The third perek of Masechet Yoma spends many words discussing the exact nature of the immersions and hand washings performed by the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. The Gemara puts the mikve immersions in the context of the various uniforms that the Kohen Gadol dons throughout the Yom Kippur ceremony. He wears the golden garments to perform the standard service and white linen garments for the special Yom Kippur service, including entering the Holy of Holies. Each time he changes clothes he must immerse in the mikve and wash his hands and feet.
The Mishna explains that these deceptively simple white linen garments were actually quite expensive. Kohanim of means could have even more expensive clothes made and then donate them for communal use. On the heels of this information, the Gemara tells us of Rabbi Elazar ben Harsum, a very wealthy Kohen Gadol, whose mother fashioned his tunic.
I was struck by the interplay between the spirituality of the very holiest of days and the physical reality of daily experiences. On the one hand, the Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies to beg forgiveness for himself, his family, and all of Am Yisrael. On the other hand, this service is couched in very physical terms – the worth of the linen garments and the practical issues of bathing and changing clothes.
Studying this interplay evoked three clear memories of physical experiences heightening the spiritual. First, I hear the reverberating singing and pounding feet of midrasha girls and yeshiva boys as they sing אמת מה נהדר היה כהן גדול… truthfully, how incredible is the Kohen Gadol. The tears, the deep emotions, the joy—all captured in that song and in that dance on Yom Kippur day, as we, tens of generations after the last of the Kohanim Gedolim, are moved physically to a spiritual experience.
Next, every time the Gemara repeats the words פשט את בגדיו– he removes his clothes, I hum along to Yishai Ribo’s song Seder HaAvoda (ישי ריבו – סדר העבודה | Ishay Ribo – Seder Ha’Avoda – YouTube). I think of Ribo’s poignant description of an imagined Kohen Gadol’s despair at ever really achieving atonement. The music draws me forward to the very physical ending of the song in which the Kohen Gadol simply dons his own clothes, returns home, and celebrates with his own family. Ribo’s accounting echoes the Talmudic description of a spiritual achievement bounded in the very physical reality.
Most strongly, I recall a shiur from Rav Soloveichik, titled “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night” (Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah – Joseph Dov Soloveitchik – Google ספרים). My memory of the story intertwined with the Rav’s own telling of his memory, further underlines how physical experience lends itself to spirituality. The Rav wrote “In my experiential–not intellectual–memory, two nights stand out as singular, … exalted in their holiness and shining with a dazzling beauty: the night of the Seder and the night of Kol Nidrei.” The Rav exudes his fascination with “moonlit nights, both wrapped in grandeur and majesty” and that he felt “stimulated, aroused and inspired” by “the strange silence, stillness, peace and quiet.” The Rav tells us how the emotions accompanying these memories are foundational to all his adult religious experience. It may be surprising that an emotional experience would so impact a profoundly intellectual leader, but the Gemara clearly knew that this was more than possible – it is necessary. In these pages of Yoma we learn that the spiritual needs a physical layer, and the physical is made meaningful through the spiritual.
With over three decades of high-tech experience, Adina Hagege now manages a team of program managers at Microsoft. She is an avid volunteer, and has served as a board member of a variety of organizations, including ITIM, Co-Impact, and the Yemin Orde Youth Village. She lives in Zichron Yaakov and is the proud mother of five amazing children.