Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l on the Seder ha-‘Avodah of Yom ha-Kippurim

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l on the Seder ha-‘Avodah of Yom ha-Kippurim

A Synopsis of the Rav’s Yiddish Teshuvah Derashah 5736 (1975) by Bezalel Naor

The thrust of Rav Soloveitchik’s lecture is a fascinating exploration of our custom of reciting (and reliving) the ritual of the Day of Atonement in the Second Temple. The Rav described the Seder ha-‘Avodah as “the climax of the sanctity of the day” (“der hoikh-punkt fun kedushas ha-yom”). It was the Rav’s distinct impression that Jews were so “spellbound” (“bakishuft”) by the recitation, that they found it difficult to take leave of it. This is borne out by the practice in Baghdad of old. The Seder ha-‘Avodah was so beloved to the Jews of Baghdad that they recited Seder ha-‘Avodah not only at Mussaf (the Additional Service), as is our custom, but at Shaharit (the Morning Service) and Minhah (the Afternoon Service) as well. Despite the efforts of several generations of Ge’onim to uproot this custom, they were unsuccessful in doing so.[1] This was also the impression conveyed to the young Soloveitchik growing up, by his grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik, and father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik. The recitation of the Seder ha-‘Avodah was so beloved to them, that it was only with the greatest difficulty that they were able to bid it farewell.

(At this point in his delivery, the Rav digressed, recalling nostalgically how the Modzhitser Hasidim in Warsaw prolonged the third Sabbath meal well into the night. Evidently, it was very hard for them to take leave of the Sabbath Queen. One of the unforgettable scenes from this derashah is the Rav’s vivid portrayal of one of the poverty-stricken Hasidim that he encountered in the Modzhitser shtiebel at Shalosh Se‘udot, Yankel der Treiger (Yankel the Porter). During the week, Yankel wore an outfit that was “more holes than material” [“mehr lekher vie materiel”]. Like his fellow porters in Warsaw, he was a human beast of burden. The Rav comically described how one would see a commode or other heavy furniture walking down the street with two little feet under it. But on Shabbat, at the Third Meal in the Modzhitser shtiebel, the same Yankel der Treiger was unrecognizable. He appeared a prince with a shtreimel on his head and a kapote.

The Rav’s point was that once upon a time, Jews could not get enough of the Sabbath. They simply could not let go of her. Whereas today, we modern Jews say to her coolly, “Goodbye, I’ll see you next week.”)

Why was the Seder ha-‘Avodah so extremely important? What is its significance? The Rav presented three “ta‘amim,” or reasons for the custom. One is readily available in Rashi; the other two are original.

  1. Rashi attributes the sheli’ah tsibbur’s (prayer leader’s) recitation of the Seder ha-‘Avodah to the principle of “U-neshalmah pharim sefateinu,” “Our lips will pay bulls” (Hosea 14:3).[2] After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we compensate for our inability to offer physical sacrifices by reciting the Torah reading thereof.

The Rav found a difficulty with Rashi’s explanation. If that were the reason for reciting the Seder ha-‘Avodah in Mussaf, it should be incumbent upon each and every individual, just as Mussaf is incumbent upon the individual. In the controversy between Rabbi El‘azar ben Azariah and the Sages in the Mishnah, the halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of the Sages. (Rabbi El‘azar ben Azariah held that Mussaf is recited only “be-haver ‘ir”; the Sages disagreed and held that the obligation of Mussaf devolves upon each individual.)[3] Just as Mussaf is recited by each individual and not delegated to the sheli’ah tsibbur (prayer leader), so the recitation of the Seder ha-‘Avodah should be the obligation of each individual. Why then is it recited by the sheli’ah tsibbur?

  1. In the Temple, besides the offerings of the various sacrifices, there was also a Torah reading by the kohen gadol (high priest). This reading took place after the scapegoat had been dispatched to the wilderness to Azazel. The reading was considered of such paramount importance that the ruling is “Keri’ah me‘akevet.” The Torah reading is indispensable to the sacrifices.[4]

The Rav wondered aloud whether in the Second Temple the kohen gadol’s reading was accompanied by Targum, Aramaic translation. The practice of Targum was instituted at the very beginning of the Second Temple by Ezra the Scribe.[5]

The Rav reasoned that especially in the Second Temple when there were controversies between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as to the exact sequence of the high priest’s actions on the Day of Atonement, it would have been imperative that his reading be supplemented by explanatory Targum, so that the common folk not suspect him of having deviated from the order of the Torah.[6]

The Rav proposed that the sheli’ah tsibbur’s recitation of the Seder ha-‘Avodah is a commemoration of the kohen gadol’s Torah reading on Yom ha-Kippurim. But here a difficulty arises. The kohen gadol’s reading is from the Written Torah (Torah she-bi-khetav), whereas the sheli’ah tsibbur’s reading is from the Oral Torah (Torah she-be-‘al peh).

At this point, the Rav relied on derush sefarim (homiletic literature), most notably Beit Halevi of his great-grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Yosef Dov Baer Halevi Soloveitchik,[7] to the effect that Yom Kippur is the manifestation of the Oral Torah; the celebration, the “Yom Tov of Torah she-be-‘al peh.”

This contention is constructed of many sources. First, there is the Mishnah, end Ta‘anit: “There were never such festivals (yamim tovim) for Israel as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.” The Gemara explains that the distinction of Yom Kippur is due to the fact that it is “the day the second tablets were given.”[8] And yet, we celebrate Shavu‘ot as the time of the giving of the Torah. What was the difference between the first and second tablets? The first tablets contained not only the Written Law but the Oral Law as well.[9] In fact, the letters that flew off the tablets, causing Moses to drop them and shatter them,[10] were not the letters of the Written Law but those of the Oral Law.[11] Subsequently, the second tablets contained only the Written Law. So what was unique about the giving of the second tablets on Yom Kippur was that for the first time the Torah she-be-‘al peh came into its own and emerged as a distinct entity.[12] And it is the Torah she-be-‘al peh that the kohen gadol manifests by his Torah reading on Yom Kippur. His concluding remarks, “More than I read before you is written here,”[13] may allude to the Oral Law. And it is this same manifestation of Torah she-be-‘al peh that the sheli’ah tsibbur accomplishes with his recitation of the Seder ha-‘Avodah. (As opposed to Amits Ko’ah, the medieval piyyut by Rabbi Meshullam ben Kalonymos, recited in Ashkenazic congregations, the antique Atah Konanta, recited in Sephardic congregations, goes back to the Tannaitic era, and is attributed by some to a priest. Thus, it eminently qualifies as Torah she-be-‘al peh.)

The Rav anticipated that one might counter that Sukkot, not Yom Kippur, should rightly be termed the Yom Tov of Torah she-be-‘al peh. The Rambam begins the laws of Sukkah with its physical dimensions, which are surely Torah she-be-‘al peh. As we say, “Shi‘urin, hatsitsin u-mehitsin, halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai.” (“Measurements…are oral tradition to Moses from Sinai.”)[14] And in regard to various observances of Sukkot there were controversies between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: nisukh ha-mayim (the water libation) and ‘aravah (the willow branch).[15]

The Rav’s response was that, in truth, Sukkot is but the continuation, the extension of Yom Kippur. The Midrash comments on the verse in regard to the four species: “‘And you shall take for you on the first day’—the first day of reckoning sins.”[16] The Jew emerges from Yom Kippur spiritually cleansed: “Before the LORD you shall be purified.”[17] And as Rabbi Akiva said: “Ashreikhem Yisrael! Happy are you, Israel! Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven.”[18] And it is this joy, this simhah that comes from having received from heaven the greatest gift, a gratuitous gift (matnat hinam), a sense of spiritual purity (taharat ha-nefesh), that pervades the ensuing Yom Tov of Sukkot.

  1. Finally, quoting the Talmud Yerushalmi, the Rav offers a third “ta‘am” for the speciality of the Seder ha-‘Avodah on Yom Kippur. The Yerushalmi states: “Any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt in its days, it is as if it is destroyed in its days.”[19]

The Rav ventured that on Yom Kippur we must atone not only for our individual sins but for the historic, collective sin of not having rebuilt the Temple. “Aval anahnu va-‘avoteinu hatanu.” “We and our fathers have sinned.”[20] This refers to the ongoing historic sin that nineteen hundred years later we are still bereft of the Temple in Jerusalem. Our recitation of the Seder ha-‘Avodah followed by the kinot, the elegy of the Ten Martyrs (‘Asarah Harugei Malkhut), is our way of expiating this historic sin.

If the Rav’s portrayal of Yankel der Treiger is comedic, his depiction of the transition from the Seder ha-‘Avodah is pathos-laden and starkly, brutally tragic. The abrupt transition from “Mar’eh Kohen”—the face of the high priest, when he emerged from the Holy of Holies, radiating the splendor of the divine presence (ziv ha-Shekhinah)—to the present reality, a world without Temple, without sacrifices, without Kohen, Levite and Israelite—was likened by the Rav to a rude awakening from a beautiful dream. For a brief, too brief moment, we were transported to the Temple in Jerusalem with all of its glorious splendor and pageantry. And then suddenly, with a clap, we find ourselves back in our spiritually impoverished waking life. “Me-‘igra ramah le-bira ‘amikta!” “From a mighty mountain to a profound pit!”

“Es iz geven, yeh. Ober es iz nit mehr.”

“It was, yes. But it is no more.”

“Dos iz geven azei, ober nisht itzter.”

“This was so, but not now.”

In order for us to appreciate the enormity of the loss, it would be necessary to recount the past glory. The Rav juxtaposed the verse in Lamentations 1:7: “Jerusalem remembered [in] the days of her affliction and of her anguish all her treasures that she had from the days of old.”[21]

“All this occurred when the Temple was on its foundation and the Holy Sanctuary was on its site, and the Kohen Gadol stood and ministered—his generation (doro) watched and rejoiced.”[22]

The Rav commented ruefully: “‘His generation’—not ours.”

“Ashrei ‘ayin ra’atah kol eleh.” “Fortunate is the eye that saw all these.”[23]

“But our forefathers’ iniquities destroyed the Temple, and our sins delayed the Final Redemption.” (“Aval ‘avonot avoteinu heherivu naveh, ve-hat’oteinu he’erikhu kitso.”)[24]

“Any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt in its days, it is as if it is destroyed in its days.”


The Rav offered historical insight into Rabbi Akiva’s proverb that concludes the Mishnah, Tractate Yoma. In the generation that followed the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish People could not imagine how it would be possible to celebrate Yom Kippur, a day which pivots on the service in the Temple. Rabbi Akiva appeared to us then as a great consoler, driving home the message that as important as the Temple ritual was, in the final analysis, it is the LORD who purifies Israel of all its sins, and the LORD we have not lost.

“Ashreikhem Yisrael!

Happy are you, Israel!

Before whom are you purified, and who purifies you?

Your Father in heaven.”


[1] See the responsum of Hai Gaon in B.M. Lewin, Otsar ha-Ge’onim, Yoma (Jerusalem, 1934), no. 121 (p. 41); Natronai Gaon, quoted in Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Daniel Goldschmidt (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 2004), p. 169; and Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, Kuntres be-‘Inyan Yom ha-Kippurim, ed. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Jerusalem, 1986), Yoma 36b, s.v. ha-hu de-nahit (pp. 30-31).

[2] Rashi, Yoma 36b, s.v. ha-hu de-nahit.

[3] m. Berakhot 4:7.

[4] See b. Yoma 5b, “Mikra parashah me‘akev,” and Rashi, Yoma 68b, s.v. ba’ likrot. This is one of two opinions in Rabbeinu Menahem ha-Me’iri, Beit ha-Behirah, Yoma, beginning chap. 7.

[5] Maimonides, Hil. Tefillah 12:10.

[6] The Pharisees upheld the oral tradition of “Hamesh tevilot va-‘asarah kiddushin” (“Five ritual immersions and ten washings of the hands and the feet”), whereby ipso facto the verse in the Torah portion is out of sequence. See b. Yoma 71a. The Sadducees, on the other hand, maintained the order spelled out in the Torah.

In the Rav’s opinion, this Pharisaic practice would have appeared to the public much more egregious than the more famous controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees as to where the incense should be lit. According to the Sadducees, the high priest “matkin mi-ba-huts,” “lights outside” the kodesh kodashim, or Holy of Holies; the Pharisees, on the other hand, held the high priest “matkin mi-bifnim,” “lights inside” the Holy of Holies. See b. Yoma 19b, 53a.

[7] See Rabbi Yosef Dov Baer Halevi Soloveitchik (of Brisk), She’elot u-Teshuvot Beit Halevi, Part Two, derush 18

[8] b. Ta‘anit 30b.

[9] y. Shekalim 6:1, quoted in Beit Halevi.

[10] y. Ta‘anit 4:5.

[11] This is the novel idea of Beit Halevi, ibid.

[12] According to the Beit Halevi (ibid.), since the Oral Law was not included in the second tablets, it was now to be written in the heart of Moses and the hearts of the Jewish People. Thereby, Israel ascended to a greater level. No longer would the Torah and Israel be two but one. (“Ha-Torah ve-Yisrael kula had hu.”)

[13] m. Yoma 7:1; b. Yoma 68b.

[14] b. Sukkah 5b.

[15] m. Sukkah 4:9; b. Sukkah 43b-44a.

[16] Leviticus 23:40; Midrash Tanhuma, Emor, 22.

[17] Leviticus 16:30.

[18] m. Yoma 8:9.

[19] y. Yoma 1:1.

[20] Preface to Vidui (Confession of sins).

[21] The Rav directed us to Ibn Ezra’s commentary ad locum.

[22] Afterword to Seder ha-‘Avodah.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.