On Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the year, the sacrificial rites in the Temple were conducted by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest himself. On this day and on it alone, he entered the Holy of Holies, where no-one else might ever enter. There, on this day, he pronounced in awe the Name of God that otherwise was never uttered lest its common use profane its sanctity.
With the destruction of the Temple, the desire to retain the vividness of the awe-inspiring Yom Kippur ritual led to the introduction in the Musaf service of a section known as the Avodah. It reconstructs the Temple procedure, to allow future generations to recall its solemnity and identify themselves with their people’s history.
The Avodah is based mainly on records preserved in the Mishnah Yoma. The Hebrew text in alphabetical acrostic, is by Meshullam ben Kalonymos of the 10th century.
In order to explain the origin of the Day of Atonement with its priesthood and ritual, the first section, Amitz Koach, goes back to the creation of the world. The author traces the history of man, the sinfulness of the early generations, the flood in the days of Noah, the patriarchs who made God known in the world, the birth of the Hebrew nation, and the appointment of the Levites to minister in the Sanctuary.
Having set the scene, the Avodah describes how the High Priest had now prostrated himself before God three times and sought forgiveness – for his own and his household’s sins, for the sins of the kohanim, and for the sins of all of Israel.
A central feature in the Temple service was the ritual of the scapegoat. As a dramatic symbol of the need for forgiveness and of mutual responsibility for sins committed anywhere in a community, the high priest laid his hands on the head of a goat standing before him, and confessed the sins of the people. Then the goat, symbolising wickedness, was sent into the wilderness to a place called Azazel, and there consigned to destruction.
Maimonides commented: “Sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, as if to say: we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and have removed them from us as far as possible.”
Culminating the reconstruction of the Avodah ceremony, the splendour of the scene is vividly depicted in a poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol, which has been rendered in these words by the Anglo-Jewish poet, Alice Lucas:
“Happy he that saw the crowd
That in adoration bowed,
As they heard the priest proclaim,
‘One, Ineffable, the Name,’
And they answered, ‘Blessed be
God, the Lord, eternally,
He whom all created worlds extol.’
Happy he whose eyes
Saw at last the cloud of glory rise,
But to hear of it afflicts our soul.”