Nizahker Venikatev

Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Seder Ha-Avodah

The Torah reading for Yom Kippur, Leviticus 16, explains the precise ritual that the High Priest would perform on the Day of Atonement. After the destruction of the Temple, Jews could no longer rely on this essential procedure for communal atonement. The rabbis, building on the move from animal sacrifice to prayer as a means of communicating with God, concluded that studying and reciting the words of the ancient ritual would take the place of enacting it. Today, the Avodah service is recited as part of Musaf on Yom Kippur and includes a detailed description of the High Priest’s actions alongside several piyyutim (liturgical poems) and passages about moving from Temple worship to prayer. 

Mahzor Lev Shalem introduces the Avodah service with a quote from S. Ansky’s 1920 play The Dybbuk, in which a Hasidic rebbe describes the holy and awesome moment of Yom Kippur. Read the original quote here:

Reb Azriel: God’s world is holy and great. The holiest land in the world is Israel. The holiest city in Israel is Jerusalem. The holiest place in Jerusalem was the Temple, and the holiest spot in the Temple was the Holy of Holies. (Short pause) There are seventy nations in the world, and among them the people of Israel is the holiest. And the tribe of Levi is the holiest of the twelve tribes of Israel, and among the Levites the holiest are the priests. And among the priests the holiest is the High Priest. (Short pause) There are 354 days in the year, and among them the holy days are sacred. And the Sabbath is holier than the holy days. And the holiest of all the holy days, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is Yom Kippur which is the Day of Atonement. (Short pause) There are seventy languages in the world, and the holiest among them is Hebrew. And the holiest work in the Hebrew language is the Torah, and its holiest part is the Ten Commandments, and the holiest word in the Ten Commandments is the name of God. (Short pause) Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the four holiest sanctities gather together precisely when the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies in order to pronounce the ineffable name of God. And at this immeasurably holy and awesome moment the High Priest and the people of Israel are in the utmost peril, for even a single sinful or wayward thought in the High Priest’s mind at that instant might, God forbid, destroy the entire world. (Pause) Every piece of ground on which a person stands when he raises his eyes to Heaven is a Holy of Holies; everyone created in the image of God is a High Priest; every day in a person’s life is Yom Kippur; and every word which a person speaks from his heart is God’s name. Therefore, every sin and every wrong committed by man brings the world to destruction. (S. Ansky, The Dybbuk and Other Writings, trans. Golda Werman, ed. David G. Roskies, p. 33)

What do you think about Reb Azriel’s description? Does it help you to understand the gravity of the High Priest’s Yom Kippur ritual? How do you feel about the shift at the end from the specific power of the priest to the idea that all human beings, anywhere in the world, enact the Yom Kippur ritual every day? How can we understand this message positively rather than focus on Reb Azriel’s fear of destruction?

In order to prepare for the Temple service, all the priests had to learn how to “wash, to anoint, to sanctify themselves, hand and foot; to wear white linen and to tie the sash” (Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 328). On the holy day, the High Priest would bare his flesh, immerse himself, and put on the eight priestly garments. How do you prepare for Yom Kippur? Are there special rituals you can perform to heighten your awareness of the day? What clothing will you wear on Yom Kippur, even if you will be at home? Lay out this clothing, preferably white linen, before the holiday and make sure that it is clean. Take an extra shower or bath just before Kol Nidre. How does bodily cleansing help prepare you for spiritual cleansing?

In the First Confession, the High Priest would stretch his hands over the bull offering and confess his sins and those of his household, “withholding nothing in embarrassment.” Try speaking aloud some of the mistakes you’ve made in the past year. Are there things that you are embarrassed to admit? How does saying them aloud let you begin the process of atonement?

In the Second Confession, the High Priest would prepare two goats: one to be sacrificed on the altar, the other to be sent into the wilderness. “On the head of the goat that was to be sent out, he tied a crimson thread, directing the goat toward its destination” (Mahzor Lev Shalem, p. 330). Why do you think he used a crimson thread? What do you associate today with crimson threads?

After the first two confessions, the High Priest slaughtered the sacrifice and began to sprinkle its blood: once upward and then once and an increasing number of times downward, repeating the refrain, “Ahat, ahat v’ahat, ahat u’sh’tayim, ahat v’shalosh” (“One, one and one, one and two, one and three”). Why do you think the priest sprinkled upward just once each time but up to seven times downward? How do you understand “up and down” in terms of holiness? Given that the Holy of Holies was considered to be God’s home on earth, how is the meaning of “up and down” different in that space? How do you understand the use of blood in this context? Why do you think ancient people felt that animal blood was so powerful?

Listen to Israeli pop singer Ishay Ribo’s musical description of this process. Does the song help you to understand the rhythm of the ritual? Imagine being an ancient Israelite, watching from below as the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. What do you feel? During the synagogue service, some people fully prostrate (bend the knees, bow, and lie flat on the floor) every time the prayer leader pronounces the ineffable name of God and adds, “Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed” (“Praised is the name of the One whose glorious sovereignty will be forever and ever”). Take out a yoga mat, towel, or blanket and try fully prostrating (or doing Child’s Pose) whenever this part of the song comes up. How does it feel to add in this physical component?

In the Third Confession, the High Priest mixed the blood of the different sacrifices and purified the altar, then he confessed the sins of all of the Israelite people. Finally, he stated, “Tit’haru,” “you shall be cleansed.” Imagine the completion of the awe-inspiring ritual. Do you feel a sense of relief? Think of a tense moment in your life when you weren’t sure what the outcome would be. What did it feel like once it was over?

There are many songs and poems about the radiance of the High Priest after completing the holy ritual. One of the most popular is ”Mareh Cohen,” “the face of the priest.” Listen to the song here or here. Does it help you to feel the joy of this moment? Try singing or clapping along.

For Families and Kids

A long time ago, Yom Kippur involved animal sacrifices and bloody rituals, but we don’t do that anymore. Today, we pray, sing, and study together instead. What do you think about this change? When you read or learn about things that happened a long time ago, like at a Passover Seder, do you ever feel like you’re reliving them? Do you like learning about ancient rituals, even when they are different from how we act today?