Stephen Lord posted the following information to a discussion group for gospel preachers. He kindly gave us permission to reproduce it below.
The notes in my New Living Translation Study Bible for Ex. 28:31-35 make the claim that, “Jewish tradition tells us that the priest had a cord tied to his ankle so that if he died in the Holy Place, his body could be dragged out.” Cool beans, eh? Actually, it’s not beans, it’s baloney. You won’t find that alleged factoid anywhere in the Bible or other ancient Jewish sources.
This yarn seems to have entered Christian circles via John Gill, a prominent British Baptist theologian who lived from 1697-1771. In the years 1746-1748, Gill published a three volume commentary on the New Testament called An Exposition of the New Testament. When he came to Hebrews 9:7, Gill stated, “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.”
However, as already stated, that claim cannot be found in the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, the Mishnah, or the Talmud.
In point of fact, the only Jewish source in which this claim can be found comes from the Zohar (Volume 15, Acharei Mot, Section 32:198).
What is the Zohar? A collection of writings by the 13th century Spanish Jew Moses de Leon which form part of the occult Kabbalah, a late Medieval Jewish system of mysticism, gnosticism, and magic. I’d hardly call this a reliable source of ancient Jewish customs.
It is interesting (and disturbing) to see how “easily” a highly questionable claim can make its way into “mainstream” sources and be repeated as fact. Notice the slight evolution of the claim too. The Zohar mentions the priest’s leg and connects the procedure to the holy of holies. Gill has a cord bound to the feet (plural), and doesn’t mention the source of his information. The NLT is even more generic–“Jewish tradition”–cord tied to an ankle, and the room is the Holy Place rather than Holy of Holies.
Just an example of how a curious tidbit can be picked up and passed along by a generally respected theologian and uncritically repeated until it enters the realm of established truth. Perhaps this is a lesson in caution not to repeat every “neat” thing we hear without first checking its veracity as carefully as possible.