Most of us would say that we preach the truth. Popular myths are not the meat and potatoes of strong, evangelical preaching.
Yet many preachers have passed on the tradition that the High Priest had a rope around his foot to drag him out of the Holy of Holies if he died while performing the sacred rituals on the Day of Atonement. This bit of information adds an exciting little tidbit to a sermon on the sometimes boring details of the sacrificial ritual.
I have searched the Mishnah and Talmud in vain for evidence of this tradition. But I recently found some information on this tradition from rabbinic scholars at the Temple Institute in Jerusalem. The Temple Institute is an institution dedicated to preparing the way for the building of the Third Temple. Their official headquarters is in Jerusalem where they have a small museum displaying articles which have been made ready for use in Israel’s next temple.
Upon inquiry I learned that the tradition of tying a gold chain to the High Priest’s leg before he entered the Holy of Holies is described in the Zohar, a 13th century mystical work. Rabbinic scholars at the Temple Institute say that the Zohar is not considered authoritative when it comes to Jewish Law and need not be taken literally.
There are four reasons they believe that it is improbable that a chain was tied to the High Priest.
First, according to Jewish Law it is forbidden to add any garment or attachment to the High Priests garments. Even an extra thread would be considered a violation. Therefore, adding a chain would be a breach of Jewish law.
Second, psychologically, having a chain tied around the High Priest would increase his anxiety. At a time when he had such a complex service to perform, it seems unreasonable to preoccupy his thoughts with the possibility of death.
Third, in the rare case that the High Priest did die when performing the service improperly, the Talmud (Yoma 19b) tells us that he died upon exiting the Holy of Holies, not in the sanctuary itself.
Fourth, to drag a heavy chain around his foot would be degrading to the High Priest.
The lesson to be learned from this research is that we who preach the Word of God must be careful not to adorn biblical truths with ideas or traditions that don’t reflect reality. Paul instructed Timothy to instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines nor to pay attention to myths (1 Tim. 1:4). It is really a matter of preaching with integrity.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).