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Prostrating and Bowing Before the Hidden Name of God

The origin and spiritual significance of a liturgical gesture.
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence in Jerusalem, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. His research in Jewish philosophy and identity addresses a wide range of eras and topics: Second Temple literature, Mishnaic and Talmudic scholarship, medieval Jewish literature, early Zionism, and contemporary Jewish identity. His books and other works have been

Pomp and circumstance reign supreme at the High Holidays, and services might have any number of crescendos. For me, the climax of the Yom Kippur prayer service comes during Musaf, at the moments that the worship text reaches its climax.

The congregation spreads out its little rugs and the cantor recites the passage, “And the priests and the people…when they would hear the high priest utter God’s holy name, they would bow down and prostrate themselves.” This moment – when we are so close to the floor and respond, “Blessed be the King’s honorable name forever” – is a rare one when we can feel closest to what the experience of Yom Kippur in the Temple would have felt like.

Worshippers no doubt will recognize the drama of the prostration, but they might not be aware of the source of this liturgical gesture.

The high priest’s worship, which is described in Leviticus 16, has two focal points: approaching the Holy and atonement. The tension between these two is most apparent in the biblical passage, which opens with the high priest’s approach to the Holy:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died. And the Lord said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the Holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he shall not die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover.” (Leviticus 16:1-2)

The Torah creates an internal connection between the inappropriate approach of Nadav and Avihu to the Kodesh (Holy) on the eighth day, the day of the sanctification of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and the commandment outlining the correct approach of Aaron to the Holy. The entry of Nadav and Avihu threatens the entire possibility of human entry into the sanctuary. The Torah juxtaposes their approach with the correct approach, by which Aaron will be able to reach God through the cloud on the ark-cover, as the midrash says: “Any time he wants to, he may enter – as long as he does so in this way.” (Vayikra Rabba 21:7)

The Torah does not initially explain the purpose of Aaron’s entry into the Holy. Aaron’s approach to the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim) is presented as an end in itself; without the conclusion of the passage, we could have understood it in light of the prior commandment to establish the Tabernacle and to build the ark, as it says in Exodus 25:22:

And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the ark-cover, from between the two cherubim, which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment unto the children of Israel.

The ark in the Holy of Holies is the place where God dwells in the cloud, as it says at the end of the Yom Kippur passage: “For through the cloud I will be seen over the ark-cover.” In order to see and be seen, and even to witness and hear God’s voice, one must enter the Holy of Holies. Traditional commentators tend to attribute revelation in the cloud between the cherubim to Moses only. But in another well-known place, the Bible attributes it to Aaron consulting with God, as well:

Moses and Aaron among His priests, and Samuel among those that call upon His name; they call upon the Lord, and He answered them. He spoke unto them in the pillar of cloud; they kept His testimonies, and the statute that He gave them. (Psalms 99:6-7)

Thus, the beginning of chapter 16 of Leviticus raises an expectation that the text will describe the divine encounter in the Holy of Holies. However, from here on in, the text turns and focuses on the kappara, the atonement, rather than on the approach to the Holy. The Torah goes on to delineate expanding circles of atonement. The three ending verses repeat the motif of atonement no fewer than five times. The emphasis on the atonement provides a counterpoint to the opening passage that emphasizes the entry to the Holy.

In other words, in light of the opening passage, it seems that the atonement is intended for the purpose of approaching the Holy. In order to encounter God without dying, you need atonement. However, the ending of the passage reverses matters – the high priest must enter, because the essence of approaching the Holy is for the purpose of atonement.

However, the idea that the Yom Kippur service is about an encounter with God or with angels did not disappear from the post-biblical tradition. The Talmud describes high priests who merited experiencing revelation “before and within.”

But there is another kind of encounter with God on Yom Kippur. This encounter is not unique to the high priest; rather the entire nation participates. It is the moving moment that I mentioned FIRST: “When the priests and the nation would stand in the courtyard and hear the Holy name uttered by the high priest.”

The Rabbinic Revolution

it is important to note that this entire event has no mention in the Bible. It is from the Oral Law, or if you prefer, from the rabbinic sages. Moreover, the Torah does not even mention the role of the public in the Yom Kippur service. The approach to the Holy and the annual atonement described in Leviticus 16 is a representational ritual, done in absolute privacy by the high priest. There is no hint at all to the presence of a public during the ritual. The priestly code focuses entirely on the work of the high priest. Certainly the Torah commands the people to “torture your souls” on Yom Kippur. But that is only a symbolic participation in the central representational ritual carried out by the high priest, and it takes place in the camp, rather than in the Temple courtyard.

By contrast to the silent high priest ceremony, according to the oral tradition in the Mishna, the ceremony becomes spoken. The sages added two more confessions in addition to the original biblical confession about the scapegoat, another prayer of the high priest in the outer courtyard, a public reading of the Torah, and calling out the Holy name 10 times, as the beraita recalls:

The rabbis taught: Ten times the high priest mentions the name on that day: three times during the first confession, three times during the second confession, three times during the scapegoat ceremony, and one during the lottery.

Now, we may ask two good questions:

1. There is a logic to announcing God’s name during the confessions, but what about during the lottery. Why use the Shem ha-Meforash there?
2. Why bow down when the name is said?

One little beraita from the Jerusalem Talmud can answer these two questions:

1. Ten times the high priest says God’s name on Yom Kippur: six during the bull offering, three during the goat ceremony, and once during the lottery.
2. Those who were close (to the priest) would fall on their faces, and those who were further away would recite, “Blessed be the King’s honorable name forever.”
3. Both groups would not move from that spot until it (the name) disappears. “This is my name forever (Ex. 3:15)” – this is my name to conceal.

Because we have all grown accustomed to the public reaction of bowing down every time the holy name is recited, we tend to interpret the beraita as if it referred to all of the 10 times the high priest mentioned the holy name. Why did the beraita go to such lengths to distinguish between those who were closer and those who were further from the priest? Why does it contrast those worshippers who fell on their faces and those who simply recited, “Blessed be the name”?

There is one — and only one — answer to these questions: The bowing down has nothing to do with nine of the 10 utterances, but rather to the last action mentioned, the extraction of the lotteries from the box. The beraita is describing a revelation, which formed the dramatic climax of Yom Kippur.

At the moment that the high priest raised his right hand and called out “To God” during the lottery, those who were close enough to be able to see God’s name inscribed on the lot would fall on their faces in order to not look at a graven image of God. Those who were further, however, who did not and could not see it, would instead stand in place and respond with their voices only. With this explanation, miracles no longer need to be invoked. The Talmud states that as long as the lottery was presented nobody moved; only when the high priest lowered his hands, was the crowd able to move.

Thus, the beraita tells us that the climax of Yom Kippur is not just about listening to the Holy Name, but rather about a visible presentation of the Holy Name, representing God. The name did not only resonate in the ears of all of Israel, it was also shown to them in the hands of the high priest. This is the closest moment to revelation described in the Mishna. If uttering God’s name was esoteric and dramatic, we can only imagine how that effect was multiplied by seeing God’s name as well.

Our sages’ interpretation revived the revelational dimension of Yom Kippur in a revolutionary way. While different sources present the revelation as exclusive to the high priest, the rabbis began to incorporate public participation in the events of the day. Reciting the Name in front of the entire people made God almost present in front of the people, creating a kind of public revelational experience which has lasted until our days. The people merited experiencing an encounter with God’s name.

This is a revolutionary interpretation. The biblical ritual is built on the assumption that the center of holiness is in front and within, that only the high priest can break the boundary of the taboo (and even he won’t meet God). But according to the Mishna, the high priest makes God fully present outside the tabernacle and brings God to the people, even before he has gone into the Holy.

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