Neilah Service: Closing of the Gates

The concluding service of Yom Kippur.

Neilah, (Closing of the gates) is the final service of Yom Kippur. Some have suggested that the name refers to the historical fact that this extra service was recited at the end of the Day of Atonement, when the Temple gates were closing. However, the special piyyutim written for this service favor the idea that Neilah reflects the more spiritual concept of the closing of the gates of Heaven, which have been kept open to receive our final prayers and supplications.

This poetic image has imbued the Neilah service with a sense of urgency. In contrast to the leisurely pace of the other Yom Kippur services, the mood suddenly changes.

Although Judaism teaches that the gates of prayer are always open to the truly repentant, as individuals and as a congregation we feel that this is our final chance to pour out our hearts before the divine throne of mercy. Even those who have left the synagogue because of weakness induced by the fast usually return to participate in the Neilah service.

A Sprint to the Finish

Paradoxically, as the initial hunger from fasting wears off, many worshipers feel a revitalization of their spiritual strength. Beginning with the repetition of the Amidah, the ark remains open throughout the Neilah service. All who are physically capable remain standing, an act that requires additional effort and adds to the feeling of urgency and spiritual transformation.

The separate members of the congregation appear as one penitent, joined in their firm conviction that the divine judge will pardon their sins at this final hour of the day. In the Amidah,the phrase used since Rosh Hashanah, “inscribe us in the Book of Life,” now becomes “seal us in the Book of Life,” as the final seal is placed on the divine decree. Ashamnu and Avinu Malkeinu are again repeated, but the pressure of time forces the omission of the long Al Het.

As the climax of the Day of Atonement rapidly approaches, the prayer leader and congregation join in the recitation of three biblical sentences whereby they rededicate themselves to the essential theological doctrines of Judaism.

Final Affirmations

The first is a single recitation of the Shema, the quintessential affirmation of faith. This is followed by a threefold repetition of “Praised is His name, whose glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” the line that is usually recited as a silent response to the Shema. This recalls the threefold declaration: “The Lord is king (present), the Lord was king (past), and the Lord will be king (future).”

Finally, the verse Adonai hu ha-Elohim (the Lord is God) is repeated seven times. This unequivocal denial of all idolatry and affirmation of the One and Only God was the response of the Israelites to Elijah’s triumphant victory over the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:39).

This declaration is followed by a long blast of the shofar (tekiah gedolah), an echo of the ancient practice of sounding the shofar to proclaim the beginning of the 50th (jubilee) year of freedom throughout the land (Lev. 25:9). Just as all lands returned to their original owners and slaves were freed from their masters with the onset of the jubilee year, so we celebrate our personal liberation from the overwhelming burden of our transgressions.

The piercing blast of the ram’s horn also symbolizes the certainty that we have been granted divine forgiveness and been inscribed for a good year. This confidence in the future is expressed as all join in saying le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim (next year in Jerusalem), the city that has symbolized hope and freedom for Jews throughout the ages.

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

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