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Did the high priest have a rope tied to him when he entered the Holy of Holies?

high priest rope audio

There is a mystical Jewish tradition that the high priest of Israel would enter the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle or temple with a rope tied to his foot. The purpose of the rope, according to the tradition, was to retrieve the high priest’s body in case he died in the course of his duties within the Holy of Holies.

The Law of Moses said that once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest must bring the blood of sacrifices into the Holy of Holies to atone for his sin and the national sins of the people of Israel. On that Day of Atonement, before entering the tabernacle, the high priest was to bathe and put on special garments (Leviticus 16:4), then sacrifice a bull for a sin offering for himself and his family (verses 6 and 11). The blood of the bull was to be brought into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the ark of the covenant.

Following that, the high priest was to burn “two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense” (Leviticus 16:12) and then turn his attention to two goats. One goat was sacrificed “because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (verse 16). Its blood was sprinkled on the ark of the covenant. The other goat was used as a scapegoat. The high priest would place his hands on the scapegoat’s head, confess over it the rebellion and wickedness of the Israelites, and send the goat away to be released into the wilderness (verse 21). The second goat carried on itself all the sins of the people, which were forgiven for another year (verse 30).

The law mandated other washings and clothing changes in the Day of Atonement ceremony. Twice in Leviticus 16, God warns the high priest to follow the protocol, on penalty of death (verses 2 and 13). It’s possible that, because of the seriousness of entering the Holy of Holies, the Jews formulated the idea of tying a rope around the high priest’s foot.

According to tradition, during the last couple of centuries of the temple’s existence, a gold or scarlet rope was tied to the high priest’s foot on the Day of Atonement. Another priest standing in the Holy Place tended the other end of this rope. If the high priest’s sins were not atoned for properly, then God would strike him dead when he entered the presence of the Shekinah—the glory of God—that filled the Holy of Holies. Since access to that part of the temple was strictly forbidden, the priests felt they needed a way to retrieve the body of the high priest, if necessary.

Exodus 28:33–35 specified that bells (and knitted pomegranates) were to be worn on the hem of the high priest’s garment so that “the sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the Lord and when he comes out” (verse 35). The bells provided an audible cue to those outside the tabernacle of the high priest’s whereabouts. They could tell when he entered and exited the Holy of Holies. According to the rope tradition, the bells also provided a means of knowing if the priest had died: if the jingling stopped, the priest on the other end of the rope would be alerted to the fact that the priest had ceased moving. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that was the purpose of the bells.

An alternate explanation of the rope tradition says that the rope was tied around the high priest’s foot as a reminder to exit the Holy of Holies. According to this theory, the exquisite beauty of the presence of God would so mesmerize the high priest that all earthly concerns would fall away. He would be so lost in awe and wonder that he would want to stay forever in God’s presence. The rope served to remind him of the “real world” outside and bring him back to the people who needed him.

The source for the tradition that the high priest had a rope tied to his ankle comes from the Zohar and is therefore related to Kabbalah. In one passage, the Zohar relates that, as the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, “a knot of rope of gold hangs from his leg, from fear perhaps he would die in the Holy of Holies, and they would need to pull him out with this rope” (Acharei Mot, verse 198).

Most likely, there was no rope tied to the high priest’s leg. The idea is pure fiction. The Bible does not allude to ropes for any purpose on the high priest. In fact, the Bible has specific instructions regarding what the high priest can and cannot wear (Exodus 28—35). Also, the practice of the high priest wearing a rope around his foot is never mentioned in the Mishnah or the Talmud. No text in the Dead Sea Scrolls mentions a rope, and neither does the Apocrypha or pseudepigrapha. In the end, the idea that the high priest entered the Most Holy Place with a rope tied around his foot is a fanciful notion.

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Did the high priest have a rope tied to him when he entered the Holy of Holies?
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This page last updated: December 2, 2022