As we learned in the mishnah on the very first page of this tractate, the high priest is isolated for seven days before Yom Kippur in the Chamber of Parhedrin. Today’s daf asks: But why is the high priest removed from his home? Why can’t he just isolate himself from society for seven days in his own house?
Interestingly, the Gemara first rejects this question as obvious. Rabbi Yohanan states that the high priest’s preparatory period before Yom Kippur is based on a midrashic reading of the priestly inauguration in Leviticus 8; Reish Lakish states that it is based on a midrashic reading of the revelation at Sinai. In both biblical texts, some degree of separation from the everyday is instituted before the main event.
Instead, the Gemara reframes the question of why to evoke a different conversation:
Why did he withdraw from his house?
It’s worth remembering here that “house” is a rabbinic expression for one’s wife. So the Gemara is really asking why the high priest must separate from his wife for seven days. After all, she can’t go with him to the Chamber of Parhedrin in the Temple precincts — that part of the Temple is off limits to women!
The Gemara cites a number of early and later rabbis who explain that the high priest must separate from his wife for seven days in order to avoid becoming impure through accidental intimate contact with a menstruating woman. On the face of it, that makes sense, given the rabbinic understanding of menstrual impurity and the importance of purity to the high priest’s Temple service on Yom Kippur.
On the other hand, as you may recall, that initial mishnah on Yoma 2 also taught that, according to Rabbi Yehuda, the sages would designate a back-up wife for the high priest during this seven day period leading into Yom Kippur. The reason was that his service on Yom Kippur, according to Leviticus 16:6, must atone for him and his house — meaning his wife.
This is a common rabbinic idiom — to have a wife is to have a house, a home. The Torah suggests it is essential for the high priest’s obligation on Yom Kippur. And yet today’s daf also insists that he cannot live with his wife for a week before Yom Kippur. These two rules pull in opposite directions.
The insistence that the high priest be married and that he be temporarily separated from his wife highlights the liminal nature of the high priest’s identity. The high priest on Yom Kippur is betwixt and between: He embodies the Jewish people, but is completely separated from them in his solitary Temple service. He is married but also alone. He is embedded in a particular time and place but his actions point both to the biblical inauguration of the priesthood and to the eschatological temple service of the World To Come. He is exceptional and unique but also represents the fullness of Jewish life. And it is only in this middle space that the high priest becomes the perfect vessel to renew the connection between God and the Jewish people by effecting atonement.
Read all of Yoma 6 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 17th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.