I have heard plenty of times that, according to tradition, the people would tie a rope around the priest's ankle before he went into the holy of holies, thereby easing retrieval of the body in case his unconfessed sin caused God to strike him dead. Is there any record in tradition of a priest dying in the holy of holies?

In Exodus 28:35, it is commanded that Aaron (the first high priest) is to wear special bells on his priestly vestement, so the sound of the bells may be heard when he enters and exits the holy place (although not the holy of holies) "that he may not die."

In Leviticus 10, the priests Nadab and Abihu are actually consumed with fire, although they were probably outside of the tabernacle.

These above examples from scripture seem to show that a priest had to fear death if he should offend God while executing his priestly ministry. But there is no biblical record of any priest dying while actually in the holy of holies. Do any extra-biblical sources shed light on the matter?

  • Questions searching for a text are generally off topic here. Rather than closing it outright, it was suggested that this be migrated the Judaism SE site, which may be reasonable. My only hesitation is the reference to the "Old Covenant" -- are you referring to the text (Christian Old Testament) or the time period (since you seem to be open to other textual traditions)? Either way, probably not a concept that makes sense for the Judaism site. Can we just remove the last 4 words? If so, I think it would be fine over there.
    – Susan
    Nov 15, 2018 at 17:57
  • @kenbanks i removed your edit because the text in Lev. 10 does not say that it happened in the holy of holies!
    – bach
    Nov 15, 2018 at 18:39
  • Given the text in Lev. 10:13 it at least seems likely that it took place in the holy place at the very least. Without a Biblical text then we should probably close the post.
    – Ken Banks
    Nov 15, 2018 at 18:54
  • @KenBanks I agree with you. As Susan already pointed out searching for a text is generally considered off topic here, and would be best to move the question to Judaism SE.
    – bach
    Nov 15, 2018 at 19:32
  • Thanks for the careful comments and the edits. I'd never considered the Judaism SE, but I think I've got the answers I was looking for. Very helpful.
    – omannay
    Nov 16, 2018 at 5:20

2 Answers 2


I added the question to the original post.

In Leviticus 10:3-7 there is the episode where the two sons of Aaron (Nadab and Abihu)died when they went into the tabernacle.

Leviticus 10:1-2 (KJV) 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not. 2 And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

In that circumstance the Aaron remained silent in the first explanation of what had happened in verse 3

3 Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the LORD spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.

In verse 4 the sons of Uzziel who was the uncle of Aaron were instructed to "come near" to God which means they were instructed to enter into the holy of holies to retrieve the bodies.

4 And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them, Come near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp. 5 So they went near, and carried them in their coats out of the camp; as Moses had said. 6 And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled. 7 And ye shall not go out from the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you. And they did according to the word of Moses.

Commentators are split on what exactly the two sons of Aaron had done. right after this event, God instructed Aaron to prevent anyone from entering into the tabernacle that had drank wine or string drink. Commentators have looked at verses 12-13 to suggest that Aarons sons had gone into the holy of holies in a drunken state and that is why they were killed.

Given this circumstance of an actual event, it was God who instructed someone to take out the bodies so the idea of the rope seems contrary to what we would expect. Entering into the holy of Holies was a wonderful act of worship. The one who entered had to have faith in God's promises to perform that work. I can't imagine someone would show their lack of faith in God and His promises by having a rope tied around by ankle in case I died while I was in the Holy of Holies. The rope idea is probably more in the fanciful myth category instead of actual reality.


Actually there is a Jewish legend about a Sadducee that died in the holy of the holies as mentioned in Yoma 19b,

There was an incident involving a certain Sadducee who was appointed as High Priest, who prepared the incense outside and then brought it into the Holy of Holies... The Sages said: Not even a few days passed until he died and was laid out in the garbage dump, and worms were coming out of his nose in punishment for his actions. And some say that he was struck as soon as he emerged from the Holy of Holies, as Rabbi Ḥiyya taught: A type of sound was heard in the Temple courtyard, as an angel came and struck him in the face. And his fellow priests came in to remove him from there and they found the likeness of a footprint of a calf between his shoulders. That is the mark left by an angel striking, as it is stated with regard to angels: “And their feet were straight feet, and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot” (Ezekiel 1:7). (Translation from Sefaria)

See also Yoma 70a that the high priest would celebrate when he came out of the holy of holies on "the day of Atonement" unscathed. This would imply that the fear of dying in the holy of the holies was real and alive in the days of the second temple, and possibly that stories and memories of real life deaths were circulating among the masses.

About the tradition of the rope, it is not found in the Jewish Talmud or Midrashic literature. The origin of this legend is in the Zohar, a Jewish Kabbalistic work, and its exact meaning is still debatable see here for more on this.

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