Prayer Services for Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement contains more services than any other observance in Judaism

Print this page Print this page


One of the unique aspects of the liturgy of Yom Kippur is a section of prayers called the Viddui or confession. In these prayers, the community literally recites an alphabet of different transgressions it has committed, from A to Z (or, actually, Aleph to Tav, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet in which the prayers were written). The language of the prayers, however, is instructional, for they are all in the plural; the point is that no one single person has committed all of these sins, but rather we, as a community, are collectively responsible. When reciting the lists of sins, it is traditional to gently beat on one’s breast over the heart in a symbolic act of self-remonstration.


The Musaf, or additional service, that follows is a repetition of the main themes of the Shaharit service and includes many ancient and medieval religious poems included over the centuries to continue to heighten the spiritual experience of the day. Two unique additions to the Yom Kippur Musaf liturgy are the Martyrology and the Avodah, or worship, service. The Martyrology is actually a long medieval poem that describes in painfully gruesome detail the deaths of famous rabbis during ancient Roman persecutions. This poem, oftentimes including additions from the time of the Holocaust, is intended to impress upon us the spiritual devotion of our ancestors, as well as to intensify the religious and emotional tenor of the day.

This is followed by the Avodah service, which refers to the rituals enacted on Yom Kippur in the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times. Basing itself on biblical precedents, the Avodah service is taken from rabbinic and Talmudic sources and describes the historical highlights of the awesome and overwhelming pageantry of the priests and Levites in the Temple, with the people in attendance. The highlight of this ancient service describes how the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost and holiest sanctuary of the Temple, to present an offering of incense and then emerge triumphantly to declare God’s acceptance of the peoples’ prayers for atonement.


Depending upon the length of services, there may or may not be a short break in the afternoon before the Mincha service. At this service, the Torah is once again read, this time concerning the laws of forbidden marriages (Leviticus 18). Because sexuality can and should be a vehicle for creating the divine presence in our lives, it is appropriate that such a seemingly profane topic should be read in public on Yom Kippur. (Reform Jews read Leviticus 19, "the holiness code.") The Haftarah for the Mincha service is the entire biblical book of Jonah, which deals with the theme of repentance.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.