What is striking about the Yom Kippur service is its almost complete lack of reference to Egypt, the Exodus, Sinai, or the subsequent conquest of the land of Canaan – the events seen as being responsible for defining the Jewish people’s existence and religious mission. With the exception of Moses’ pleas for forgiveness after the Golden Calf episode, this crucial section of the Jewish historical narrative is almost entirely ignored. Instead, we find references to creation, the patriarchs, the Temple service, and God’s anticipated absolute kingship at the end of time. All these elements are combined in the Amitz Koach prayer of Mussaf. Amitz Koach’s three sections – the creation of the world, the Yom Kippur Temple service, and the celebration following the service – together present a unified view of history in which the Yom Kippur service occupies a central role. Amitz Koach describes a universalized Divine-human intimacy present in Creation and in the messianic future, a closeness which was lost through early sin and which can only be regained through proper performance of the Yom Kippur service.
The earliest known Mussaf Avodah text dates from around the third century and is little more than an edited version of the Mishnah, tractate Yoma. Later versions of the Avodah were more innovative. The Avodah genre came to include details such as accounts of creation and of Aaron’s selection as the first High Priest, before continuing with a highly poeticized description of the Temple service. Our current text, Amitz Koach, consists of three distinct sections: 1) a history of the world from creation through Adam, Noah, and the Patriarchs; 2) an intricate description of the Yom Kippur service, still recognizable as being drawn from Mishnah Yoma; 3) and an account of the celebration following the High Priest’s completion of the service. This paper will refer to the three sections by the names Creation, Service, and Celebration.
Creation begins with the formation of heaven and earth, followed by the first light, separation of heaven and sea, and so on – recalling events from almost every day of the Genesis story. Adam is commanded not to eat from the Tree of Life; he disobeys and is punished. Cain and Abel sacrifice to God; Cain kills Abel out of jealousy and receives a Divine mark to protect him from revenge. One third of the generation of Enosh is wiped out by a flood for their idolatry, while Noah’s generation is also drowned for their sins. Those who suggested building a tower of Babel are swept away by “seething whirlwinds,” whereas Abraham recognizes God and offers his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The Creation passage concludes as Jacob and Levi are chosen by God, Jacob to form the Jewish people and Levi to serve in the Temple.
This passage closely parallels the book of Genesis in its basic structure, but differs in a number of details. Unlike Genesis, which covers twenty generations of humanity in its first sixth and uses the remaining space to detail the lives of the Patriarchs, Amitz Koach describes the creation and the first generations after it in great detail, while devoting just one line to each Patriarch. Indeed, it seems that the main reason the Patriarchs appear here at all is to provide the logic for Levi’s choice as the priestly tribe. Their role as ancestors or members of the Jewish people is not deemed worthy of any mention.
The focus is instead on the first generations after Creation. The individuals mentioned early in Genesis have unique relationships with God (though not always positive ones) which demand God’s full attention whenever they encounter the Divine. This special relationship is what the Yom Kippur service tried to recreate. The Avodah tells us little about these early humans except that each of them (or their generation) sinned in some way and was punished – both physically and through a progressive breakdown of their relationship to God. By Abraham’s time the relationship had been entirely lost, but as the first Jew Abraham was once again granted access to God. Abraham’s unique relationship was continued through Isaac, Jacob, and eventually through the priestly tribe. While the Temple stood, only the High Priest, only on Yom Kippur, could attract the complete attention of God. His divine relationship was qualitatively different from that of every other Jew, and it was responsible for the singular measure of atonement which the Yom Kippur service provided.
There is a huge chronological gap between the life of Levi and the time of the Temple Yom Kippur service. This gap is filled by the projection of the priesthood onto Levi. The last verses of the Creation section telescope his being chosen with the choice of a High Priest from his descendants to perform the Temple service:
To serve you, you chose Levi, fervent man of yours, dividing from his stock one hallowed to the Holiest of Holy chambers, one to bind the diadem of priesthood and to wear the breastplate lights, to dwell inside the House of Glory seven days.
“Division from the stock” is a constant theme in this part of the Avodah. Abraham is separated from the rest of humanity, Isaac and Jacob from their brothers, Levi from the Jewish people, and the High Priest from the other Levites. All of early history, then, is a winnowing process with the High Priest’s Temple service as its ultimate goal. Also, this “division from the stock” and mention of seven days of dwelling in the Temple alludes to the first words of the Service section, which immediately follow: “Loyal attendants for a week before the tenth day, separate the high priest as the Law prescribes.” This parallel creates a smooth transition between the two passages.
The Creation section itself makes constant reference to the Temple service to which it is a prologue. The Garden of Eden is said to have been created expressly for God’s “worshippers,” while Cain and Abel each offer a sacrifice to God. Abraham’s offering of Isaac as a sacrifice is recorded along with a statement that Isaac is “the child of his old-age passion.” The mention of passion here parallels the mention of passion when Eve gave birth (fifteen lines prior), implying that all humans are somehow linked to the merit of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice. Finally, Jacob and his children are described in sacrificial terms:
Like a faultless lamb, a perfect man was chosen, Jacob… You brought forth from his loins well-formed and handsome children, all of them the seed of Truth, in whom no defect lay.Here also, we are reminded of the Yom Kippur animal sacrifices, which could be disqualified by certain blemishes or defects in the animal.
The second and by far the longest portion of Amitz Koach is the Service section. Despite Amitz Koach’s highly stylized form, we can still connect nearly every phrase of this section with a sentence in Mishna Yoma. The reverse is not true, though; many of the more tangential or tedious paragraphs in Yoma are omitted entirely. Nevertheless, every major event in Yoma is still present and substantial portions of that tractate, most importantly the High Priest’s confessions, are word-for-word the same. One can confidently say that Yoma and the Avodah are describing exactly the same service.
There are, however, important thematic differences between the texts. Most importantly, the character of the High Priest is treated very differently between the Tractate Yoma, and the Avodah, and the Biblical account on which both of those are fundamentally based. In Leviticus 16, the High Priest performs the lengthy Temple service single-handedly. Yoma, on the other hand, assumes the High Priest may be a Zadokite and requires the rabbis to direct the High Priest at every step, lest he ignorantly or maliciously ruin the ceremony. Amitz Koach more than restores the High Priest’s active and honored role in the events. For example, Yoma requires that High Priest read the laws of Yom Kippur in the days before the holiday. The Avodah repeats this requirement, but omits the stated reason for the recitation: “Perhaps you [the High Priest] have forgotten or perhaps you have never learned.” Similarly, where Yoma requires the High Priest to watch a procession of bulls, sheep, and rams, “that he should recognize them and be familiar with the service,” the Avodah omits the reason again, and changes the tone of the passage so that the procession sounds like a ceremonial parade with the High Priest in a position of honor. In other places, the Avodah changes the text of the Mishnah in order to emphasize the High Priest’s enthusiasm for the service. Thus, he is portrayed several times as running to the next ritual, and each time he confesses his or the nation’s sins, he goes beyond the minimum requirement and “conceal[s] nothing in his heart.” Also, Amitz Koach emphasizes the beauty and expense of the priest’s clothing. Other versions of the Avodah go farther and call attention to his bodily strength. The overall effect is what Swartz called the “valorization of the priesthood,” quite in contrast to the dubious picture implied by the Mishnah. Only a righteous, knowledgeable, and physically capable priest would be suitable to approach God in the special manner which only took place on Yom Kippur.
The last section of the Avodah, which I called “Celebration,” immediately follows (chronologically and in the text) the conclusion of the High Priest’s Temple rituals, so that one might have considered it a continuation of that section.
However, its style is so suddenly different that they cannot possibly be seen as one unit. The overwhelming detail of the Service passage is suddenly replaced by an equally overwhelming measure of imprecision and hyperbole. “Now [the Priest’s] face is like the rising of a brilliant sun,” exclaims the very first line of this section. This might be seen simply as an expression of emotion – except that the passage rapidly proceeds into discussion of outright miracles, events that could only happen in a messianic age. As the High Priest returns home, clouds gather and a blessed rain begins to fall (an allusion to the rainy season in Israel, which begins each year shortly after Yom Kippur). Harvests are peaceful and plentiful. God’s justice is proclaimed by voice and instrument throughout the land. Moreover, even the Jews’ souls become perfectly clean and pure. “From their uncleanness they are washed, from the taint of their wrongdoing they are purified … declaring that their Purifier is a fount of living waters, Hope of Israel, Israel’s ritual bath whose waters never fail.” In the end, they are even “drawn up to the gates on high in ecstasy, seized up by joy and happiness forever…”
Clearly this does not literally refer to any Yom Kippur that ever happened, or else the next one would have been unnecessary. The last sentences of Leviticus 16 and the last chapter of Tractate Yoma discuss the personal obligations of fasting and repentance, and perhaps the Avodah means to imply that if those obligations were as scrupulously fulfilled as the Temple rituals, then the ecstatic celebration describe here would become reality as well.
5. The overall thematic structure
More interestingly, the Avodah’s messianic imagery does not begin in the Celebration section; that imagery is instead implicit from the beginning of the Creation passage. The Garden of Eden was created “to delight [God’s] worshippers,” not Adam and Eve but the righteous Jews who would arrive there in the world to come. The marine Leviathan was created “to feast the righteous in the World to Come.” And Levi is chosen from Jacob’s children so that one of his descendants might perform the final Yom Kippur service, the one that results in Israel’s merging with the Divine in the Celebration section described above.
Just as creation is expressed in terms of the eschatological purpose of the created being, the messianic experience is expressed in language reminiscent of creation. The celebrating Jews “emit [cries] of joy; they call to one another” and “frolic in God’s presence” like animals. The High Priest has a face “like the rising of a brilliant sun,” while his people “bea[m] their light forth like the breaking dawn.” The Jews are even likened to “the angels of the morning” and the overall effect is to portray people as animals and other natural beings or forces. The animal allusions are especially powerful because animal slaughter is so important an aspect of the sacrificial service that would have brought Israel to this point.
More generally, though, the primeval references in Celebration and the eschatological references in Creation serve to link these sections together. Just after creation, the Avodah sees Adam and Eve as coexisting intimately with God in a garden world, naked like animals and in control of the Garden as the celestial bodies seem to control our world. God is even pictured as asking Adam’s consent before taking his rib to form Eve, indicating what the Avodah sees as the closeness of their relationship. However, the cumulative errors of Adam, Eve, Cain, Enosh’s generation, and Noah’s generation are seen as causing a progressive breakdown of the Divine-human relationship. In the aftermath of a successful Yom Kippur service, the Avodah expects that decline to be reversed as mankind returns to its original, exalted, animal-like level. The vehicle for that return, of course, would be the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple.
Nowhere in this theological construct do we require Israel’s primacy over the other nations. Indeed, since Biblical times the Temple had been regarded as a universal institution. The Avodah passes over the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and even the establishment of the original Tabernacle without a word, central though they are to Israel’s relationship with God, since they have little meaning for the remainder of humanity that will also be redeemed. Just as the Divine-human connection of Adam and Eve (and their immediate descendants) involved all mankind, the future union of God and humanity is independent of the major events of Jewish history. In the current, sinful, intermediate stage, though, a Jewish people is needed to preserve a spark of holiness with which to kindle the final redemption. In recognition of this, the Patriarchs are briefly introduced into the end of the Creation passage.
The one constant image throughout the Creation and Celebration sections is that of water. The first act of creation recounted in the Avodah is God’s division of the primordial waters into heaven and sea. The first animals created are fish, along with the marine Leviathan, which will be eaten in the World to Come and is in a sense the LAST animal of creation. The Behemoth, another gigantic animal that will be eaten by the righteous, is described as dwelling “in the water willows;” other sources see it as a land animal, but the Avodah tries hard to link it with water. Water also (violently) separates Enosh and Noah from the sinful worlds around them. After the successful Yom Kippur service rain begins to fall, filling the furrows of the fields with water and ensuring a plentiful harvest. And of course, God is the “fount of living waters, Hope of Israel, Israel’s ritual bath whose waters never fail.” The world begins as water and history ends with God’s ritual cleansing of Israel.
In between is the spiritual dryness that the Yom Kippur service is seen as extricating us from. [The scapegoat, which was sent to the desert, is a physical symbol of this dryness.] Of course, the High Priest’s five immersions and ten hand-washings are an important part of the Yom Kippur Temple service, hinting again that the Yom Kippur service is the method through which ultimate redemption will arrive.