Today in daf yomi we began the seventh chapter of Massechet Yoma (Yoma 68b) whose first Mishna (Yoma 7:1) describes the ritual of how the Kohen Gadol would read passages about Yom Kippur from the Torah text and then by heart while holding onto the Torah. Moreover, we are then told that he followed this reading by reciting eight different blessings relating to Yom Kippur and the Jewish people.
Interestingly, as Rabbi Yaakov Nagen points out in his book ‘Nishmat HaMishna’, this image appears to conflict with our perception of the Kohen Gadol from earlier on in the Massechet where, in Mishna Yoma 1:6 while talking about how the Kohen Gadol was kept awake on Yom Kippur, we are told that while some Kohanim Gedolim would teach Torah, others – who were not ‘accustomed to read’ – would have Torah read to them. Moreover, in the following Mishna (Yoma 1:7), we were taught that younger Kohanim would click their fingers and keep the Kohen Gadol busy and to keep him awake. As Rabbi Nagen writes, the fact that these interventions were necessary ‘do not convey – to say the least – an atmosphere of the awe for this honoured position in terms of the Kohen Gadol.’
As we have previously noted, this image drawn from those earlier Mishnayot reflect the reality of the lower spiritual status of most of the Kohanim Gedolim in the second Temple period. However, while acknowledging this fact, Rabbi Nagen then adds a further layer of meaning to this Mishnayot by explaining that ‘Yom Kippur is a day for Teshuvah; a day in which a person can change and improve. The Kohen Gadol plays a central role on this day, and given this, the Mishna wishes to express the profound change that occurs throughout the day and through his service… In the first chapter, the Mishna describes the Kohen Gadol as a passive personality where others read to him, whereas in the seventh chapter, he is the one who is reading the Torah to the nation…. At the beginning of the Massechet, the Kohen Gadol is separated from his home…while this circle is closed at the end of the day when he is accompanied to his house (Yoma 7:4) where he would make a feast for his loved ones when he emerged in peace from the Sanctuary.’
Having explained all this, he concludes by writing: ‘I have often arrived at Yom Kippur with a feeling that I am not ready. Ellul and the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah have passed by, but I still feel that I am at the start of the journey. But by reflecting on this journey of the Kohen Gadol [on Yom Kippur], it encourages me to believe that while I too begin the day when I am a lower level, I can end the day at the highest of levels.’