Thursday, September 16, 2010


Tomorrow evening many will enter into Jewish houses of prayer, some for the third time that day, others for the third time in a year. All will open their machzorim (High Holiday prayerbook) to the words of Kol Nidre. The evening service will follow, including the appropriate material for Yom Kippur, most notably the short vidui (confession) and the longer al chet (For the sin). However, unlike a usual evening service, the amidah will be followed by a number of supplications, piyutim (liturgical poems), and the 13 Attributes of Mercy.

The first such piyut, of unknown authorship, is entitled ya'aleh tachanuneinu (may our prayers ascend). Unfortunately, I could not locate a suitable version online. Mirroring slightly one of the verses in Leviticus (23:32), which describes the duration of the "affliction" of Yom Kippur, the piyut expresses the hope that from evening (of Yom Kippur) to morning (of Yom Kippur day) and by evening ( the conclusion of Yom Kippur), The People Israel will find favor in the eyes of God. The author uses a Kabbalistic technique of reverse alphabetical order, symbolizing complete understanding as well as the need return to the beginning.

I believe that the author takes us on a journey through Yom Kippur. We begin with petitions, we cry out all day long so that by evening, when the effects of the fast are fully felt, we are aware of our mortality, we have hopefully achieved atonement, and a favorable status in the heavenly court. Furthermore, since the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul we have been drawing closer to God via t'shuva. With the process nearing its apex, I would posit that we return to the start and begin living with the changes that our introspection yields, modeling the ideal of the piyut.

One construction of t'fillah suggests that the prayers take the place of the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. One of my teachers at Pardes said this week that on Yom Kippur we should imagine ourselves as if we are the High Priest carrying out the offerings on the altar. Maintaining laser-like focus throughout the t'fillot, and devoting ourselves entirely to God, almost as if we are sacrificing ourselves. T'shuva is a process that extends well beyond Yom Kippur, but if we approach Yom Kippur with a serious intent, like that of the High Priest, our t'shuva will be far more meaningful while we reach the ascension described in ya'aleh tachanuneinu.

There you have two takes on one of my favorite liturgical poems. Other Yom Kippur material will be showing up on my other blog, Shibbles' Eyes, available in the side bar on the right.

Shana tova u'ktiva v'chatima tova l'kol beit Yisrael!
May all Israel be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

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