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Laura Lieber





Yom Kippur: Afflicted but Angelic



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Laura Lieber





Yom Kippur: Afflicted but Angelic






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Yom Kippur: Afflicted but Angelic

Self-affliction and fasting heightens awareness of our bodies; at the same time, it helps us to transcend our immanent selves. This tension was embraced by the 6th century poet Yannai in his qerova, who beseaches God to forgive Israel both out of pity for their wretchedness and on account of their resemblance to angels.


Yom Kippur: Afflicted but Angelic

The Praying Jew, Aleksander Grodzicki, 1893. National Museum in Warsaw 

A Day of Bodily Affliction

Yom Kippur observance is a uniquely body conscious. Many holidays embody rituals: eating the ritualized meal of the Passover seder; building the sukkah and shaking the four species, etc. Yom Kippur, however, stands out for its intense self-reflection on abstention.[1]

Four times, the Torah writes that וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם “you shall afflict your souls” (Lev 16:31, 23:27, 32; Num 29:7). Mishnah Yoma 8:1 understands this requirement as prohibiting adults[2] from engaging in several pleasurable bodily activities:

יום הכיפורים אסור באכילה ובשתייה וברחיצה וביסיכה ובינעילת הסנדל ובתשמיש המיטה.[3]
On Yom Kippur one is prohibited from eating, drinking, bathing, anointing, wearing sandals, and engaging in sexual intercourse.

As framed by the Mishnah, the cessation from bodily pleasures constitutes a physical manifestation of the interior processes of repentance and atonement, and they align closely with ritual practices expressing grief and manifesting otherwise existential pain.[4]

Yannai’s Yom Kippur Qerova

A qerova by the 6th c. C.E. liturgical poet Yannai highlights the centrality of the body and its experiences of self-affliction on Yom Kippur. The qerova—from the root ק.ר.ב, “come close”—is a form of piyyut that embellishes the Amidah (the core prayer of the Jewish prayer service), during which the prayer leader “draws near” (qarev) to the ark.

Yannai’s qerova is divided into fifteen parts, making it significantly longer than a standard nine-unit Shabbat qerova.[5] Each half of the qerova has a poem focused on the body:

Unit Eight prefaces the Qedushah and occupies what would be the penultimate space in a standard qerova.

Unit Fifteen concludes the entire work in its most complete form.[6]

These two units share an interest in the physical experience of Yom Kippur and the ways in which ritual affects the body.[7]

Unit Eight: “See How We Stand”

In the section immediately before this poem (unit 7), the poet asserts the presence and attentiveness of God, and expansively imagines the nature of heavenly reality for his human listeners. Imbued with confidence in divine attentiveness to his own world, Yannai petitions God directly.

The opening word, “See!” (ראה), an imperative addressed to the deity, sets the tone of urgent engagement. This line establishes the two voices in the poem, “You” (God), as the subject and the people (“our”) as the object.[8]

Speaking as a member of the community, the poet catalogues the human experience of the Day of Atonement for his divine audience, by constructing a kind of penitential waṣf (وصف)—a term borrowed from the world of Arabic poetry in which a lover describes a beloved from head to toe—as he leads God’s eyes from the feet upward, expressing how every limb and organ suffers.[9] The poem moves, quite literally, from the soles of human feet to the heights of heaven.

Stylistically, the poem is composed of rhymed bicola, almost all of which are governed by the rhyming ending י–ֵנוּ(“-einu”), the first-person plural possessive suffix “our” (as is the case in the Torah’s injunction to “afflict ourselves”) which stresses the communal nature of the day’s rituals. For the congregation, the experience of saying this poem would inherently stress the collective nature of the rhetoric: “our…our… / our…our…”[10]

רְאֵה עֲמִידָתֵינוּ מִכַּף וְעַד קָדְקוֺד // מִיגִּיד וְעַד עֶצֶם, מִנֶּפֶשׁ וְעַד בָּשָׂר
See how we stand, from feet to head // from sinew to bone, from soul to flesh
יָחֵף כַּפֵּינוּ נִיגּוֹף אֶצְבְּעוֹתֵינוּ // נָדוּ רַגְלֵינוּ וְהָלְמוּ עֲקֵיבֵינוּ
Our soles are bare, our toes, wounded // our feet wander and our heels are raw[11]
מָעֲדוּ קַרְסֻולֵּינוּ וְדַליוּ שׁוֹקֵינוּ // כָּשְׁלוּ בִּירְכֵּינוּ וְקָטְנוּ יְרֵיכֵינוּ
Our ankles wobble and our calves are frail // our knees are weak and our thighs are thin
חֻולְחֲלוּ מָתְנֵינוּ וְנֶעֶצְבוּ כְסָלֵינוּ // הָמוּ מֵיעֵינוּ וְנִיתַּר לִבֵּינוּ
Our loins quiver and our kidneys labor // our innards churn and our hearts lurch
מָטָה זְרוֹעֵינוּ וְלֹא הִישִׂיגָה יָדֵינוּ // הֻוכְחַשׁ שִׁיכְמֵינוּ בְּעוֹל צַוָּארֵינוּ
Our arms give out and our hands cannot reach // our shoulders flinch at the yoke upon our necks[12]
נִיסְקַד גְּרוֹנֵינוּ בְּמַכַּת לְחָיֵינוּ // יָבְשׁוּ שְׂפָתֵינוּ וְקֵיהוּ שִׁינֵּינוּ
Our throats sting at the smiting of our palates // our lips blanch and our teeth are blunted –
וְתִיפְאַרְתָּךְ בְּפִינוּ וְצִידְקָךְ בִּילְשׁוֹנֵינוּ // קָצַר נֶשֶׁם אַפֵּינוּ וְצָלוּ אָזְנֵינוּ
[Despite this] Your splendor is within us and Your justice upon our tongues![13] // our breath is short in our nostrils and our ears ring
נִיכְלַם מִיצְחֵינוּ וְחָוְורוּ פָנֵינוּ // כָּלוּ עֵינֵינוּ וְנֶעֶצְבוּ רַקּוֹתֵינוּ
Our visages flush and our faces pale // our eyes dim and our brows crease
אַגְמַן רֹאשֵׁינוּ וְסָמַר שַׂעֲרֵינוּ // נִיבְהֲלוּ עֲצָמֵינוּ וְצָפַד עוֹרֵינוּ
Our heads bow low and our hair stands on end // our bones quake and our skin tightens
נָקְטָה נַפְשֵׁינוּ קָפְדָה רוּחֵינוּ // נִיצְרַפְנוּ בָאֵשׁ נִיבְחַנְנוּ בַמַּיִם
Our souls recoil and our spirits shrivel // we are smelted in fire, and tested by water
בְּשִׂימְחָה בְּצָרָה בַּבַּיִת וּבַגָּלוּת הַשְׁכֵּם וְהַעֲרֵב
In joy and in sorrow, at home and in exile, [at] sunrise and sunset

The Experience of Self-Affliction

The poet describes the bodily sensations of fasting, standing, and praying on an awesome day, but does not explain why one afflicts her or his body on Yom Kippur, focusing instead on the comprehensive nature of the affliction.[14]

The piyyut’s power derives in part from how it engages the senses, not only vision but the more diffuse sense of corporeality. Tracking slowly upward (“from feet to head”) and outward (“from soul to flesh”),[15] the congregants do not just hear the poem but feel and experience it, attending to their own bodies and bodily sensations, interior and exterior. Their bare feet feel the floor and their faces sense the furrowing of the brow, even as the soul feels the need to repent.[16] Foregrounding the sensory processes by which an individual becomes aware of his or her bodily sensation and inward feelings, the poet appeals to God’s ability to see both what is external and, unlike God’s human counterparts, to perceive what is internal.

As Above, So Below: The Angelic Body in Stanza 15

The final unit of Yanai’s qerova, a full alphabetical acrostic with rhymed bicola, also takes up the theme of the body, but instead of focusing on suffering, it highlights the bodily similarity between angels and Jews on Yom Kippur, when the gulf between heaven and earth fades and the differences between heavenly creatures and mortals blurs.

To be sure, what comes naturally to the angelic hosts requires tremendous effort for humans and the affinity can only be sustained temporarily, but the resemblance nonetheless is real (line 1):

אָז עֶלְיוֹנִים עִם תַּחְתּוֹנִים // בְּיוֹם זֶה שָׁוִוים שְׁלֵימִים וְנָוִוים.
Then those on high join with those below[17] // on this day, they are alike, perfect and pleasing
גִּיל קְדֻושַּׁת הַיּוֹם בְּשָׂפָה בְרוּרה // דֵּי מַעְלָה וּמַטָּה קְדֻושָּׁה בְחוּרָה.
Rejoicing in the holiness of this day with clear speech // Sufficient for those above and below is this chosen holiness

Hovering over the conceit of this poem—its governing theme and imagery—might be Psalm 8’s wondering at humans having been created just a little bit lesser than divinities:

תהלים ח:ה מָה אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ וּבֶן אָדָם כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ. ח:ו וַתְּחַסְּרֵהוּ מְּעַט מֵאֱלֹהִים וְכָבוֹד וְהָדָר תְּעַטְּרֵהוּ.
Ps 8:5 What is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, 8:6 that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty.

Standing rhetorically at some remove from the scene,[18] the poet speaks directly to God, describing the practices of the day not in penitential terms or even as a kind of physical challenge—in strong contrast to Unit 8. Instead, taking an almost rapturous tone, Unit 15 suggests that the people, by behaving like angels, make their own best appearance before God on Yom Kippur.[19]

Focusing on Israel’s Heavenly Traits

Yannai’s depiction of Yom Kippur ritual practices in this poem stands out and is even more interesting than its theology. Even more important is the meaningfulness he ascribes to the rituals: They are not penitential, not reflective of self-denial or affliction, not acts of atonement; instead, they indicate the human potential for angelic mimesis.[20]

The poem’s catalogue differs from the Mishnah’s list.

Fasting—Abstention from eating and drinking, of course, holds pride of place:

הֲמוֹן קְדוֹשֵׁי מַעְלָה כְּעֶרְכָּךְ קִידַּשְׁתָּה // וַועַד אֲשֶׁר אֵין שָׁם אֲכִילָה וּשְׁתִייָּה בְּפִימוֹ.
The holy multitudes above: You hallowed as You saw fit // a community in which neither food not drink passes the lips
זֶרַע קְדוֹשֵׁי מַטָּה בְּיוֹם זֶה יְקֻודָּשׁוּ // חֲדֵילֵי אוֹכֵל וּמַשְׁקֶה וְיוֹם עָשׂוֹר בְּפִימוֹ.
The holy seed below: let it be hallowed on this day // as it ceases to let food or drink pass its lips on the tenth day (=10th of Tishrei, Yom Kippur).[21]

Peacemaking—The positive act of making peace with one’s fellows suggests the practices that emerged out of m. Yoma 8:9, and illustrates the potential for peace to reign below as it does above:

טַפְסְרֵי מַעְלָה שָׁלוֹם מֻותְוָוךְ בֵּינֵימוֹ // יַחַד כִּירְצוֹן צוּר רְצוּיִים זֶה לָזֶה
Peace reigns among the dignitaries above // unified, each with the other, seeking the Rock’s goodwill
כָּל אִישׁ יְרַצֶּה חֲבֵירוֹ בְּיוֹם זֶה // לְמַעַן יוּטַל שָׁלוֹם בֵּין זֶה לָזֶה.
Let each person seek out his fellow on this day // in order to make peace, each with the other

White Clothes—Wearing white echoes the custom (one ongoing to the present) of wearing a kittel—a burial shroud—on Yom Kippur, but here it is not taken as a sign of mortality or, as in the end of m. Ta’anit, democratization, but rather of heavenly purity:

מַעֲטֵה לְבוּשׁ מַעְלָה בַּדִים לְבָנִים // נְקִיֵּי כָל שֶׁימֶץ וּמֵחֵט מְלֻובָּנִים.
The mantle of white linen worn by those above // is pure of all filth and cleansed of sins
סוּת עַם זוּ בְּמַטָּה הַיֹּום לְבָנִים // עֲבוּר כִּי מֵחֲטָאֵימוֹ הֵם מִיתְלַבְּנִים.
Today the garb of this people down below is [also] white // as they purify themselves of their sins

Barefoot with Feet Together—Standing barefoot does appear, and suggests a specific understanding of (or variant on) the Mishnaic prohibition on wearing sandals.[22] At the same time, the poem combines this with the mystical view of angels as having one straight leg (Ezek 1:7), with no knees, and hopping when they speak:

פְּלִיאֵי מַעְלָה אֵין לָמוֹ קְפִיצַת רֶגֶל // צְעִידָתָם יְשָׁרָה יְחֵיפֵי כַּף רֶגֶל.
The wondrous beings above are unbending of leg // they stand (with legs) straight, and barefoot
קְהָלֵינוּ הַיּוֹם בּיוֹשֶׁר מַצַּב רֶגֶל // רְעָדָה בְּצְעָדָה מִיּוֹחֲפֵי רֶגֶל.
Our congregation today stands upright, firm of leg // trembling with every barefoot step

This is the only other Mishnaic prohibition listed; neither intercourse, bathing, nor anointing are mentioned, perhaps because they are intimate or domestic activities.

Prayer—Hallowing and unifying God’s name underscores the importance of prayer throughout the Day of Atonement that aligns with what angels are said to do continually, as quoted in the first line of the Qedushah:

שְׁמָךְ בְּשָׁוֵוי כּאֶחָת יַקְדִישׁוּ // בְּיוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַחַת הִיא בְּרוּם וּבְתָחַת.
Your name, in parallel, they hallow as one // on the day when above and below are as one
תֶּעֱרַב וְתִנְעַם כְּקוֹרְאֵי זֶה אֶל זֶה // קְדֻוּשַׁת עַם זֶה בְּקִידּוּשׁ יוֹם זֶה.
May You find it sweet and pleasing when they call out, the one to the other // the holiness of this people with the hallowing of this day.[23]

Connection to Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer

As Zvi Meir Rabinovitz notes in his critical edition of Yannai’s piyyutim, this unit strongly recalls a tradition recorded in Pirqe deRabbi Eliezer 46 [45 in Higger ed], a text which (in its final form) postdates Yannai. The midrash describes how the angel Samael (some texts actually the satan), whose job it is to critique Israel, sees how sin free they are on Yom Kippur and describes them as angelic:

גּוֹרָלוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא קָרְבַּן עוֹלָה, וְגוֹרָלוֹ שֶׁל עֲזָאזֵל שְׂעִיר חַטָּאת. וְכָל עֲוֹנוֹתֵיהֶם שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה עָלָיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר [שם כב] וְנָשָׂא הַשָׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת כָּל עֲוֹנוֹתָם.
The lot for the Holy Blessed One was the offering of a burnt offering, and the lot for Azazel was the goat as a sin offering, for all the iniquities of Israel were upon it, as it is said, “And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities” (Lev. 16:22).
רָאָה סַמָּאֵל שֶׁלֹּא נִמְצָא בָהֶם חֵטְא בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים, אָמַר לְפָנָיו רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, יֵשׁ לְךָ עַם אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ כְּמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת בַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Samael saw that sin was not to be found among them (i.e., the Israelites) on the Day of Atonement. He said before the Holy Blessed One: Sovereign of all the universe! You (already) have a people (on earth) like the ministering angels who are in heaven.
מַה מַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת אֵין לָהֶם קְפִיצִין, כָּךְ הֵם יִשְׂרָאֵל עוֹמְדִים עַל רַגְלֵיהֶם בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים.
Just as the ministering angels have no joints, so, too, the Israelites stand upon their feet (i.e., with knees locked).[24]
מַה מַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת אֵין לָהֶם אֲכִילָה וּשְׁתִיָּה, כָּךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֵין לָהֶם אֲכִילָה וּשְׁתִיָּה בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים.
Just as the ministering angels have neither food nor drink, so, too, the Israelites have neither food nor drink on the Day of Atonement.
מַה מַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת יָחֲפֵי רֶגֶל בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים, כָּךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל יָחֲפֵי רֶגֶל בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים.[25]
Just as the ministering angels have bare feet, so, too, the Israelites have bare feet on the Day of Atonement.
מַה מַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת שָׁלוֹם מְתַוֵּךְ בֵּינֵיהֶם, כָּךְ הֵם יִשְׂרָאֵל שָׁלוֹם מְתַוֵּךְ בֵּינֵיהֶם בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים.
Just as peace reigns among the ministering angels, so, too, does peace reign among the Israelites on the Day of Atonement.
מַה מַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת נְקִיִּם מִכָּל חֵטְא, כָּךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל נְקִיִּם מִכָּל חֵטְא בְּיוֹם הַכִּפֻּרִים.
Just as the ministering angels are innocent of all sin on the Day of Atonement, so, too, are the Israelites innocent of all sin on the Day of Atonement.
וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שׁוֹמֵעַ עֲתִירָתָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הַקַּטֵּגוֹר שֶׁלָּהֶם, וּמְכַפֵּר עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְעַל הַכֹּהֲנִים וְעַל כָּל עַם הַקָּהָל לְמִגָּדוֹל וְעַד קָטֹן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר [ויקרא טז, לג] וְכִפֵּר אֶת מִקְדַּשׁ הַקֹּדֶשׁ:
The Holy Blessed One listens to the prayers of Israel rather than their accuser, and He makes atonement for the altar, and for the sanctuary, and for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation, both great and small; as it is said, “And he shall make atonement for the holy place” (Lev. 16:16).

The two texts, poetry and prose, share the motif of parallelism between the heavenly and earthly hosts. In the midrashic crystallization of the tradition (which may reflect a knowledge of the poetic composition), scriptural quotations describing the ritual of the scapegoat and priestly rites frame the more general description of parity between angels and Israel.

In contrast to the midrash, Yannai’s poem lacks any reference to the atoning rituals of Leviticus, or the priestly acts of atonement from when the Temple stood; nor does he credit the figure of Samael, the accuser, with observing the affinities between Israel and angels. Rather the poem describes the angelic actions and attributes of the people directly, claiming that on Yom Kippur, the children of Israel become, quite literally, “angelic”: they eat no food, dwell in peace, dress in white, have unbending legs and bare feet, and in hallowing God make themselves holy. [26]

We Are Like Angels, So Forgive Us

With this poem, Yannai offers the human congregation a tremendous affirmation: in their actions and even their appearance on this day, they resemble the angels. Nevertheless, he does not ignore the gravity of the Yom Kippur context as a day of atonement.

The poem’s opening phrase, presumably recited as a refrain, explicitly seeks pardon:

אָנָא סְלַח נָא[27]
Please, forgive, please (ana selach na)!

As with the refrain in the previous unit (“You are our God,” in Unit 14), this easy-to-recall phrase would lend itself to communal recitation, and the doubled particle of entreaty (ana…na) underscores its beseeching quality. If repeated five (or even ten) times during the recitation of this unit, this refrain constitutes the most intensively penitential litany of the entire qerova.

How are we to understand the poet’s rapturous affirmation of humanity’s near-angelic status with his almost desperate pleading for forgiveness? This juxtaposition captures in writing the fundamental tension at the core of the day: deep recognition of the need to repent juxtaposed with confidence in the efficacy of the day’s rites.

Physical Affliction: Wretched and Heavenly at the Same Time

In the two units examined here, Yannai embraces the tensions that emerge from the stress on physical denial. The same ritual acts are imbued with different meanings, from affliction to aspiration. Yannai acknowledges the body, the most supple instrument of human expression in the world: It is the means by which a person sins, atones, and—for a moment—perhaps touches heaven.


September 27, 2020


Last Updated

November 4, 2023


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Prof. Rabbi Laura Lieber is professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, where she directs the Duke Center for Jewish Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in the History of Judaism from the University of Chicago and rabbinic ordination from HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. Her research focuses on Jewish liturgical poetry.