The myth of the rope around the high priest’s ankle.

There is a commonly told story in Christendom that is usually told to make a point about the holiness of God. Pastors would say that once a year on the day of Atonement, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies in the temple to make sacrifices.  It was said that he would wear bells on his person, and would have a rope tied around his ankle. The idea is that if he had failed to purify himself and had even the slightest amount of sin left in him, or he did the sacrifice incorrectly, that God would strike him dead. If God did strike him dead, then the bells would stop tinkling and the other priests would pull his corpse out from behind the curtain with the rope.

It sounds like a nice story, except for one thing- It is a pure and utter fabrication. You can search the Bible, the Second Temple Jewish literature [the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha] the writings of Josephus, the Mishnah and Gemara, and the Midrashic commentaries of the rabbis, and nowhere in there will you find such an idea. So what is the origin for this oft attested myth? It would seem that the first traceable reference to this custom is in the Zohar, a thirteenth century mystical Jewish commentary on the Torah written by Moses de Leon. The Zohar is the basic text of Kaballah, the practice of Jewish mysticism.

Here’s the reference: “Rabbi Yitzchak said, A chain was tied to the feet of the High Priest, when he entered THE HOLY OF HOLIES, so that if he dies there they will take him out, SINCE IT IS FORBIDDEN TO ENTER THERE… Then there is joy among the higher and lower beings. If not, they were all in sorrow and all knew that their prayer was not accepted.”
Zohar Vol. 16 Emor, Section 34. Yom Kippur, Par. 251.

Nothing about the book should lend us to believe that this is a reliable and historical reality. This is not what we might call a legitimate source for deriving the truth about prehistoric Jewish customs, Furthermore, Leviticus 16 makes it clear that bells were not to even be worn in the Holy of Holies, only The Holy Place. For this reason, when the High priest enterd the Holy of Holies, he washed and wore special linen garments, not the ephod with bells. If there are no bells, there is no need for a rope. As it were, there is no written reference to this “rope” before 1250 AD. It is not biblical, historical, or even particularly ancient. If you want to teach about the rope around the ankle of the High Priest, you must do so with the awareness that such a practice was never referred to in any ancient source and that the first mention of it is in a mystical text written 2600 years after Leviticus 16 and a thousand  years after the  Temple was destroyed.

9 thoughts on “The myth of the rope around the high priest’s ankle.

  1. It’s a real factor. I will show you the videos of holy mass in Syrian Christians church. Only priest can stand in before of the holy sacrifice table, with wearing special clothes. It’s believed that altar is a place of holy fire.

    • Andrews, I would like to see that video, but that doesn’t change the fact that while some people may practice it and believe it, that it does not have its origins in the bible. Furthermore, I would say that the bible speaks of the priesthood of all believers. “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” [1 Peter 2:5-9].

      Old Testament priests were chosen by God, not self-appointed; and they were chosen for a purpose: to serve God with their lives by offering up sacrifices. The priesthood served as a picture or “type” of the coming ministry of Jesus Christ–a picture that was then no longer needed once His sacrifice on the cross was completed. When the thick temple veil that covered the doorway to the Holy of Holies was torn in two by God at the time of Christ’s death [Matthew 27:51], God was indicating that the Old Testament priesthood was no longer necessary. Now people could come directly to God through the great High Priest, Jesus Christ [Hebrews 4:14-16]. There are now no earthly mediators between God and man as existed in the Old Testament priesthood [1 Timothy 2:] and for that reason there should be no fear of being struck dead if we approach God.

  2. Who is a real Christian? What’s the actual truth behind Christianity? If Jesus come to us what he will be doing? I believe more so called Christians making money on his name. It’s a good business. Without investment. I wish I could interview Jesus and share his real feeling towards CHRISTIANS!!!!!!!!
    All I know and believe I love Jesus and I love the Holy family. I want to follow the way Jesus taught us but I am stupid enough to understand his ways or lazy or going away from his teachings. I pray always to Jesus to help me to follow the way of real life, which he want me to follow.

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  5. Thank you for clarifying this “Myth”.
    The word of God is complete, effective and rich.Sometimes in order to understand better some parts of the Bible, I go searching history and some other resources.I heard about this myth not long ago from a precious brother.What I learned from this is that we have to be very careful about where the comments about the scriptures come from.And also that before echoing something about the Holy word , we should check its reliability.
    There are many writers we can trust who seriously study the scriptures and help us to enjoy and understand it better.But, there are also other sources to confuse and distract the lovers of the Truth.
    I am glad The Lord has given “gifts” to the Body to cooperate to its growth.Praise Him!
    Greetings from a member of the Body in São Paulo, Brazil!

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  7. 2 Tim 3-5 ; For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching,, but with itching ears will surround themselves with teachers who cater to their own desires. They will refuse to listen to the truth and will turn to ‘Myths’. But you must be clear-headed about everything!

    You can NEVER trust what imperfect people(however well intentioned) SAY the Bible says.
    YOU Must Check It Out for yourself… WHERE in the bible is it found?
    There are SO MANY myths today, MORE than you think… all the X=mas myths.. Easter.. Purgatory, Limbo, infant Baptism.. praying for or to the Dead.. .etc. changing the Sabbath to the day of the SUN; sunday.. .. And the Very ‘Popular’ MYTH of the Trinity!
    CHECK for yourself! How many of the “proofs{BIBLE VERSES}” used TODAY were used by the PRO-trinity GREEK speaking Scholars in the Trinity debates at the Council of Nicea?
    Why are there so many MORE Today? Were the GREEK speaking Scholars of that age LESS Knowledgeable of the Greek Scriptures than Latter day Scholars?
    OR has Latter day Pro-trinity Scholars Slanted the translations of today?
    See: Issac Newton and the Trinity & “Misquoting Jesus”.

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