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Judaism: Guide to Yom Kippur Prayers

Yom Kippur is the Genesis of Repentance. Read how that develops as the day's prayers reflect it.
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 9:43 AM


Evening Prayers

It was a night that would change the world forever: it was the night when Jewish history began. It was the unforgettable night when, under the darkened heavens blazing with stars, G-d spoke to Abraham and forged His covenant with him and his descendants after him. G-d appeared to Abraham, “and He took him outside, and He said: Gaze now towards the heavens, and count the stars if you can count them! And He said to him: Thus will be your descendants” (Genesis 15:5-6).


As a token of G-d’s Covenant with him, “He said to him: Bring Me three heifers, and three goats, and three rams, and a turtle-dove, and a young dove. So he brought Him all these, and he divided them in the centre, placing each piece opposite its matching half… And then, as the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and behold – a dread! Great darkness fell upon him. Then He said to Abraham: Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own; they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, after which they will go out with great possessions” (ibid. 9-14).

(The Hebrew “eglah meshuleshet”, literally “a tripled heifer”, is ambiguous: Targum Yonatan and Ibn Ezra understand it to mean “a three-year-old heifer”. Targum Onkelos, Rashi, and Radak understand it to mean “three heifers”, the translation we have followed here.)

Rashi (Commentary to verse 9) based on the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 44:14) and the Talmud (Ta’anit 27b) expounds that these three heifers alluded to three sacrifices that Abraham’s descendants were destined one day to offer: the bull sacrificed on Yom Kippur (Numbers 29:8), the bull sacrificed to atone for a sin committed unintentionally by the entire congregation as a result of an erroneous decision by the Sanhedrin (Leviticus 4:13-14), and the heifer whose neck was to be axed in the event that a murdered corpse was found in the countryside (Deuteronomy 21:1-4).

On the night that the Jewish mission in G-d’s world was being launched, G-d already provided the capacity for atonement, repentance, and forgiveness.

Second section: Shacharit (Morning Service)

Moshe had been up on Mount Sinai for thirty-nine days, and now, as the morning of fortieth day dawned, the people expected his imminent return. But their leader Moshe, the man who had defeated Egypt and led them out from slavery to freedom, across the Red Sea and into the desert to Mount Sinai, had ascended the mountain and did not return when they expected him to.

It was a tragic misunderstanding. “When Moshe ascended to Heaven, he said to them: At the end of forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour [i.e. midday], I will return” (Shabbat 89a).

“The people had reckoned the day that he ascended as the first day; but he meant forty complete days – forty days and nights… He had ascended on the 7th of Sivan, so forty complete days would conclude on the 17th of Tammuz. But on the 16th of Tammuz the Satan confounded them by making the illusion of darkness, gloom, and chaos, convincing them that Moshe had died – particularly as the sixth hour had already come and gone” (Rashi, Exodus 32:1).


And so, despairing of ever seeing Moshe again, “the nation assembled against Aaron, saying to him: Arise, make for us gods who will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up out of Egypt – we don’t know what’s happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1). And so Aaron, unable to withstand the pressure of the nation, fashioned the golden calf. “And they rose early the next day to offer up burnt-offerings and to bring peace-offerings” (Exodus 32:6), on the morning of the 17th of Tammuz.

That morning the nation committed a heinous sin. G-d immediately told Moshe to go back down from the height of Mount Sinai; and when he saw the golden calf, he smashed the Tablets of Stone and shocked the Jews out of their revelry.


The people sobered up, and the next day Moshe re-ascended Mount Sinai, where he stayed for another forty days and forty nights pleading with G-d to forgive Israel (Deuteronomy 9:18-21), returning to the Israelite camp on the 28th of Av. The next day, the 29th of Av, he ascended Mount Sinai for the third time, where he stayed for another forty days and forty nights with G-d (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 10:10). Thus eighty-one days after the sin of the golden calf, when Moshe returned from Mount Sinai with the second set of the Tablets of Stone, the date was the 10th of Tishrei – the day that, a year later, G-d would decree as Yom ha-Kippurim, the eternal Day of Atonement.


Third section: Mussaf (Additional Service for Yom Kippur)

The Torah commands the Yom Kippur service in Leviticus 16, which constitutes the Torah-reading for Yom Kippur morning. The Mussaf – the additional sacrificial offerings – for Yom Kippur are commanded in Numbers 29:7-11, which constitutes the Maftir for Yom Kippur morning.


The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes a peculiarity in the Mussaf service: strangely, in the Mussaf service, the word “le-chapper” (“to atone for”) does not appear anywhere. Would one not think that the purpose of the Mussaf service of Yom Kippur is to atone for the Children of Israel? After all, the Torah explicitly states that this is the purpose of the Mussaf offerings of Pesach (Numbers 28:22), of Shavuot (v. 30), and of Rosh Ha-Shanah (29:5). Yet in the Yom Kippur Mussaf, the word “le-chapper” is conspicuously absent.

The Ba’al ha-Turim explains that in describing the Yom Kippur Mussaf, “the Torah says ‘a male goat as a sin-offering’, but does not say ‘le-chapper’ – ‘to atone’, because Yom Kippur itself atones” (Commentary to Numbers 29:11).

As the Mishnah says, “death and Yom Kippur atone, if accompanied by repentance” (Yoma 8:8).


Fourth section: Mincha (Afternoon Service)

The Torah describes the incense service by saying that the Kohen Gadol “shall take a shovelful of burning coals from on top of the Altar, from before HaShem, and his cupped hands full of finely-ground incense spices, and bring it unto the Curtain” (Leviticus 16:12).


The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the word “u-m’lo” (“full”) occurs only twice in the Tanach. The only other place is when King David defeated and subjugated the Philistines and Moab: “he measured [the prisoners of war] with the rope, laying them on the ground; he measured two rope-lengths to be put to death, ‘u-m’lo’ (‘and a full’) rope-length to be kept alive” (1 Samuel 8:2). The Ba’al ha-Turim infers from this that “in the merit of the Yom Kippur service they were victorious in war”.


The inference is that not only does Yom Kippur atone for sins committed in the previous year, but it also provides pre-emptive merit for the coming year.

Fifth section: Ne’ilah (Concluding Service)

Yom Kippur reaches its climax in those final hours. This is the final opportunity to beseech HaShem for forgiveness, the final opportunity to achieve the potential of Yom Kippur, before the gates of repentance close for another year.

Rabbeinu Yonah of Geronah (died 1263), in his seminal work The Gates of Repentance, enumerates twenty principles for complete repentance: regret; forsaking sin; sorrow; active suffering (fasting, weeping, lamenting); worry; shame; whole-hearted submission to G-d and humbling oneself; practical submissiveness by speaking quietly, keeping one’s eyes downcast, etc; breaking physical desires; improving one’s actions in the area in which one has sinned; searching out one’s ways; studying, knowing, and recognising the severity of the punishment; regarding even minor sins as severe; confession; prayer; righting the wrong to the best of one’s ability; pursuing actions of loving-kindness and truth; keeping one’s sins before oneself constantly; rejecting the sin when it becomes available to one, and when one is tempted; and causing as many other people as possible to turn away from sin (The Gates of Repentance, First Gate, Sections 10 to 50).


This is the juncture when we feel the fast of Yom Kippur more powerfully than ever – both physically and spiritually. Ne’ilah, more than any other of the Yom Kippur services, is the time to arouse ourselves to tears of penitence, to the most heartfelt pleas for forgiveness.

Ne’ilah is the climax, not just of Yom Kippur, but of the Ten Days of Repentance, of the forty days which began with Rosh Chodesh Ellul.

Ne’ilah begins while the sun is still shining, and continues through sunset, through the darkening dusk, through twilight, and into complete darkness when Yom Kippur has finished. And the final, dramatic conclusion of Ne’ilah, of Yom Kippur, of the Ten Days of Repentance, of the forty days since Rosh Chodesh Ellul, is that final shofar blast, piercing our hearts, piercing the heavens.

After thirty days of blowing the shofar every morning during Ellul, after the shofar blast which was the most central and outstanding feature of Rosh Ha-Shanah, this is the final shofar blast of the season, the final reverberating reminder of Abraham’s binding of Isaac; the final reminder of our father Abraham, in whose merit G-d gave us Yom Kippur.

And this is the final reminder of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the foundation of Judaism; the prelude to the tragedy of the golden calf forty days later, which reached its closure eighty-one days later on Yom Kippur, exactly one year before G-d gave us the commandment for the annual Yom Kippur throughout our generations.


The shofar blast is the Jewish battle-cry. The first battle that we ever fought as a nation, the battle for Jericho immediately upon entering the Land of Israel, was led by Kohanim blowing the shofarot (Joshua 6:3-16). And decades later, the judge of Israel, Ehud, after assassinating the Moabite tyrant King Eglon, rallied the Jews to battle with the shofar (Judges 3:12-30).


Such it was throughout the wars that Israel fought: the judge Gideon (Judges 7:9-25), the prince Jonathan, son of King Saul (1 Samuel 13:3), King David when he defeated the Philistines (2 Samuel 6:15) – all sounded the shofar to rally the nation. This final shofar blast at Ne’ilah seals this day in whose merit we are victorious in war.

Sixth section: After Yom Kippur

And finally there is a sixth section of Yom Kippur. This is the section that does not appear in any prayer-book, the section which has not yet been written. This is the section that every one of us – you, me, our friends and families and neighbours – will write, each one according to his or her deeds, according to his or her decision, in the coming year. It is this final, as-yet-unwritten section, which will determine the quality of next year’s Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.


G’mar chativah tovah