Avodah Service

Recounting Yom Kippur traditions from the Temple period.


Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Avodah (literally, “service”), the name for the Temple ritual, is now applied to an essential element of the Musaf service on Yom Kippur. It vividly describes the sacrificial ritual in the Temple on the Day of Atonement, based on Leviticus 16 and detailed in Mishnah Yoma(1-7) and the Talmudic tractate of the same name.
The Avodah service has preserved the quintessential rite of ancient Judaism, the most solemn moment of the Jewish year involving the holiest person (Kohen Gadol), the holiest time (Yom Kippur), and the holiest place (Temple in Jerusalem). Although not one of the pilgrimage festivals on which Jews were biblically required to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16), on Yom Kippur huge throngs of worshipers came to see the awesome ritual and to hear the words of the Kohen Gadol.

Origins of the Service

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the cessation of the sacrificial rites, how could the people achieve atonement? The Rabbis ruled that in this emergency situation, one could perform the Temple duties by reading about them, since the utterance of a person’s lips is equivalent to the actual performance of the ritual.

In addition, the Rabbis were convinced that a yearly recitation of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple would give Jews a sense of historical continuity and an intense longing for the restoration of their ancient homeland. The Avodah service was initially just a narration of the Temple ritual on Yom Kippur as related in Mishnah Yoma,but during the Middle Ages, numerous piyyutim were added.

Yom Kippur was the only time during the year when the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Preparation for this event began a week before the Day of Atonement, when the Kohen Gadol went to a designated area of the Temple court to study the sacrificial ritual for Yom Kippur.

Recounting the actions of the Kohen Gadol

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Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.

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