the depths of moral degradation, especially in the realm of corrupt sexual mores, the language of the verse suggests a different reason for singling out these two nations. These are the nations which represent the past and the future of Israel respectively. Israel has dwelt in the past in the land of the Egyptians and is soon to enter the land of the Canaanites. Accordingly, these are the two nations that can potentially exert the greatest influence upon the character and moral fiber of the Israelite people.

God is, in effect, admIsrael: make a clean and complete break with the people amongst whom you have dwelt until recently, and do not adopt the customs of the people into whose land you are about to enter. Israel, located in the wilderness, is suspended between two civilizations, and God exhorts them to remain suspended, aloof, in order to achieve and practice their own unique form of divine morality. The command to avoid Egyptian practices may be seen as the conclusion of the Exodus, while the command to avoid Canaanite practices may be seen as the opening of preparations for entering the land. More generally, we may suggest that Sections I and II of Vayikra serve as a kind of halakhic conclusion to the Exodus from Egypt, while Section III prepares the people to enter the land of Canaan.

We may explain this understanding as follows: the redemption from Egypt is concluded not when the people depart Egypt and achieve political and social freedom, but when they achieve spiritual freedom by entering into the service of God at Sinai. As Ramban has noted, in his introduction to Shemot, while Israel begins the entry into divine service with the receiving of the Torah (the Ten Commandments), this stage of redemption is completed only at the end of the book of Shemot, when the divine Presence descends upon the Sanctuary, in the midst of the Israelite encampment. Sections I and II of Vayikra are devoted to ritual practices which maintain and express this indwelling divine Presence, providing concrete symbolic expression of the role of the Sanctuary in the life of the people of Israel.

Section III of Vayikra is addressed to a people already redeemed, already designated as singular, as servants of God. Section III commands this people to realize the singular destiny of the seed of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, to become a holy people, worthy of residing in the sacred land promised to the patriarchs. The holiness of the people is bound up in Section III with the holiness of the land. It is thus not surprising that Chapter 18, marking the transition from Section II to Section III, makes reference both to the singularity of the people of Israel and to the lands of Egypt and Canaan. Adherence by the people to the laws of arayot both concludes their spiritual redemption from the norms of Egypt and commences their sanctification, so that they may be worthy of displacing the Canaanites in the holy land. (See Study Question #1.)


I argued earlier that the Yom Kippur sacrificial service, which opens our parasha, serves as a conclusion to Sections I and II together. We need to explain why this is so, and why this particular topic was selected for this purpose. In order to understand this point, let us turn our attention to the dramatic opening of Parashat Acharei Mot, referring back to the death of Nadav and Avihu, and try to determine why this opening is appropriate for the discussion of the Yom Kippur service.

Rashi suggests a reason, based on a parable cited by R. Elazar ben Azaryah in the Sifra:

"[This may be compared] to a sick person who is visited by a doctor, who says to him: Do not drink cold and do not lie in a cold and damp place. Another came and said to him: Do not drink cold and do not lie in a cold and damp place, so that you don't die the way that so-and-so did. This [second] one urged him more [effectively] than the he first one."

Rashi's explanation is based on the assumption that Nadav and Avihu's sin had to do with approaching God improperly ("when they drew near to God and died" - 16:1), hence Aharon is admonished (16:2) "Do not come at any time he chooses into the Holy of Holies...." However this assumption is questionable, for Nadav and Avihu's sin is described in 10:1 as "offering a strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them." J. Milgrom (Anchor Bible, p. 1011) suggests a different connection between the Yom Kippur service and the death of Nadav and Avihu:

"Nadab and Abihu had polluted the sanctuary doubly, in life by their sin and in death by their corpses... Yet chap. 10 has said nothing about the procedure for purging the sanctuary, which in such a case of severe pollution - the sin and subsequent death of Nadab and Abihu occurred in the sacred precincts - the entire sanctuary, including the Holy of Holies would need to be purged. This procedure is detailed in chap. 16."

Milgrom's explanation is also based on an assumption, and in this case the assumption deals with the meaning of the procedure outlined in Chapter 16. Milgrom assumes that the basic aim of the procedure is the purification of the Sanctuary (both from impure objects that have been brought into it, and from Israel's sins, which defile the purity of the Sanctuary). Unquestionably, this is a central feature of the procedure, as evidenced by 16:16 (cited above). However, the opening verses of our parasha suggest a different understanding:

"God spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near to God and died. God said to Moshe: Speak to Aharon your brother, that he shall not come any time [he wants] into the Holy [of Holies], inside the veil, in front of the kapporet that is upon the Ark, so that he shall not die... This is how Aharon shall enter the Holy [of Holies]..." (16:1-2)

The issue here is not how to purify the Sanctuary, but how and when Aharon may draw near to the Presence of God.

Is the elaborate service described in our chapter designed to enable a man to enter into the awesome Presence of God in the place where this Presence is most palpable and most powerful, or is it rather designed to purge the holiest place on earth from defilement and iniquity (or, rather, defilement resulting from iniquity)? (For a third possibility, see Study Question #2.) Both possibilities are rooted in the text, and indeed we may suggest that the different understandings suggested by the commentators stem from tension located within the verses. Aharon is told that he may not enter "any time" into the Holy of Holies, but the Torah continues by elaborating, not upon the time he may enter, but rather the procedure by means of which he may enter. Only at the end of a lengthy ritual passage does the Torah return to discuss when he may enter: "And this shall be for you an eternal statute - in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month you shall afflict your souls... For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you..." (16:29-30). But this identification of a special time of year for this procedure is mentioned only in the context of the "eternal statute" - does it apply to Aharon as well?

The Vilna Gaon (cited at the end of Chokhmat Adam, pp. 276-277, by his disciple R. Avraham Danzig) suggested a resolution of these tensions, as well as other difficulties in our parasha, based on a passage in Vayikra Rabba 21:7: Aharon is indeed permitted to enter the Holy of Holies at all times, subject only to the limitation that he must perform the procedure outlined here (verse 3: "This is how Aharon may enter..."); subsequent high priests (verses 29-34) may enter the Holy of Holies only on Yom Kippur. I believe that the difference between Aharon and subsequent high priests is not only in the frequency of the procedure, but in its very nature. The yearly procedure, performed throughout the generations on Yom Kippur, is designed to purify and renew the Sanctuary annually. That Aharon may enter whenever he chooses would seem to me to indicate that, in his case, the procedure is designed primarily to fulfill his religious needs and aspirations, to enable him to crown his priesthood with its ultimate achievement of experiencing the Presence of God in the most immediate way.

The creation by the Torah of one procedure to fulfill two different functions suggests that there is a profound interrelationship between these two goals. The purification of the Sanctuary and the entry of man into the immediate Presence of God always accompany one another. Each requires and implies the presence of the other. The entry into the Presence of God is a purifying and cathartic experience, just as it demands of the one entering thathe prepare himself by achieving an optimal degree of purity. For Aharon, brother of the greatest of prophets, who lived in a generation that had repeatedly witnessed the living Presence of God, the ability to experience that Presence in the Holy of Holies was an integral part of his role of priesthood. The Torah taught him that, while he was not to be deprived of the opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies, he may not do so as an individual focused on his personal religious fulfillment alone, but must merge his religious aspirations with the spiritual level and needs of the community. The Sanctuary into which he aspires to enter must be cleansed of impurities created by the community's unatoned defilements and sins, before he may enter as individual, in order to stand in God's Presence. Thus he enters the Holy of Holies several times with sacrifices of atonement and purification (see 16:16, 20) and atones for all the sins of Israel (16:21-22), before he is allowed to enter one last time, with no sacrifice and no particular function designated (16:23 - see Study Question #3).

Subsequent high priests were taught by the Torah that the cleansing of the Sanctuary and of the community requires them to enter into the Presence of God. Before they may enter the Holy of Holies, in order to atone and purify, they must cleanse and purify themselves (16:4, 6, 11), they must bring a special incense offering to protect them from the terrible danger involved in entering the Presence of God, and only then may they sprinkle the blood of the he-goat, the sa'ir la-Shem, which purifies the Sanctuary, and send the scapegoat to cleanse the people of their sins. After having purified the community, they must enter once again before the Presence of God (16:23) - to take leave, to acknowledge that God is not just a Force that dispenses atonement and purification, to give expression to their relationship with God as individuals.

Just as Aharon may not subordinate the Sanctuary of the community to his individual aspirations, so the high priests may not completely submerge their individual personalities in the need for communal purification. The Yom Kippur service merges the religious fulfillment of the individual with the need for purification on the part of the community. This service thus serves as an appropriate conclusion to Sections I-II of Vayikra. Section I concluded with the sanctification of the Sanctuary. Section II concludes with a procedure which simultaneously rededicates the Sanctuary by purifying it and expresses the meaning and purpose of all the rituals of Sections I and II: the experience of the living Presence of God. Having achieved both purification and the experience of the Shekhina in the passage dealing with Yom Kippur, the Israelites have completed their spiritual journey away from Egypt and may now commence preparations for their journey into full nationhood in the holy land promised to the Patriarchs.



1. Can you suggest reasons why the laws of arayot are selected to serve as transitional point between Sections II and III of Vayikra? Refer to Da'at Mikra to our parasha, pp. 51 ff.

2. In our shiur we suggested two understandings of the primary focus and purpose of the service described in Chapter 16. Can you suggest a third understanding, closer to the common understanding of the meaning and purpose of Yom Kippur?

a. One might associate each of these three understandings of this service as focusing on one of Yom Kippur's three central sacrifices - how?

3. Commentators have always been puzzled by the purpose of Aharon's re-entry into the Holy of Holies in 16:23. Rashi follows Chazal in suggesting: "in order to remove the censer and firepan."

a. What does this mean and why is it necessary?

b. R. David Zvi Hoffmann, in his commentary (p. 315), explains differently: "As long as the people had not been atoned for, it was forbidden for Aharon, as their representative, to see the face of the Shekhina. But after the iniquities of the people had been atoned for... the Holy of Holies was no longer a place where it was forbidden to approach, but was a part of the entire Tent of Meeting, and it was permitted for him to enter as a kind of visit of honor, as it were, with the Shekhina."

In what way does this explanation differ from that of Rashi?

c. Which explanation do you find preferable, and why?

d. Which explanation is closer to that suggested in the shiur? Is it closer to the model of the procedure practiced by Aharon or that practiced by subsequent Kohanim Gedolim?

e. A similar problem arises with regard to 9:23 - see Rashi's two solutions. Can you suggest an additional solution?

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