The Music of Seder Ha’avodah



By Cantor Judith Ovadia

The Avodah service of Yom Kippur (Seder Ha’Avodah) challenges us as Reform Jews. It depicts an ancient, archaic rite that is anathema to our modern practice, with elements that likely offend our sensibilities. Without close examination it offers little opportunity to enrich our experience of the holy on Yom Kippur. The architects of Reform Judaism found the service so out of alignment with their message that they relegated it to a portion of the afternoon service instead of the morning. It exists, in Gates of Repentance, as a part of the narrative section, “From Creation to Redemption,” simply as a detail in our people’s long history.

In fact, Seder Ha’Avodah is similar to the ritual that more Jews observe than any other: the Passover Seder. Like the PassoverSeder, it involves a dramatic retelling of an event in our people’s history. In one of the initial prayers, “V’af Hu Haya Mitkaven,” the Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) sings about what the High Priest would do to prepare for the sacrifice: “…he, too, would intend to complete the Name simultaneously with those reciting the blessing; then he would say to them: ‘You will be cleansed!” (LISTEN, “V’af Hu Haya Mitkaven” sung by Yosele Rosenblatt) Of course, the Shaliach Tzibur is not the High Priest, but she does take on the role, in the sense that she is leading the congregation in worship (Avodah), in the moment. In our service, as in the time of theKohen Gadol, the congregation is told “Ki vayom hazeh y’chaper aleichem . . . for on this day atonement will be made for you, you will be cleansed.” (LISTEN“Ana Adonai” by Samuel Adler)

The High Priest, the liturgy tells us, would take a sharp knife and slaughter the sacrificial bull. The depiction of the basin, the incense, the tools, and the coal is nothing compared to the painstaking details explaining the flaying of the blood. The congregation and cantor recite a prayer known as “Achat v’Achat,” “One plus one,” which relates the systematic way the Priest would keep track of the ritual sprinkling he must perform. This recalls another counting song: “Echad Mi Yodea” from Seder Pesach. “Achat V’Achat” begins: “And so would he count: One, one plus one, one plus two, one plus three…” and so on, as the High Priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. (LISTEN,“V’Kach Haya Moneh – Achat V’Achat” by Cantor Reuven Frankel and choir)

Another similarity between Seder Pesach and Seder Ha’Avodah is that those in attendance are called upon to both respond as the congregation and also act out the parts in the sacred drama that is being portrayed through the liturgy. Just as we follow the “script” of the Haggadah on Passover, the Machzor has a role for us, not only to reply to the Shaliach Tzibur in prayer, but to recite the words of the ancient worshippers as they responded to the Kohen Gadol’s utterance: “The Kohanim and the people standing in the Courtyard – when they would hear the glorious, awesome Name, the Ineffable One, emanating from the Kohen Gadol’s mouth, in holiness and purity, they would kneel and prostrate themselves, give thanks, fall upon their faces and say: ‘Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.’ (LISTEN“V’haKohanim” sung by Cantor Reuven Frankel and choir) In a traditional service, the Hazzan acts this out, lowering himself to the floor, and in some places the congregation follows suit. In order to achieve the full effect of this dramatic display the members of the congregation need to play their part and respond, not only as themselves in the moment, but as if they were standing before the High Priest hearing the Holy Name spoken. This is indeed a parallel experience to what we are called upon to muster at Passover: to feel as though we ourselves had been redeemed from slavery in Egypt.

The manner in which this service is edited and presented in Gates of Repentance presents one with a challenge: without being able to imagine the scene, the living animals and their death, the press of the heavy crowd, the pageantry, and the immediate reality of the sacrifice to those in attendance, how might one experience the personal redemption offered by Avodah?

What would it take to make Seder Ha’Avodah accessible to the congregant? Two creative learning sessions on the topic, complete with music? A recording on the temple website with congregational responses for the prayers? A S’lichot program? The depiction of animal sacrifice and the priestly cult is not something to be shunted aside merely because it is challenging. To recall and seek understanding of the meaning of this service, once the centerpiece of all Jewish worship, could elevate our experience of Yom Kippur services beyond its current state. The Avodah service, with its blood and awe, forces a confrontation with the fragility of life. The liturgy of Yom Kippur adjures us to repent because life and death do hang in the balance. This is true every day; we merely ignore it as long as we are able. On Yom Kippur we confront our mortality, using the terror that it invokes as impetus to take ourselves back in hand and rectify the mistakes we have made, setting us back on the path toward righteousness. Instead of offering the blood of animals we offer the service of our hearts, following the message of Psalm 51: 16, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”

True Avodah, meaning worship or service, is supposed to be difficult. The word comes from the same root as “work,” and “slave.” To yoke oneself to God, to accept God’s commandments, to serve God in faithfulness requires sacrifice. This is a concept that we, as liberal Jews, sometimes find difficult. We fear alienating those among us who are turned away by the notion of personal requirement. Without sacrifice, however, there is little opportunity for redemption. Instead of viewing service to God as folly or useless burden, we may experience the transformative power of worship and sacrifice that leads to holiness. The connection, then, between Seder Pesach and Seder Ha’Avodah is more than fanciful. It directly relates the liberation from enslavement to an earthbound tyrant to the redemption that comes from freely-adopted servitude to our divine Creator. It is the responsibility of Reform Jews to confront and wrestle with elements of our tradition that are at odds with our contemporary practice. In doing so we can discover ways to enhance our spiritual life that may lead to greater understanding of our ethical obligations and a deepening of our relationship with God.

Judith Ovadia has served congregations in Harrisburg, PA, Newton, MA, and Clearwater, FL and has taught on the faculty of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. She is an active member of the American Conference of Cantors and is the President of the Bay Area Cantors Association.

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