Why not skip it?” This is a question we might ask ourselves about the Yom Kippur prayer known as the Avodah. It is written in difficult language, read in a rushed manner, and about a topic that is very far from our experience: ancient animal sacrifices.
But if we read the story as a window into the history of our people after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, we can provide meaning to this seemingly vestigial part of our service. The prayer that we read today has its roots in the text of the Mishnah, created by the early rabbis roughly a century after the Temple’s destruction. And these rabbis had their own unique vision of what the ceremony was and what it meant.
To recognize where the rabbis innovated, we must begin with the original biblical command to perform the Yom Kippur sacrifices. In Leviticus 16, the day’s proceedings center on three sacrifices that “purge” impurity and sin from the sacred spaces and “carry off” the sins of the people. Such effects were achieved by a series of ritual actions with the animals and their blood: the High Priest would draw lots over two he-goats, slaughter a bull and one he-goat, enter into the innermost sanctum in a cloud of incense smoke, sprinkle sacrificial blood on the ark-cover and on the altar, and send off the he-goat designated “for Azazel” into the wilderness. These concrete physical acts would create profound metaphysical consequences: the cleansing and renewal of the sacred spaces and of the people.
Moving ahead a number of centuries to the period after the Temple’s destruction, the rabbis retained the rudiments of the biblical account, but retold the story in a way that changed the nature and emphasis of the ritual quite radically. Most prominently, they treated the rite not as one performed only by a handful of priests working in seclusion, as in the Bible, but one witnessed by the entire people of Israel. According to Mishnah Yoma 1:8, there was such a large crowd present for the events of the day that they “filled the Temple courtyard even before cock’s-crow arrived.”
The participation of the gathered people was also integral to the day’s proceedings. In the Bible, the High Priest simply draws lots over the he-goats. In the Mishnah, the High Priest lifts up the lot marked “for the Lord” and publicly announces the result (Yoma 4:1) so that the people see and hear it. Similarly, where the Bible briefly mentions a confession over the scapegoat, the Mishnah develops
specific public declarations of sin over each of the animals and adds that the people responded in each instance with a rousing utterance of their own: “Barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed,” “Blessed is the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever.” (Ezekiel 3:12)
These mishnaic passages point to an additional key element in the rabbinic version of the Yom Kippur ritual: the spoken word. As part of the ceremony, the High Priest, those assisting him, and the people, made very specific proclamations not mentioned in earlier sources — the lot’s outcome, the confessions, and the verse from Ezekiel.
The revisions the rabbis made to the rite not only shifted the nature of the rituals but also inserted key players into the ceremony. In Yoma, Chapter 1, specially appointed elders of the Great Court were in charge of instructing the High Priest in the procedure of the day and of ensuring that he did it correctly. These members of the Great Court had authority over the way the rituals were carried out. Since no
contemporaneous sources mention any legal institution with such a power on Yom Kippur or at other times, this appears to be a rabbinic invention.
By placing the court elders, whom they considered to be their predecessors, front and center in their story about the Temple past, the rabbis subtly validated their own vision for ritual practice in the past and in their own time. They suggested that practices utilizing speech and centering on the participation and experience of the community — practices determined by rabbis — are the proper way of celebrating the day.
The story of the Yom Kippur Avodah retold in our liturgy is worth reading because it helps us understand the moment in Jewish history when the rabbis re-envisioned Jewish tradition for an era with no Temple. Further, when we come together as a community to recite the Avodah, we reenact the flourishing of ritual life after the destruction and, at the same time, add ourselves to the larger stream of Jewish religious history. These are good
reasons, I think, not to skip it.