Torah and Haftarah Readings for Yom Kippur



By Rabbi Richard Sarason

On Yom Kippur, the Torah is read in both the morning and afternoon services.  This emulates the traditional reading practice on Shabbat (indeed, Yom Kippur is called shabbat shabbaton in Lev. 23:32 – literally, “a day of complete rest,” but understood homiletically to mean “the most important of Sabbaths”).1

The Mishnah (Megillah 4:5) lists Leviticus 16 (the description of the Yom Kippur ritual in the tabernacle/Temple) as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur (morning; there is no afternoon reading in the Mishnah).  This remains the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning down to the present.  The Tosefta (Megillah 3:7) lists as well the “concluding” reading as Numbers 29:7ff. (the description of the sacrifices made on Yom Kippur). Today this is read from a second scroll in traditional practice.2 The afternoon Torah reading is first mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 31a).  It is listed there as Leviticus 18, the enumeration of forbidden sexual relationships (forms of incest and adultery) that render the community unclean in the sight of God.  The relevance of this subject to Yom Kippur, in the view of the Rabbis, is that on the Day of Atonement, the community must stand before God in a state of purity.  The reading serves as a reminder and a warning about the larger impact of these acts of sexual impropriety.

The Babylonian Talmud also lists the Haftarot that accompany each of these Torah readings.  The Haftarah reading in the morning service is Isaiah 57:15ff., which promises restoration and blessing to Israel if they both observe God’s holy days properly and practice social justice (“Is not this the fast that I have chosen – to break every yoke and let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the wretched poor into your home?”).  This remains the traditional Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning (but beginning a verse earlier, at Isaiah 57:14 and extending through 58:14). It serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the traditional Torah reading, which describes in detail the Temple rituals for the Day of Atonement.  The Haftarah from Isaiah says, essentially, “I will ignore all of your fasting and prayers if they are not accompanied by socially just behaviors.”  (Note that this reading was chosen by the Rabbis of the Talmud, not by the Reformers of the nineteenth century – who, of course, preserved it!)  The afternoon Haftarah is the entire book of Jonah, and remains so today.  For the Rabbis, the relevant message of this book on Yom Kippur is that God is quick to forgive those who repent of their ways and mend their deeds.  If God will even accept the repentance of the Ninevites, who were biblical Israel’s traditional enemy (Assyria), should not God be willing to forgive repentant Israel?  Traditionally, the Haftarah concludes with Micah 7:18-20 (“Who is a God like You, forgiving iniquity and remitting transgression? . . .You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea”).  These verses further articulate the relevant theme of Jonah (and also form the core of the Tashlich ritual on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah).

Reform Torah and Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur have varied from prayer book to prayer book.   All of the major Reform prayer books in Europe (Hamburg, West London, Geiger, “Einheitsgebetbuch”), and most of the early prayers books in the United States (Merzbacher, Wise, Einhorn, Moses 1893 UPB draft), preserved Leviticus 16 as the morning reading.  It is only in the “official” Union Prayer Book of 1894 that this reading, with its focus on sacrificial rituals, is excised.  In its place is Deuteronomy 29:10-30:6, the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim “(You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God”), with its directive about making good ultimate choices (“Choose life!”).  In this reading, Deuteronomy’s “this day” is understood to be the Day of Atonement.  Subsequent editions of UPB, as well as Gates of Repentance, shorten the reading to Deut. 29:9-14 and 30:11-20.  The draft of the morning service in the new CCAR Mahzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, expands this to include Deut. 30:1-10 as well.  It also gives, as a new alternative reading, Genesis 3:22-4:18 (the banishment from the Garden of Eden of Adam and Eve, who have now gained the knowledge of good and evil, and the story of Cain).  The thematic relevance to Yom Kippur is the consequences for humans of moral knowledge, human transgression, and the possibility of repentance and reconciliation. Reform prayer books have all retained the traditional morning Haftarah reading, although most abbreviate it somewhat.  Similarly, the afternoon Haftarah reading, the Book of Jonah, has been retained in all Reform prayer books, also generally with some abbreviation.  (In particular, the psalm text at the beginning of Chapter 2, introduced as “Jonah’s prayer inside the big fish,” is often omitted.) Many Reform prayer books have also omitted the verses from Micah at the end.

It is the afternoon Torah reading of Lev. 18 that has universally been rejected in favor of some other text (and those substituted texts vary from prayer book to prayer book).  Suffice it say, the listing of illicit sexual relationships was never deemed to be spiritually edifying for modern Jews.  The very first Reform congregational prayer book, that of the Hamburg Temple Association in 1819, substituted selections from Leviticus 16, 17, and 18.  Abraham Geiger, in his 1854 prayer book for Breslau, is the first to substitute Leviticus 19:1-18, Kedoshim tih’yu (“You shall be holy as I, Adonai your God, am holy”), the so-called Holiness Code or Moral Decalogue, which is now standard in North American Reform prayer books.  Among the nineteenth-century North American Reform prayer books, only that of David Einhorn (1858, and, following him, Isaac Moses’s unpublished 1893 draft for UPB, vol. 2) also uses this reading.  Leo Merzbacher’s 1855 prayer book for Temple Emanuel in New York and Isaac Mayer Wise’s Yom Kippur volume of Minhag America (1864) both use portions of Exodus 32-34, the story of Moses’s plea to God to forgive the people’s sin of making the golden calf, and God’s eventual relenting and  revelation to Moses of the divine attributes of mercy and compassion (Adonai Adonai eil rachum v’chanun) that are invoked liturgically on Yom Kippur.  This is also the afternoon reading in the first edition of UPB, vol. 2 (1894), as well as the revised edition of 1922.  It is only the newly revised edition of 1945 that replaces this with excerpts from Leviticus 19.  Gates of Repentance follows this latter reading custom, and it is one of three options given in the current draft of the afternoon service for Mishkan HaNefesh.  The other two are Leviticus 16, the traditional reading for the morning service, presumably included at this point in the day to place it more proximate to Seder Ha’avodah, the liturgical recollection and verbal re-enactment of the Temple ritual for Yom Kippur (traditionally a part of the Musaf service, but moved to the afternoon service in North American Reform prayer books that eliminate Musaf). The third option is totally new, Genesis 50:14-36, relating Joseph’s ultimate forgiveness of his brothers after their father’s death, “bear[ing] witness to the power of forgiveness to heal emotional wounds,” in this case specifically human rather than divine forgiveness.

  1. The only other occasion during the Jewish liturgical year on which the Torah is read in both the morning and the afternoon services is Tisha b’Av.
  2. Traditionally, the relevant paragraph from Num. 28-29 that deals with the sacrifices for the particular festival being observed is read on each festival from a second scroll.  Reform reading practice omits these readings on account of their sacrificial content.  (When a day with a special, second Torah reading falls on a Shabbat that also happens to be Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new month, there is also a special reading for Rosh Chodesh, so that three scrolls would be used.   That is why, according to tradition, every congregation must own at least three Torah scrolls, so as not to burden the congregation with the need to roll a scroll from one place to another during the course of a public Torah reading.)

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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