The Ancient Synthesis of Ritual and Ethics on the Holiest Day of the Jewish Year

September 25, 2020 | Milton Himmelfarb
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On the morning of Yom Kippur, the Torah reading, from Leviticus and Numbers, details at length the rituals to be performed in the Tabernacle (and later the Temples) on that day. Shortly thereafter, a passage from the book of Isaiah is read, in which the prophet condemns those who fast with insincerity:

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?

Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?

Milton Himmelfarb, in a 1962 essay on the day’s scriptural readings, comments on this juxtaposition:

Isaiah appears to contradict the Pentateuch’s priestly ritualism, but that is a modern’s bias. The rabbis saw no contradiction, only completion. . . . The rabbis were serious about every last detail of the ritual, but they were as explicit as they could be that all that was nothing without the right inward disposition and the right conduct. So they made the reading about loosing the bonds of wickedness follow the reading about bullocks, goats, and incense; and in our rabbinic prayer service we say: “Repentance, prayer, and works of justice and mercy [ts’dakah] can avert the harsh judgment.”

Indeed, Himmelfarb concludes—after a dazzling analysis of the connection among paganism, sexual immorality, and Judaism’s fall holidays, followed by a novel reading of the book of Jonah—this apparent tension dominates the entire day. This can be seen from the two key parts of the liturgy:

The avodah—work, service, cultus—is a kind of long, versified paraphrase of [the talmudic tractate of] Yoma, recalling the Temple and the sacrifices in detail. To pious Jews through the centuries, its recitation this day in the synagogue, on the principle of “so will we render for bullocks the offerings of our lips” (Hosea), was an exalting thing, hard as that may be for us to believe. But over and over we also say the al et, the long, inclusive nostra culpa. The al et does not mention one ritual transgression. (“Eating and drinking” probably refers to intemperance rather than violations of kashrut.) The offense that recurs in it most often, under many synonyms, is lashon ha-ra, an “evil tongue.”

After 2,000 years of liturgical expansion, the basic structure and intent of our Yom Kippur service remain what they were in the time of the rabbis.

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