That Rope around the High Priest’s Ankle

It’s a myth. Sorry to ruin such a good story for you.

The notion that the high priest would tie a rope around his ankle before entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) so that his body could be pulled out should he Tabernacle high priest, tb022804700be struck down is not found in any ancient source, including the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Apocrypha, the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud, or the Jerusalem Talmud.

The earliest reference that I know of is in a 13th century A.D. Jewish work, the Zohar:

A knot of rope of gold hangs from his leg, from fear perhaps he would die in the holy of holies, and they would need to pull him out with this rope.

The Zohar says a lot of other things that are not trustworthy. In fact, wearing such a rope would probably be a violation of Leviticus 16:3-4, which gives clear directions on what the high priest is to wear on Yom Kippur:

But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. (ESV)

John Gill cites this story in his Exposition of New Testament, published in 1746-48. Concerning Hebrews 9:7, he cites “Zohar in Lev. fol. 43. 3. & Imre Binah in ib”:

The Jews say, that a cord or thong was bound to the feet of the high-priest when he went into the holy of holies, that if he died there, the rest might be able to draw him out; for it was not lawful for another priest to go in, no, not an high-priest, none besides him on the day of atonement.

There are many websites and other sources that perpetuate this legend (including the NIV Study Bible on Exodus 28:35).

Another webpage that discusses this myth is located at ChristianAnswers.net.

UPDATE (8/27/09): Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky has written a lengthy article refuting the claim in the Zohar.


16 thoughts on “That Rope around the High Priest’s Ankle

  1. If there is no basis to the custom, what’s the rationale in bringing it up (creating it) nearly 13 centuries after the Second Temple had already been destroyed?

  2. wow, that is weird…i always thought it was in there…this reminds me of what CW always told us to just stop reading what others told us was there and just read what it says…wow!

    i am kinda sad, but no reason i guess

  3. Ze’ev – I haven’t spent much time reading medieval Jewish (or Christian) works, but based on other studies, it’s easy to see how traditions evolve or are created. This one certainly seems logical. One only has to ask the question, what would happen if the high priest died when he was in a place no one else could go. Someone theorized that if a rope was tied on his ankle, that would solve the problem. Over time, a theory became a reality.

  4. Todd, perhaps that could be the explanation, however in the face of the fact that there seems to be explicit guidelines as to exactly what the High priest can wear, and nothing else – how something would get added to the list.

    It’s as if the Biblical commandments were put aside to come up with a “cute” idea to answer some hypothetical question…

    1. Perhaps instead of stating that scripture fails to address the question, what would the Priesthood have done (be authorized to do) to rectify the situation?

      Fact: A dead body of that year’s High Priest is in the Holy of Holies.
      Fact: The dead body will decay and cause to be “ceremonially unclean” the Holy of Holies.
      Fact: Only the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies, once in a year.
      Fact: Any later High Priest entering cannot contact the dead body (becoming ceremonially unclean, disqualifying him for High Priest Day-of-Atonement duties).

      Address the guidance that resolves the question.

  5. >It's as if the Biblical commandments were put aside to come up with a "cute" idea to answer some hypothetical question…

    That said, look at all the crazy stuff that gets invented in the Middle Ages about Christianity.

    You could ask "Why would anyone make up St. George killing a dragon if he didn't?"

    It appears that lots of stuff gets made up for all sorts of reasons all the time, expecially in religion.

    I agree with the criticism. If the 13th C AD is the first mention of this, I would tend to assume it not true until an earlier source is found.

    BTW, this sounds like the kind of fact that Josephus would have loved to recount if it was true (if fact, even if it wasn't).

  6. I see that the Aramaic of the Zohar does not match the English. This portion is an interpolation of the Kabbalah Center:


    I am trying to find out if these words are based on an authoritative commentary, or are just a totally imaginative idea to try to explain the original text, which only says:

    a knot of gold hangs from his leg…

  7. If the high priest did die in the holy of holies, everyone knew who the next high priest was, and presumably he could enter the holy of holies and retrieve the body.

  8. Are we to understand, if we believe this myth, the Almighty GOD, who created man out of the dust of the Earth, could not:
    1.) Foresee that the High Priest should be struck down by HIMSELF, thus making sure he didn't go in?
    2.) That if the High Priest dies a natural death that the Almighty couldn't raise him again?
    3.) That our eternal Father, who knows all and sees all, would be caught by surprise concerning the health of the High Priest?
    4.) Wouldn't there have been provisions made in the Levitical law addressing such a mishap?

  9. Sorry gang, this is a long response!

    I’d like to offer a passage from the book In Quest of the Historical Pharisees, edited by Jacob Neusner and Bruce D. Chilton. (2007) Waco, Baylor University Press.

    From the chapter titled “Paul and Gamaliel” by Chilton and Neusner.
    Here is a teaching purported to be from Gamaliel (20-50 AD) which says:
    (from Sheq. 6:1-2…I’ll put just the verses in question)
    A. M’SH B: A priest was going about his business and saw that a block of the pavement was slightly different from the rest.
    B. He came and told his fellow.
    C. He did not finish telling [him] before he dropped dead.
    D. Then they knew without doubt that there the ark had been stored away.(page 217)

    But this example was in the Temple and no-one had a rope around his leg.

    Another example is an appendix of a chapter written by Jack N. Lightstone, titled “The Pharisees and Sadducees” and I will preface this by saying that the whole point of his text is to show the possible use of some of Mishnaic writing by later compilers who were possibly strengthening the rabbinic traditions said to come from the Pharisees after the destruction of the temple.

    What he offers starting at page 291

    In t.Yoma 1:8 (tractate by Yoma) the story goes:
    1. A certain Boethusian [Sadducee high priest] prepared the incense while he was outside[ the Holy of Holies] and the cloud of the incense went forth and shook the Temple.
    2. For the Boethusians say: He shall prepare the incense while he is outside[the Holy of Holies] as it is said: and the cloud of the incense shall cover the ark cover(Lev. 16:13)
    3. Said to them the sages: Has it not already been said: and he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord (Lev. 16:13)? If so, why is it said: and the cloud of the incense shall cover? It teaches that he puts in them [i.e., the ingredients of the incense] a smoke-producing substance, he is deserving of death.
    4. When he emerged, he said to his father: All of your days you interpreted [the scriptural injunction in accordance with my behavior] and you did not do [thus], until I came and did [so]myself.
    5. [His father] said to him: Although we interpret [the Scripture thus], we do not do [thus]. We obey the words of the sages. You will astonish me if you do not last [more than a few] days.
    6. […]
    7. It was not [but] three days until they placed him in his grave

    Now the author of this is the ‘Tannaitic’ translator and the actual point of this is to teach adherence to Scripture and how the Sadducees mess up…but here’s evidence from pre-70 AD of someone messing up and “placed in the grave” for making a mistake in the Temple…but not dying on the spot.
    This may be a ‘possible’ source of the much later ‘gloss’ by the 13th century teacher.
    Hope this helps!

    1. Unknown wrote: “…but not dying on the spot.”

      What about Aaron’s sons being struck while performing unauthorized actions?
      What about Uzzah who steadied the cart-tipping Ark? [Was he of the Levi tribe, or one of the priests?]

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