Overview of the Yom Kippur Liturgy



Yom Kippur is the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish year.  On it is played out the great human drama of reckoning and accountability, making amends for past errors and misdeeds, and – ultimately – forgiveness and reconciliation. All of these themes figure prominently in the liturgical texts and practices of the day.

Originally, Yom Kippur was uniquely tied to the sanctuary in Jerusalem and was observed as the day of purgation of that sanctuary from all of the sins of the people (conceived almost physically1) that had accumulated over the past year (see Leviticus 16, as well as Lev. 23:26ff). Temple imagery and recollections of Temple practice also figure prominently in the rabbinic liturgy (the traditional morning Torah reading, Lev. 16; Seder Ha’avodah, the narrative account and liturgical reenactment of the three-fold confession of sins in the Yom Kippur rites of the Second Temple; and the unique enactment of a Ne’ilah service at the very end of the day, which corresponds to the time of the closing of the gates of the Temple compound, ne’ilat she’arim, at the end of the liturgical day.) As in biblical times, the day is marked by a full, twenty-four-hour fast as an act of self-affliction.

As on Rosh Hashanah, the major themes of the day are articulated in the distinctive vocabulary that appears in the Kedushat hayom benediction of the Amidah: “. . . this Day of Atonement, given for annulling (m’chilah), pardoning (s’lichah), and atoning/ obtaining forgiveness (kaparah), for annulling all of our wrongdoings (avonoteinu).” The Torah verse cited throughout the day is Lev. 16:30 – “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai.”

The Yom Kippur liturgy includes more additional ritual and textual elements than on any other day of the Jewish year.  Each of these elements articulates one or more themes of the day:

  • Preceding the evening service proper is an elaborate ritual centered on the recitation of Kol Nidrei, a legal formula for annulling vows (=legally binding promises) that the individual has not been able to fulfill during the past year (or, in the revised medieval text, may not be able to fulfill during the upcoming year). Their annulment allows people to enter the new year with a clean slate. Early Reform prayer books omitted the Kol Nidrei text on account of its controversial history and what was deemed to be its questionable morality (more on all of this next week).
  • In each of the Yom Kippur services, the Amidah is followed directly by the communal Vidui, or confession of sins (an extension of the Temple ritual). This takes two forms: the Short Vidui (the alphabetical acrostic Ashamnu) and the Long Vidui (a triple alphabetical acrostic, each line of which begins with the refrain Al cheit sh’chatanu l’fanecha). Reform prayer books, historically, have abbreviated the long Vidui and sometimes omitted the Short Vidui.
  • Immediately following the Vidui in all services on Yom Kippur are a series of poems/hymns (piyyutim) called Selichot, which are penitential requests for divine forgiveness. The Selichot are, in fact, among the oldest and most numerous liturgical poems that have come down to us. While their primary recitation is on Yom Kippur, they are traditionally recited as well during the Ten Days of Repentance (aseret y’mei t’shuvah) between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as during the month of Elul that precedes the New Year, as a way of entering into the penitential season.  (Ashkenzim begin the recitation of these prayers the week before Rosh Hashanah; Sefardim begin their recitation at the beginning of the month of Elul.) The centerpiece of the Selichot is the invocation of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy (Ex. 34:6-7), which is embedded in the liturgical text, El melech yosheiv (“God, the King, is enthroned on the seat of mercy”).  Reform prayer books, historically, have omitted most of these poems and replaced them with psalm-texts that deal with similar themes and are deemed to be more accessible.
  • The traditional Torah and Haftarah readings on Yom Kippur deal with the themes of the day – the Temple ritual (Lev. 16), fasting and self-affliction that must lead to righteous social behavior or be hollow (Isaiah 57-58), purity in family relations (Lev. 18), and the readiness with which God accepts sincere repentance (even from Israel’s historic enemies; Jonah).
  • The centerpiece of the Amidah in the Musaf, or additional, service of the traditional liturgy is Seder Ha’avodah, the retelling and verbal reenactment of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Second Temple as recounted in Mishnah Yoma. This begins with a long poem (piyyut) that emphasizes the cosmic import of this ritual by connected it back to Creation; the Yom Kippur ritual is part of the plan of creation and helps to maintain the divine order of the world.  As we shall see in the coming weeks, most Reform prayer books heavily adapted this material and gave it a very different theological interpretation. Since many of these prayer books, particularly in North America, eliminated the Musaf service both for ideological reasons and in order to eliminate repetition, this material was generally placed in the afternoon service.
  • Since the aftermath of the Crusades in the Rhineland, memorialization of the dead has figured in the Yom Kippur liturgy, through the recitation of Yizkor prayers and martyrologies (Av harachamim, Eileh ezkerah – the latter a piyyut in the Musaf service). The Yizkor prayers traditionally are recited while the Torah scroll is out, after the reading of the Haftarah. An early Reform innovation was to elaborate this ritual with appropriately themed psalm-texts and original readings in the vernacular. In North America, Yizkor became a separate service, held in the afternoon before Ne’ilah.
  • Yom Kippur is the only day of the year to include a Ne’ilah, or concluding, service at the time of the closing of the Temple gates at the end of the day (and by metaphorical extension, the time of the closing of the gates of repentance).  This service includes an additional Amidah, a number of unique prayers that we will discuss in the coming weeks (such as Attah notein yad, “You extend Your hand to sinners,” and  Attah hivdalta enosh meirosh, “You set humankind apart from the beginning”), as well as its own distinctive liturgical poems on the theme of the closing of the gates, and its own distinctive melodies. Reform prayer books in North America have generally used the end of the service to reiterate in the vernacular important Reform understandings of the meaning of the Jewish life-task. The service ends with the recitation of Sh’ma Yisrael and the blowing of a long blast (t’kiah g’dolah) on the Shofar.
  • Havdalah traditionally is recited at the end of Yom Kippur, whether or not Yom Kippur falls on a Shabbat, since it is deemed to be shabbat shabbaton, the most exalted of all days of rest.
  • Avinu Malkeinu, also recited on Rosh Hashanah, is expanded on Yom Kippur. The penitential rhetoric of this prayer, and its origin as a prayer for fast-days, indeed makes it more appropriate for Yom Kippur, the major fast-day of the Jewish calendar and replete with penitential prayers.
  • Unetaneh Tokef, a poem for Rosh Hashanah, was also taken over into the Yom Kippur liturgy, first in eastern Europe and subsequently in some other rites, since it mentions that “on Yom Kippur the decree is sealed.”

Each of these liturgical texts and customs, their Reform adaptations, and their prospects in the new Reform Mahzor will be discussed in the coming weeks.

  1. This is the impression conveyed by the ritual narrative of Lev. 16, where the sins of the people are transferred to the head of a goat that is then banished to Azazel (a demonic force, personifying chaos) in the wilderness.  See Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, p. 102ff. and Excursus 4.

Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.

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