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The Prayer of the High Priest

Summarized by students

Dedicated to the memory of
Yaakov Ben Behora

לשיעור זה בעברית: תפילתו של הכהן הגדול

1. A Short Prayer . . . For Rain
2. Concern for the Welfare of the Jewish Nation
3. Precedence in His Presence

A Short Prayer . . . For Rain
Let us consider the content of the short prayer recited by the High Priest in the Holy Sanctuary, before the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (Yoma 5, Mishnah 1): "And in the outer chamber he uttered a short prayer. He did not make the prayer long so as not to frighten Israel."

The High Priest was not permitted to prolong his prayer. If he were to take a long time, the people of Israel would become worried that some disaster had possibly befallen him inside (as had been the case with the sons of Aaron when they came before God and died), for our sages possessed a tradition that a High Priest who changed any part of the incense service would not come out of the Holy of Holies alive.

The Talmud relates (Yoma 43b) that one of the priests once prolonged his prayer in the Holy Sanctuary. This bothered his fellow priests, and he explained to them that he was praying for their welfare and for the welfare of the Holy Temple, that it not be destroyed. They said to him that he should not make a practice of this, for, as the Mishnah teaches, "He did not make the prayer long so as not to frighten Israel."

Things reached such an extreme that they warned him not to make a practice of this. On whose behalf, after all, was he extending his prayer? On behalf of the Holy Temple, that it not be destroyed!

What, then, is the short prayer of the High Priest which is desirable and accepted?
"May it be Thy will, God our Lord, that this year be full of heavy rains. And if it is hot, let it be full of heavy rains."

We find that in his short prayer the High Priest did not mention at all the spiritual needs of Israel, like Torah study, fear of Heaven, or anything related to the performance of commandments. Neither did he mention anything about the necessities of survival, like "the sword of war should not pass through our land," or, Heaven forbid, that "no plague should come within your borders" or similar matters.

All that he says during his few moments inside the outer chamber is a short prayer for rain. From this short payer it is possible to learn just how dear and important rain is for us, and how it takes precedence over other requests related to our lives.

Concern for the Welfare of the Jewish Nation

The Talmud expands upon the High Priest's short supplication, adding three additional requests which essentially stem from and are connected to the question of rain (Yoma 53b; Rambam, Avodat Yom Kippur 4:1):

1. May there not depart a ruler from the house of Judah.
2. May Your people, Israel, not need to sustain one another.
3. May the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence.

Let us consider this threefold addition.

The first request, that the house of Judah not be destroyed, teaches us of the greatness of kingship and its importance as far as the existence of Israel is concerned. It constitutes a vessel which receives the many blessings which rest upon it and which will come forth from it and from its force. We are witness in our own generation to many cases of collapsing kingdoms. What happens to the citizens of a country without central authority? Hunger and anarchy overrun its ruins. If there is no fear of authority, "one man will swallow up alive his fellow-man." Here, then, is the ancient foundation for our Prayer for the Welfare of the Kingdom.

After a general concern for the existence of Israel has been addressed there comes a second request - that of the individual: May Your people, Israel, not need to sustain one another. For the welfare of the community precedes the needs of individuals, like the wall of a city which must be strengthened and supported before the private fortifications are repaired. One who does not lend a hand in the fortification of the city endangers his own home (Kuzari 3:19). These two requests, then, are an expansion upon the High Priest's request for rain with its concern for the physical existence of the community and the individuals of Israel.

Precedence in His Presence
What is not understandable to us is the third request: May the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence! When have we ever seen a negative request before? A request which calls for blocking other people's prayers?

Let us consider the question and answer of one of the great and wise Hasidic masters, Rabbi Shimon Shalom from Amshinov, of blessed memory. He raises the question: Who are these wayfarers? Are they righteous? Is it conceivable that the righteous pray that rain not fall on the Land of Israel at a time when the soil is in need? And if they are wicked, is it conceivable that the prayer of the wicked be received on high and that rain be prevented from falling because of them? If this is so, i.e., that it is not the way of the righteous to ask that rain not fall, and the request of the wicked is not received on high, what are the sages talking about? Who is the High Priest referring to in his prayer?

And Rabbi Shimon Shalom answers: the Talmud is speaking about a Jew who works all day to earn a living, and, as he returns home from work he encounters rain. The path becomes filled with mud, his wagon sinks in, and he becomes stuck in the middle of the path. Completely wet, he begins to shout, "Oy! How will I get home?" His shout is heartfelt and it demands a response!

It is with regard to such a case that the High Priest requests that "the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence." Israel, Your nation, needs rain and they are crying out to God, upon Whom they rely and in Whom they place their trust, and the people of Israel take precedence over a single "Reb Israel."

Now we are able to understand the role of the High Priest - to arrange the prayers of the people of Israel before God. Many prayers come before the heavenly hosts. Some of them are saturated in tears, and sometimes the prayers contradict one another! Who will determine which prayer enters first, and which will have to wait?

Here, the High Priest stands in the Holy Sanctuary, before the Holy of Holies, at the place where the prayers of Israel rise to the heavens. >From here he gazes upon all of the needs of the people of Israel and determines their order of rank and precedence via a fixed prayer which he offers before God. His short prayer constitutes a summary, the principal needs of Israel. And so, at the heart of this holy day, while encountering the inner sanctity before God's inner chamber, and with the approval of God, he offers his prayer, saying, "May the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence!"
Some of the translated sources in the above article are taken from or based upon Soncino's Judaic Classics Library (CD-Rom).

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