Sunday 4 March 2018




There are some interesting instances where oft-repeated ‘quotations from the Talmud’ are not found in the Talmud at all. One example is where R. Moshe Feinstein quotes a famous ‘Chazal’ (statement of the Talmud) about: ‘More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.’ However, that statement doesn’t exist in Talmudic literature but is instead a quote from the Zionist thinker, Achad haAm.

And there is also The Famous Midrash Which Doesn’t Exist, which lists the ‘three things’ our forefathers observed, to merit being saved from Egypt.

Let’s take a look at another famous statement and see whether it is also falsely attributed to a Talmudic source. It goes something like this:

The High Priest had a rope tied to his ankle when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, so that if he died he could be pulled out; because no  one else was permitted into the sanctuary.”


According to the Talmud[1], towards the end of the period of the Second Temple, most of the High Priests were unfit for the holy task. Many bought, or bribed their way to, their positions - and some, apparently, died within the first year of their appointment.

The Talmud says: 

Since they (the priests) were giving money (in order to be appointed to the High) Priesthood, they were replaced every twelve months.”

Rashi comments: 

“Because the priests of the Second Temple gave money to the Hasmonean Kings in order to buy the position of High Priest, these wicked priests did not live out a year and another had to take his place. Each subsequent priest outdid his predecessor by building a better structure and calling it after his (own) name.”

According to the Talmud[2], during the 410 years of the existence of the First Temple, there were eighteen High Priests – whereas during the 420 years of the Second Temple there were only four righteous High Priests and over three hundred[3] others who were unfit and didn’t serve out their first year in the position[4].

The Talmud does tell us that there was a very real sense of fear on the part of the other worshippers who were waiting to see if the High Priest would emerge from the Sanctuary alive.

The Talmud says: “He (the High Priest) would pray a short prayer (as he exits) the outer chamber. He would not extend his prayer so as not to alarm the (people of) Israel.”[5]
This does seem to imply that there were times when the High priest did not emerge from the Holy of Holies.

Furthermore, the Mishna says: 

After the Yom Kippur Service; "They would give him (the High priest) back his (ordinary) clothes to wear, and accompany him back to his house, where he would make a festive meal for his beloved (family and friends) to celebrate his emergence from the  Holy sanctuary in peace."

Again, this clearly shows the fear that must have existed for the possibility that the High Priest may not survive the day.


Some High Priests were apparently afraid to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and therefore had a rope tied around their ankles lest they died while inside the sanctuary and had to be pulled out (as no one other than the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies).

This last extrapolation of the rope, however, is not found in the text.

Is the statement textually and historically true?

First of all, it must be pointed out that there is no Talmudic source referencing the ‘rope around the ankle’. It’s not in the Gemora text nor the Rashi quoted above, nor anywhere else in the Talmud.

According to Dr W. E. Nunnally:

 “The rope on the high priest legend is just that. It has obscure beginnings in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. It cannot be found anywhere in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna, or any other Jewish source. It is just not there.[6]

So there you have it. The story appears to be a legend and a myth and nevertheless, it managed to become one of those ubiquitous fables that get widely perpetuated despite its untruth.


A particularly astute congregant of mine recently made this observation and wrote to a well-known Jewish historian who had quoted, and posted on, the story of the rope around the ankle of the High Priest. He pointed out to the historian that there was no textual basis for this myth. 

The historian thanked the writer and responded by retracting his account, acknowledged the lack of textual evidence, and set about removing the inaccurate post from a kiruv website.


Further research, however, reveals that Dr Nunnally is correct in everything he writes, except his last few words concerning the myth which is not found: “ any other Jewish source.”

There is indeed a Jewish source for the ‘rope around the ankle’ story!

It is from the Zohar which describes the preparation the High priest undergoes on Yom Kippur as he is about to enter the Holy of Holies:

“...he was to enter into a place more than holy than all. The other priests, the Levites and the people stood around him in three rows and lifted their hands over him in prayer, and a golden chain was tied to his leg. He took three steps and all the others came to a stop and followed him no further. He took three more steps and went round to his place; three more and he closed his eyes and linked himself to the upper world.”[7]

A second reference in the Zohar refers to a ‘golden rope’. Rav Yitzchak said: ‘A rope was tied to the Kohen’s leg when he went in, so that should he die there they could pull him out.” [8]

Thus we have two textual references to the ‘rope around the ankle’ story.


Without going into the thorny issue of who wrote the Zohar and when it was written (see Mysteries Behind the Origins of the Zohar), it must be pointed out that our only intention was to show a textual basis for the story of the rope, not necessarily to prove its historicity.

In other words, one could still argue that the practice of tying a rope around the High Priest’s ankle never happened (perhaps because of the prohibition of ‘adding to the number of priestly vestments’) – and one could also argue that we don’t draw historical (or – at least theoretically* - halachik) conclusions from the Zohar – but the fact remains that there are at least two Jewish sources which reference it.


The Talmud records that a certain Sadducee was once appointed as High Priest. During the Yom Kippur service, a noise was heard and the other priests thought he had died, and immediately “the other priests entered after him” into the sanctuary. There is no reference in this text to any rope around the leg.


There are also some Halachik difficulties with the ‘golden chain/rope’ because it meant adding an impermissible item to the clothing of the High Priest on Yom Kippur - known as ‘yitur begadim’. This is something that would have been taken extremely seriously because any deviation from the priestly dress-code would have been on pain of death. A rope worn around the foot may have constituted additional vestments.

A metal chain[9] may have created issues with the laws of purity as metal contracts impurity easily.
Gold, in general, should have been a Halachik issue on Yom Kippur when the High Priest was only permitted to wear white.

And finally, assuming a High Priest dies in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, there would be no need to haul him out by a rope, because his body could simply be removed by another Cohen, a Levi, or even a Yisrael if necessary:

As the Talmud states:

Anyone may enter the sanctuary (Heichal[10]) whether to build, to repair or to remove impurity.”[11]


Our intent was only to show that there is a Jewish source for the story. The bearing this source may have on Halacha, history or possible spiritual symbolism, is an issue for further study.

[1] Yoma 8b, and 18a.
[2] Yoma 9a.
[3] The number 300 is calculated from Yoma 9a, where we see that Yochanan served for 80 years, Shimon haTzadik for 40, and Yishmael ben Pavi for 10 years. (Some say that Elazar ben Charsum served for 11 years.) So for the remaining 279 years, there was approximately one High priest per year, due to the corruption.
[4] According to R. Dr Ari Zivotofsky: “It should be noted that although the Gemara says they did not serve an entire year, it does not specifically state that they died on Yom Kippur; while some definitely died then, others may have died under different circumstances or simply lost the position to a higher bidder.” See: Tzarich Iyun – The Kohen Gadol’s Rope.
[5] Yoma 52b.
[6] Dr W. E. Nunnally is Associate Professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Central Bible College, and also Adjunct Professor of Hebrew, The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.
[7] Zohar, Parshat Acharei Mot, 67a.
[8] Zohar Vol. 16 Emor (102a), Section 34. Yom Kippur, Par. 251.
[9] The Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud translates Kitra as a ‘knot’ or ‘band’ (which may imply a rope which alleviates the metal issue).
[10] See Rambam, Beit haBechira 7:23, where this is extended to the Holy of Holies as well.
[11] Eiruvin 105a.

1 comment:

  1. Presumably many, if not most, of the Kohanim Gedolim did not die. It is unlikely all seven sons of Kimchis died (some were disqualified), and Josephus writes about bands of ex-Kohanim Gedolim roaming about terrorizing the countryside.