The Suffering Messiah in the Prayers of Yom Kippur

You are visiting a synagogue on Yom Kippur. At the peak of the prayers, the unthinkable happens.


Calendar, Prayer, Yom KippurSep 18, 2015

CalendarSep 18, 2015


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In the days when the Temple stood, Yom Kippur was full of dramatic priestly rituals, such as the two goats whose fates are determined by drawing of lots and the High Priest’s offering of blood and incense in the holy of holies. In the synagogue today, none of that is happening, of course. But the prayers are no less dramatic and elaborate; in fact, they rehearse in step-by-step detail the High Priest’s atonement rituals.

The longest and most intense of the Yom Kippur services is called Mussaf. It corresponds to the additional sacrificial offerings that were brought in the days of the Temple (see Numbers 29:7-11).

The intensity of Mussaf reaches its most climactic moment at the prayer called the Kedushah, in which we raise our voices in concert with the angelic multitudes who constantly surround God throne, crying, “Holy, holy, holy!” Thus we sanctify God’s name on earth just as it is sanctified by the angels in heaven.

Here, at the Kedushah, is the moment that catches you by surprise. The prayer leader (called the chazzan) suddenly begins to describe how the Messiah, through his intense suffering, piercing, and wounds, procures forgiveness for our sins.

The rabbi does not stir or act alarmed. The congregation continues in fervent prayer as if nothing unusual has happened. That is because this is a portion of a common Yom Kippur prayer called Az Milifnei Vereshit that has been used in synagogues for centuries.

The passage can be found in volume two of the famous Machzor Kol Bo:

Here is my own straightforward translation, which you are free to criticize:

Then, prior to creation,
he established the Temple and Yinnon.

The Talpiot above from the beginning,
he prepared before any people or language.

He decided to let his presence reside there,
to guide the mistaken in straight paths.

If the wicked are reddened (by sin),
let them wash and be cleansed beforehand.

If (God’s) fierce wrath is incited,
the Holy One will not awaken his full rage.

So far, our wealth has depleted,
but our Rock has not touched us.

Our righteous Messiah has turned away from us;
we have acted foolishly and there is no one to justify us.

Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions
he bears, and he is pierced for our transgressions.

He carries our sins on his shoulder,
to find forgiveness for our iniquities.

By his wounds we are healed,
forever a new creation; the time of his creation.

Bring him up from the circle;
lift him out of Seir.

To summon us to the mount of Lebanon
a second time through Yinnon.

This prayer elaborates on a concept found in the Gemara, in b.Pesachim 54a and b.Nedarim 39b: “Seven things were created before the world was created: the Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah.” This prayer also alludes to the assertion of the Sages (b.Sanhedrin 98b) that Yinnon is one of the Messiah’s names (based on a creative interpretation of Psalm 72:17).

The themes of the suffering Messiah found in this prayer are not only heavily drawn from Isaiah 53, but they are in keeping with several midrashic texts, in particular Pesikta Rabbati 36.

Other Messianic bloggers have pointed out this prayer, including Digging with Darren and Rosh Pina Project, only to find incredulous anti-missionary commenters. Could this possibly be a legitimate, standard Jewish prayer? Surely it had to be made up by Christian missionaries! (This confusion was partly fueled by the fact that the only English edition where it was translated was in a 1931 edition translated by Rev. Dr. A. Th. Philips. It just doesn’t sound like a Jewish name.)

But lo and behold, this piyut (liturgical poem) is found in numerous machzorim, including:

One anonymous commenter on the Rosh Pinah blog exclaimed that this prayer doesn’t exist in the standard ArtScroll Machzor. But it actually does, if you know where to find it! On page 534, a note reads, “Most congregations recite the standard Sabbath and Festival Kedushah (below); some recite an enhanced version (page 827).” What is “enhanced” about the version on pages 827-829? It is the prayer Az Milifnei Vereshit (left untranslated, of course).

The existence and use of this prayer does not prove that Yeshua is the Messiah and that the rabbis have known it all along. Rather, it shows that the concept of Messiah’s suffering is intrinsic to historic Jewish thought. Anti-missionaries “set a stumbling block before the blind,” so to speak, when they deny the idea that Judaism teaches that the Messiah suffers and bears our sin.

Their reaction is somewhat understandable, however. Yeshua has been mischaracterized by his own followers for centuries. Jewish scholars have long perceived the Christian church as an extension of the Roman Empire, and as such, carrying on the legacy of Esau, the antagonist of Israel. “Seir” in this prayer (the biblical home of Esau/Edom) is a reference to the current Roman exile. The commentaries on this prayer explain that “lift him out of Seir” means “take Israel out of exile.” But I find it interesting that “him” could also be a reference to Messiah. He, too, is in exile, sitting at the gates of Rome, as it were. It’s time for Yeshua to be restored to his own people.

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About the Author: Aaron Eby is the Vine of David Director and an author and translator for FFOZ. He was the chief translator of The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels and works to develop liturgical resources that will strengthen Messianic Judaism. More articles by Aaron Eby

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