Cover image for Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur Translated and edited by Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom


Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur

Translated and edited by Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom


$83.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02357-1

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05854-2

400 pages
6" × 9"

Penn State Library of Jewish Literature


Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur

Translated and edited by Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom

“Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, the editors and translators of this collection, do an intelligent and nuanced job introducing the poems, summarizing the scriptural, historical, linguistic, artistic, and hermeneutic traditions that resonate in the Hebrew originals.”


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Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur is the first major translation of one of the most important genres of the lost literature of the ancient synagogue. Known as the Avodah piyyutim, this liturgical poetry was composed by the synagogue poets of fifth- to ninth-century Palestine and sung in the synagogues on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Although it was suppressed by generations of rabbis, its ornamental beauty and deep exploration of sacred stories ensured its popularity for centuries.

Piyyut literature can teach us much about how ancient Jews understood sacrifice, sacred space, and sin. The poems are also a rich source for retrieving myths and symbols not found in the conventional Rabbinic sources, such as the Talmuds and Midrash. Moreover, these compositions rise to the level of fine literature. They are the products of great literary effort, continue and extend the tradition of biblical parallelism, and reveal the aesthetic sensibilities of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity.

“Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, the editors and translators of this collection, do an intelligent and nuanced job introducing the poems, summarizing the scriptural, historical, linguistic, artistic, and hermeneutic traditions that resonate in the Hebrew originals.”
“Swartz and Yahalom have produced a clear, readable version complete with excellent bibliographic aids.”

Michael D. Swartz is Professor of Hebrew and Religious Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the author of Mystical Prayer in Ancient Judaism: An Analysis of Ma'aseh Merkavah (1992) and Scholastic Magic: Ritual and Revelation in Early Jewish Mysticism (1996).

Joseph Yahalom is Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is regarded as one of the foremost experts on Hebrew liturgical poetry and has written several books on the subject, including Palestinian Vocalised Piyyut Manuscripts in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (1997).




1. Atah Barata

2. Shivcat Yamim

3. Atah Konanta cOlam Me-Rosh

4. Az be-’En Kol

5. Azkir Gevurot Elohah

6. Atah Konanta cOlam be-Rov çesed

7. Emet Mah Nehedar

8. En Lanu Kohen Gadol





Every year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in synagogues around the world, congregations recall the biblical sacrifice of purification and expiation that formed the basis for the original Yom Kippur. This recollection takes the form of a service known as the Avodah, designated by the Hebrew term for sacrificial worship. In this service, the prayer leader describes the sacrifice in detail, but not before recounting the history of the world from creation to the erection of the Tabernacle. The text of the service is a long liturgical poem. Within this poem the leader repeats a confession that, according to the ancient rabbis, was recited by the high priest in the sanctuary. When he does this, he and the congregation prostrate themselves to the floor, reciting a doxology that was to be recited on hearing the name of God.

This service, with its unusual prostrations, its detailed discourse on sacrifice, and its historical sweep, is unique in the liturgy of the synagogue. To modern Jews, it has been the subject of attraction and consternation. The great twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig seems to have been so moved by the power of the Yom Kippur liturgy that he turned from his decision to convert to Christianity; yet the Reform movement found any mention of the sacrificial system in the synagogue liturgy deeply disturbing and controversial. Today, messianically oriented sects of Jews pay serious attention to its details, publishing High Holy Day prayer books that emphasize this aspect of the liturgy, illustrated with speculative renderings of the Temple and its service.

The Avodah service goes back to the early days of the synagogue, to the first few centuries after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. It is an integral part of the lost literature of the ancient synagogue known as piyyut. This complex and fascinating poetry was once sung in synagogues in Palestine during the classical age of the Talmuds and Midrash, from the fourth and seventh centuries. Although it was often suppressed by generations of rabbis, its ornamental beauty and its deep exploration of sacred stories ensured its popularity for centuries. This literature, which produced dozens of poets and thousands of compositions before the rise of Islam, was barely known to us until the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, a treasury of discarded medieval Jewish manuscripts, at the end of the nineteenth century. It could be argued that the discovery of this literature is in fact second only in importance among discoveries of Hebrew literary texts to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for our understanding of ancient Judaism, for it preserves linguistic forms, myths, and ways of thinking that we would not have known from Talmudic literature.

In the Middle Ages, this type of liturgical poetry was not always received with enthusiasm. In the Talmudic academies of Babylonia in the eighth and ninth centuries, the rabbinic authorities Yehudai Gaon and Pirqoi ben Baboi attempted to legislate against the inclusion of piyyut in the liturgy, arguing that it was forbidden to add one word to the statutory service. Their efforts, however, met with limited success, and piyyut continued to flourish even in the Babylonian Jewish liturgy and its Middle Eastern and European successors. In the modern period as well, piyyut was criticized for its length and obscurity, and many piyyutim were expunged from daily services in most Western congregations.

The Avodah poems, a complex genre that includes myth, ritual, and biblical exegesis, can teach us much about the ways ancient Jews understood sacrifice, sacred space, and sin. They are also yield a rich trove of myths and symbols not found in the conventional rabbinic sources such as the Talmuds and Midrash. They contain details about the ancient Temple known to ancient historians such as Josephus and to authors of the biblical Apocrypha but not to the Talmudic authorities. Moreover, they constitute important evidence for the social and cultural diversity of ancient Palestine, while reflecting the concerns of the priesthood in an age dominated by rabbis. They are also valuable as coherent statements in the trajectory of biblical interpretation. Above all, these compositions rise to the level of fine literature. They are the products of great literary effort, continue and extend the tradition of biblical parallelism, and give evidence to the aesthetic sensibilities of the Mediterranean in late antiquity.

The historical importance of this genre lies in one of the central problems in the history of Judaism. In biblical and Hellenistic times the Jerusalem Temple was considered to be the locus for the Potent Presence of God, which was said to descend on the holy of holies when invoked by the high priest at Yom Kippur. It was the attainment of purification and the attraction of this Presence, and not only atonement, that lay at the heart of Yom Kippur. The loss of that Temple therefore meant the absence of that Presence from the world. The rabbis of the first centuries C.E. assured the people that prayer, study of Torah, and performance of the commandments were effective substitutes for Temple sacrifice. But the influence of the Temple and its ritual lived on, in the study of Talmudic tractates relating to sacrificial worship and in poetic evocations of the ancient rites. These were strategies for coping with the loss of the sanctuary in an age when most Greco-Roman communities practiced some form of sacrifice.

The Avodah piyyutim form a central corpus for understanding this problem. These poems, epic in scope, begin with extensive poetic descriptions of the creation of the world and the patriarchs of humanity, and wend their way through Israel’s sacred history to the establishment of the sacrificial cult. At that point they describe in lavish detail the process by which the high priest prepares for the sacrifice, dons his ceremonial vestments, and offers up the bull and goat, a sacrifice whose culmination is the triumphant news that Israel has been forgiven.

This volume is an anthology of the Avodah compositions accompanied by a translation. It begins with the simplest, a prose retelling of the rabbinic narration of the sacrifice (Shivcat Yamim) and its poetic preamble, Atah Barata, includes several Avodah poems—among them the masterpieces Az be-’En Kol, the most comprehensive such composition, and Azkir Gevurot by the seminal poet Yose ben Yose—and concludes with a lament for Israel’s lost sanctuary. In our presentation of this material we shall demonstrate why the Avodah held such fascination for generations of ancient Jews.

After the Temple

According to ancient Israelite religion, in order for the Presence of God to appear in the Temple, the sanctuary had to be rid of all ritual impurity. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, provided the community an opportunity not only to atone for its sins but to cleanse the Temple of physical impurity. On that day only, the high priest, clad in white linen, entered the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies, with his offer of incense and his prayers on behalf of the nation. It was believed that if the purification and incense rituals were carried out properly and the nation was deserving, the Presence of God would descend on the holy of holies.

In Jewish cultic theology, therefore, the loss of that Temple meant the loss of that Presence to the world. With no sacrifices and no physical sanctuary, the annual appearance of the Divine on earth was no longer to be. That this idea persisted well beyond the first century is attested by a poetic passage in a fifth-century homiletic composition known as Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana describing how the divine presence, the Shekhinah, ascended in ten stages when the Temple was destroyed:

From the ark cover to the cherub;

From the cherub to the threshold of the house;

From the Temple building to the two cherubim;

From the two cherubim to the roof of the sanctuary;

. . .

And so on, finally upward.

The tragedy of that destruction and the crisis it created were thus not simply physical but theological. The Babylonian Talmud paints a portrait of groups of first-century ascetics who abstained from meat and wine in mourning for the Temple. Centuries later, groups known as the Mourners of Zion developed an ascetic regimen on this basis. The apocryphal Book of Baruch reflects the response of apocalyptic communities that saw the cataclysm as a challenge to their eschatological expectations. The centuries following the destruction of the Temple also saw the rise of the leading rabbis, scholars who needed no priestly pedigree but derived their authority from their mastery of Torah. For the rabbis, the proper substitute for sacrifice was not to be found in the concept of sacred space, but in sacred actions. Yo anan ben Zakkai, one of the founders of the rabbinic movement, is said to have declared, “We have another means of atonement, effective as Temple sacrifice. It is deeds of loving-kindness.” Other statements assert that the study of sacrificial law, enshrined in the Mishnah and related sources, was equivalent to the performance of those sacrifices. Prayer in the synagogue was also considered to be a form of sacrifice: A famous rabbinic statement declares prayer to be “the sacrifice in the heart” (Avodah ba-Lev). According to the Palestinian Talmud, when a prayer leader was called upon to begin the prayer service, the congregation would call, “Perform our sacrifice.” A Palestinian midrash, Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, interprets Hos 14:3, “instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips,” to refer to prayer.

The Synagogue

As it developed over those centuries in Palestine, the synagogue became a major center of culture whose relationship to the vanished Temple was complex. Because, according to ancient Jewish thought, the synagogue was not inhabited by the divine presence, it was never accorded the same status as sacred space as the Temple. At the same time, the synagogue is known in rabbinic literature as the “small sanctuary” (miqdash mecat), and over several centuries had come to be known as a “holy place” (atra qadisha). Furthermore, symbols of the Temple frequently adorned the synagogue’s architectural ornaments and mosaic floors. Archaeological sites excavated in Israel in the last century show that the fifth to seventh centuries were a period of great activity in the building of grand synagogues in basilica form and the development of art for them. These sites include magnificent mosaic floors decorated with models of the Holy Ark, menorahs, incense shovels, and other accouterments.

The newly uncovered mosaic from the town of Sepphoris is a particularly rich example of Temple imagery. Its panels depict a wide array of images from Israel’s myth and ritual, including the binding of Isaac, the zodiac, and especially the range of offerings in the Temple. Rows three and four of the upper portion of the mosaic apparently depict the ceremony of the consecration of Aaron in Exod 29 and the daily sacrifice as described there and in Num 28. Although most of the figure of Aaron has been destroyed, the remaining fragments show that the mosaic portrayed him decked out in his ritual garments, as described in Exod 29. In fact, we can see the bells and “pomegranates” that adorned the hem of his robe. The panel also shows the laver used in the Temple, the bull sacrificed as a sin offering for the consecration ceremony (Exod 29:10–14), and the first lamb for the daily sacrifice (Exod 29:39). The panel below shows the basket of first fruits as ordained in Deut 26 and described in Mishnah Bikkurim 3:5, the showbread on its table, and the components of the daily sacrifice (Tamid): the oil, the meal, the trumpets blown at the ceremony, and the second sacrificial lamb. All of these images served to remind the worshipers of the historical reality of the Temple.

The synagogue also served as a focus of cultural productivity. In the synagogue, prayer leaders performed a complex liturgy apparently composed of hymns and petitions improvised around legally determined themes and blessings. There too people came to hear sermons, and the liturgical poets practiced their art. The center of rabbinic activity was the academy (bet midrash), not the synagogue, although the rabbis were deeply concerned about regulating the synagogue, its physical layout, and its liturgy. Synagogue poetry, then, attests to an identifiable cultural mode, distinct from that reflected in rabbinic literature though intimately related to it.

We have only a rough idea of the social structure of the ancient synagogue. Among the synagogue personnel known to us are the  azan, a functionary whose duties varied over the centuries, ranging from schoolteacher and custodian in the Talmudic period to cantor and composer in the early Middle Ages, and the prayer leader, shalia  Óibbur, who represented the community in public worship. In the ancient synagogue there may also have been places of importance reserved for priests, honored guests, and other classes of people, including rabbis. A clue to how the polity of the synagogue developed over time can be found in a remarkable piyyut from a manuscript of the High Holy Day liturgy copied around 900 C.E. The poem is a reshut, an introductory composition preceding a key prayer, in which the author asks permission from the congregation to entreat God on their behalf. In this case, the reshut precedes an Avodah piyyut, Eqra be-Garon (“I Shall Call Out Loudly with My Throat”), by Pine as ha-Kohen be-Rabbi Yacakov of Kifra, an eighth-century poet from Palestine. The passage is notable for its list of classes that make up the congregation:

I implore the Rock of eternity,

Who has knowledge of the life of the innocent;

As I cast my eyes to the heavens,

I ask permission from the Merciful One.

And so too when I stand before the wise,

Who hear words from the truthful,

Who understand words of law:

I ask permission from the wise.

I look out at the congregation of the noble

And am fearful of the One who humbles and raises;

And of those standing behind me and before me as a fence:

I ask permission from the righteous.

The seed of the faithful,

Believers, sons of believers,

Who explore the law and understand:

I ask permission from priests.

Those who [ ] goodness on my behalf;

Who are satiated with good teaching and instruction,

For they attend grace and favor:

I open my mouth with the permission of Levites.

Those who honor this day and fast,

and respond, “Holy, holy, holy”;

And teach scripture and Mishnah diligently:

I open my mouth with permission of  azanim.

Those who are skilled in the subtleties of books,

Abiding in the shade of the One who dwells in mystery,

Who sing sweet, pleasant words:

I open my mouth with permission of scribes.

Those who eternally elevate the Living One,

Who say prayer before Him,

Who stand before the One who makes mountains:

I open my mouth with permission of those who recite liturgy.

Those who recite the specific and general,

Who sweep behind like water,

Who recite righteousness and justice:

I open my mouth with permission of singers.

Those who lend strong voices in melody,

Let their cry before You be pleasing;

May You consider the melody of my tongue.

I open my mouth with permission of the whole people.

O Almighty, as You forgive treachery;

Listen to my entreaties from above;

Grant me a pure heart that I may speak without fear or treachery:

I open my mouth with permission of the entire congregation.