Talmud pages

Yoma 51

The sacred doorway.

A significant challenge facing the rabbis as they discuss the details of the Yom Kippur rituals in the Temple is that the vast majority of them did not witness these events with their own eyes. Only a few of the rabbis who appear in the Mishnah lived during Temple times, the rest rely on what they have learned from their teachers and the texts that they have inherited, some biblical, some rabbinic, to piece together the events of the day. It’s no wonder that they do not always agree on the details.

We see an example of this on today’s daf, where we learn in a mishnah:

The high priest would then walk west through the sanctuary until he reached the area between the two curtains that separated the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies, and the space between them was one cubit.

Rabbi Yosei says: There was only one curtain there, as it is stated: And the curtain shall divide for you between the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)

The Holy of Holies — which was the most sacred space in the world and entered only once a year by the high priest — was naturally partitioned from the rest of the Temple. But was it one or two curtains? Rabbi Yosei posits that there is only one; the rabbis assert there were two, with a one cubit (about 18 inch) spacing between them.

The Gemara praises Rabbi Yosei and explains that he is right about the tabernacle, the portable sacred space that was used by the Israelites during their wandering in the desert. The rabbis, who say two curtains, are correct too — they are describing the set up in the Second Temple.

Both positions find support in biblical sources. As Rabbi Yosei reported, in the portion of the text describing the tabernacle specifically, the Torah states that there was one curtain separating the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. I Kings 6:16, which describes the Temple of Solomon (the First Temple) says there were two cedar-covered partitions, with an empty one cubit space between them, and that the high priest would pass through them by means of a doorway that was covered by a curtain.

The biblical text is unclear if the cubit between the two partitions was drawn from inside of the Holy of Holies or outside of it. According to the Gemara, this caused some uncertainty for the sages of the Second Temple period who decided to prepare curtains instead of walls to reflect their doubt about where that in-between space belonged. (Notice that the Gemara anachronistically assumes that the rabbis were central to the design process of the Second Temple!)

Rashi, the most famous talmudic commentator, who lived in the Middle Ages and certainly had no first hand experience of what the Temple looked liked, suggests that the use of curtains was, in part, due to the soaring height of the Second Temple, which made the construction of cedar-covered partitions impossible.

So, for those keeping count, between the tabernacle, the First Temple and the Second Temple we have three different ways for partitioning the Holy of Holies: a single curtain in the tabernacle, two cedar-wood walls with curtained doorways in the First Temple and two curtains in the Second Temple.

Today, on Yom Kippur, we liturgically “reenact” the rituals of the Temple during the Avodah service. In many synagogues, the hazzan (prayer leader), who stands in for the high priest, chants every word from the bimah, in full view of the congregation. No partitions or curtains necessary.

Read all of Yoma 51 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 1st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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