Friday, September 13, 2013

The Avodah

Tonight at sundown marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day we believe God seals the Book of Life (you're in or you're out) for the next year. To beg for mercy, we spend the day fasting from sundown tonight until about an hour after sundown tomorrow (the technical end is when 3 stars are visible, but these days we use science to calculate the exact time rather than go outside and sight-see).

There are 5 services on Yom Kippur (3 on a regular day, 4 on the sabbath, Yom Kippur gets a bonus). The first, the Kol Nidre prayer, (asking God to release us from any vows we made to him and didn't fulfil) happens tonight.

Tomorrow is a marathon of services. About midway through the day will be the Musaf service, which is the Additional Service added on Shabbat, and also on Yom Kippur. It is representative of the extra sacrifice that used to be performed on Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, Musaf contains a special prayer called The Avodah.
Avodah generally translates as "work" and describes in great detail the service that used to be conducted on Yom Kippur in the time of the holy temple.

Many forget that Judaism is a truly ancient religion and it used to be practiced in a very different fashion. Now practiced with synagogue services and books and prayers, it was once about making pilgrimages to the holy temple with livestock in tow, for the ritual animal slaughter. The animals were then burnt as an offering and the blood that drained from their throats when they were slit was sprinkled around the ark containing the tablets of the law. Sorry if that's a little graphic... welcome to 1000 BC. Men, women, and children would journey for days to reach the Temple to watch the sacrifices. Aside from animals, crops, incense, and wine were also burned as offerings.
Um, sure, those tablets of the law... Source
The description of the sacrifice service is unlike anything else in the Jewish liturgy, in a way it's the most authentically Jewish thing, because it tells of the original Judaism. The service also discusses another authentically Jewish artifact, this one more commonly known: the name of God.

Jews do not believe that the name of God can be pronounced. Hebrew has vowels as dots and dashes below the consonants. Consider the following word, which you probably have heard before, Shalom:
Hebrew is read from right to left, backwards from English. The letters are basically S-L-__-M. The vertical-ish line third from the right, the Vav, is a kind of mute consonant: with a dot above, it becomes an Oh and with a dot in the middle left becomes an Ooh. With no dots it's pronounced like a V. Above the first letter (right-most) is another dot: this same letter can be a Sh if the dot is on the right like above, or a S if the dot is on the left. Anyways, the point is that if you take away the dots and the little T below the right-most letter (an Ah sound) you get an unpronounceable jumble of letters: SLVM. You figure it out.

The same is true of the name for God, but we believe the vowels were lost so it cannot be pronounced. Some people say it as Yahweh, some as Jehovah, but the truth is that without the vowels we don't know. It is written probably over a million times (without vowels) in the Torah and in our other prayers. When we come to it in a formal service we say instead "Adonai" which means "Our God." When we come to it outside a formal service, we say "HaShem" which means "The Name."

Even in the temple times, it was a holy name that was only said on special occasions by the high priest. After all, we were told in the 10 Commandments, Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain. The Yom Kippur Musaf sacrifice service was one such special occasion and the Avodah prayer tells us how it went:
Every time he uttered the holy name of God, the Tetragrammaton which was uttered only on the Day of Atonement, the people prostrated themselves and responded: "Blessed be His Name whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever" Source
By the way can we focus for a second on how cool the word "Tetragrammaton" is. So what if it just means "four letters," it sounds pretty cool. But not as cool as the actual name. The story above tells of a name so powerful that people fell to their faces upon hearing it. It is believed by some to be a punishment for our diaspora that we lost the vowels so we can no longer hear it. They also believe that when the Messiah comes and completes the foretold ingathering of exiles, we'll find the vowels and get to say it again.

Definitely an interesting prayer and I'm looking forward to reading it again this year. I know the day is long and hungry and thirsty, but the Avodah is kind of the best part of the year. 

For those of you observing Yom Kippur, I wish you an easy fast. And a question for everyone else: Tetrgrammaton, great word or the greatest word?

1 comment:

  1. "Tetragrammaton" is one of the finer words. Greek's good at that. I always thought it was a little ironic that something so distinctively Hebrew would have a Greek name. Nothing escapes the historical scholars' for Greek.