We are repeatedly singing the phrase “bish’al han’ilah”–”as the gates begin to close.” So what are these gates?
So much to say here! Let’s start out with the context of these words and indeed of the whole piece. It’s not tied to Hanukkah but to Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” and is typically sung at the closing service in observance of this special date on the Jewish
calendar. But where did the whole thing start? To find that out we have to go back to the book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, in which God spells out the ceremonies that are to take place on the original Day of Atonement:God spoke to Moses:
“Tell your brother Aaron not to enter into the Holy of Holies, barging inside the curtain that’s before the Atonement-Cover on the Chest whenever he feels like it, lest he die, because I am present in the Cloud over the Atonement-Cover. (Lev. 16:2 The Message).
Then follows the series of sacrifices and purifications that are to be done on this one day a year when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was housed (which this translation calls the “Atonement-Cover,” a more literal wording) and ask forgiveness for the sins of the entire nation of Israel. It’s a fascinating chapter, full of symbolic meaning. (Did you know, for instance, that the idea of a “scapegoat” comes from this chapter?)
That observance has been ended by force at least twice: first, with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (the First Temple) by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC and then by the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD by the Emperor Titus. The Second Temple was built by Jews who were permitted to return to Jerusalem from Babylon during the reign of Cyrus the Persian; there was an approximately 70-year gap when there was no Temple, and of course many Jews could not or chose not to return to Jerusalem. It was during this time that rabbinical books of commentary were written about the five books of the Law (the Torah), including Leviticus. What was to be done about the fact that the sacrifices and ceremonies connected with the Temple could not be performed? How could one be a devout Israelite if one could not carry them out? It is from these commentaries (the Babylonian Talmud) that many of the ideas for the current Yom Kippur ceremonies are found. And, once the Second Temple was destroyed during Israel’s domination by the Roman Empire, the Yom Kippur ceremonies became permanent. (“Yom” means “day,” and “kippur” is from the Hebrew word meaning “cover”–”kapporet.” The word “atonement” actually means “covering,” with the idea that sins were covered by obeying God’s law and repenting of wrongs.) I’m afraid that I’m making a fairly simple narrative out of what was a long and confused process, as an uprooted and oppressed people tried to maintain the original commands they had been given.
Yom Kippur marks the end of a ten-day period called the High Holy Days, with the first of the days being Rosh Hashanah. The dates for these and other Jewish holidays do not remain constant in relation to our current Gregorian calendar, as the Jewish calendar is based on lunar months. This year Rosh Hashanah was observed on September 21-22 (it spans two days because it starts and ends at sunset) with Yom Kippur then falling on September 29-30.
The main sequence of events for the High Holy Days involves starting the New Year (which is the actual significance of Rosh Hashanah) by confessing one’s sins. “It is held that, while judgment on each person is pronounced on Rosh Hashanah, it is not made absolute until Yom Kippur. The Ten Days are therefore an opportunity to mend one’s ways in order to alter the judgment in one’s favor.” (Wikipedia) Or, to put it another way, one’s sins are written in the book of judgment at the New Year, but the book isn’t closed until Yom Kippur. Participants have those ten days to make things right; one way to do this is to ask forgiveness from those whom they have wronged. Then the actual Day of Atonement arrives, lasting about 25 hours since it starts at sunset on one day but ends at actual nightfall on the next. Strict observers of the holiday fast from food and water for the entire time. They attend five services, one at sunset on the first day and four on the second. One service includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service; this activity was one way that the rabbis during the Babylonian captivity had said could stand in for the actual ceremonies. As one website said, “When the second Temple was destroyed in the year 3830 from creation (70 AD), the Yom Kippur service continued. Instead of a High Priest bringing the sacrifices in Jerusalem, every single Jew performs the Yom Kippur service in the temple of his or her heart.” (from Chabad.org, “What Is Yom Kippur?”) The last service of the day is the Neilah, the “closing of the gates,” and our selection is sung as the introduction to that service.
Now the symbolism of “closing” makes sense. The song is performed at the closing service. The book of judgment will be closed at this time, along with the gates of heaven, until the next year. I ran across this description and feel that I can’t do better, so here it is:
Neilah (Closing of the gates) is the final service of Yom Kippur. Some have suggested that the name refers to the historical fact that this extra service was recited at the end of the Day of Atonement, when the Temple gates were closing. However, the special piyyutim written for this service favor the idea that Neilah reflects the more spiritual concept of the closing of the gates of Heaven, which have been kept open to receive our final prayers and supplications.
This poetic image has imbued the Neilah service with a sense of urgency. In contrast to the leisurely pace of the other Yom Kippur services, the mood suddenly changes.
Although Judaism teaches that the gates of prayer are always open to the truly repentant, as individuals and as a congregation we feel that this is our final chance to pour out our hearts before the divine throne of mercy. Even those who have left the synagogue because of weakness induced by the fast usually return to participate in the Neilah service. (myjewishlearning.com, “Neilah Service: Closing of the Gates.”)
Simon Sargon’s beautiful arrangement of this piece is a great addition to our December concert.