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Locking Us In

By: Rav Ari Shames

As this coming Shabbat is Yom Kippur I would like to focus in on the special additional teffila that we have on Yom Kippur - Neilah. This special additional teffila has its own rhythm and nature which I will explore below.

But first, a bit about teffila in general - we typically have three teffilot each day. The gemara in Brachot tells us that there are two possible sources for our daily teffilot. According to one opinion they are based on our three patriarchs. The gemara goes through each teffila and assigns each one to one of the Avot. On the other hand we are told that the three daily teffilot were fashioned after the daily sacrifice routine in the Mikdash, the two daily tamid offerings and the leftover parts of the korbanot that were burnt at night.

The source of the teffilot is not simply trivia - rather it affects the very nature of the endeavour of teffila and has practical ramifications in various areas.

  1. Is arvit is obligatory? We have three patriarchs but we do not have a third sacrifice in the Mikdash. Arvit is set up based on left over parts of the korbanot that we were unable to burn during the day. This scenario may or may not have happened and hence the debate.
  2. If one misses a teffila can it be made up (compensated for by later recitation)? The avot model would allow it while the korbanot model would not (this assumes that the term rachamei - supplications - is more relevant to avot than the korbanot and this is the question at the opening piece of the 4th perek of Brachot).
  3. Certain aspects of the times or best times for the prayers may be related to this issue as well.

Mussaf -

On special occasions we add an additional prayer, Mussaf, which is based on the additional korban that was offered on those special days. When it comes to Mussaf there is no fourth patriarch, but we do have a korban. This affects many halachot as well.

  1. One may not make up a missed Mussaf
  2. One may not decide to pray an additional Mussaf if he has already done so (something that can be done with other teffilot, known as teffilat nedava).
  3. According to some, Mussaf must be said with a minyan, signifying its communal stature, being modelled after the communal korban mussaf.

Neilah -

On Yom Kippur we have a fifth teffila, that of Neilah. This particular teffila is lacking both a patriarch and a korban. Simply put, neilah has a very independent character and it is precisely this lack of pedigree that poses certain problems.

The gemara in the end of Yoma reports a debate between Rav and Shmuel as to what the text of the teffila of Neilah should be. According to Shmuel the focus is on the viduy (confession) and the teffila does not follow the pattern of any other teffila of the day. (Rav Soloveichik goes as far as to understand that according to Shmuel here is no actual amida, rather it is simply an extra viduy. Even if we don’t go that far it is clear that the teffila is exceptional in nature.) Rav is of the opinion that neilah is indeed another amida like all the rest on Yom Kippur. Clearly the impetus for the position of Shmuel is the lack of anchor, a situation that is unique to neilah.

Even according to Rav, neilah remains exceptional. Rav believes that the neilah prayer actually exempts one from arvit of after the fast. From here we can understand how hard it was for the chachamim to imagine a totally new teffila that stands on its own and is not incorporated into the fabric of the rest of our system. Even those who believe that it is a real teffila see it as an early arvit!

The time frame of neilah is also unique. All of the other teffilot have a defined starting time and a “worst-case-scenario” ending time. Neilah is defined by its ending time. It is to be said as the skies or the gates of the Mikdash are being locked up (neilah). When is the starting time? We are told that it should be close to sunset when the sun is to be seen on the tree tops. The starting time is only to set us up for the proper ending time.

All of the evidence points to a simple conclusion - Neilah is a different type of teffila. And as such, I would propose that its lack of a solid foundation is not a weakness but rather it formulates its strength. Neilah is pure prayer. We do not stand before God at that moment as a mini model of a korban nor do we present ourselves as prodigy of our illustrious forefathers. We simply stand before God. These are the most magical of moments imaginable. After a full 24 hours of feeling the presence of God, we offer one more prayer, a prayer that some saw as a formal teffila and which others felt did not require the usual protocol of general teffila.

We define Yom Kippur by squeezing out every last moment of the day in teffila. Neilah literally seals that teffila-full day. I cannot imagine having an early neilah and spending the remainder of the day watching the clock in anticipation of the end of the fast. In one of the classic parts of neilah we even say “the sun is setting and I will enter His sanctuary”.

We all invest a tremendous amount of effort in our regular teffilot, and the additional layers involved add significance and meaning. However it does seem that sometimes we lose sight of the most pure element of teffila - talking to God. Neilah, in its form and timing and essential quality, gives this back to us.

I recently heard a very nice definition of neilah. The word “neilah” means the locking or closing up. In the name of the tefilla itself we tend to see the gates of the mikdash or the actual heavens themselves closing and we do our best to get in our last words before the gates close and leave us on the outside. In actual fact the purpose of neilah is really to lock us up inside the gates. The gates are indeed closing but through our teffila we help pull them closed from the inside! Our complete Yom Kippur experience prepares us for kedusha and the service of God. We look to the final prayer, neila, to seal us in and allow us to bask in the glory of Hashem.

Gmar Chatima Tova



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