By Rabbi Shlomo H. Pick
Beit HaMidrash, Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies,
Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.— He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on.…
Most commentators understood these verses as referring to the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle or the Temple. These verses present the prerequisites for entering this most holy of sites on one of the holiest of days of the Jewish calendar. Accordingly, the Rabbis had to say that verse 23: “And Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments, which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there” is not in its proper place because of the tradition that the High Priest must undergo five immersions in a Mikvah during the service of this day. Accordingly, only Moses whenever called by God, or the High Priest on Yom Kippur could enter the Holy of Holies.
However, there is one commentator who explained this chapter with a novel approach. The Vilna Gaon viewed this chapter as referring to Aaron the High Priest and not any of his successors. Whereas Moses could enter the Tabernacle and the Holy of Holies whenever God called him, Aaron could enter throughout the year by means of the procedure formulated in our Parashah. Since his entering the Holy of Holies was not limited to the Day of Atonement, there was no need for the Mussafofferings which were unique to Yom Kippur, nor five immersions, and, hence, one can read the chapter without transposing any verses. Only when this chapter is rerouted to refer to the Day of Atonement, and includes additional sacrifices with five immersions, does this verse become out of place.
According to the Vilna Gaon, this chapter originally referred to Aaron throughout the year during his lifetime, and he had a license to enter the Holy of Holies whenever he wanted by the procedure outlined in this chapter of Leviticus. The chapter was also interpreted to be referring to the Day of Atonement, and, thus, the license to enter the Holy of Holies was limited to this special day of the year and on that day, even Aaron had to follow the procedure as interpreted by the Rabbis.
Accordingly, there are three categories of persons who could enter the Holy of Holies: Moses whenever necessary, Aaron whenever he wanted to, and High Priests, including Aaron, on the Day of Atonement. One should note that at the beginning of this chapter, Yom Kippur nor any date is mentioned at all. Only at the end of the chapter, in verse 29, is the date of Yom Kippur mentioned.
At this point, I would like to add a point made by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l. Why did the High Priest have to be separated seven days before the Day of Atonement? This is derived from the seven day period (miluim) before the inauguration of the Tabernacle on the eighth day. Thus, the Rav learned that:
…OnYom Kippur, he [= the High Priest] was not just a High Priest; rather, he was a replica of Aaron the Priest. On Yom Kippur, we require that Aaron the Priest personally perform the Temple service. Thus, the High Priest replaces Aaron. Accordingly, he is required to be invested with the sanctity of Aaron, which can only obtained by replicating the ritual of the miluim, during which Aaron himself was endowed with the sanctity of the High.”
Within the framework of the Vilna Gaon’s explanation, there are now only two persons who can enter the Holy of Holies: Moses and Aaron. The Rav inferred that the license to enter the Holy of Holies was not granted to any High Priest, but to Aaron personally. Therefore, the High Priest on Yom Kippur, must actually replace Aaron in order to gain entry into the Holy of Holies.
To summarize: Most commentators view this chapter as referring to Yom Kippur. Consequently, Moses could enter the Holy of Holies whenever necessary while Aaron and all his successors could enter only on the Day of Atonement. According to the Vilna Gaon, there are three categories of persons who could enter the Holy of Holies: Moses whenever necessary, Aaron whenever he wanted to, and High Priest only on the Day of Atonement, the latter two having to follow this procedure in order to gain entry. According to Rav Soloveitchik, there are only two persons who could enter the Holy of Holies: Moses and Aaron, since succeeding High Priests in effect become a replica of Aaron.