On Yom Kippur morning and afternoon we will all read a portion of Torah and a selection from one of the nevi’im (prophets) as a haftarah. While, except for a few instances, we will not all be reading the same Scriptural passages, all these texts will reflect salient themes of this Day of Atonement. So we might do well to peruse the list and see what our fellow Jews — our friends, neighbors, and relatives — will be reading. We might even decide to read what they’re reading in addition to what is being read in our own synagogue. That way, we might deepen our own spiritual reflection on this Day of Days.
The Mishnah (Megillah 4:5) lists Leviticus 16 as the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning. In it we find a description of the Yom Kippur ritual as practiced in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and later, the Beit Ha-Mikdash (Temple). The so-called “scapegoat ritual” expresses our deep desire to remove sin from the community, driving it away, so that we can begin afresh, cleansed of iniquity. While the ritual is ancient, it is a memory, as it has not been practiced since the destruction of the Temple. But the desire it expresses still resides within us, and the memory reminds us. That is the Torah reading for Yom Kippur Morning down to the present day in Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist congregations.
Torah readings for Yom Kippur in Reform congregations have varied. According to Rabbi Richard Sarasohn (professor of rabbinic literature and liturgy at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati), all of the major Reform prayer books in Europe and most of the early ones in the United States retained Leviticus 16 as the morning reading until the publication of the original Union Prayer Book in 1894. In place of the description of the Temple ritual from Leviticus, a selection from Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:10 – 30:6, was read. Subsequent editions amended it to Deuteronomy 29:9-14 and 30:11-20. These passages emphasize the unity of our people across the generations and all walks of life, and the proposition that our Creator has endowed us with the capacity to know the difference between good and evil and the ability to choose between them. And we are urged to choose life. This was the prescribed reading through subsequent revisions of the Union Prayer Book and its successor Machzor, Gates of Repentance, and is still the morning Torah reading in most Reform synagogues.
However, the newest Reform Machzor, Mishkan Ha-Nefesh, offers an alternative reading: Genesis 3:22 – 4:18, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. According to Rabbi Sarasohn, the relevance to Yom Kippur is the consequence of transgression and the possibility of repentance and reconciliation.
Orthodox and most Conservative congregations read verses from Numbers 29 from a second scroll. This is omitted from Reform services. This reading is prescribed in the Tosefta (Megillah 3:7), and is a further description of the Yom Kippur ritual in ancient times.
All our synagogues — Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox — read the same Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning. It is Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14. This passage reminds us that ritual alone will not redeem us. God also demands that we pursue social justice. Our fast should awaken compassion for the oppressed. If our worship, our prayers and our fasting are to mean anything, then we must feed the hungry, free the oppressed and break every yoke. It is a counterpoint to the ritual described in Leviticus and an explication of the kinds of choices Deuteronomy reminds us we have.
The afternoon Torah reading is first mentioned in the Talmud (B. Megillah 31a). It is Leviticus 18, a listing of forbidden sexual relations (incestuous and adulterous) which would render a community “unclean” before the Eternal.
Why read such a passage on Yom Kippur?
According to the Sages, the entire community must stand before God in a state of purity. Hence, this Torah reading serves as both a reminder and a warning about the larger implications of these improper sexual acts.
In Reform Yom Kippur worship, however, other Torah readings were substituted for Leviticus 18 in the afternoon service. According to Rabbi Sarasohn, the early Reformers did not find the listing of illicit sexual relations to be spiritually edifying. Beginning with the prayer book of the Hamburg Temple Association in 1819, selections from Leviticus 16, 17, and 18 were prescribed. Abraham Geiger was the first to prescribe Leviticus 19: 1-18, “The Holiness Code” from parshat Kedoshim in his prayer book for the Breslau congregation published in 1854. This selection ultimately became standard for Reform congregations in North America.
But in 19th century America only David Einhorn’s High Holy Day Prayer Book had this as the afternoon reading. Einhorn had been influenced by Geiger in Europe.
Elsewhere, Leo Merzbacher of Temple Emanu-El, New York, in his 1855 prayer book, and Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati in his prayer book, Minhag America (1864), substituted portions from Exodus 32-34, in which Moses pleads with God to forgive the Israelites’ sin of the Golden Calf. In this section, God eventually reveals to Moses the Divine attributes of mercy and compassion (Adonai, Adonai, Eil rachum v’chanun, which verse is also recited in the Yom Kippur liturgy). This became the prescribed afternoon Torah reading in earlier editions of the Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe. But the “newly revised” edition of 1945 replaced this with Leviticus 19:1-18. Thus, this became the standard Torah reading in Reform congregations. Gates of Repentance, the successor Machzor to the Union Prayer Book, continued with this as the afternoon Torah reading. Reconstructionist congregations also read Leviticus 19 in the afternoon service.
The haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon is the book of Jonah. We shall all be reading it — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist. Its message is clear: the Eternal is quick to forgive those who truly repent, resolve to mend their ways, and then do so. If the Holy One will forgive the people of Ninevah, should the Holy One not also forgive the children of Israel?
So, here’s my recommendation for this Yom Kippur. In addition to reading the Scriptural passages read in your synagogue, try to find some time to read what is being read in your friends’, neighbors’ and/or relatives’ congregations, too. So, if you’re Orthodox or Conservative, take a look at what Reform Jews have been reading. If you’re Reform, take a look at what Orthodox and Conservative Jews have been reading. And, if you happen to meet one another at a “Break the Fast,” just imagine what a wonderful, stimulating conversation you can have.
I wish you all a tzom kal (an easy fast) and a g’mar tov.