By Rabbi Natan Fagleman, Allerton Hebrew Congregation
I expect that your shul is very much like mine and many of the others I have officiated at over the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur Shacharit (the morning service) begins with a dedicated few who have come prepared for the long haul. They are focused, dedicated and inspired stalwarts of the community expecting to be there all day.
As the morning progresses, fellow Jews drift into the pews, until the synagogue reaches its peak crowd around midday – close to the time scheduled for Yizkor. Mussaf follows, and slowly but surely numbers dwindle, to the point where by about 2pm the crowd looks more County Cricket than Premier League. Sadly, for those who have disappeared, the most important business of the day is now about to be conducted.
For it is at this point that we recite the Avodah – a description of the magnificent Yom Kippur service in the Temple. The service contained two essential elements. Firstly, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) offered sacrifices to atone for himself, his tribe and the entire Jewish people. Large crowds would gather in the Temple grounds to witness the ritual proceedings and when they heard the annual recital of the Tetragrammaton (full name of God) delivered ‘in holiness and purity’ they would prostrate themselves and exult, ‘Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever’.
The second stage involved the Kohen Gadol entering the Kodesh HaKadoshim (Holy of Holies) with the ketoret (incense). This was the only time in the entire year that a human being was allowed into the holiest place in Judaism. The fragrant pillar of smoke would ascend throughout the Sanctuary and God’s forgiveness and love would envelop the people.
The Avodah service describes these acts in detail. The Chazan chants a special nusach (musical style) and exuberantly describes the protocol. We introduce the service with a beautiful poem, called Amitz Koach (authored over a thousand years ago by Rabbi Meshulam ben Klonymos), that describes the cosmic significance of this divine service. We repeat the atonement prayers of the High Priest verbatim and even count out his sprinkling of the blood on the Altar. When they would prostrate themselves in the Temple we also bow down – all the way to the ground, as they would have done.
This level of detail is highly unusual in our prayers. Sacrificial worship is normally found summarised at the beginning of the services, or briefly mentioned as the Maftir section of the Torah reading and in the Amida. However, on Yom Kippur, the Avodah service is different. It is as though the shul is becoming the Temple and we are no longer just reminding ourselves of a historical act of worship, we are living it again. We are recreating the anxiety that they felt in the Temple. We are begging for forgiveness. Will we or will we not be reprieved? Will this be a good year for the Jewish people and the world at large or God forbid one of catastrophe and destruction? The Chazan is the Kohen Gadol, and we are active witnesses to this special occasion. We conclude the service with joy and blessings, confident that God will accept our sincere repentance and send us His abundant blessings.
The Avodah is thus the most essential of our Yom Kippur prayers. It deserves our focus, attention and utmost respect.