The Unbearable Darkness of Being: On Ishay Ribo’s Seder ha-Avodah

Ishay Ribo’s remarkable, melancholy version of the Seder ha-Avodah, the piyyut recited in the Amidah of Musaf on Yom Kippur, traces a different theology of teshuvah than that classically outlined by Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah. With much of the song drawn directly from the liturgy (which itself relies heavily, often verbatim, on Mishnah Yoma), Ribo’s take is hardly untraditional. Like the classical genre of piyyutim describing the rituals of Yom Kippur in Beit ha-Mikdash, he seeks to dramatize the role of the Kohen Gadol and bring us into the very moments when our atonement is effected. Where he goes into new territory is in taking us through the stormy inner landscape of the kohen, whose spiritual-emotional burden, as the representative of the collective but really just as a human being, is almost unendurable. Except that it isn’t: redemption comes, as surely as has failure and loss before it.

Below are the studio and live versions of Ishay Ribo, along with the annotated lyrics and my translation (which you are welcome to use with attribution). There are also links to the sources in the Mishnah and piyyut. My take on it follows.

Seder ha-Avodah

He enters the place that he entered,
Stands in the place where he stood
.2
Washes his hands, his feet;
Immerses, emerges, dries off.
3
Comes from the place where he comes,
Goes to the place where he goes.
Strips off everyday clothes,
Dresses in white.4

And this is what he would say:
Oh please G-d forgive the misses, the failures, the wrongs—
That I’ve transgressed before You, me and my house
.5
If a person could remember
All his deficits and shortcomings,
All the wrongs and failures,
Surely he would count them up like this:
“One; one and one; one and two; one and three; one and four; one and five…”
6
He’d immediately despair
Because how could he bear
The bitterness of the sin,
The shame, the falling-short,
The loss?

And the kohanim and the people standing in the Azarah,
When they’d hear the real Name of G-d
Coming from the mouth of the Kohen Gadol,
They would kneel, bow, fall on their faces:
Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto le-olam va-ed.”
7

He paces the space that he walks,
His face to the Holiest, his back to the Hall.
Without stain, his words and his deeds aligned.
He comes to the place where he comes
And walks to the place where he goes.
Strips off garments of white,
Dresses in gold.8

And this is what he’d say:
Oh G-d please forgive the misses, the failures, the wrongs—
That I’ve transgressed before You, me and my house
.
9
If a person could remember
The compassion, the goodness,
The kindness, all the times he was rescued,
Surely he would count them up:
“One; one and one; one and two;
One of thousands, of many tens of thousands…”
Miracles and wonders
He’s done for us
Through long days and nights.

And the kohanim and the people standing in the Azarah,
When they’d hear the real Name of G-d
Coming from the mouth of the Kohen Gadol,
They would kneel, bow, fall on their faces:
Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto le-olam va-ed.”
10

He leaves the place that he leaves
Trembles in the place where he stands.
Strips off garments of gold,
Puts on his own clothes.
And all the people and the kohanim
Would walk with him back home.

A good day for those who love Him:11
All the people of Israel have been forgiven.12
Happy are the people for whom it is so.
Happy are the people who have Hashem as their G-d!
13

Like a canopy stretched over the dwellers of heaven was the appearance of the kohen.
Like bolts of lightning radiating from the splendor of the angels was the appearance of the kohen.
Like the image of the rainbow in the cloud was the appearance of the kohen.
Like the compassion granted before a groom was the appearance of the kohen…
14

סדר העבודה

נִּכְנַס‭ ‬לְמָקוֹם‭ ‬שׁנִּכְנַס
15וְעָמַד‭ ‬בְּמָקוֹם‭ ‬שֶעָמַד
רָחַץ‭ ‬יָדָיו‭ ‬רַגְלָיו
16טָבַל‭ ‬עָלָה‭ וְנִסְתַּפַּג
בָּא‭ ‬מִמָּקוֹם‭ ‬שֶהוּא‭ ‬בָּא
וְהָלַךְ⁠‭ ‬לְמָקוֹם‭ ‬שֶהָלַךְ⁠
פָּשַט‭ ‬בִּגְדֵי‭ ‬הַחֹל
לָבַשׁ⁠‭ ‬בִּגְדֵי‭ ‬לָבָן

וְכָךְ⁠‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬אוֹמֵר
אָנָּא‭ ‬ה‭ ‘‬כַּפֵּר‭ ‬לַחֲטָאִים‭ ‬לַעֲווֹנוֹת‭ ‬וְלַפְּשָעִים
17שֶחָטָאתִי‭ ‬לְפָנֶיךָ⁠‭ ‬אֲנִי‭ ‬וּבֵיתִי
וְאִם‭ ‬אָדָם‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬יָכוֹל‭ ‬לִזְכֹּר
אֶת‭ ‬הַפְּגָמִים‭ ‬אֶת‭ ‬הַחֶסְרוֹנוֹת
אֶת‭ ‬כָּל‭ ‬הַפְּשָעִים‭ ‬אֶת‭ ‬כָּל‭ ‬הָעֲווֹנוֹת
בֶּטַח‭ ‬כָּךְ⁠‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬מוֹנֶה
אַחַת‭ ‬אַחַת‭ ‬וְאַחַת‭ ‬אַחַת‭ ‬וּשְתַּיִם
18אַחַת‭ ‬וְשָלוֹשׁ⁠‭ ‬אַחַת‭ ‬וְאַרְבַּע‭ ‬אַחַת‭ ‬וְחָמֵשׁ⁠
יָשָר‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬מִתְיָאֵשׁ⁠
כִּי‭ ‬לֹא‭ ‬יָכוֹל‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬לָשֵׂאת
אֶת‭ ‬הַמְּרִירות‭ ,‬הַחֵטְא
אֶת‭ ‬הַבּוּשָה, ‬ אֶת‭ ‬הַפִסְפוּס
אֶת‭ ‬הַהֶפְסֵד

וְהַכֹּהֲנִים‭ ‬וְהָעָם‭ ‬הָעוֹמְדִים‭ ‬בָּעֲזָרָה
כְּשֶהָיוּ⁠‭ ‬שׁוֹמְעִים‭ ‬אֶת‭ ‬שֵם‭ ‬ה’ ‬הַמְפֹרָשׁ⁠
יוֹצֵא‭ ‬מִפִּי‭ ‬כֹּהֵן‭ ‬גָּדוֹל
הָיוּ⁠‭ ‬כּוֹרְעִים‭ ‬מִשְתַּחֲוִים‭ ‬וְנוֹפְלִים‭ ‬עַל‭ ‬פְּנֵיהֶם
19בָּרוּךְ⁠‭ ‬שֵם‭ ‬כְּבוֹד‭ ‬מַלְכוּתוֹ⁠‭ ‬לְעוֹלָם‭ ‬וָעֶד

פָּסַע‭ ‬לְמָקוֹם‭ ‬שֶפָּסַע
פָּנָיו‭ ‬לַקֹּדֶשׁ⁠‭ ‬אֲחוֹרָיו‭ ‬לַהֵיכַל
בְּלֹא‭ ‬רְבָב‭ ‬הָיוּ⁠‭ ‬שָוִים‭ ‬פִּיו‭ ‬וּמַעֲשָׂיו
בָּא‭ ‬מִמָּקוֹם‭ ‬שֶהוּא‭ ‬בָּא
וְהָלַךְ⁠‭ ‬לְמָקוֹם‭ ‬שֶהָלַךְ⁠
פָּשַט‭ ‬בִּגְדֵי‭ ‬לָבָן
לָבַשׁ⁠‭ ‬בִּגְדֵי‭ ‬זָהָב

וְכָךְ⁠‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬אוֹמֵר
אָנָּא‭ ‬ה‭ ,’‬כַּפֵּר‭ ‬לַחֲטָאִים‭ ‬לַעֲווֹנוֹת‭ ‬וְלַפְּשָעִים
20שֶחָטָאתִי‭ ‬לְפָנֶיךָ⁠‭ ‬אֲנִי‭ ‬וּבֵיתִי
וְאִם‭ ‬אָדָם‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬יָכוֹל‭ ‬לִזְכֹּר
אֶת‭ ‬הַחֲסָדִים‭ ‬אֶת‭ ‬הַטּוֹבוֹת
אֶת‭ ‬כָּל‭ ‬הָרַחֲמִים‭ ‬אֶת‭ ‬כָּל‭ ‬הַיְשׁוּעוֹת
בֶּטַח‭ ‬כָּךְ⁠‭ ‬הָיָה‭ ‬מוֹנֶה
אַחַת‭ ‬אַחַת‭ ‬וְאַחַת‭ ‬אַחַת‭ ‬וּשְתַּיִם
אַחַת‭ ‬מֵאֶלֶף‭ ‬אַלְפֵי‭ ‬אֲלָפִים‭ ‬וְרֹב‭ ‬רִבֵּי‭ ‬רְבָבוֹת
נִסִּים‭ ‬נִפְלָאוֹת
שֶעָשִׂיתָ⁠‭ ‬עִמָּנוּ⁠
יָמִים‭ ‬וְלֵילוֹת

וְהַכֹּהֲנִים‭ ‬וְהָעָם‭ ‬הָעוֹמְדִים‭ ‬בָּעֲזָרָה
כְּשֶהָיוּ⁠‭ ‬שׁוֹמְעִים‭ ‬אֶת‭ ‬שֵם‭ ‬ה’ ‬הַמְפֹרָשׁ⁠
יוֹצֵא‭ ‬מִפִּי‭ ‬כֹּהֵן‭ ‬גָּדוֹל
הָיוּ⁠‭ ‬כּוֹרְעִים‭ ‬מִשְתַּחֲוִים‭ ‬וְנוֹפְלִים‭ ‬עַל‭ ‬פְּנֵיהֶם
21בָּרוּךְ⁠‭ ‬שֵם‭ ‬כְּבוֹד‭ ‬מַלְכוּתוֹ⁠‭ ‬לְעוֹלָם‭ ‬וָעֶד

יָצָא‭ ‬מִמָּקוֹם‭ ‬שֶיָּצָא
וְרָעַד‭ ‬בְּמָקוֹם‭ ‬שֶעָמַד
פָּשַט‭ ‬בִּגְדֵי‭ ‬זָהָב
לָבַשׁ⁠‭ ‬בִּגְדֵי‭ ‬עַצְמוֹ⁠
וְכָל‭ ‬הָעָם‭ ‬וְהַכֹּהֲנִים
הָיוּ⁠‭ ‬מְלַוִּים‭ ‬אוֹתוֹ⁠‭ ‬לְבֵיתוֹ⁠
22וְיוֹם‭ ‬טוֹב‭ ‬לְאוֹהֲבָיו
23כִּי‭ ‬נִסְלַח‭ ‬לְכָל‭ ‬עֲדַת‭ ‬יִשְׂרָאֵל
אַשְרֵי‭ ‬הָעָם‭ ‬שֶכָּכָה‭ ‬לּוֹ
24אַשְרֵי‭ ‬הָעָם‭ ‬שֶה’ אֱלֹקָיו

כְּאֹהֶל‭ ‬הַנִּמְתָּח‭ ‬בְּדָרֵי‭ ‬מַעְלָה‭ מַרְאֵה‭ ‬כֹהֵן
כִּבְרָקִים‭ ‬הַיּוֹצְאִים‭ ‬מִזִּיו‭ ‬הַחַיּוֹת‭ ‬מַרְאֵה‭ ‬כֹהֵן
כִּדְמוּת‭ ‬הַקֶּשֶת‭ ‬בְּתוֹךְ⁠‭ ‬הֶעָנָן‭ ‬מַרְאֵה‭ ‬כֹהֵן

25כְּחֶסֶד‭ ‬הַנִּתָּן‭ ‬עַל‭ ‬פְּנֵי‭ ‬חָתָן‭ ‬מַרְאֵה‭ ‬כֹהֵן

Compare also to אתה כוננת, the ancient piyyut once used widely as the seder ha-avodah for Yom Kippur Musaf, today standard in the Sefardi Machzor; and the אמיץ כח, the medieval piyyut that replaced אתה כוננת in the Ashkenazi Machzor (though many Ashkenazi Machzorim still print it in the back).

Interpretation

Ribo’s Seder ha-Avodah begins deliberately in media res—in the middle of the story—rather than with creation, as do most piyyutim of the genre. We come into the picture as the Kohen Gadol prepares to enter the Kodesh ha-Kodashim for the second time, at the height of the special Avodah of Yom Kippur. Ribo uses the traditional wording of the Mishnah, which is also the source of our piyyutim, but he imbues it with additional meaning: it’s not only a description of the Kohen Gadol’s physical movements, but of his state of mind. He enters this most holy of places as himself, coming with all his baggage—from all the many places where he’s stood over the past year. And, notably, he returns to a place where he’s been before: the ritual is a yearly one. Atonement is dynamic, fleeting, hard to hold onto.

Inserted into our Kohen Gadol’s mouth, next, is the special Vidduy he would say several times over the course of Yom Kippur. It is is during these Vidduim that he would pronounce the real, ineffable Name of G-d. Here it presents itself to us a moment of deep vulnerability. The Kohen Gadol declares his personal failure, bearing the responsibility with both pain and dignity. He shoulders the burden on behalf of his “house.” This evocative phrase—ani u-veiti, “I and my household”—is a personal confession designed to render the Kohen Gadol to entirely tahor, free of physical and spiritual blemish, so that he is fit to petition on behalf of Klal Yisrael. In the song, it’s extensive, enfolding all of us into his house, admitting our weaknesses for us.

In another twist, Ribo uses the special method of counting that the Kohen Gadol employs on Yom Kippur to enumerate the many shortcomings, mistakes, and failures that haunt us. By the time we get to “one and five,” we give up. We can’t bear the weight of our sins. It is then we are taken directly into the crowd in the Azarah, the courtyard of the Beit ha-Mikdash. We, along with them, fall flat on our faces.

Using slight variations on the traditional wording, Ribo brings the inner landscape of the Kohen Gadol to life for us. He doesn’t just walk, he paces. But he’s ready. He turns his face to the Holiest of Holies. If only momentarily, he balances himself in a place of wholeness, his intentions and actions in perfect alignment. Now he can really do Vidduy: not with the goal of self-annihilation, but with the hope for growth.

This time, he is able to connect with the counterpoint to all his many fallings-short: the infinitely greater compassion of his G-d, Whose many acts of kindness require enumeration up to the thousands and tens of thousands. He manages to remember.

Then it’s over. The Kohen Gadol returns to his all-too-human self. He trembles, but now he can bear it. When, at the beginning of the song, he strips off his everyday clothes, it is with shame and dread. Only after he brings into his awareness the reality of G-d’s care and involvement can he be forgiven, and forgive himself. And so, he puts on his own clothes again, this time with joy.

In the sidrei avodah and the Mishnah, Yom Kippur ends with the Kohen Gadol quite literally throwing a party for his friends, a celebration of having emerged unscathed from the Kodesh ha-Kodashim, where the slightest misstep could have led to his death. In the song, that moment is transmuted from a yom tov, a feast, into a Yom Tov, a day of the holiest order. Then come words of relief as we’ve (always/never) heard them before: Ashrei ha-am she-kacha lo! We believe the abstruse words of the medieval piyyut when it describes the Kohen Gadol’s face as being “like bolts of lightning radiating from the splendor of the angels.” It’s as if we’re walking along with him on the dusty streets of Yerushalayim, going back home, to ourselves.


Image credit: Photo by Niels Smeets on Unsplash

Notes

  1. ע"פ משנה יומא ג ח.
  2. Based directly on Mishnah Yoma 5:3. There, it is in reference to the fact that the Kohen Gadol has already entered the Kodesh ha-Kodashim (Holy of Holies/Inner Sanctum): that’s “the place that he entered” and where he’s already stood. This is the second of three times that he does so on Yom Kippur: first, he enters to present the Ketoret (incense), and he’ll enter a third time later to remove the Ketoret materials. This time, he enters in order to perform Zerikah, the sprinkling of the blood of the Korbanot (offerings). We’re coming in in the middle of the story here; on the significance of Ribo’s version starting here, see below.
  3. The language is based directly on Mishnah Yoma 3:4, 3:6, 7:3, 7:4 (as well as elsewhere in the Chazal). This is one of a series of five full immersions and ten ritual washings of hands and feet. It is not clearly identified with any of the immersions described in the Mishnah, though; there, when the Kohen Gadol changes out of his everyday clothes, he puts on Bigdei Zahav, the golden garments.
  4. The white garments of the kohen gadol are unique to Yom Kippur and required in order to enter the Kodesh ha-Kodashim. This verse elides the actual sequence as described in Yoma, in which he changes from the golden garments (worn ceremonially by the Kohen Gadol on all days of the year), into the white garments; see below for my thoughts on why.
  5. Based closely on Mishnah Yoma 3:8, 4:2, 6:2. It is during these Vidduim that the Kohen Gadol pronounces the Shem ha-Meforash (explicit Name of G-d).
  6. The Kohen Gadol uses this memorable way of counting in the course of performing particularly complicated Zerikah that require him to aim and count with great precision. Based on Mishnah Yoma 5:3, 5:4.
  7. After each of the Vidduim said by the Kohen Gadol, Klal Yisrael responds this way. Based on Mishnah Yoma 6:2.
  8. There are actually two times over the course of the day that the Kohen Gadol removes the Bigdei Lavan and puts on the Bigdei Zahav. This seems to be last time, just before atonement is effected. See Mishnah Yoma
  9. Again, based on Mishnah Yoma 3:8, 4:2, 6:2.
  10. Mishnah Yoma 6:2.
  11. Based on Mishnah Yoma 7:4. There, the “good day” (yom tov) refers to the feast that the Kohen Gadol would present to his family and friends in celebration of having emerged alive from the Kodesh ha=Kodashim. The “him” in the Mishnah therefore refers to the Kohen Gadol, not to G-d. However, I translated it as though it refers to G-d because I think that is Ribo’s meaning.
  12. Bemidbar 15:26.
  13. I.e., Ashrei, Tehillim 144:15.
  14. These lines are taken directly from the Ashkenazi piyyut Mareh Kohen, recited after Amitz Koach.
  15. ע”פ משנה יומא ה ג.
  16. ע”פ משנה יומא ג ד, ג ו, ז ג, ז ד.
  17. ע”פ משנה יומא ג ח.
  18. ע”פ המשך משנה יומא ה ג.
  19. ע”פ משנה יומ
  20. ע”פ משנה יומא ו ב.
  21. ע”פ משנה יומא ו ב
  22. ע”פ משנה יומא ז ד
  23. ע”פ במדבר טו כו
  24. תהילים קמ
  25. נלקח מהפיוט האשכנזי מראה כהן.

Tamar Ron Marvin Avatar

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Comments

42 responses to “The Unbearable Darkness of Being: On Ishay Ribo’s Seder ha-Avodah”

  1. Ari Kahn Avatar

    I played the song the other day in the car. My wife was driving – I was dj. She was so moved she said she couldn’t see the road. Tears of holiness. First time she heard it.

  2. NeoLitvish Avatar

    Very nice job! But you forgot to source my favorite part! “ …Miracles and wonders
    He’s done for us
    Through long days and nights” is a quote out of nishmas col chai which he transitions into flawlessly!!!

  3. Dr. Tamar Marvin Avatar

    Thank you thank you! I knew it but couldn’t pin it down. Adding asap!

  4. RDDUSAMilitarySurplus Avatar

    I can’t wait reading your work on this masterpiece.. I wish they would use his tune during the services..

  5.  Avatar
    Anonymous

    This song, maybe more than any other songs has transcendental qualities. It is touching in the deepest possible way. Thank you Tamar for the excellent commentary

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    Hi! I solar energy fundamentals I’ve been to your blog before but after looking at many of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Regardless, I’m definitely delighted I came across it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back regularly!

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