Seder HaAvodah: Its Structure and Contemporary Possibilities

Rabbi Leon A. Morris

The words of Seder HaAvodah recall the approach of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies and the sending off of the scapegoat into the wilderness. With the destruction of the Temple, sacrifices ceased, and the ancient rite of Yom Kippur came to an end. The sole means for effectuating national atonement—and ensuring that God’s presence would remain with the people—was suddenly gone. The Rabbis responded by building ligious paradigms: repentance (t’shuvah), prayer (t’filah), and charity (tzedakah)—all of them dependent on human initiative—were the substitution for achieving atonement. Yet, the original ritual of Yom Kippur, with its religious drama culminating in national atonement, could not be entirely con- signed to ancient history. Seder HaAvodah as liturgy is one example among many of how the Rabbis adapted to their new and radically different reality and how words came to replace the very acts they described. Drawing heavily from the Mishnah’s detailed description of the Yom Kippur ritual, the editors of the machzor shaped a liturgical substitution for the actual performance of the ritual.

For about fifteen hundred years, the Avodah service of Yom Kippur has provided a historical link between the most ancient elements of Yom Kippur and our contemporary post-Temple observance. Recited in synagogues that replaced the service of the ancient Temple, the Avodah service provides a window into the past. It reminds worshipers of the origins of this most sacred day and serves to underscore both elements of continuity and discontinuity between that time and our contemporary practice. The creative genius of the Jewish people is evident in the various piyutim (liturgical poems) that were written over the centuries to frame the narrative of the High Priest’s preparations and entrance into the Holy of Holies. These powerful ceremonies of Yom Kippur loomed large in the imagination of the Jewish people. While the experience of praying in our synagogues is vastly different from the Temple rites of Yom Kippur, this liturgy links these two experiences across time and space.

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

Leave a Comment