Possibilities for Reconceptualizing N’ilah

Rabbi Leon A. Morris


I wanted to speak to two categories of ideas related to N’ilah, the first inside the machzor and then the second what operates beyond the machzor. First, in terms of inside the machzor, if you have the source sheet, this would be the first source. One of the cen- tral pieces of the liturgy for N’ilah is the centrality of the Sh’losh-Esreih Midot, the thirteen attributes of God. This creates a kind of bookend because it’s also a central part of the S’lichot section of Yom Kippur evening, of Kol Nidrei. We begin with this recitation of the Sh’losh-Esreih Midot. We end Yom Kippur with the recitation of the Sh’losh-Esreih Mid- dot. There’s great variance over how many times it’s chanted. In many traditions, whatever the number is that they were recited on Kol Nidrei, it’s twice that number for N’ilah. So, in some traditions it’s four times at Kol Nidrei, eight times at N’ilah. There are communities that recite it thirteen times.

I wanted to just look at the Talmudic source for that, which is the first source on the sheet from the Bavli, Rosh HaShanah 17b. And it’s commenting on the verse from Sh’mot, from Exodus 34:6, of vayaavor Adonai al panav vayikra, “the Eternal passed in front of him,” in front of Moses, “and called.” And here, Rabbi Yochanan is reading it in a very literal way. Would it really? God passed in front of him and called? Rabbi Yochanan said, “Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say such a thing.” And then he goes on to say, “This teaches that the Almighty wrapped himself in a tallit as a sh’liach tzibur and showed Moses the order of prayer. And God said to him, ‘Any time Israel sins, let them perform this service—the recitation of the Sh’losh-Esreih Midot—before Me and I shall forgive them.’” So, it’s loaded with this midrashic understanding that we have the power to remind God that God is erech apayim v’rav chesed. And this is explained beautifully in the Yom Kippur liturgy for the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, it’s kind of paraphrased—this is our second text—just by saying, “This portrait of an intimate relationship with God, the Holy One wrapped in a prayer shawl showing Moses how to pray conveys the spiritual promise of the songs of forgiveness, for this is the moment when the veil was lifted from our face. This is the moment when we are no longer hidden from our Maker. This is the precious moment of re- newing the relationship.” So that’s some beautiful phrasing that tries to reclaim the centrality of this part of the liturgy.

There is also, in terms of creative possibilities then, there is a great deal that can be done with the Sh’losh-Esreih Midot, and that same Talmudic sugya that we spoke about a few minutes ago for Rosh HaShanah 17b then tries to offer some kind of interpretation of each of the thirteen attributes. And just as an example of how much potential interpretive possibility there is with each of them, I wanted to just highlight the first: Adonai, Adonai. So, in that Talmudic passage in Rosh HaShanah 17b, the Gemara understands it as what’s being said is God is God before a person sins and God is God after a person sins and does t’shuvah. And source number three is from a new book calledIn His Mercy: Understanding Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot by Ezra Bick, and he plays up on this little interpretive sentence from Rosh HaShanah (New Milford, CT: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2011).

in which he says that what this really tells us is—I love this quote—history is completely different after sin because amazingly, it continues. So here in the repetition of Adonai, Adonai with this Talmudic understanding that it’s a reminder that God is our God before we sin and after we sin, and then t’shuvah is the possibility of allowing history to continue, that the world doesn’t fall apart when we sin but that we have an opportunity to reconstruct it.

I want to pick up a little bit on some of the material that Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Goldberg men- tioned about the distinctive liturgical additions in N’ilah. And here, if you have the source sheet, you can see all those parts that they were referring to that come as a substitution for the long confession. We have the Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu, and then exactly when we expect, because we’ve done it so many times, to move on to the Vidui Rabbah, the long confession, instead we have the words that are distinctive to N’ilah, which I want to highlight, begin with Mah nomar l’fanecha yosheiv marom—“What can we say before You, You who dwell on high?” And I think that’s a very deliberate introduction to the fact that we don’t have the long Vidui, that we basically are saying, “What else can we say? We’ve said this Vidui so many times, and just a moment ago we said the short Vidui, and we’re not going to go on with the long Vidui, because in truth, mah no- mar l’fanecha, “what can we really say before You?” Both Rabbi Levy and Rabbi Goldberg mentioned just a sentence later what our teacher Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman indicated to us in some teaching that we did with him, and it seems to be borne out by a study of the liturgy itself, the key line of N’ilah, Atah notein yad l’foshim—“You stretch out a hand to those who sin.” And having made our best attempt for twenty-five hours at this point, we now rely on God. Extend Your hand to us. And it’s in that same paragraph, of course, that same section that we then move on to what Rabbi Levy mentioned, Mah anu? Meh chayeinu? Meh chasdeinu? Mah tzidkeinu? Mah yisheinu? “What are we? What are our lives? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness?”

I think a lot could be done with that. And one of the challenges, one of the challenges that we’re wrestling with as editors of the new machzor is these few phrases that form the distinctive part of the N’ilah liturgy might be lost in the midst of all the other liturgy that traditionally occurs in this service, might be lost in the context of the larger Amidah. And that points us to source number five on the sheet, which is in the context of a Talmudic discussion about what N’ilah actually is. And there is an interesting Talmudic dispute between Rav and Sh’muel in which Rav says N’ilah is an extra Amidah. It’s an Amidah followed by some other prayers, just as is the case for and Shacharit and Musaf and Minchah. And Sh’muel says no, N’ilah actually consists only of this distinctive stuff that begins with—well he kind of telegraphs it as Mah anu? Meh chayeinu?, but we can assume that it’s all the stuff that begins with Mah nomar l’fanecha yosheiv marom. So, this is a very interesting, and I think for us, perhaps a very consequential Talmu- dic text in which Sh’muel floats the opinion that N’ilah may not actually be an Amidah but only these other key lines: Mah nomar l’fanecha; Atah notein yad l’foshim; Mah anu? Meh chayeinu? Meh chasdeinu?

Now, the Talmud seems to go on to refute Sh’muel’s view that N’ilah is not an Amidah and ends up presenting what’s traditionally done today, which is a combination of Rav and Sh’muel, which is yes, an extra Amidah for N’ilah, but also these special prayers about what can we say before You, extend a hand. But I think what’s interesting to us is this minority opinion of Sh’muel, and it’s something that we’re thinking deeply about, that Sh’muel’s view, that N’ilah may not consist of an Amidah, may allow some additional creative approaches that allow us to highlight these very distinctive parts of the liturgy for N’ilah. In other words, if we’re concerned about these key lines of N’ilah being lost, we may have in Shmuel’s Talmudic opinion a possibility of a different sort of approach, an approach that particularly highlights these key pieces.

So let me just offer a handful of ideas of things that go beyond the machzor. And a lot of these are things that many of us on the call are already doing. But I think it bears mentioning because although we have an awareness that the liturgy is an indispensable tool, there are many non-liturgical aspects that can enhance the experience. It was mentioned the custom of opening the ark—the ark is traditionally opened for the repetition of the Amidah in N’ilah and then it’s kept open. And this idea of an open ark has, of course, resonances of the gates that are still open but about to close just as the ark is about to close, and it contributes to the drama of the moment. There are many of us who have our congregations invite them, those are able to physically, to stand for the entire service, to stand from the moment that the ark is opened for the Amidah to the very end.

Many of our congregations use N’ilah as an opportunity for everyone in the congregation to approach the ark, to come up on the bimah, either throughout the N’ilah service, or in my congregation we do it during a repetition of the Sh’losh-Eseih Midot that we’re singing again, and again, and again, to come before the ark and to offer their final prayer before the closing of the gates.

Dr. Levy taught us beautifully about the ending of the Sh’ma one time, Baruch shem three times, and Adonai hu haElohim seven times. Many of us have found that rather than those being sort of very prescribed musical pieces, that inviting people to call them out, to shout them out, can be a very powerful experience, to have a congregation of people calling out in loud voices, Adonai hu haElohim! Adonai hu haElohim!

Many congregations invite children to come up to the bimah toward the end of N’ilah—for our children, sometimes dressed in white, to have front-row seats to enter the New Year with us for the final blast of the shofar. There is, in many congregations, a breaking out in song and dance with those children on the bimah to L’shanah Habaah BiY’rushalayim following the final blast. We have Havdalah, and if there are children on the bimah, I found that glow sticks kind of enhance the power of that moment.

I just want to end with two final, sort of off the machzor page things. One is the greeting that is probably not well known by most of our communi- ties, but the traditional greeting at the end of Yom Kippur, Tizku l’shanim rabot, that is part of the final stanza of the piyut El Nora Alilah. And I love what it represents, that we’ve had a day where we’ve felt so close to death—we’ve dressed in white, we’ve abstained from the most human aspects of our lives, from eating, from washing, from sexual re- lations—and now, having come so close to death, what we do, the very first thing, is we wish one How might we understand this greeting with the societal debate

another a long life, Tizku l’shanim rabot. And finally, I wonder if we might reconsider two rituals that are traditionally done before breaking the fast: Kiddush L’vanah, blessing the new moon, and putting the first screws in the sukkah.

N’ilah: Sources

1. Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17b

1 Babylon

“The Eternal passed in front of him and called . . .” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the verse not been written, it would have been im- possible to say [such a thing]—this teaches that the Almighty wrapped Himself in a tallit as a sh’liach tzibur and showed Moses the order of prayer. God said to him, “Any time Israel sins, let them perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them. Adonai, Adonai—I am the One before a person sins, and I am the One after a person sins and does t’shuvah. . . .”

2. Mishkan HaNefesh (Pilot Edition for Yom Kippur Evening)

In an astonishing midrash, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan imagined God majestically robed in tallit, teaching Moses the order of the prayers and saying to him: “Every time that Israel ‘misses the mark,’ let them read the Thirteen Attributes in My presence, and I will forgive them” (BT Rosh HaShanah 17b). This portrait of an intimate relationship with God—the Holy One wrapped in prayer shawl, showing Moses how to pray—conveys the spiritual promise of the Songs of Forgiveness. For this is the moment when the veil is lifted from our face; this is the moment when we are no longer hidden from our Maker. This is the precious moment of renewing the relationship.

3. Ezra Bick, In His Mercy: Understanding the Thirteen Midot

It is one thing for mortal beings to be the dwelling-place of God and the fountainhead of kedusha when they strive to serve God by accept- ing God’s Torah and obeying God’s laws. The sin of the golden calf logically destroys that dream. The same covenant must be recreated, but in radically new circumstances. How can corruption be the basis of sanctity? The answer is found in the mystery of the Thirteen Attributes—that God is the one who is nesiat cheyt—who bears sin. History is completely different after sin because, amazingly, it continues.

4. Excerpts from the Vidui for N’ilah

Short Confession (Vidui Zuta):

4. Short Confession

No Long Confession (Vidui Rabbah) for N’ilah. Instead the following appears:

4 long confession

What can we say before You, You who dwell on high?

What can we declare before You, You who abide in heaven?

Do You not know all, the hidden the revealed alike?

4.5 what can we say

You extend Your hand to transgressors; Your right hand is outstretched to receive those who return, and You have taught us, Eternal our God, to confess before You all our iniquities, so that we may withdraw our hands from theft. . . .

5. Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 87b

5 Babylonian Talmud

What is N’ilat Sh’arim? Rav says: It is an extra Amidah prayer (i.e., the same seven blessings recited during the other Amidah prayers of Yom Kippur). But Sh’muel says: It consists only of the prayer, “What are we? What are our lives. . . ?” (i.e., it is not an Amidah prayer at all).

They challenged Sh’muel’s view using the following baraita: On the night of Yom Kippur, one prays an Amidah consisting of seven blessings and confesses his sins. In Shacharit, one prays an Amidah consisting of seven blessings and confesses his sins. At Musaf, one prays an Amidah consisting of seven blessings and confesses his sins. At Minchah, one prays an Amidah consisting of seven blessings and confesses his sins. At N’ilah, one prays an Amidah consisting of seven blessings and confesses his sins, and he ends with a blessing about confession. This is the opinion of Rabbi Meir. But the Sages say: One prays an Amidah consisting of seven blessings and confesses his sins, and if he wants to end with a blessing about confession he may do so. This baraita represents a refutation of the view of Sh’muel. It is indeed a refutation.

Ulla the son of Rav went down to lead the prayers before Rava. He began the middle blessing of N’ilah with the words “You have chosen us . . .” and he ended that blessing with the words “What are we, what are our lives . . .” and Rav praised him (because he fulfilled the ruling of both Rav and Shmuel).

6. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Why is theft singled out with special emphasis in Ne’ilah? The reason is that theft actually covers every type of sin. With every sin a Jew commits, he or she forgoes their right to existence, as they violate the condition upon which their existence rests, thereby “stealing” from God. The significance of God’s name as Adonai, which is derived from the word Adon, or Master, is that God is Master and Owner of the world by virtue of being its creator. All of a person’s organs, talents, and capabilities belong to God and are only on loan to human beings. The very moment they are misused, the human being has violated his or her agreement with God. Living a life of sin is an act of theft and distortion.

Read the Original Article PDF here

From Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, (Transcript from CCAR Teleconference)

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