Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Post Yom Kippur Thoughts

The sacrificial and other rituals of the Temple, of which we hear so much on Yom Kippur, had to be done just as prescribed or they were not efficacious. It was like any precise, complicated set of acts now, e.g., surgery; building. It was not: I meant well, I just forgot the sutures. Or, I meant well, I just forgot the plumb line. Or: I’ll suture, then I’ll cut; or, I’ll build, then I’ll measure. If you did not do it right– the right stuff, in the right order– “it” was not efficacious. And if you did, it was.

Prayer was contemporaneous with Temple worship. It did not, as many think, enter our practice after the Temple was destroyed — not after the second of them went but even not after the first: do we read on Rosh Hashana about Hannah, praying in the mishkan, the Sanctuary, which preceded the first Temple? The priest, Eli, not clued in, thinks she’s drunk because she prays silently but once she enlightens him, he does not say, what are you doing, praying here? Much less, what is that, prayer? He says: your prayer is efficacious. It will move God. And Hannah’s prayer becomes the prototype for prayer — period. Not women’s prayer: Jewish prayer.

But yes, once there was no Temple, prayer substituted for sacrifice. Which is an amazing transition. Words, intent, replace all the sacrificial torah, of which there is so very much. Leaving many to wonder, eyes glazed over, why we still read this for weeks on end, in the weekly Torah portions. There is debate from very early on, we see it already in the mishna (codified ca. 200 CE but the record of debate of hundreds of years prior to its compilation), about whether the words need to be sent off, out, up, with intent, kavannah, in order to be efficacious; or whether the act of saying and performing them, according to the texts and order of the rabbis who authorized themselves to make a prayer canon, sufficed, and was efficacious.

I was struck by this during Yom Kippur tefilla because the prayers are so long and the order so set, definitely a choreography to the day, what is done, when, and how. Which to me, mimics the sacrificial system. And we have the teaching that the day itself atones for us. That is, do this right and it— atonement– is done; and that the day– is– whether your guts (as opposed to that of other animals), are in it or not. We also know, and I experienced it, too, that there is a very conservative aspect to liturgy– words and very much, music. Do it “wrong,” innovate too much (what is too much innovation? what is not enough?), and you have a lot of disappointed, very angry people who feel they have been cheated of the day, that it was just not Yom Kippur (or Rosh Hashana, or, fill in the blanks).

All of which speaks to– do, but also– let. Perhaps our souls were not on fire. Perhaps they were, in luminous moments, but not a lot. And certainly, not for all of the very long time in shul. Maybe that’s part of why it is so long? If this does not do “it” for you, something else will? Perhaps when you are least expecting it?

Here’s the other thing I was struck by, here in beloved Yom Kippur in Jerusalem: Yom Kippur, holiday of blinking yellow lights. All over, everywhere, every street with an intersection that has traffic lights. There is no vehicular traffic on Yom Kippur (except for very weird weirdos, whom everyone looks at, as we walk flat out in the middle of the streets: like, what is a car, a motorcycle, doing here? like suddenly, cars are from Mars). So, given that it’s suddenly not normal for there to be any vehicular traffic, there are no green and red lights on Yom Kippur. Just flashing yellow ones. The normal rules of stop and go– go. It’s just– caution.

And you do have to watch because it’s a riot of kids, and some adults, out on human propelled wheels. The whole city, all the thoroughfares, have become one big bike park. There are no lanes, they just wheel and do their thing all over. Bikes, skates, razor boards. Yom Kippur: bikers’ heaven. Watch: someone will invent a blessing on first taking out the bike on Yom Kippur– and she’hehiyannu, since you did it last Yom Kippur; on the first time your kid is old enough to do this (but not so old she should be in shul. Or perhaps, this is it: biking is the Yom Kippur ritual, the laughter, the screams of delight, the intent look of, watch this!– the liturgy). Walking to shul I realized that not only did I not have to walk on any sidewalk, which is largely true on shabbat, too. I could bloody walk down the middle of any winding street if that shaved a few meters off the fairly long walk to the shul to which I was headed. The lights just blinked, caution.

Today, it’s all back to normal, ve’od eikh: sounds of pounding, sukkot going up all over. The courtyard between the two buildings of my complex will be full of them, it’s happening as I type. We will smell the smells of one another’s food and hear one another’s banter, song, laughs.

Switch: mortality; atonement, given and asked. Did that; done. Now, wanton rejoicing. It’s all packed in, these days of Tishre, one after the other for a month, before the rains come. I am ready for the rain, much look forward to it. First rains, with that amazing smell and the sight of the greenery beseeching the skies for a bath, finally glistening after months of dust and heat. Renewal; and the sacred and nature in sync.

Git vokh, git yur. A gitn moyed. May it be a good Time.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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