Q. Why do we recite the Avodah – the account of the Temple ritual of atonement – on Yom Kippur?
Colourful ceremonial was carried out by a well-rehearsed Kohen Gadol whose twofold task was to minister at the sacrificial altar and to approach the Almighty in awesome loneliness within the Holy of Holies.
Adapting a poem by Solomon ibn Gabirol, Alice Lucas wrote:
Happy he that day who saw
How, with reverence and awe
And with sanctity of mien,
Spoke the priest: “Ye shall be clean
From your sins before the Lord,”
Echoed long the holy word.
Some denigrate the atonement procedure as empty ceremonial devoid of true 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 olden 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” (Festival Studies, 1934, p. 27).
After the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish mind adopted the declaration of Hosea, “We shall offer, instead of bulls, the words of our mouth” (Hosea 14:2). Hence there developed the liturgical tradition of Yom Kippur with all its heights of majesty.
At the same time the Temple procedure was retained as a vivid memory, with a step by step description of the Avodah, meticulously reconstructed from ancient records of the Mishnaic tractate, Yoma (“The Day”).
The text varies; some thirty versions are known, though all contain the same basic themes, interwoven with intricate piyyutim (religious poems).
Those who oppose rituals and ceremonies, as a British rabbi, Solomon Goldman put it, misunderstand the nature of man, of religion in general, and of Judaism in particular. Goldman wrote:
• “If man were a completely rational being, guided and living by purely rational and moral impulses, then the argument might be valid. But man has body, senses, imagination, memory and feelings, as well as reason. He is a creature of habit and associations as well as of logical motives. If a religion is to appeal to the whole of man, it must satisfy his search for the picturesque and colourful, the beautiful, the stimulating, as well as his search for the true and the good.
• “Religion is something more than an intellectual awareness of God, plus righteous living. Religion demands constant effort to get closer and closer to God, to achieve, as far as human beings can, a form of spiritual union with the divine. And religious exercises and symbols are important elements in achieving and maintaining such a sense of closeness.
• “However true it is of other religions that there must be a place in them for symbolism, it is still more true of Judaism, because Judaism is a way of life, a culture, a civilisation. It legislates not only for worship and morals, but for the whole living; and as such it must employ all the means of creating in its adherents habits, associations, and disciplines of life.”