N’ilah: The Concluding Service on Yom Kippur
By Rabbi Richard Sarason
Yom Kippur is the only day in the traditional Jewish liturgical year to have five services: in addition to the usual four shared with Shabbatot, Festivals, and Rosh Hashanah (evening, morning, Musaf, and afternoon1), Yom Kippur has a concluding service called N’ilah (literally, “locking”). This name refers to the time of the locking of the gates of the Temple at the end of the day. In this respect, too, the rabbinic liturgy for Yom Kippur emphasizes and imaginatively enacts the ritual activities of the now-destroyed Temple on the Day of Atonement. But the image of “locking the gates” in rabbinic prayer is also construed figuratively as referring to the closing of the gates of repentance at the end of Yom Kippur and the sealing of the Book of Life for another year. This is why, during the N’ilah service, the wording of those petitions in the Amidah and in Avinu Malkeinu that throughout the penitential season have been phrased as kotveinu (“inscribe us” [for a good year, in the book of life, etc.) is changed to chotmeinu2 ("seal us . . .").
The N’ilah service, like all others on Yom Kippur, includes an Amidah, a Vidui (confession; only the Short Vidui – Ashamnu – is recited during this service), and Selichot (penitential) poems — many of the latter in this service invoke the image of locking the gates. Two examples that are also used in Reform liturgies:
P’tach lanu sha’ar / b’eit ne’ilat sha’ar / ki fanah yom . . .
("Open for us the gates / at this hour of the locking of the gates / for the day is waning.")
Eil nora alilah / eil nora alilah / hamtsei lanu m’chilah / bish’at han’ilah . . .
("God of awesome deeds! / God of awesome deeds! / Grant us pardon / at this hour of locking-up . . .")
Additionally, there are two distinctive prayers that are recited only during the N’ilah service at the end of the Short Vidui. The first of these begins with the words, Attah notein yad laposh’im ("You extend Your hand to transgressors") and continues with penitential rhetoric ("What are we? What is our life? . . What is our strength? What is our worth?"). This is immediately followed by the second, Attah hivdalta enosh meirosh ("[Nonetheless,] You have singled out humanity from the beginning”), which asserts the efficacy of human repentance and turning again to God. This is followed by a brief confessional prayer from the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 17a), Elohai ad sh’lo notsarti eini kidai (“My God, before I was formed, I was of no worth”). This entire sequence runs the emotional gamut from helplessness and hopelessness to strength and confidence in the value of repentance.
Most dramatically impressive is the closing ritual of the day. After the final articulation of Avinu Malkeinu, the Shema verse is recited once, the response Baruch shem is recited three times, and the verse Adonai hu ha’elohim (“Adonai truly is God” – the people’s response when Elijah’s sacrifice is engulfed in divine flames while that of the priests of Baal remains unconsumed; 1 Kings 18:39). This is then followed by the full Kaddish and the blowing of a final long, sustained blast on the shofar (tekiah g’dolah). Havdalah is then recited to mark the end of Yom Kippur and the (weekday) evening service begins.
Reform prayer books have shortened this service somewhat in the same manner that other services are shortened: repetitions are eliminated, as are many of the Selichot poems. In their place are original vernacular prayers and meditations. Most noteworthy among these is a long meditation/prayer that precedes the recitation of the verses at the end of the service. This prayer, found in all versions of the Union Prayer Book and Gates of Repentance3 goes back, in its thematic substance and rhetoric, to the prayer book of David Einhorn, Olat Tamid (1858). It dramatically portrays the emotions engulfing the worshipper at the end of the Day of Atonement, and affirms both the ultimate worth of the individual and the mission of Israel to spread the word of God to all humanity.
- North American Reform liturgies historically have omitted the Musaf service, since it stands in for, and requests the reinstitution of, the additional Temple sacrifices on Shabbatot, Festivals, and High Holy Days. Reform liturgies instituted a separate Yizkor memorial service, usually between the afternoon and concluding services. In the traditional liturgy, the Yizkor prayers are recited, without creative elaboration, during the morning service after the reading of the Haftarah and before the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark.
- Please note in both instances the correct pronunciation with an “o” vowel; the “o” sound is thematic to the root and does not reduce to “ah” in Sefardic pronunciation when suffixes are added to the word and the accent shifts further to the end: kotveinu, chotmeinu, choneinu.
- At the time of this writing, no draft of the N’ilah service for Mishkan Hanefesh, the new CCAR Machzor, has been released.
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.