The Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur

Rav Goldberg was discussing the tefilos of Yom Kippur with the shul’s chazan, Reb Hershel.

“Probably the least understood part of the Yom Kippur davening is the Seder Avodah recited in the repetition of Musaf.” The Rav began. “Although it is one of the most important parts of the Yom Kippur davening, I have seen many shuls race through it at a pace too fast for comprehension.”

“Let me quote you the Me’am Loez,” continued Rav Goldberg, pulling a sefer off the shelf. “He writes, ‘Many people doze off during the recital of the Avodah. They don’t realize that the most important part of Yom Kippur is during the repetition of the Sh’moneh Esrei, when the Seder Avodah is recited.’”

“I didn’t realize it was that important,” admitted Reb Hershel, “but it is very hard to understand.”

“Dozens of piyutim (liturgical pieces) have been written describing the Seder Avodah,” explained Rav Goldberg. “Most shuls that daven Nusach Ashkenaz recite the piyut that begins with the words Amitz Koach, which is indeed a very difficult, poetically-written piyut. The piyut used in Nusach S’fard, Atah Konanta, is much easier to comprehend.”

“So why do we recite Amitz Koach?”

“That is an excellent question that I cannot answer fully. Already in the time of the Gemara, we see that the Seder Avodah was recited, presumably from some type of piyut, although the text they used is long lost. The Geonim and Rishonim refer to many different piyutim that they had in their times. Amitz Koach was authored by Rabbeinu Meshulam ben Klonymos, who is quoted by Rashi with the greatest respect (see Rashi, Bava Metzia 69b s.v. Mafrin; Zevachim 45b s.v. h.g.). In the course of time, Minhag Ashkenaz accepted the use of Amitz Koach, presumably out of respect for the author.”

“Why is it so important to recite the Seder Avodah? Is it a Takanas Chachomim?”

“There is no specific Takanah requiring the recital of the Seder Avodah. However, reciting it fulfills the concept of ‘U’neshalma Parim Sefaseinu,’ ‘And let our lips replace the (sacrificial) bulls’ (Hoshea 14:3). The Midrash teaches that when we are unable to offer korbanos, our recital of the Avodah is accepted by Hashem as a replacement for the korbanos (Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 4:3). This implies that we accomplish kaparah (atonement) by reciting the Seder Avodah with kavanah. Therefore, a person who recites the viduy of the Seder Avodah and truly regrets his sins can accomplish atonement; this would be similar to the viduy recited by the Cohen Gadol.

THE ATONEMENT OF YOM KIPPUR

Reb Hershel was curious. “What did the viduy of the Cohen Gadol accomplish?”

“Different korbanos offered by the Cohen Gadol atoned for different sins (see Gemara Yoma 61a). However, the greatest atonement was accomplished by the goat sent to Azazel, which atoned for all the sins of the Jewish people (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:2; Mishnah Shevuos 2b).”

“Do you mean that a person could achieve atonement even if he did not do Teshuvah?”

“Although there is such an opinion in the Gemara, the halacha is that Yom Kippur’s kaparah is only effective for those who do Teshuvah (Gemara Shevuos 13a). A person who does complete Teshuvah, which means that he regrets his sins, makes a decision that he will never commit this sin again, and recites viduy is forgiven for his sins.”

“Does this mean that he will never be punished for them?”

“Not always. For very serious sins, including Chilul Hashem, (desecrating Hashem’s name) he may still be punished in this world. But, someone who completely repented his sins in this world is guaranteed that he will suffer no punishment in the next world (Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 1:3-4).”

“At the time of the Beis HaMikdash, did people know when their sins were forgiven?”

“When the Cohen Gadol was a tzadik, part of the Yom Kippur Avodah included a procedure that showed Klal Yisrael whether they were forgiven. Let me provide some background. The Beis HaMikdash treasurers purchased two goats at the same time that were identical in height, appearance and value (Mishnah Yoma 62a). One of these goats was a Yom Kippur korban, offered in the Beis HaMikdash, and the other, was the Azazel goat.

CHOOSING THE GOAT FOR AZAZEL

“The Cohen Gadol drew lots to determine which goat would be the korban for Hashem and which would be the Azazel. This was an elaborate procedure. The Cohen Gadol stood in the courtyard of the Beis HaMikdash, near the courtyard’s entrance, facing the two goats, one opposite his right hand, and the other opposite his left. The S’gan, the Associate Cohen Gadol, stood on the Cohen Gadol’s right, and the Rosh Beis Av, the Head of the family unit of Cohanim on duty that week, stood on the Cohen Gadol’s left.

“The Cohen Gadol thrust his hands into a small wooden box containing two gold lots, one marked ‘for Hashem’ and the other ‘for Azazel,’ and removed the lots, one in each hand. He then raised his hands, exposing the lots to the S’gan and Rosh Beis Av. If the lot saying ‘for Hashem’ was in his right hand, the S’gan announced, ‘Master Cohen Gadol, raise your right hand.’ If it was in his left hand, the Rosh Beis Av announced, ‘Master Cohen Gadol, raise your left hand.’

“The Cohen Gadol then placed each lot on the head of the goat nearest that hand, and decreed, ‘For Hashem, a Chatos offering.’ The Cohen Gadol used the Ineffable Name of Hashem in this declaration, and everyone assembled responded by shouting ‘Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’Olam Vo’ed’ (Mishnah Yoma 37a and 39a).

THE RED THREAD

“The Cohen Gadol then tied a red thread to the horn of the Azazel goat, and another red thread around the neck of the Chatos goat (Mishnah Yoma 41b). Much later in the

procedure, the Cohen Gadol rested his hands and full weight on the head of the Azazel goat, and recited aloud a viduy on behalf of the entire Jewish people. He concluded his viduy by stating, ‘Because on this day He will atone and purify you from all your sins. Before Hashem shall you become pure (Vayikra 16:30),’ once again using the Ineffable Name of Hashem. When the assembled people heard the Name uttered in purity and holiness by the Cohen Gadol, they all bowed and prostrated themselves until their faces were pressed to the ground. They then recited again ‘Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuso L’Olam Vo’ed’ (Mishnah Yoma 66a).

“At one point in the procedure, the red thread tied to the Azazel goat was removed, torn in half, and one part tied again onto the Azazel goat’s horns.  At the exact moment that the Jews were forgiven, both halves of the thread turned white” (Yoma 67a).

“You mentioned that the red thread was torn in half,” Hershel asked. “What happened to the other half?”

“This depends on the period of Jewish history. When the Cohen Gadol was a great tzadik, the Jews were forgiven on Yom Kippur, and the red thread turned white. During those years, the thread was left displayed in a prominent place in the Beis HaMikdash for everyone to see the miracle. However, in the later years of the Second Beis HaMikdash, when the Cohanim Gedolim were often not suitable for the position, the thread did not turn white. To save themselves embarrassment, the thread was placed where it would not be seen (Yoma 67a).

How frequently did the thread turn white?”

“Apparently, during the period of the Bayis Rishon and the early period of the Bayis Sheni the thread always turned white. In this period, the position of Cohen Gadol was awarded on the basis of merit. However, after the Cohanim Gedolim in the Bayis Sheni began purchasing the position, the thread often did not turn white.”

THE COHANIM GEDOLIM OF THE SECOND BEIS HAMIKDASH

“You mentioned that there was a vast difference between the Cohanim Gedolim of the First Beis HaMikdash and those of the Second. Could you explain this better?”

“Yes, indeed. The Cohanim Gedolim of the First Beis HaMikdash were all great tzadikim who were worthy of their exalted position. Most of them had long tenures as Cohen Gadol. In contrast, most of the Cohanim Gedolim of the Second Beis HaMikdash bribed the government for the position. Because they lacked the kedusha the position required, they died within a year of securing the appointment (Yoma 8b; 9a).”

“And yet they were eager to bribe the government for the job?”

“People do very strange things for kavod. As Chazal teach us, it is one of the three things that remove a person from this world.”

WHAT PART OF THE YOM KIPPUR SERVICE MUST BE DONE BY THE COHEN GADOL?

Reb Hershel had many other questions. “What part of the Avodah of Yom Kippur was the Cohen Gadol obligated to perform himself?”

“Certain procedures took place in the Beis Hamikdash every day, such as clearing the two mizbeichos (altars); bringing the daily offerings (Korban Tamid); burning k’tores (incense) twice a day; and cleaning, setting up and lighting the Menorah. In addition, on Shabbos and Yom Tov, there were special korbanos called Korban Musaf, the origins of our Musaf prayers. The Torah mentions these korbanos in Parshas Pinchas. All these could be performed by any cohen.

“On Yom Kippur, in addition to the daily and Musaf korbanos, there was a special procedure unique to Yom Kippur, which is called the Seder Avodah, or the Seder Avodas Yom Kippur. This Avodah, involving the offering of several special korbanos and a unique offering of incense, is described in Parshas Acharei, the Keriyas HaTorah for Yom Kippur morning, and in great length in Mesechta Yoma. For this Avodah, the Cohen Gadol wore special white garments that were worn no other time. Although it was preferred that the Cohen Gadol perform everything in the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur himself, the only part absolutely mandatory for him to perform was the special Yom Kippur Avodah.”

WERE LOTS USED ON YOM KIPPUR?

“I am confused,” admitted Hershel. “The Piyutim of Seder Avodah mention drawing lots to determine which cohanim will bring korbanos on Yom Kippur. But why draw lots, if the Cohen Gadol was doing everything anyway?”

“A lottery system was used each day to determine which cohanim would perform the different tasks in the Beis HaMikdash. Most poskim contend that the Cohen Gadol performed ALL the service in the Beis HaMikdash by himself on Yom Kippur (even though he was only required to perform the special Yom Kippur Avodah). In their opinion, there was no lottery on Yom Kippur to determine who performed any tasks. Other poskim contend that although the Cohen Gadol was to perform all the tasks in the Beis HaMikdash himself, if he was unable to perform the entire Avodah himself,  other cohanim could do some parts of it in his place. When this happened, the lottery system would determine which cohen was appointed to perform the avodah.”

CHANGING CLOTHES

“It is interesting to note,” continued the Rav, “that to perform every part of the special Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol was required to wear his special Yom Kippur vestments (described in Parshas Acharei). However, for every part of the service that was not part of the Yom Kippur Avodah, he wore the eight vestments described in Sefer Shmos. Thus, the Cohen Gadol changed his clothes five times during Yom Kippur. According to a special commandment received by Moshe Rabbeinu (Halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai), he immersed himself in a mikveh each time he changed his clothes and also performed a special procedure involving washing his hands and feet twice each time.”

“I understand that when the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim (The Holy of Holies), no one was allowed to be inside the entire Beis HaMikdash building, even the Kodesh (Vayikra 16:17),” interjected Hershel.

“Not only were no humans allowed in, but even angels could not enter (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:5, cited by Tosafos Yeshanim Yoma 19b).”

THE COHEN GADOL SWEARING

“I remember learning that the Cohen Gadol had to swear an oath before Yom Kippur,” queried Hershel. “Why was that?”

“The first time the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim, he did so with a ladle of specially refined k’tores (incense) and a censer, a type of coal pan for burning incense. According to Halacha L’Moshe M’Sinai, he had to enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim first and then burn the k’tores inside. However, the Tzedukim, who did not accept Torah she-bal peh, believed that he should kindle the k’tores first and then enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim. In the period of the Second Beis HaMikdash, when the position of Cohen Gadol was often purchased, there was concern that the Cohen Gadol might be a clandestine Tzeduki. Since no one could enter the Beis HaMikdash building while the k’tores was offered, there was no way of knowing what the Cohen Gadol actually did while inside. Therefore, he was required to swear before Yom Kippur that he would perform the service as instructed by the Gedolei Yisrael.”

“Were there any recorded instances of a Cohen Gadol who was a Tzeduki?”

“The Gemara records two such instances. In one case, the Cohen Gadol proudly told his father, who was also a Tzeduki, that he had offered the k’tores according to their practices. The Gemara records that this Cohen Gadol soon died a very ignominious death.”

“What happened in the other instance?”

“The Gemara records that the cohanim heard a loud sound in the Beis HaMikdash. They raced in to find the Cohen Gadol dead, with obvious signs that he had been killed by an angel (Yoma 19b).”

“But I thought even angels could not enter the Beis HaMikdash while the Cohen Gadol offered the k’tores?”

“This is an excellent question, and it is asked by the Gemara Yerushalmi. The Gemara answers that since the Cohen Gadol had performed the service incorrectly, the angels were permitted to enter.

 HOW MANY TIMES DID THE COHEN GADOL ENTER THE KODESH HAKODOSHIM?

“How many times did the Cohen Gadol enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim on Yom Kippur?” asked Hershel.

“Most people don’t realize that the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim four times on Yom Kippur. The first time was with the special Yom Kippur k’tores, the second time to complete the kaparah of his special Yom Kippur bull offering, and the third time was to attend to the kaparah of the goat offering. During each of these last two visits he sprinkled eight times. These sprinklings have a significant place in the piyutim. These are the places when the chazan, followed by the congregation, shouts out, ‘Achas, achas v’achas, achas u’shtayim,’ until ‘achas va’sheva’ to commemorate this part of the Avodah.”

“You said that the Cohen Gadol entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim four times, but we mentioned only three.”

“Much later in the day, the Cohen Gadol changed into a different set of special Yom Kippur white garments and entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim to pick up the censer and the ladle that he had brought in earlier. This was a required part of the Yom Kippur service.”

“I reviewed the description of the Avodah mentioned in Parshas Acharei,” continued Hershel. “I notice that the Torah does not mention Yom Kippur until the twenty-ninth pasuk of the discussion. Why is this?”

“Although Aaron and the later Cohanim Gedolim never entered the Kodesh HaKodoshim, except on Yom Kippur, the Midrash says that Aaron was permitted to enter it at other times, provided he followed the procedure described in Parshas Acharei. On Yom Kippur, he was obligated to offer these korbanos and enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim. Thus, the beginning of the reading explains how Aaron could enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim, whereas the end teaches that this procedure must be performed on Yom Kippur.” (Note that Rashi on Chumash seems to disagree with this approach.)

“Is it true that a rope was tied around the Cohen Gadol’s waist before he entered, so that they could pull him out if he died?”

“In actuality, the source, which is a Zohar, mentions that a rope was tied around his foot,” responded Rav Goldberg.

“Thanks a lot for all your time,” Reb Hershel concluded.  “I now understand the importance of reciting the Seder Avodah carefully, and why some people study the mishnayos of Meseches Yoma before Yom Kippur.”

“You are absolutely correct. Indeed, the Mateh Efrayim maintains that one’s main learning during the entire month of Elul should be devoted to understanding the Seder Avodah properly. So, don’t forget to study the mishnayos and gemaros we’ve just been discussing yourself.”

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