Updated: Oct 9, 2022
The Mystery of the
High Priest’s Rope
By Terry Harman, D.Min, PhD
“Where’s my rope? Hurry, tie it to my ankle, the service is about to begin and I must wear my rope!” The High Priest never uttered these words. We do not want to create a theological crisis for you, but the High Priest never wore bells nor was a rope tied to his ankle when he entered the holy of holies on Yom Kippur.
The legend makes for a good story and spices up a sermon. Unfortunately, there is no historical or biblical basis for this legend. Yet the story in its various forms is continually repeated in Christian churches and makes its way into some Jewish sermons. Where and when did it all start? What is the source of the claim?
Supposedly, on the Yom Kippur the High Priest had a rope tied around his ankle before entering the holy of holies. He would proceed beyond the veil to burn incense before the Ark and sprinkle blood seven times upon the mercy. While in the presence of the Lord (Shekinah) if there was any hint of sin in his life he would be struck dead. The bells on his garment would stop tinkling and a priest waiting in the holy place would pull his dead body out by the rope. Without the High Priest the sins of the nation would go unpardoned for another twelve months.
One variation to the story reports that the rope was red and would turn white, if the sins of the nation were atoned for. It has also been suggested that once a year the High Priest “feared for his life” because he knew “if the people” had not given their “best sacrificial gift” and he entered the holy of holies with that inadequate offering, God would strike him dead! If the Lord accepted the offering of the people the High Priest would be so overjoyed to be alive, that he would spontaneously dance up and down and everyone would hear the bells ringing and know their sins were forgiven!
When the High Priest wore the blue robe with the bells and pomegranates on its hem, he was ministering in the holy place, not the holy of holies. Examine Exodus 28
And thou shalt make the robe of the ephod all of blue. And it shall have a hole for the head in the midst thereof; it shall have a binding of woven work round about the hole of it, as it were the hole of a coat of mail that it be not rent. And upon the skirts of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the skirts thereof; and bells of gold between them round about: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the skirts of the robe round about. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound thereof shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before Hashem, and when he cometh out, that he die not. Exodus 28:31-35 JPS 1917
Identifying the original source for this legend has been difficult. A literature search reveals that credit has been attributed to Josephus, the Talmud, Edersheim, Encyclopedia Judaica and even “Jewish tradition.” A search of the Mishnah, Apocrypha, and Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha or a visit to your local Rabbi will bring the same conclusion. The legend of the rope tied to the ankle of the High Priest does not have any biblical or historical basis.
There is one remote possibility for the creation of this story. There appears to be a reference to a “golden chain” in the Medieval Kabalistic writing called the Zohar (Achrei Mot 67a and Emor 102a).
There are three problems with this source. First, it was written over one thousand years after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Second, Judaism has never considered this writing as a source for establishing Jewish law. Third, the legend contradicts a simple reading of the Bible!
The Torah does not record the concept of the rope. It is true, if the High Priest did not wear the appropriate garments while ministering, he could forfeit his life.
The duties of the High Priest on Yom Kippur were so important that during the Second Temple period he would leave his home seven days prior to rehearse his duties. To ensure the sanctity of the day his assistants would continually discuss Torah and the rituals. However, a casual reading of Leviticus 16:17 complicates the legends outlined above because no one was allowed inside the tabernacle once he entered to perform the rituals for Yom Kippur.
And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goeth in to make atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. Leviticus 16:17 JPS 1917
Before the prescribed moment his colorful “golden garments” were removed and replaced with the four mandatory white linen garments – a turban, robe, sash and breeches. For seven days he examined himself to ensure he was ready. He knew the seriousness of sin. His life was dedicated to secure atonement for the nation as revealed in Leviticus 16:1-28.
And Hashem spoke unto Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before Hashem, and died; and Hashem said unto Moses: 'Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover. Herewith shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bullock for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering. He shall put on the holy linen tunic, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with the linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired; they are the holy garments; and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and put them on.
And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two he-goats for a sin-offering, and one ram for a burnt-offering. And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself, and for his house. And he shall take the two goats, and set them before Hashem at the door of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats: one lot for Hashem, and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat upon which the lot fell for Hashem, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, on which the lot fell for Azazel, shall be set alive before Hashem, to make atonement over him, to send him away for Azazel into the wilderness.
And Aaron shall present the bullock of the sin-offering, which is for himself, and shall make atonement for himself, and for his house, and shall kill the bullock of the sin-offering which is for himself. And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from off the altar before Hashem, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the veil. And he shall put the incense upon the fire before Hashem, that the cloud of the incense may cover the ark-cover that is upon the testimony, that he die not. And he shall take of the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it with his finger upon the ark-cover on the east; and before the ark-cover shall he sprinkle of the blood with his finger seven times.
Then shall he kill the goat of the sin-offering, that is for the people, and bring his blood within the veil, and do with his blood as he did with the blood of the bullock, and sprinkle it upon the ark-cover, and before the ark-cover. And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. And there shall be no man in the tent of meeting when he goeth in to make atonement in the holy place, until he come out, and have made atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. And he shall go out unto the altar that is before Hashem, and make atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bullock, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the children of Israel.
And when he hath made an end of atoning for the holy place, and the tent of meeting, and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. 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. And he shall bathe his flesh in water in a holy place and put on his other vestments, and come forth, and offer his burnt-offering and the burnt-offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. And the fat of the sin-offering shall he make smoke upon the altar. And he that letteth go the goat for Azazel shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. And the bullock of the sin-offering, and the goat of the sin-offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be carried forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung. And he that burneth them shall wash his clothes, and bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. Leviticus 16:1-28 JPS 1917
Only a fool would go beyond the veil haphazardly. Leviticus, chapter 16 answers the mystery of the rope. Sorry, no colorful garments, no bells, and no rope. Only white linen garments!