Parshas Acharei Mos: The Mysterious Cloud Of The Holy Of Holies According To Pshat, Drash, & The Sadducees

This week’s parsha discusses various laws pertaining to the Beis HaMikdash. Specifically, it deals with when the kohanim were allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and how they were to do so. The general principle was actually that they couldn’t:

Leviticus 16:2:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אֶל־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאַל־יָבֹא בְכָל־עֵת אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל־פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל־הָאָרֹן וְלֹא יָמוּת כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל־הַכַּפֹּרֶת׃

And the LORD 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 with a cloud I appear upon the ark-cover.

Due to the “cloud” upon the cover of the ark, the kohanim could not simply enter the Holy of Holies as they pleased. If they did, they would die1. In explanation of what this mysterious “cloud” is, Rashi writes the following:

Rashi on Leviticus 16:2:

כי בענן אראה. כִּי תָמִיד אֲנִי נִרְאֶה שָׁם עִם עַמּוּד עֲנָנִי, וּלְפִי שֶׁגִּלּוּי שְׁכִינָתִי שָׁם, יִזָּהֵר שֶׁלֹּא יַרְגִּיל לָבֹא, זֶהוּ פְשׁוּטוֹ; וּמִדְרָשׁוֹ: לֹא יָבֹא כִּי אִם בַּעֲנַן הַקְּטֹרֶת בְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים (יומא נ"ג):

For I constantly show Myself there with My cloud-pillar, and because the revelation of My Shechinah is there, he should be careful that he not accustom himself to enter. This is the pshat of the verse. But it’s midrash is: He shall not come into the Holy of Holies except with the cloud of incense on Yom Kippur (Sifra; Yoma 53a).

Rashi presents us with two possibilities as to what the “cloud” mentioned in the posuk could be. According to Rashi, the simple read of the verse, the pshuto shel mikrah, is that the cloud refers to the Divine presence in the form of a cloud-pillar. Rashi then quotes the Midrashic explanation of the word “cloud” in our verse as being the cloud of incense the kohein is required to burn in order to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

What is immediately striking is that one would have assumed the opposite: the pshuto shel mikrah likely refers to the cloud of incense, while the drash level of understanding alludes to the Divine cloud-pillar. After all, the kohein does indeed need to burn incense (16:13) in order to enter the Holy of Holiness, in order for God, so to speak, to appear there for him. Further, the idea of the Divine presence manifested as some sort of cloud-pillar is rather difficult to precisely understand and definitely smacks of Midrash. Needless to say, the cloud that would be visible inside the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur was not God, but the incense.

Textual Issues

Surely, however, Rashi did not have things backwards. First and foremost, drash does not necessarily mean the more fantastical interpretation. While this is often the case, it is not anywhere near always being the case. The different levels of interpretation of the text of the Torah simply are what they are through the rules and principles of hermeneutics. Should sometimes the pshat be the more seemingly fantastical read, so be it. The idea of coming to the text with preconceived notions of what the pshat will be versus the drash is misguided in the first place.

R. Avigdor Boncheck points out that Rashi had specific textual reasons for proposing that, at the level of pshat, the “cloud” refers to God’s presence and not the incense. For one, if it were the latter, the Torah could have stated “the cloud of incense” explicitly as it does in verse 13. Second, any mention of the ritual activities of the kohein necessary to enter the Holy of Holies — the burning of the incense — should come after the mention of “with this shall Aaron come…” along with all the other requirements. But this list does not begin until the following posuk. It would be more than a little strange for the Torah to begin speaking about the incense before it even began speaking about the requirements to enter the Holy of Holies. Finally, the Torah mentions the requirement of the incense burning in verse 13; why would it repeat it in the opening posuk?

For all these reasons, the pshuto shel mikrah cannot be that “cloud” refers to the incense. It must mean something else. It must then mean God’s presence in the form of the cloud-pillar. Thus, in this case, the simpler read of the verse renders “cloud” as not the seemingly obvious cloud of incense, but the cloud-pillar of God’s presence.

The Sadducees

Fascinatingly, there may yet be another reason for Rashi’s interpretation here as well.

The explanation that Rashi quotes as being Midrashic — that “cloud” refers to the cloud of incense burned by the kohein — actually comes from a Gemara (Yoma 53a). This interpretation is not advanced by Chazal, though, but by the Sadducees. According to the Sadducees — who rejected the Oral Torah and any Midrashic readings of the text, and accepted only pshat as a valid interpretation of the Torah — the pshat of the word “cloud” in our verse refers to the incense. R. Bonchek suggests that Rashi very cleverly adopted the interpretation of the Sadducees, but, in a purposefully ironic twist, as the drash, not pshat!

We Are All Of Us Kohanim

Having worked through the above, I would be remiss if I did not share the following. While the kohein can certainly only enter the Divine presence under extremely specific circumstances, God calls the entirety of the Jewish nation (Exodus 19) His “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” presuming we obey His commandments and follow his Torah. While the precise understanding of “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” is unclear, James Kugel proposes that the simplest reading is just as it sounds:

God is saying that you won’t actually be priests—there will still be real priests to offer sacrifices on the altar—but to Me you will be like priests, that is, “a holy nation,” as the verse goes on to say. How will this come about? The verse itself says this will happen “if you obey Me and keep the conditions of My covenant.”

As best I can see, this is the straightforward meaning of the text. If you keep My commandments and do them, you will be like priests in a sanctuary. This verse thus describes a kind of alternate sanctuary, a sanctuary made up of mitzvot. Keep My commandments and you will enter this other kind of sanctuary, in fact, you will stand directly before Me whenever you do what I have said. And this went on to become one of the most basic tenets of Judaism. The blessings that we recite before performing a mitzvah always start off, “Blessed are You...who have made us holy through Your commandments”— as holy as priests in a sanctuary.

The big difference between the sanctuary of the High Priest and the sanctuary of all Israel, that is, the sanctuary of mitzvot, has to do with accessibility. Not even the High Priest can stand in God’s presence anytime he chooses; he gets to do that only once a year. But the ordinary Israelite can enter the sanctuary of mitzvot anytime he or she likes: it is right there, “in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”

1. It should be noted here that this death was not so much a punishment as it was simply a natural — or, really, supernatural — result of coming into such close contact with the Divine presence. The full implications and understanding of this phenomena is beyond the scope of this piece, however.

The Half-Hallel Of Pesach

What’s The Big Deal With Firstborns?