Divrei Torah

The Kohen Gadol's wardrobe changes and your Yom Kippur prayers


Adapted from a devar Torah delivered before Yizkor at Congregation Ohr Simcha on Yom Kippur 5767 (2006).

I’d like to share with you a beautiful comment of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that I think can be applied to a few parts of our Yom Kippur prayer service.

Four verses in to R’ Hirsch’s commentary on the Yom Kippur morning Torah reading, the beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot (Vayikra 16:4), you come to a part of the Yom Kippur Avoda (Temple service) that we are all aware of, but might sometimes dismiss as a mere logistical detail. Both the Mishna’s description of the Avoda, and the one we read in the liturgy of Musaf, keep careful track of five immersions and ten hand- and foot-washings. These immersions and washings surround the transitions between the Kohen Gadol’s different wardrobes. The changes of clothes are not mere logistical details; as with every part of every service, R’ Hirsch describes profound significance associated with these changes of clothes.

First, let us discuss the general ideas expressed in each set of clothes by itself. On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol wears two different sets of clothes, the Bigdei Zahav (Garments of Gold), and the Bigdei Lavan (Garments of White).

The Bigdei Zahav, the eight garments that the Kohen Gadol normally wears throughout the year, with their rich imagery of royal dyes, golden threads, and precious stones, symbolize, in R’ Hirsch’s words when he goes into detail in Parashat Tetzaveh (following his commentary to Shemot 28), “the ideal Jewish qualities, the idea of Yisrael as the perfect Jew.” When the Kohen Gadol wears these clothes, he reminds himself and the Nation of the heights of moral and spiritual perfection to which it is our duty to aspire.

The other set of clothes, the one that is special for the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, is completely white. R’ Hirsch understands this white to be a null color, one that symbolizes purity, but at the same time, the absence of the lofty qualities recalled by the Bigdei Zahav. The Bigdei Lavan are supposed to evoke a feeling similar to the Korban Chatat (sin offering): “I have not achieved what I am supposed to achieve. I must improve.”

Part of the structure of the service is that each time the Kohen Gadol changes from one set of clothes to another, he first washes his hands and feet. As a rule, this sort of washing occurs “בְּבֹאָם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד” and “בְגִשְׁתָּם אֶל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְשָׁרֵת” (Shemot 30:20), when Kohanim approach the Mishkan or the Mizbeyach to serve. In other words, every Avoda is preceded by hand- and foot-washing.

So, R’ Hirsch, suggests, anything that is preceded by hand- and foot-washing is an Avoda. In particular, he says, taking off one set of clothes to put on the other “must have the status of an Avoda.” R’ Hirsch enumerates three classes of wardrobe shifts, and explains the important internal Avoda that goes with each. In all three cases, the Avoda of the change of clothes is to effect the dramatic shift of attitude that going from one stage of the Service to another requires, and also, especially, to inform the current clothes’ state of mind with a sense of purpose lent to it by the next set of clothes.

One class of transitions consists of going from the Bigdei Zahav to the Bigdei Lavan, from a consciousness of the exalted potential of the Children of Israel to a humble realization of one’s current imperfection. R’ Hirsch explains that this teaches us that there is no value in thinking of ourselves as the Chosen People, fit for a central role in Mankind’s fulfillment of God’s will, if this does not spur us to realize how far we are from living out this potential. There are many places in the davening where we would do well to internally re-enact this humbling Avoda, but one in particular stands out. At the end of the Avoda section of the Musaf repetition, right after we sing rousingly about “מַרְאֵה כֹהֵן,” the jubilant appearance of the Kohen Gadol at the end of his service, we then transition to:

כָּל אֵֽלֶּה בִּהְיוֹת הַהֵיכָל עַל יְסוֹדוֹתָיו. וּמִקְדַּשׁ הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ עַל מְכוֹנוֹתָיו. וְכֹהֵן גָּדוֹל עוֹמֵד וּמְשָׁרֵת. דּוֹרוֹ רָאוּ וְשָׂמָֽחוּ: אַשְׁרֵי עַֽיִן רָאֲתָה כָל אֵֽלֶּה. הֲלֹא לְמִשְׁמַע אֹֽזֶן דָּאֲבָה נַפְשֵֽׁנוּ:‏

All this took place when the Temple was on its foundation, and the Holy Sanctuary was on its site, and the High Priest stood and served. His generation saw and rejoiced. Fortunate is the eye that saw all of this. For to mention it makes our souls grieve.

Yes, we did once serve God in the beautiful, holy way we just described, yes, speedily, in our days, we will, but, thanks to the multitude of our sins, we do not now. The Nation of Israel has potential for greatness, but we have a long way to go.

The opposite transition occurs each time the Kohen Gadol changes from his Bigdei Lavan to his Bigdei Zahav. The attendant change of attitude is sometimes more difficult than the one we just discussed: going from the depths of depression over one’s emptiness of virtue to remembering the height of moral greatness that is one’s mission. To quote R’ Hirsch, “being depressed over actual shortcomings is only pleasing to God, is only Divine Service, only serves God’s purposes, when it becomes the foundation on which one elevates oneself upward towards the Ideal which God sets as humanly attainable.” This attitude is an important one for us to remember at the end of every Vidui (Confession). We beat ourselves up over everything we do wrong, and everything we fail to get right, and we come out of it feeling empty of all virtue. At that point, we must see our emptiness as an artist sees an empty, white, canvas, ready, ready to pick ourselves up and strive for the greatness that is, God promises us, within our grasp.

We’ve covered shifting from the Bigdei Zahav to the Bigdei Lavan, and from the Bigdei Lavan to the Bigdei Zahav. What is the third transition? According to R’ Hirsch, the most significant pre-change hand-washing is referred to by Chazal as the “Kidusha Batra,” the final one, which precedes the Kohen Gadol’s change from the Bigdei Zahav to his own clothes. This Avoda, according to R’ Hirsch, is to remember that the whole point of all of the grand emotional and spiritual upheaval that we go through during the Yom Kippur service, is to apply the results to our concrete lives outside the Sanctuary. He says, “What is striven for in the Bigdei Kodesh (holy garments) must wait for its true meaning for what is accomplished in the Bigdei Chol (everyday garments).”

And this Avoda, changing into his home clothes, is the last one that the Kohen Gadol does on Yom Kippur. As we read in the Avoda liturgy:

תֶּכֶל עֲבוֹדוֹת יָד וְרֶגֶל קִדֵּשׁ. תִּמֵּם טְבִילוֹת חָמֵשׁ וְקִדּוּשִׁים עֲשָׂרָה. תֹּאַר מְגַמָּתוֹ כְּצֵאת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ בִּגְבוּרָה, תָּקַף וְדָץ וְעָטָה בִּגְדֵי הוֹנוֹ.‏ ...‏

The Service now completed, he washed his hands and feet. Thus performing for the day, five immersions and ten washings. The appearance of his face was like the brilliance of a sunrise. With great joy, he put on his own clothes. ...

The poem goes on to say that he hosted a celebration for all his friends and family.

What do you suppose was (and speedily, in our days, will be) on the Kohen Gadol’s mind, as he emerges triumphantly from the Temple at the end of the service? Is he merely congratulating himself on not being dead, as the Mishna implies, or on his proper performance of the service? If we remember the lesson of the very last element of his Avoda, we have a clue to another idea that might so illuminate his face. He has done the service, at once humbling the Nation and raising its self-expectations, and at the last moment, he has committed, on behalf of the people, to apply all of the accrued holiness to the coming year. So, I submit, that what’s on his mind at that point is “We have dedicated ourselves to serve God this year. We can do it! Look at what a great year we have coming!”

It is clear what part of today’s service we can apply this thought to. Save this idea for the end of Ne'ila (the concluding service). We must remember that all of our work on Yom Kippur, all of our tears, all of our recollections, and all of our prayers, need to be translated into a year of actions that fulfill our lofty intentions this day. If we remember this idea and dedicate our year to it during that final blast of the Shofar, we can have a taste of the Kohen Gadol’s radiant happiness. Let us seal ourselves, to the best of our own abilities, to another year in the Book of Life in God’s service.


While I'd learned the mishna in Yoma (for some value of "learned"), this year was my first time attending a Yom Kippur service that did the avodah service as written. I found it a powerful experience, and this interpretation adds more layers to that. Thank you. ‭Monica Cellio‭ 14 days ago

@MonicaCellio in most services I've been to, the Chazan and the congregation mostly mumble the Avoda poetry to themselves at top speed. I was home this year for the first time in my adult life, and I got to spend more time reading it at my own pace and supplementing, which I enjoyed. ‭Isaac Moses‭ 14 days ago

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