By Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD, emeritus senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
THE MONTH OF ELLUL
The sacred atmosphere of the High Holydays builds up throughout the preceding month. Well before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, one is already in the mood for their solemnity and introspection.
Greetings during this period include k’tivah vachatimah tovah – “Be written and sealed (in God’s Book) for good”.
Care is taken to perform good deeds and not to sin.
In some communities the Solemn Days were prepared for by a ta’anit dibbur, a fast from speech; since the most common sins are committed with the tongue, one refrained as much as possible from talk of all kinds.
The shofar is blown every weekday morning and in some places every evening also, as a reminder that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to ask Divine forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf, the shofar was sounded in the Israelite camp to warn them not to sin (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 581).
Selichot, penitential prayers, are said on weekdays during the last part of the month to attune us to the thoughts, feelings and melodies of the coming days.
Everybody, not just the chazan, should spend time looking at the Holyday prayers, though when a certain chazan told a sage he was going through the prayers he was asked, “But are the prayers going through you?”
The name of the month of Ellul is said to be the initial letters of Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine” (Song of Songs 6:3), which suggests that our reconciliation with God should begin long before Rosh HaShanah.
The customary blessing of the new month (Bir’kat HaChodesh) is omitted on the Shabbat before Tishri, because it is unthinkable that anyone is unaware of the approach of Rosh HaShanah (some add that it is also to confuse Satan, the symbolic accuser, and prevent him from interfering with our re-union with God).
THE ROSH HASHANAH SERVICES
This Guide explains the prayers for the first day of the festival; most of the commentary will also be found helpful on the second day. Page references are to the ArtScroll (A), Birnbaum (B), Koren-Sacks (K), and Routledge (R) editions of the Ashkenazi Machzor.
Psalms 92 & 93 [A45, B21, K45, R9]
These are recited when Rosh HaShanah begins on Friday evening. Both Psalms describe the messianic age, when creation will have an unending Sabbath.
Bar’chu [A50, B23, K49, R10]
The musical motif of the High Holydays marks the services from the opening call to prayer, Bar’chu, onwards. Zangwill used to say that one could tell which day of the Jewish year it was by listening to the music.
Tik’u (Psalm 81:4) [A60, B29, K61, R14]
Inserted prior to the Amidah, this verse proclaims the coming of the Biblically-ordained Day of Blowing the Shofar (Num. 29:1, Lev. 23:24).
Zochrenu (“Remember us for life”) [A62, B31, K65, R15]
This is one of several special insertions in the prayers during the Ten Days of Penitence, reflecting the belief that God has a Book of Life in which He inscribes the righteous (Ex. 32:32-33, Psalm 139:16, Psalm 69:28, Talmud R.H. 16b).
L’David Ori [A86, B45, K91, R39]
Psalm 27, the penitential psalm, is said daily from Rosh Chodesh Ellul until the end of Sukkot. Its message and culminating verse is “Hope in the Lord, be strong and of good courage, and hope in the Lord”.
L’shanah Tovah [A90, B47, K95, R24]
The Rosh HaShanah greeting is “May you be inscribed for a good year”. Despite the popular translation, “a happy new year”, the greeting focuses on a good year; happiness is a by-product of a feeling that life is good and worthwhile, with all its occasional problems.
KIDDUSH [A82, B47, K99, R21]
The Kiddush praises God for sanctifying Israel by means of the special days of the year. Judaism emphasises sacred time more than sacred space.
The festival meal begins with apple and honey, symbolic of sustenance and sweetness. Jewish mystic tradition sees the apple as a symbol of the Divine Presence; honey is the epitome of sweetness. Eating apple and honey is not only a token of a sweet year but a year marked by the sweetness of a satisfying spiritual life.
Sephardim and Ashkenazim both have many other symbolic foods, such as carrots, representing many more years (in Yiddish carrots are mehren, taken as a play on the word mehr - “many”) and fish, representing energy and alertness.
HaMelech (“The King”) [A262, B169, K341, R80]
The main section of the Shacharit opens with the proclamation that the heavenly King sits on a high, exalted throne to judge His world. This colourful language is not to be taken literally. God’s existence is above existence, and anthropomorphisms (human language applied to God) are poetic imagery.
Or Olam (“Eternal light”) [A266, B171, K349, R81]
As part of the blessing which praises the Giver of light, this sentence acknowledges that the full enjoyment of Divine light is reserved for the afterlife.
Melech Azur (“King girded with might”) [A268, B173, K349, R81]
This picturesque poem by Elazar Kalir, the great medieval payyetan (liturgical poet), speaks of God’s power as King of Creation who scrutinises His creatures’ deeds.
K’vodo Ihel (“His glory like a tent”) [A286, B189, K369, R86]
This is Kalir’s poetic depiction of God creating the world on Rosh HaShanah by stretching out the sky. On the Day of Judgment, the Creator’s mercy tempers His justice.
Reader’s Repetition of the Amidah [A306, B203, K405, R95]
The private Amidah is short, but the Reader’s Repetition is expanded by means of poetic insertions. It is introduced by Yareti Bif’tzoti, expressing the fear and trepidation with which the officiant approaches his task. A similar passage is Hinneni, which is said in some congregations at the beginning of Musaf.
At Chil (“The awesome day has come”) [A308, B211, K409, R96]
A complicated poem by Kalir, based on Midrashic passages about the righteousness of Abraham and Sarah. The poet urges God to be lenient towards us because of the merits of our ancestors. In the Jewish concept of Z’chut Avot (“Ancestral Merit”), our forebears’ good deeds are invoked for their descendants’ benefit. Any sins they committed are, however, not visited upon later generations.
Attah Hu E-lo-henu (“You are our God”) [A314, B217, K417, R98]
This lists the praises of God in alphabetical order. It concludes with the statement that the Almighty “hangs the earth upon nothing” (Job 26:7), which answers the concern of ancient man as to how the earth, the sun, moon and stars stayed in place without needing to rest on physical foundations. It is one of the Divine miracles that this should happen, in the view of Job and the liturgical poet.
Avinu Malkenu (“Our Father, our King”) [A384, B271, K455, R111]
Originally Rabbi Akiva’s prayer of supplication on a fast day in time of drought. Extra verses were added over the centuries to give expression to the yearning for Divine blessing whenever the future seemed in doubt. “Among the verses are some which point to periods of persecution, martyrdom and political danger; others refer to more normal tribulations and human necessities; others again are specially adapted to the penitential season when prayers for forgiveness are particularly appropriate” (Israel Abrahams).
The phrase, “Our Father, our King” seems paradoxical. A father is warm, close by, concerned and forbearing; a king is high and mighty, impartial and aloof. But if God were only Father we might exploit His kindly nature, and if He were only King, we might be too fearful and awestruck to approach Him.
TORAH READING & HAFTARAH
[A402, B287, K473, R117]
On the first day the Torah reading (Gen. 21) deals with the birth of Isaac; and the Haftarah (I Sam. 1:1-2:10) is about the birth of Samuel. On the second day, the Torah reading (Gen. 22:1-24) describes the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, and the Haftarah (Jer. 31:2-20), the exile of the children of Mother Rachel. (Additional insights on the Akedah appear here, here, here, here, here and here).
These well-loved narratives never fail to arouse our human feelings and emotions. They stress the power of prayer, the depth of parents’ feeling for their children, and the willingness of the pious to obey God even to the point of sacrifice. The readings for the first day focus on the promise of Jewish continuity, illustrated by the birth of Isaac and Samuel. Those for the second day show that our continuity is constantly threatened and challenged, but in the end the danger will be averted and “there will be hope for your latter end” (Jer. 31:16).
Women feature significantly in these readings – Sarah and Hagar in the Torah readings, and Hannah and Rachel in the Haftarot. From Hannah’s beautiful prayer (I Sam. 2:1-10) are derived some of the leading themes of the High Holyday services, such as the recognition that life and death, poverty and riches, lowliness and high rank, are in the hands of God.
There are things we cannot control, but what is up to us is how we respond to events and experiences. The Talmud (Ber. 31a) ascribes to Hannah the main principles of prayer. She “spoke in her heart” (I Sam. 1:13): prayer must be heartfelt. “Her lips moved, but her voice was not heard”: our lips should frame the words of prayer, but it is not necessary to pray loudly or disturb others.
SOUNDING THE SHOFAR
There is a hushed air of expectancy as we await the sound of the shofar. Then the first t’kiah penetrates the building, and even the walls seem to shake. No moment quite rivals this one when God calls to man with trumpet-like clarity and we respond with a plaintive, almost hesitant note that gains confidence as it proceeds.
The main shofar note, according to the Torah, is t’ruah, preceded and then followed by a t’kiah. The sages were uncertain as to the precise nature of the t’ruah (was it a sighing note? a sobbing note?). We compromise with various combinations of notes to ensure that the permutations include the correct t’ruah.
Formerly the shofar was blown during Shacharit, not Musaf. But in Roman times the enemy thought this was a Jewish call to arms and sent spies into the synagogues to prevent it. Only when the spies had departed could the congregation fulfill the mitzvah, and the t’kiot during Musaf have been retained though the original reason no longer applies.
At least 30 shofar sounds must be heard; most congregations have 100. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat lest it be carried through the streets, which would infringe the Shabbat law. Shabbat is even holier than Rosh HaShanah (RH 29b)
There are ten reasons for blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, according to Sa’adiah Gaon (10th cent.):
1. To mark the beginning of Creation, when God created the world and commenced His reign over it. It is the practice of kings to have trumpets blown in order to announce the beginning of their reign.
2. To announce the Ten Days of Penitence, like one who issues a warning saying, “All who wish to repent, should do so, and if not…”
3. To remind us of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, when the shofar was blown, so that we accept upon ourselves the duties laid down at Sinai.
4. To remind us of the words of the prophets who raised their voices to call to the people.
5. To remind us of the destruction of the Temple and the trumpeting of the enemy; when we hear the sound of the shofar we should implore God to rebuild the Temple.
6. To remind us of the binding of Isaac, who was prepared to be sacrificed for Heaven; in the same way we must be ready for Kiddush HaShem (the sanctification of the Divine name).
7. When we hear the shofar we are filled with fear and trembling and are contrite before the Creator, because it is the nature of the shofar to make one tremble.
8. To remind us of the Great Day of Judgment and to be filled with awe concerning it.
9. To remind us of the gathering of the scattered ones of Israel and to await the shofar which will sound to summon the exiles.
10. To remind us of the Resurrection of the Dead, who will arise at the sound of the shofar.
Rabbi Alexander Altmann described the blowing of the shofar as “an act of the profoundest symbolism to which a host of interpretations have been given. But they all come back to one fundamental idea: that of the call of conscience, or the voice of God. Those weird, primeval, unadorned but powerful tone-figurations emanating from the primitive instrument mean to rouse us from our slumber.
“The association of the ram’s horn with the story of Isaac,” said Rabbi Altmann, “for whose sacrifice a ram was substituted, implies again a challenge to our conscience. It evokes the memory of an act which is considered the supreme example of man’s surrender to God, demonstrating also our potentialities.”
MUSAF [A448, B327, K515, R131]
The Musaf (“Additional”) service on Rosh HaShanah is the longest of the whole year. It comprises nine benedictions – the three standard introductory b’rachot, three special b’rachot for Rosh HaShanah, and three standard concluding b’rachot.
The three special b’rachot are Malchiyot (God is King), Zichronot (God remembers the deeds of His creatures) and Shofarot (God will send the messianic redemption to the sound of the shofar). These benedictions traverse the whole of history, from creation through revelation to redemption. One could say that the aim of Rosh HaShanah is to recognise where we came from, where we are at, and where we ought to be going. Each of these three b’rachot has the same structure:
1. Introductory hymn.
2. Ten Biblical verses (three from the Torah, three from the Writings, three from the Prophets, and a concluding verse from the Torah).
3. Concluding benediction.
4. Sounding of the shofar.
5. Plea that God may accept our prayer.
Mi-sod Hachamim [A470, B349, K551, R142]
An acknowledgement that the poetical passages (piyyutim) in the prayers derive from the sages. In the early days of the liturgy, many were uneasy about interrupting the service by introducing piyyutim, and this paragraph may have been an attempt at allaying such fears. Many piyyutim are full of intricate allusions to Biblical and rabbinic literature, and in some Machzorim the more obscure passages are omitted.
Melech E-lyon [A478, B355, K561, R145]
An alphabetical poem by an unknown author contrasting the Supreme King with man, the lowly “king” who has little right to display self-importance in the Divine presence. Though this piyyut correctly emphasizes humility, it does not mean to strip man of his unique glory as the highest of God’s creatures capable of helping to make the earth a paradise.
Un’tanneh Tokef [A480, B361, K565, R146]
Musically, liturgically, and emotionally this is the highlight of the service. Un’tanneh Tokef attracts us by the legendary account of its composition, the richness of its music, its simple language and its vivid imagery, as well as its reference to the minute Divine scrutiny of every creature, the unpredictability of fate, and the assurance that though the length of our life is in God’s hands, its quality is up to us.
The fatalism of the second part of the prayer is unusual in Judaism which generally believes far more strongly in the power of free will. But the culminating assertion that penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil decree (or, more correctly, “the evil of the decree”) is wholly Jewish. It declares that whatever God may have in store for us, we have the capacity to handle it wisely and responsibly.
V’chol Ma’aminim [A490, B367, K581, R149]
An attractive 9th century piyyut celebrating the power of God, displayed in the great events of history and nature, and in His compassion for His creatures. At the time it was written it may have been true to say “And all believe”; in a less religious age a more acceptable translation might be, “And all things attest” – or, more cynically, “Would that I could believe”.
Uv’chen [A494, B371, K585, R151]
The three paragraphs, each commencing Uv’chen, pray God to bless all mankind and make them one brotherhood fulfilling His will with a perfect heart.
Vaye’etayu [A494, B373, K587, R151]
A poetical gem, probably composed in the 7th century, associated with a rousing melody befitting a jubilant, confident assertion that all the world will come to serve His glorious name. The alphabetical acrostic was helpful to worshippers in days before printed prayer books.
Alenu [A500, B377, K595, R154]
The introductory hymn of Malchiyot. Now utilised as the concluding prayer at every Jewish service, Alenu celebrates God as King over Israel and then (in the second paragraph, Al Ken N’kavveh Lecha) as King over the whole universe.
Written, according to tradition, by Joshua, it was inserted into the Rosh HaShanah service by Rav in 3rd century Babylonia. The original version, still used by the Sephardim and in many – but not all – Ashkenazi communities, contains the words, “For they worship vanity and emptiness and worship a god that cannot save” (Isa, 45:20), referring to the idolatrous nations. These words were misconstrued as an attack on Christianity and thus the prayer came to be targeted for persecution.
Heyeh Im Pif’yot [A502, B380, K597, R155]
A magnificent prayer for the cantor, on whose effectiveness in leading the service the congregation’s destiny may depend. This prayer possibly originally came before Alenu in introduction to the Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.
Hayom Harat Olam (“This day the world was brought into being”) [A508, B383, K607, R157]
After the blowing of the shofar at the end of Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, this brief passage speaks of Rosh HaShanah as the day of both Creation and Judgment. Whether God sees us as children who arouse His pity or as servants who yearn for His favour, we hope for a favourable decree.
Not all the sages accepted that the Creation took place in Tishri; some argued for a date in Nisan. Nisan, when Pesach is celebrated, has particularistic Jewish implications, whereas Rosh HaShanah in Tishri concerns itself with the world and humanity as a whole. Maimonides and other classical thinkers addressed the question of whether there ever was a moment of creation or whether matter was eternal; for Maimonides, the crucial fact is that whatever happened at the beginning of history, it was God’s will that it should be so.
A further question: What exactly was created on Rosh HaShanah? There is a rabbinic view that Creation began on 25 Ellul, and the sixth day, when man was created, was 1 Tishri, Hence Rosh HaShanah is not so much the birthday of the physical universe, but of humanity.
Attah Zocher [A510, B385, K609, R158]
The introductory hymn of Zichronot. Stressing that God knows the deeds of all His creatures, and of peoples and nations as a whole, this passage emphasises that no deed is without consequences, and sooner or later it is well with the righteous and the wicked meet their just deserts.
Attah Nigleta [A516, B389, K617, R160]
The introductory hymn of Shofarot. The Biblical verses that follow affirm that the great events in our history were accompanied by the shofar. The messianic age will likewise be proclaimed by the sound of the ram’s horn, when all Israel and the world will sing the great Halleluy-ah, Psalm 150.
Hayom Te’amm’tzenu [A532, B405, K633, R166]
A fitting conclusion to the long Musaf, this is both a prayer and a confident assertion that God will this day strengthen and bless us and hear our supplications. Originally an alphabetical acrostic, our version is a fragment of a longer poem which appears in full in the Italian rite.
Ashrei, Uva L’tziyyon [A598, B425, K883, R172]
Minchah begins as on Shabbat afternoons. When Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat, there is a brief Torah reading from the following week’s sidra, Ha’azinu (Deut. 32:1-12).
The Amidah [A612, B440, K901, R15]
The Amidah is as on Erev Rosh HaShanah and is repeated by the officiant with the addition of the K’dushah.
The service concludes with Alenu.
On the first afternoon of the festival (the second afternoon if the first day is a Shabbat), it is customary to carry out a ceremony of symbolically casting one’s sins into running water whilst reciting Micah 7:19 and other verses from Psalms and Isaiah. The ceremony, called Tashlich (“You will cast”), was originally Ashkenazi and later adopted by the Sephardim. Its origin was medieval. Some authorities, like the Vilna Gaon, opposed it.
Apart from the obvious interpretation that we must remove our sins and become spiritually pure, Tashlich reminds us to be alert like the fish. Others say it illustrates man’s situation in the world, like fish in a net. A further view is that the boundaries of land and water recall God as Creator.
Jacob Lauterbach links Tashlich with the ancient Yom Kippur practice of banishing a scapegoat, symbolically laden with human sins.
THE SHABBAT SHUVAH SERVICES
The special insertions (Zochrenu, etc.) are added to the Amidah in each service.
The day derives its name from the opening words of the Haftarah (Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27), Shuvah Yisra’el – “Return, O Israel, to the Lord”. From the word shuvah comes the term t’shuvah, “repentance” – literally “turning back”.
T’shuvah is turning back from sins, which each person is able to do on their own initiative without any intermediary, though Rabbi Nachman of Breslov recommends asking a spiritual guide for advice as to how to repent.
Shabbat Shuvah and Shabbat HaGadol (the Sabbath before Pesach) were traditionally the occasions for the rabbi, who did not always preach regularly, to expound pertinent aggadic (non-legal) themes in an extensive discourse.
Visit the OzTorah Rosh HaShanah page for more insights on the festival by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.
A much shorter version of the above guide appeared in print in booklet form as “The High Holyday Services: Finding Your Way”, published by the Great Synagogue, Sydney, in 2002. The booklet also included text that appears in the “A guide to the Yom Kippur services” on this website.