The Torah portion of Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16–18) describes the Temple service on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Bible mandates 15 specific sacrifices and many other rituals for Yom Kippur, or Yom HaKippurim, outlined in Leviticus chapter 16. The literal translation of kippurim is cleansing. Referred to in the Bible as “the Sabbath of Sabbaths”, Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the seventh month, and is the Jewish day to atone for misdeeds and become cleansed and purified from them. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur correspond to the last ten days of the 40-day period that Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the second set of tablets.
Seven days prior to Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was sequestered in the Palhedrin chamber in the Temple, where he reviewed the service with the sages familiar with the Temple, and was sprinkled with spring water containing ashes of the Red Heifer as purification. The Talmud (Tractate Yoma) also reports that he practiced the incense offering ritual in the Avitnas chamber.
As part of the service, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would change his clothing and immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath) five times, and wash his hands and feet ten times.
The reason he changes his clothes is explained in The Israel Bible:
On a regular day the Kohen Gadol wears eight garments, four of which are decorated with gold. However, when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur he wears only four white linen garments. The simplicity of his attire portrays feelings of humility as he approaches Hashem on the holiest day of the year, and the white color is symbolic of forgiveness. As the Kohen Gadol stands before God and begs forgiveness for himself, his family, and the entire nation, his clothing reminds him that he is at the mercy of God’s benevolence, yet also instills confidence that God, in His compassion, will forgive His people.
Yom Kippur is the only time when the Kohen Gadol entered into the Kodesh Kodashim (Holy of Holies), the inner sanctum of the Temple where the Aron Habrit (ark of the covenant) was kept, covered in gold and capped with two cherubim. He did so on that day four times. The Talmud specifies that he entered the Holy of Holies wearing white clothes, since gold may remind God how Israel sinned with the Golden Calf. Before the Kohen entered, the room filled with smoke from the incense which he would bring in the Holy of Holies.
The day culminated in a lottery that chose between two goats, purchased at the same time, that were identical in appearance and worth. The fate of the two goats was intertwined, and should one goat die an entirely new set must be provided, as it is not sufficient to merely replace the deceased animal. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for the lottery (גורל) also means ‘fate.’
Two gold plates, one inscribed with the word “to God” and the other with “to Azazel”, were presented to the Kohen Gadol at the Eastern (Nikanor) gate. He would blindly assign each gold plate to a goat. The goat that was assigned the plate inscribed “to God” was sacrificed in the normal manner, slaughtered by the Kohen Gadol and burned on the altar inside the Temple as a sin offering. Its blood was sprinkled in the Holy of Holies eight times. The one exceptional aspect of that sacrifice is that the confession of sins that normally precedes sin offerings was omitted.
The other goat was treated in a manner that seems to contradict every rule pertaining to sacrifices. The Kohen Gadol placed his hands on the head of the goat and performed the confession of sins for all of Israel. A crimson skein of wool was wrapped around the horns of the doomed goat and an identical skein was wrapped around the door handles of the Temple. The goat was led into the wilderness outside of Jerusalem, a distance that was five times that permitted on the Sabbath. Ten stations were prepared along the way with food and drink, thereby technically increasing the permitted distance. Despite the emissary being in the midst of the fast-day ritual, he was offered food and drink at each stop along the way. He refused the offers, of course.
At the end of the journey, the skein of scarlet wool was removed from the goat’s horns and tied to a nearby rock and the goat was thrown from a cliff. The cliff was so sheer that the goat tumbled and was torn to pieces from the fall. If Israel’s sins were forgiven by this act of contrition, the crimson thread would miraculously turn white, as would the thread on the Temple doors. This aspect of the Yom Kippur service was hinted at by the Prophet Isaiah.
“Come, let us reach an understanding, —says Hashem. Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white; Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.” Isaiah 1:18
It was documented that for the last forty years of the Second Temple, the thread remained scarlet.
The final destination is referred to as Azazel but the meaning of that word is elusive, sometimes explained as being derived from the Hebrew az (עז), meaning ‘bold,’ or alternatively, from the Aramaic azil (עזיל), meaning ‘to go.’ The apocryphal book of Enoch, for example, refers to a fallen angel named Azazel who is blamed for the proliferation of weapons.
It is interesting to note that the man who purifies all of Israel through this mystifying ceremony is made impure, similar to the equally inexplicable preparation of the Red Heifer which also defies the normal Temple customs.
The depth and meaning of the service is explained in The Israel Bible:
The service detailed in this chapter is performed by the Kohen Gadol, ‘high priest,’ in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the ‘Day of Atonement.’ This unique service represents a pinnacle of holiness, as it brings the holiest person to the holiest place on the holiest day of the year. Tradition tells us that the world was created from the stone that stands at the location of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount. When the Kohen Gadol enters this same spot, he atones for the sins of mankind beginning with the time of Adam and the creation of the world. Adam himself was formed from the earth at the spot of the mizbayach, close to the area of the Holy of Holies. To this day, people from all over the world are drawn to the Temple Mount, the place from which all of mankind originated. Yet, on account of political pressures, currently only Muslims are granted full access to the Temple Mount; Jews are not even allowed to utter words of prayer at this holy site. We pray for the day when this holy mountain is restored to its vital role as a place of prayer for all nations.