By Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD, emeritus senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
Page references are to the ArtScroll [A], Birnbaum [B] and Routledge [R] editions of the Ashkenazi Machzor.
EREV YOM KIPPUR
Kapparot (“Expiation”) [A2]
In some communities, sins are symbolically transferred by means of a ceremony involving waving a chicken or a sum of money over one’s head whilst reciting a Hebrew prayer, after which the proceeds are given to charity.
Opponents of the ceremony, which derives from the 9th century, criticise it on aesthetic, ethical and spiritual grounds, preferring the more conventional expressions of penitence, prayer and charity. The Ramban and Joseph Karo (Tur, Orach Chayyim 605) thought it was a stupid custom and the Rashba (Shlomo ben Adret) regarded it as a pagan superstition. Kabbalists however took it very seriously. Moses Isserles, who adds Ashkenazi glosses to the Shulchan Aruch, says it is an accepted custom and should be followed.
Those who oppose it recognise that it may contain a hint of the scapegoat ritual in the Temple but argue that the best way to rid oneself of sins is genuine repentance. Giving money fulfils the tradition of charity and symbolises the determination that any sins we may have committed will now be replaced by good deeds for the benefit of other people.
Early in the afternoon, the Minchah service is recited including the viddui (Confession of Sins – see below), leaving time in the rest of the afternoon to prepare for the fast and to get to the synagogue without rushing.
The pre-fast meal is full enough for sustenance but light enough to digest easily. It is helpful to take as much fluid as possible before the fast to help prevent dehydration during the day.
The children are blessed by their parents and the yom-tov candles are lit, as well as a Yahrzeit memorial candle.
Footwear & clothing
As leather shoes are not worn on Yom Kippur, non-leather footwear is put on before the fast. White is the dominant colour in the synagogue on the High Holydays. On Yom Kippur, not only the officiants but often many members of the congregation wear white garments. Males are commonly clad in the kittel, which, though reminiscent of shrouds, symbolises purity and spiritual cleanliness.
The day is marked by a complete fast from sunset on Erev Yom Kippur until nightfall the following day. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev said that there was a case for abolishing all the fasts except Tishah B’Av and Yom Kippur: “On Tishah B’Av” he said, “Who can eat? And on Yom Kippur, who needs to eat?” Apart from abstaining from food and drink, and not wearing leather shoes, other “afflictions” (Lev. 23:27) on Yom Kippur include abstaining from bathing, anointing oneself and marital relations (Mishnah Yoma, ch. 8).
A secondary meaning of v’initem et nafshotechem, “you shall afflict your souls”, may be derived from the use of the same verb in Deut. 26:5, v’anita, “you shall declare” or even “you shall sing”. Hence Yom Kippur with all its physical deprivations is spiritually releasing and a time to let our souls sing at our at-one-ment with God.
Blessing over the tallit [A36, B489, A36]
Normally the tallit is only worn during the day, as the fringes must be visible by natural light. On Kol Nidre, the tallit, put on before dark, adds to the awesomeness of the moment.
Or Zaru’a LaTzaddik (“Light is Sown for the Righteous”) [A56]
Some congregations begin the Kol Nidre service with this verse from Psalm 97:11. The final letters of the three Hebrew words can be rearranged to read k’ra – “tear apart (the evil decree)”. Originally it was part of the much longer T’fillah Zakkah composed by Abraham Danzig (1748-1820) on the basis of kabbalistic sources. Some link it to the custom of kindling a light of the Torah at the beginning of the fast, in addition to the Yahrzeit light kindled to recall the departed. The connection of Torah and light is indicated by Prov. 6:23, “The commandment is a lamp and the Torah is a light”.
Biy’shivah Shel Ma’alah (“By Authority of the Court”) [A58, B489, R15]
No-one, however great a sinner, is excluded from the congregation on Kol Nidre night. This declaration, deriving from medieval Ashkenazi communities, was originally designed to lift the ban on entering the synagogue imposed on those who flouted communal edicts.
Kol Nidre (“All Vows”) [A58, B489, R15]
In spite of its solemn atmosphere and moving melody, Kol Nidre is not a prayer but a legal declaration recited by the cantor, who constitutes an ad hoc Beth Din with two congregational elders. It aims to release unfulfilled vows made to God; it does not affect obligations to other people (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). In places and times such as medieval Spain where Jews made vows, under duress, to accept another religion, Kol Nidre provided a desperately-needed relief of conscience.
In a sense the haunting melody overpowers the words. It combines simple chant with rich figuration; its movement from a long sighing tone to a low note and then a cry of triumph describes Jewish history. Kol Nidre is first said hesitantly, and then more confidently, and finally boldly, showing we are at last certain that God will understand and forgive. This is the prologue to Yom Kippur as it recognises that we may make promises to God during the day which we will be unable to fulfil.
Shehecheyanu [A60, B491, R17]
This blessing is normally part of the Kiddush on festivals. On Yom Kippur, when no Kiddush is said, it thanks God who has brought us this day with its immense spiritual opportunities. Despite the lack of food and drink, this is still a yom-tov when we rejoice that we belong to God.
Baruch Shem (“Blessed Be His Glorious Sovereign Name”) [A68, B495, R18]
This is not part of the Shema itself but a pious response to the invocation of God’s name. It is recited aloud on Yom Kippur because it figured prominently in the atonement ritual in the Temple. Some say it is the praise which the angels sing to God; on Yom Kippur, wearing white and spiritually aroused we are almost like the heavenly host and echo the angels’ words. According to the Midrash, Jacob feared his sons would abandon God, but when they reassured him he gratefully proclaimed Baruch Shem.
Ki Vayom Hazeh (“For On This Day”) [A76, B501, R21]
This verse (Lev. 16:30) may be read in two ways – it is sins “before the Lord” which are forgiven on Yom Kippur, or our sins are forgiven “before the Lord” without any human intermediary.
The Amidah [A78, B503, R21]
The four special interpolations (Zochrenu, etc.) implore God to write us in His book of life; the Biblical idea was that a person omitted from that book would die.
U’vchen [A80, B503, R22]
The three U’vchen passages ask God to bless three categories – all His creatures; the Jewish people; and the righteous.
M’chal La’avonotenu (“Pardon Our Iniquities”) [A86, B507, R24]
This passage stresses that we do not need mediators to bring us to God. As the Haggadah insists, God Himself is our redeemer, “He and not an angel, He and not a messenger.”
Tavo L’fanecha (“Let Our Prayer Come Before You”) [A92, B509, R25]
This prayer implies that we must admit not only to God but to ourselves that we have sinned.
Ashamnu (“We Have Trespassed”) [A92, B511, R26]
Like the longer confession (Al Chet), Ashamnu lists sins alphabetically, acknowledging that we have sinned from A to Z. The sins are in the plural, for if anywhere in our society a sin has occurred, we all share the guilt. The sins listed are all ethical; where we have gone wrong is in our attitudes and values. The confession is sung to a happy melody, reflecting our joy at cleansing our souls.
Other insights on the Viddu’i (the confession of sins) appear at the hyperlinks here, here, here, here and here.
Al Chet (“For the Sin”) [A94, B511, R26]
A double alphabetical listing of sins; more than half refer to sins of speech, as Biblical tradition warns that both death and life are caused by the tongue (Prov. 18:21).
E-lokai Ad Shelo Notzarti (“Before I was Formed”) [A98, B517, R29]
Our deeds make us feel low and ashamed. We ask God to help us not to succumb again. A medieval rabbi says that the part of the body which sinned should now be used to do good.
Ya’aleh (“Let Our Prayer Ascend”) [A102, B521, R31]
The first of a series of beautiful piyyutim, popular because of their homely imagery. By Yose ben Yose (8th century), Ya’aleh, structured with a reverse alphabetical acrostic, pledges that our prayer will not slacken until the final moments of the day.
Shome’a Tefillah (“You Who Hear Prayer”) [A104, B523, R32]
Scriptural verses, usually said alternately by cantor and congregation.
S’lach Na (“Forgive, We Pray”) [A112, B531, R36]
An alphabetical poem by Meir of Rothenburg, 13th century, based on Num. 14:19. It expresses the faith that though we sin, we are still God’s children, and our Father will forgive.
Omnam Ken (“Yes, It is So”) [A116, B533, R38]
By Yomtov ben Yitzchak of medieval York, the poem asks God to heed our defence, not our prosecution, and to respond, “Forgiven!”
Ki Hinneh Kachomer (“Like the Potter Moulding Clay”) [A120, B537, R39]
A poem by an unknown author, calling us clay in the hands of the sculptor, stone in the hands of the mason. Though it implies that our fate is beyond our control, some at least of our destiny is up to us.
HaShem HaShem (“The Lord, The Lord”) [A123, B539, R40]
The 13 Divine attributes (Ex. 34:6) punctuate the prayers on Yom Kippur. They assure us that to be forgiving is God’s nature; they also offer us a role model – “As I am merciful, so should you be merciful”.
Z’chor Lanu B’rit Avot (“Remember the Covenant”) [A124, B541, R43]
We implore God to let our ancestors’ righteousness come to our aid to fulfil the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 56:7, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”.
Sh’ma Kolenu (“Hear Our Voice”) [A126, B545, R45]
These emotional words break the human heart when recited by cantor and congregation, especially the verse, “Cast us not off in time of old age” (Psalm 71:9).
Ki Anu Ammecha (“For We are Your People”) [A128, B545, R45]
Simple words with the deep thought that God and Israel are lovingly bound up with each other for ever.
V’David Avd’cha (“Your Servant David Declared”) [A136, B559, R51]
Passages showing how Biblical figures admitted their sins and asked to be forgiven.
E-l Rachum Sh’mecha (“Your Name is Merciful God”) [A138, B557, R53]
We ask God to remember all He holds dear – our ancestors, our martyrs, our children.
Mi She’anah (“He Who Answered Our Father”) [A140, B563, R54]
God answered when our ancestors most needed Him; we pray that He may come to our aid and answer us.
Avinu Malkenu (“Our Father, our King”) [A144, B565, R55]
Originally Rabbi Akiva’s prayer of supplication on a fast day in time of drought. Extra verses were added over the centuries to give expression to the yearning for Divine blessing whenever the future seemed in doubt. “Among the verses are some which point to periods of persecution, martyrdom and political danger; others refer to more normal tribulations and human necessities; others again are specially adapted to the penitential season when prayers for forgiveness are particularly appropriate” (Israel Abrahams).
The phrase, “Our Father, our King” seems paradoxical. A father is warm, close by, concerned and forbearing; a king is high and mighty, impartial and aloof. But if God were only Father we might exploit His kindly nature, and if He were only King, we might be too fearful and awestruck to approach Him.
Avinu Malkenu is omitted on Shabbat when we do not focus on our weekday needs.
Yigdal & Adon Olam [A158, B55/575, R75]
The two best-known synagogue hymns, sung to penitential melodies, conclude the service. Both are summaries of Jewish belief; they allow us to leave the service enveloped in the atmosphere of solemnity and with thoughts and feelings raised heavenwards.
HaMelech (“The King”) [A320, B581, R33]
The main section of the Shacharit opens with the proclamation that the heavenly King sits on a high, exalted throne to judge His world. This colourful language is not to be taken literally. God’s existence is above existence, and anthropomorphisms (human language applied to God) are poetic imagery.
Baruch Hapote’ach Lanu [A326, B583, R34]
The usual daily acknowledgement of God as the source of morning light is expanded to refer to the light of forgiveness. The words, “who opens for us the gates of mercy” contrast with the Ne’ilah service which speaks of closing the gates: the gates of the day and, in ancient times, the gates of the Temple, which were opened at dawn and closed at dusk. Despite this imagery, the Heavenly gates of mercy are never closed, and prayer is always heard.
Az b’Yom Kippur [A326, B585, R35]
A piyyut focussing on light, especially the inner light which fills the life of the person cleansed of sin. There is a provocative line (beginning with gimmel in the double alphabetical acrostic), “Sins increased whilst I was asleep”. It does not need to be taken literally, but is a suggestion that sins occur when we are not morally alert. The Golden Calf was made when the Israelite people were morally asleep.
Malchuto Bik’hal Adati [A338, B595, R39]
The gathered community of Israel acknowledges God’s rule and His glory, joining the angels in proclaiming Him as Kadosh, “The Holy One” (Isa. 6:3). Humans, however, have a privilege which angels are not given, to approach God for forgiveness. True, angels cannot and dare not sin, but the Talmud regards those who sin and repent as even greater than those who have never sinned at all (Sanh. 99a, Ber. 34b, etc.). The author of this poem is probably Kalonymos ben Moshe, 10th century.
Ashamnu, Al Chet [A358, B613, A358]
Emecha Nasati [A366, B623, R53]
The officiant’s plea to God to help him pray properly on behalf of his congregation. The author is Meshullam ben Kalonymos of Rome (10th century).
Immatzta Asor [A368, B625, R54]
Like most High Holyday piyyutim, this poem has an alef-bet acrostic. It implores God to take account of our sincere penitence, our heartfelt prayer and righteousness of our ancestors as well as the fact that old and young, “barefoot (i.e. without leather shoes) and robed in white”, are “faint because of their fasting”, though it is really later in the day that we feel faint and weak.
Ad Yom Moto (A372, B629, R56)
To the day we die, God waits for us to repent: this is the refrain of this poem by Meshullam ben Kalonymos. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos says in Pir’kei Avot (2:10), “Repent one day before your death”; the rabbi’s disciples asked, “Who knows on what day they will die?” and he answered, “So repent every day in case you die tomorrow” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, ch.15).
Attah Hu E-lo-henu (“You are our God”) [A376, B633, R57]
This lists the praises of God in alphabetical order. It concludes with the statement that the Almighty “hangs the earth upon nothing” (Job 26:7), which answers the concern of ancient man as to how the earth, the sun, moon and stars stayed in place without needing to rest on physical foundations. It is one of the Divine miracles that this should happen, in the view of Job and the liturgical poet.
Eder Y’kar E-li [A380, B639, R60]
An alphabetical piyyut stating that as we turn to God in prayer, He turns to us in forgiveness. The resh line expresses a characteristic Jewish thought, that God is both “high, lofty and exalted” and also “sees the humble and oppressed”. Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha (3rd century) says, “Wherever you find the greatness of God mentioned, there you also find His humility” (Meg. 31a).
Uv’chen Ach Channun Attah [A388, R63]
Using the whole range of the alef-bet, the poet acclaims God’s graciousness and mercy towards all His works. Not only for our sake but for His own do we ask His compassion, for it would be against His nature to deal with us harshly.
Im’ru Le-lohim [A390, B645, R64]
The author, Meshullam ben Kalonymos, echoes the Psalmist, who calls to mankind, “Say to God, ‘How tremendous are Your works!’” (Psalm 66:3). The Almighty’s greatness spans nature and history; His power is acclaimed by humans, angels, and all of creation.
Uv’chen G’dolim Ma’asei E-lo-henu [A396, B651, R67]
God’s deeds are contrasted with man’s; man is often devious, his life-span is limited and his pride ephemeral, whereas God is both the great Ruler and the loving Father who heeds the cry of all who even whisper their prayer. The lines referring to God follow the usual alef-bet acrostic; those that refer to man use a reverse acrostic beginning with tav.
Al Yisra’el Emunato [A400, B655, R68]
Israel enjoys every Divine blessing from alef to tav; the gimmel line derives from Psalm 68:35, which probably inspired the poet to write this piyyut. With this poem and those which follow, the liturgy constantly sings the praises of God. A principle of Jewish prayer is that first one should acknowledge the Almighty’s attributes and only then petition Him for our needs.
L’E-l Orech Din [A400, B661, R77]
An alphabetical acknowledgement that on the Day of Judgment (orech din in modern Hebrew is a lawyer) God judges objectively but with compassion. The title of the poem may mean, “God prepares (man) for judgment”, i.e. He shows us how to speak to Him at the moment of judgment.
Selichot [A412, B669, R81]
With the first of the Selichot (penitential prayers), the service moves from hymns of praise to prayers for forgiveness. The number of Selichot varies from congregation to congregation and according to the length of the day. Many Machzorim, such as ArtScroll, omit all but the basic framework of Selichot.
Mi E-l Kamocha [A430, B689, R101]
The refrain, from Micah 7:18, is not literally, “Who is a God like You?” since there are no other gods, but “O God, who is like You?” – a rhetorical question that implies God’s absolute uniqueness. Each line of the poem echoes a b’rachah from the Amidah, e.g. Magen Avraham, “Shield of Abraham”. The alphabetical acrostic is defective: the letters from zayin to tzaddeh are missing in our version.
Avinu Malkenu [A436, B695, R104]
TORAH READING [A452, B711, R110]
The Torah reading, from Lev. 16, describes the elaborate procedure in the Temple on Yom Kippur, directed by the high priest, wearing simple linen garments, symbolic of purity and humility. The ceremonies feature in the Avodah section of Musaf (see below). The Maftir, from Num. 29:7-11, details the special offerings brought on Yom Kippur.
The Haftarah [A462, B719, R114], from Isa. 57:14-58:14, criticises those who spend the day in fasting and saying prayers, persuading themselves that the ritual in itself brings forgiveness. “Is such the fast that I have chosen?” thunders the prophet: Is it not all a pretence, unless accompanied by ethical and moral dealing? Only out of genuine repentance and kindly deeds can we call to God and be confident that He will hear our voice.
YIZKOR – THE MEMORIAL SERVICE
Though the memorial service (Yizkor) did not become a regular practice until the Middle Ages (it is reported in Machzor Vitry, early 13th century), the idea of prayers for the dead is known earlier. In the Hasmonean period, Judah prayed for the departed and offered an atoning sacrifice (II Mace. 12:44). The Sifre says the dead require atonement (sec. 209); the Midrash says that in the verse, “Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed” denotes the dead. There is also a belief that the dead pray for the living: for example, Caleb is said to have gone to the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and asked the patriarchs to pray for him (Sotah 34b).
Some Ge’onim opposed prayers for the dead; they argued that our fate is determined by our deeds and not by other people’s prayers – but the Jewish people overruled the scholarly arguments and the custom became entrenched, reinforced by martyrdom in many generations.
At first Yizkor was restricted to Yom Kippur; only in the 18th century was it extended to Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sh’mini Atzeret. The link with Yom Kippur may have been the Torah reading, which begins with a reference to acharei mot – “after the death (of the sons of Aaron)” (Lev. 16). A homiletical suggestion is that when the Torah called the day Yom HaKippurim, in the plural, one kippur is for the living and one for the dead. On other days when Yizkor is read, the Torah readings refer to matnat yad, charitable offerings, recalling the verse, tzedakah tatzil mi mavet, “Charity saves one from death” (Prov. 10:2). The link with K’riat HaTorah on all four occasions presumably explains why Yizkor is usually recited after the Haftarah.
There is a misconception that Yizkor is not said in the first year after a death. This derives from a view in the Kol Bo that “the memory of the dead breaks the heart, and special prayers for the dead during the first year create excessive weeping and grief”. Rabbi YJ Grunwald’s Kol Bo Al Avelut quotes Sukkat Shalom, which says that omitting Yizkor is like robbing the dead. Rabbi CE Shapiro of Munkatch says it is precisely at this time that the dead require our prayers, and to omit Yizkor is foolish.
MUSAF [A486, B745, R124]
There are seven b’rachot in the Amidah for Musaf: the three standard introductory b’rachot, three standard concluding b’rachot, and one long intermediate blessing known as k’dushat hayom, “the holiness of the day.” The Reader’s repetition of the Amidah, greatly expanded by piyyutim, also includes the Avodah (see below), Selichot, and confessions of sins.
Shoshan Emek [A502, B765, R134]
Each stanza of this poem has four lines with the acrostic Shabbat Shabbaton, “Sabbath of Sabbaths”, which is one of the names given in the Torah (Lev. 16:31) to Yom Kippur. Like Shabbat, Yom Kippur is a day of rest, devoted to joyful communion with God. To call it “the black fast” is as erroneous as to see Shabbat as a burdensome, gloomy day. The title of this poem, meaning “Rose of the Valley”, derives from a description of Israel in Song of Songs 2:1. The author is Kalir.
Yom Miyamim [A504, B767, R135]
The acrostic is Yom Kippurim, the Biblical name for the Day of Atonement. Kippurim is plural; some say it represents a move of at-one-ment from man to God and an answering move from God to men. The author is Kalir.
Tz’feh B’vat T’mutah [A508, B771, R137]
A piyyut by Kalir, with the acrostic, Tzom HeAsor, “the fast of the 10th day (of Tishri)”. It urges God to treat us kindly because we are prepared to suffer martyrdom for His sake.
V’Attah Kadosh (“For You are Holy”) [A510, B771, R138]
This phrase from Psalm 22:4 suggests that God is sanctified by righteous deeds. Samuel H. Dresner’s paraphrase is, “Even though Thou art holy, O Lord, through the wonder of prayer we have the power to bring Thy holiness down from heaven to earth, among men and women and nations, among the affairs of mankind.”
Essa De’i L’merachok (“I fetch my knowledge from afar”) [A512, B773, R138]
The first line is a quotation from Job 36:3, implying, “I derive my inspiration from the past”. Birnbaum translates the phrase, “I transfer my thought to the distant past”. Jews cannot break with the past; for each of us “the past of his people is his personal memory; the future of his people is his personal task” (Martin Buber).
Asher Ematecha [A526, B787, R147]
The claim in this poem by an unknown author, “He desires to be praised by man,” deserves comment. It is not that God needs our praises or becomes greater by reason of them but He desires that we, by turning our thoughts to His greatness, will make the emulation of the Divine attributes our aim in life.
Un’tanneh Tokef [A530, B789, R149]
This section of the service repeats passages from the Musaf for Rosh HaShanah.
Un’tanneh Tokef attracts us by the legendary account of its composition, the richness of its music, its simple language and its vivid imagery, as well as its reference to the minute Divine scrutiny of every creature, the unpredictability of fate, and the assurance that though the length of our life is in God’s hands, its quality is up to us.
The fatalism of the second part of the prayer is unusual in Judaism which generally believes far more strongly in the power of free will. But the culminating assertion that penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil decree (or, more correctly, “the evil of the decree”) is wholly Jewish. It declares that whatever God may have in store for us, we have the capacity to handle it wisely and responsibly.
V’chol Ma’aminim [A538, B797, R152]
An attractive 9th century piyyut celebrating the power of God, displayed in the great events of history and nature, and in His compassion for His creatures. At the time it was written it may have been true to say “And all believe”; in a less religious age a more acceptable translation might be, “And all things attest” – or, more cynically, “Would that I could believe”.
Vaye’etayu [A544, B801, R154]
A poetical gem, probably composed in the 7th century, associated with a rousing melody befitting a jubilant, confident assertion that all the world will come to serve His glorious name. The alphabetical acrostic was helpful to worshippers in days before printed prayer books.
Alenu [A550, B807, R157]
Now utilised as the concluding prayer at every Jewish service, Alenu celebrates God as King over Israel and then (in the second paragraph, Al Ken N’kavveh Lecha) as King over the whole universe. It was written, according to tradition, by Joshua. The original version, still used by the Sefardim and in many – but not all – Ashkenazi communities, contains the words, “For they worship vanity and emptiness and worship a god that cannot save” (Isa, 45:20), referring to the idolatrous nations. These words were misconstrued as an attack on Christianity and thus the prayer came to be targeted for persecution.
Heyeh Im Pif’yot [A552, B807, R158]
A magnificent prayer for the cantor, on whose effectiveness in leading the service the congregation’s destiny may depend. It is probably placed here as a preface to the Avodah section of the service, which requires to be recited with care.
Amitz Ko’ach [A554, B811, R159]
An alphabetical acrostic which introduces the detailed account of the Temple ritual on Yom Kippur. Jewish worship knew no spectacle as splendid, no moment as moving as this ritual. Colourful ceremonial was carried out with scrupulous care by the well-rehearsed high priest, whose twofold task it was to minister at the sacrificial altar and to approach the Almighty in awesome loneliness with the Holy of Holies.
Some denigrate the Avodah (the high priest’s atonement procedure) as empty ceremonial devoid of spiritual content. By way of response, Israel Abrahams declared: “The sacrifices were elaborate, but not more so than the confessions. Adorned with all the art that old Israel knew, the Avodah must have been a magnificent spectacle, moving and impressive. But equally impressive is the threefold confession solemnly pronounced by the high priest – the confession of sin on behalf of himself, the priestly order, and the whole house of Israel”.
After the Temple was destroyed, Jewish practice adopted Hosea’s pledge, “We shall offer, instead of bulls, the words of our mouth” (Hosea 14:2), and developed the liturgical traditions of Yom Kippur. The Temple procedure was retained only as a vivid memory, with the step by step description of the Avodah, meticulously reconstructed from ancient records such as the Mishnaic tractate, Yoma (“The Day”). The text varies in different rites (30 versions are known), though all contain the same basic themes, interwoven with intricate piyyutim. The Ashkenazi version is largely by Meshullam ben Kalonymos (10th century).
V’Hakohanim V’Ha’am (“When the priests and the people”) [A560, B815, R161]
When he recited Lev. 16:30, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you from all your sins, before the Lord you shall be clean”, the high priest used the shem ham’forash, the four-letter name of God, not heard on any other occasion lest common use profane its sanctity. Its correct pronunciation has not been preserved. Spelt with the letters YHVH, it usually bears the vowels of Ado-nai (the name substituted for it in pronunciation) or of E-lo-him if the previous word is Ado-nai. Deriving from the Hebrew verb “to be” the name possibly conveys that God exists for ever and causes all else to exist.
The congregation in the Temple knelt at this point. Franz Rosenweig said, “What distinguishes the Days of Awe from all other festivals is that here and only here does the Jew kneel. Here he does what he refused to do before the king of Persia, what no power on earth can compel him to do, and what he need not do before God on any other day of the year, or in any other situation he may face during his lifetime. And he does not kneel to confess a fault or to pray for forgiveness of sins, acts to which this festival is primarily dedicated. He kneels only on beholding the immediate nearness of God, hence on an occasion which transcends the earthly needs of today”.
Tza’ad Lelech Lo (“He went to the east”) [A562, B817, R161]
A central feature of the Avodah was the confession of the people’s sins over the head of a scapegoat, which was sent into the wilderness to a desolate region called Azazel and then 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, cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.’” The meaning of Azazel is not certain. Suggested interpretations include “a land cut off” and “a strong, hard mountain”.
Tzeva Z’horit (“He tied a crimson thread”) [A562, B818, R162]
When the crimson thread around the goat’s head turned white, the people rejoiced at this token of forgiveness and a fulfilment of the verse in Isaiah 1:18, “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall become as white as snow.”
V’chach Hayah Moneh (“Thus did he count”) [A564, B819, R163]
Sprinkling the blood a number of times may have demonstrated that the eating of blood is forbidden by the Torah (Lev. 17:10, etc.). “The purpose may be to tame man’s instincts of violence by weaning him from blood, and implanting within him a horror of all bloodshed,” wrote JH Hertz.
“The vital principle of the animal was in the blood… Blood therefore is something sacred, it is withdrawn from ordinary use as an article of food, and reserved for a sacred symbolic purpose… The use of blood, representing life, in the rites of atonement symbolised the complete yielding up of the worshipper’s life to God, and conveyed the thought that the surrender of a man to the will of God carried with it the assurance of Divine pardon.”
Emet Mah Neh’dar (“Truly how glorious”) [A570, B827, R166]
Written by an unknown author, this poem (utilising an incomplete alphabetical acrostic) is based on or resembles chapter 50 of Ecclesiasticus: “How glorious he was, surrounded by the people.
As he came out of the sanctuary!
Like the morning star among the clouds.
Like the moon when it is full;
Like the sun shining forth upon the sanctuary of the Most High;
Like the rainbow, showing itself among glorious clouds,
Like roses in the days of first fruits,
Like lilies by a spring of water…
When he assumed his glorious robe,
And put on glorious perfection,
And when he went up to the holy altar,
He made the court of the sanctuary glorious”.
(Edgar J Goodspeed translation)
Ashrei Ayin (“Happy the eye”) [A572, B827, R167]
This concluding piyyut by Solomon ibn Gabirol (11th century) describes the joy of those who witnessed the splendid scene, and our grief at being bereft of it all since the destruction of the Temple.
Selichot [A584, B837, R169]
The Selichot for Musaf differ from one rite to another. There is a focus on the faithfulness of the generations of the past. The prayers are interspersed with the recital of the 13 Divine attributes (Ex. 34:6-7), echoing the Talmudic teaching that when Israel sin, they should recite this text and God’s mercy will be aroused (RH 17a).
Eleh Ezkerah [A586, B837, R178]
A long poetical description of the martyrdom of ten sages of Roman times (the Asarah Harugei Malchut) executed for their refusal to abandon Jewish belief or study. Another version is found in a piyyut recited on Tishah B’Av; the source is Avot d’Rabbi Natan (ch. 38) and the Midrash “Eleh Ezkerah”. In different versions, the list of ten martyrs varies. The poem includes the cry of protest of the angels, “Is this Torah, and is this its reward?” God’s reply is “Silence: this is My decree – accept it, you who love the Torah!”
HaYom Te’amm’tzenu [A622, B875, R195]
A fitting conclusion to the long Musaf, this is both a prayer and a confident assertion that God will this day strengthen and bless us and hear our supplications. Originally an alphabetical acrostic, our version is a fragment of a longer poem which appears in full in the Italian rite.
[A626, B885, R197]
The Minchah service comprises a brief Torah reading, a private Amidah and the Reader’s Repetition of the Amidah.
The Torah reading (Lev. 18) contains prohibitions against incest and immorality. It was probably selected for reading on Yom Kippur by the desire “to inculcate on the most solemn day in the calendar the paramount duty of purity and self-control” (Hermann Adler).
THE BOOK OF JONAH
[A634, B889, R201]
Jonah is one of the shortest books of the Bible – a mere 48 verses in four short chapters. “It is a shapely tale, tersely told, fast-moving and couched in a Hebrew of practised simplicity. It has the spaciousness of roomy oceans and big-bellied sea monsters, the brooding mystery of man and vessel caught in the coils of wind and storm, and characters oddly opposed, the one a human frailty hiding and the other a discovering Eye searching, both engaged in some fateful debate which ends as it began, with Jonah a sulking creature of defeat” (Chaim Lewis).
Is it the excitement of the story that accounts for the book’s popularity? Is it the fantasy elements such as the big fish? (Despite what people think, it was not a whale.) Is it the sudden incursion of a simple narrative that breaks into the heavy liturgy of Yom Kippur and wakes up those who are tending, in mid-afternoon, to drop off to sleep?
All this may be true, but the deeper appeal of the book has to do with its sheer credibility. Jonah is a real person, caught in a real human predicament: the human being struggling with his role, his destiny, his limitations of personality and soul.
Instructed by God to go to Nineveh and call its people to repentance, Jonah tries to run away. Jewish commentary suggests that he is worried that Nineveh might, by repenting, contrast with the intransigence of Israel. Finally he accepts that no-one can escape the responsibility God has given them.
Why is the story read on Yom Kippur? Abudarham (14th century) wrote: “The Book of Jonah is read from beginning to end, in order to teach us that no man can fly away from God, as David, peace be upon him, said (Psalm 139:7-10): ‘Whither shall I go from Your spirit, or whither shall I fly from Your presence? If I ascend up into heaven You are there; if I make my bed in the netherworld, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there would Your hand lead me, and Your right hand would hold me.’”
Other ideas relevant to Yom Kippur include these:
1. God’s compassion is universal. Jonah at first showed reluctance to go to Nineveh and then was angry that the city was saved; but God insisted that His mercies were over all His creatures, including the people of Nineveh and even their cattle.
2. Repentance, if accompanied by new and better deeds, as was that of the inhabitants of Nineveh, always finds acceptance by God.
3. Jonah’s declaration, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord,” has its lessons for those who cover up their Jewish origins or who find them a source of embarrassment.
The universalism of Divine compassion is summed up in this fine passage from Jewish literature: “I call Heaven and Earth as witnesses, that whether it be gentile or Jew, man or woman, serving man or serving maid, according to the deeds that each does the spirit of holiness will rest upon them” (Tanna deBe Eliyahu).
The old Anglo-Jewish custom of reading the beginning and end of the book in Hebrew and the rest in English has ancient antecedents. Agnon quotes in his “Days of Awe” (p. 263) a historic usage in Candia (Crete), “to read only the first three verses in the holy tongue, and to translate the rest of the book from the beginning to end into the secular Greek; afterward they skip to the Book of Micah, where they read three verses, and translate in the same way.”
Etan Hikkir [A666, B917, R215]
The first section of the Reader’s Repetition contains a series of poetical passages about the piety of the patriarchs. Abraham is called Etan, “The mighty patriarch… in an age when yet man knew not Your will”. The author of these passages is Eliyahu ben Mordechai, 11th century.
Mo’ohav V’yachid [A668, B919, R216]
The Isaac passage, in which the seraphim are described as pleading with God to spare Isaac’s life. Responding with mercy, God provided Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice.
Erelim B’shem Tam [A670, B919, R216]
The passage about Jacob, “The perfect patriarch” (called tam, “perfect”, in Gen. 25:27), whose “children stand today like angels supplicating You”.
On weekdays there are three services – Shacharit, Minchah and Ma’ariv. On Shabbat and festivals a fourth service, Musaf, is added. On Yom Kippur, we have a fifth service, the emotional Ne’ilah (“Closing”), recited as the day darkens and we use our last reserves of energy for a final urgent appeal for forgiveness.
The full name of the service is Ne’ilat She’arim – the closing of the gates. Perhaps this recalls the closing of the Temple gates, or possibly the closing of the gates of heaven. The latter idea, however, is not to be taken too literally; God’s gates are never closed to sincere prayer or heartfelt repentance.
The basic structure of Ne’ilah was known in the 3rd century, but in the Middle Ages its pattern was embellished by a series of piyyutim, possibly in order to prolong the service until nightfall.
Hermann Cohen, the German Jewish philosopher, wrote: “He who has not seen a Jew say Shema Yisra’el at the Ne’ilah service, or at the confession before death, has never seen religious ecstasy”. To many a Jew, the scene in the synagogue at Ne’ilah time has been a turning point back to Judaism. Heart and mind know at this moment that they are linked with their people in a bond which history has made firm. As we look around the synagogue our feeling is, “These are my people – I am one of them.” Even our long dead ancestors live and move within us once more.
Ashrei (Psalm 145) [A706, B957, R243]
From the first word of Ashrei, Ne’ilah is rendered in subdued, almost austere melodies with hardly a major key or a triumphant note, except perhaps for the final proclamation of faith, “The Lord, He is God!”
Silent Amidah [A712, B963, R246]
Throughout the Ten Days of Penitence there are special insertions in the Amidah pleading with God to write us in the Book of Life. Because Ne’ilah represents the eleventh hour, “write us” is changed into “seal us”.
Confession of Sins (Ashamnu) [A720, B971, R250]
The long Al Chet is omitted, as the time for extensive confession has passed. Ashamnu has to suffice; hopefully, God has already seen our contrition and accepted our penitence.
Attah Noten Yad [A720, B971, R250]
Judaism generally neither despairs of human beings or deprecates them. This passage, however, speaks of man’s unworthiness and asserts that he is really no better than the animals. Aaron Zeitlin, the Yiddish poet, remarks that at times man is even worse than the beast, for not even jungle beasts do some of the things that supposedly civilised man is guilty of. Yet, says this prayer, God is generous and forbearing and still holds out His hand to sinners.
Attah Hivdalta [A722, B971, R251]
Because man is the pinnacle of Creation, it gives God no pleasure to punish those who fail to live up to their potential.
E-lo-hai Ad Shelo Notzarti [A724, B974, R252]
Though this passage returns to the theme of man’s unworthiness, it does not suggest inborn sinfulness. It implies that being human is a daunting experience and it is hard straying into wrong paths. JH Hertz said, “Man’s passions incline him to sin, but they do not force him to do so.”
Repetition of the Amidah [A726, B977, R253]
During Ne’ilah the Ark is left open throughout and many worshippers remain standing. Petichat Ne’ilah (opening the Ark for Ne’ilah) is usually bestowed on a congregational elder.
Av Yeda’acha [A726, B977, R253]
lnserted in the opening section of the Amidah with its reference to our ancestors is a poem in three sections, describing the righteousness of the patriarchs. Z’chut Avot, the doctrine that the virtues of the fathers bring reward to their children, is a common feature of Jewish theology. Probably written by Simeon ben Isaac ben Abun of Mayence, (11th century), the poem has an alphabetical acrostic from alef to lamed.
Hanikra L’Av Zera [A728, B979, R254]
The Isaac passage.
Teva Ziv To’orah [A728, B979, R254
The Jacob passage.
Sha'arei Armon [A730, B981, R256]
Another alphabetical acrostic reaching from alef to lamed. By Simeon ben Isaac ben Abun, this is the first of a series of poems on the theme of God’s gates. In the last line the Jewish people are lo alman, “the people not bereft”. The rabbis have a saying, Lo alman Yisrael, which expresses confidence that we will never be forsaken or abandoned.
P’tach Lanu Sha’ar [A736, B987, R258]
A gem of prayer, summing up the mood and theme of Ne’ilah: “The sun is low, the day is growing late: O let us come into Thy gates at last”. It forms the introduction – to a shortened selection of Selichot.
U’Mi Ya’amod [A738, B989, R260]
The message of this poem in eleven stanzas is graphically set out in the first line, which can be translated, “If sin should remain unpardoned, who could survive?” It almost suggests that God has to pardon our transgressions, or else who will be left to inhabit His world? It is reminiscent of Voltaire’s saying, “God will forgive; that’s His job!” The poem has a reversed alphabetical acrostic from vav to alef; an acrostic of the author’s name, Shlomo HaKatan; then another acrostic from mem to tav, and finally a name acrostic, Yoseph.
Z’chor B’rit Avraham [A744, B995, R262]
Written by Rabbenu Gershom (the 11th century “Light of the Exile”), this poem reminds God of the covenant with Abraham, the loyalty of Isaac, and the devotion of Jacob. It is thus another Z’chut Avot passage.
Enkat Mesal’decha [A746, B997, R262]
This opens a series of four brief poems by different medieval authors. Their melodies move from plaintive supplication to triumphant confidence. The first brief poem is by a Rabbi Silano, 9th century; the second by Shephatiah ben Amittai, 9th century; the third by Isaac ben Shmuel, 13th century; and the fourth by Shlomo ben Shmuel, 13th century.
Ezkerah E-lo-him [A746, B999, R263]
Composed by Amittai ben Shephatiah, 11th century, this passage implores God to take pity on us and carefully collect our tears in His flask.
Sha’arei Shamayim P’tach [A748, B1001, R265]
These two lines are also found in a Poem for Hoshana Rabbah, when we pray for rain in Israel. There is special appropriateness then about the phrase, “Open the gates of heaven: open Your goodly treasure for us”.
Avinu Malkenu [A758, B1011, R269]
See above. Though omitted earlier in the day if it is Shabbat, Avinu Malkenu always forms part of Ne’ilah. Kotvenu (“write us down”) is now replaced by chotmenu (“seal us”).
Shema Yisra’el [A762, B1017, R271]
The day comes to a crescendo when the assembled congregation join in full-throated proclamation of the Shema. Believer and agnostic alike, pietist and scoffer, are all swept up by the emotion of the moment. None has any doubt or hesitation about the existence of God. At Ne’ilah we know for certain that there is a God and we proclaim our faith in Him. Both at this culminating moment of Yom Kippur and at the moment of death, when the professions of faith are said with our last breath, we are neither afraid of the future or oppressed by the past.
Baruch Shem [A762, B1017, R271]
Though not a Biblical verse but a pious response to the mention of the Name of God, Baruch Shem has become accepted as the second line of the Shema. On this occasion it is recited three times, as in the death-bed confession, recalling the phrase, “The Lord is King, the Lord was King, the Lord will be King for ever and ever”.
Ado-nai Hu Ha’E-lo-him [A762, B1017, R271]
Finally comes, echoed seven times, the cry of the Israelites on Mount Carmel. Elijah had challenged the people, “How long will you hover between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him – if Baal, follow him!” In a dramatic affirmation the people declared, “The Lord, He is God!” (I Kings 18). The Israelites uttered these words only twice, but we say them seven times as an allusion, according to the commentators, to the seven heavens which symbolise that the Lord is God over all creation.
Shofar [A764, B1017, R287]
The best known explanation of the blowing of the shofar at the end of Ne’ilah associates it with the Jubilee year, announced amidst shofar-blasts at the conclusion of Yom Kippur to proclaim liberty for the slaves. Since we are confident at the end of the day that we have emancipated ourselves from the burden of sin which enslaved us throughout the year, we too can blow the shofar as a song of freedom.
Another explanation links the custom with the proclamation, “The Lord, He is God” and recalls Psalm 47 with its assertion, “God ascends with the trumpet sound, the Lord with the sound of the shofar”. A more prosaic suggestion is that the shofar announces the end of the fast.
Another view recalls the promise that the shofar will herald the coming of the messianic redemption, and hence provides a link with the custom in many congregations of ending Yom Kippur with the shout, L’shanah Haba’ah BiY’rushalayim – “Next Year in Jerusalem!” These words, customary also at the conclusion of the Seder on Pesach, express the fervent hope that ours will be the generation to see Jerusalem enshrined as the spiritual focus of mankind.
[A766, B1019, R272]
The weekday evening service should be recited with devotion and decorum. The thought of saving the few minutes that Ma’ariv takes and rushing out to eat is understandable but a pity… Why let the spell of Ne’ilah be so abruptly broken? In some congregations the shofar is postponed until after Ma’ariv.
[A790, B1041, R286]
Havdalah marks the transition from the solemn experience of the Days of Awe to the unfolding year ahead beginning in a few days with Sukkot. In line with the Biblical principle of going mechayil el chayil, “from strength to strength” (Psalm 84:8), many people begin building their sukkah the moment Yom Kippur is out, moving from one sacred mitzvah to the next. The sages say that the righteous never rest; their spiritual striving continues even in the World to Come (Ber. 64a).
Visit the OzTorah Yom Kippur page for more insights on the festival by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.
A much shorter version of the above guide appeared in print in booklet form as “The High Holyday Services: Finding Your Way”, published by the Great Synagogue, Sydney, in 2002. The booklet also included text that appears in the “A guide to the Rosh HaShanah services” on this website.