In Temple times, the major rituals of Yom Kippur were in the hands of the Kohen HaGadol – the High Priest, who was charged with seeking atonement for the sins of the people. During the ritual of the day, the Kohen HaGadol was required to change his clothing seven times, alternating between full ornamental regalia with its gold ornamentation and the simple white linen garb of regular priests (kohen hediot). At the high point of the day, when the High Priest’s entered into the Kodesh Kodashim – the Holy of Holies, one might presume, he should wear his august garb, indicative of his office. Instead, the ritual called for him to wear the simple linen garb of a regular priest.
The following Talmudic exchange captures a rabbinic discussion of the possible rationale:
Why doesn’t the High Priest serve in the gold garments? On account of pride. Said Rabbi Simon as noted in the verse: ‘Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence.” (Proverbs 25:6) Said Rabbi Levi: For a prosecuting attorney should not be made into a defense attorney. Yesterday, it was written regarding them: “And they made for themselves gods of gold” (Exodus 32:31) and now, he (the High Priest) stands and serves in gold garments? (Yerushalmi Yoma 7:3 42b)
For Rabbi Simon, the Kohen HaGadol was the premier religious officiant. This position carried with it power and pride of position – two attributes which could easily lead a person to arrogance. Therefore, when pleading the nation’s fate before God, the Kohen HaGadol was to wear simple garments as a reminder that humility should inform his religious performance before God.
Rabbi Levi’s rationale is more intriguing. His line of thinking is likely influenced by his knowledge of the goings on in courtrooms. He knows that a lawyer will make sure that his or her client’s attire should not reflect on past bad behavior or even on the crime for which they are accused. Consequently, he concluded that this same approach should also hold for appearing before God to plead for mercy. The Kohen HaGadol, therefore, would be foolish to come before God wearing something that might recall to God the sin of the golden calf, the children of Israel’s greatest sin.
The messages of these two sages carry with them significant lessons for how people comport themselves. Rabbi Simon assumes that outward appearance has the potential to affect a person’s behavior and demeanor, while Rabbi Levi assumes that one’s appearance plays a major role in how a person is perceived.
On Yom Kippur, we seek to bring in line how we are perceived with who we really are. It was the hope of these sages that we reflect both inwardly and outwardly a way of living worthy of living in God’s presence.