Three times in Musaf we conclude a section – Malchiyot, Zichronot, Shofarot – with the blowing of the shofar and the two short prayers, HaYom Harat Olam and Areshet Sefatenu.
Each prayer is popular, sung with gusto, and extraordinarily difficult in words and meaning.
HAYOM HARAT OLAM
Leaving aside for the moment the question of what harat olam means, this prayer seems to be a succinct summary of Rosh HaShanah.
It says this is a Day of Judgment, but the question is, for whom?
We are told that some people are like children pleading for a parent’s mercy and kindness, whilst others are like servants, seeking justice and freedom from their Master.
Who then are the children, who are the servants? Are they separate categories, defined by lineage or social status?
It is not that some are in the “children” category and others in the “servants” group. There is only one category, us. We oscillate between the two identities. We all have the same problem: we all believe in God, but we wonder how much we can ask of Him.
If we appeal to His middat ha-din (attribute of strict justice), He might retort that we have no right to a favourable verdict; if we rely on His middat ha-rachamim (attribute of mercy), He may warn us not to take advantage of His kindly nature.
In neither case can we be certain of a successful outcome. That’s what makes the day difficult, and that’s why we blow the shofar with a quivering – and quavering – heartbeat.
The opening phrase has a connection with birth. It is often (perhaps incorrectly) translated, “Today is the birthday of the world”, or “Today the world was brought into being” (though harat is pregnancy, not childbirth), indicating that on the anniversary of Creation, God looks at His world and its inhabitants and determines their fate for the year ahead.
It reflects the view of Rabbi Eliezer in the Gemara that the world was created in Tishri, though there is an alternative view that declares that the world was created in Nisan (RH 10b/11a).
The phrase is from Jeremiah 20:17, verachmah harat olam. Jeremiah dreams of never leaving his mother’s womb; she would thus remain pregnant forever.
Maybe we can justify the use of a word that means “pregnant” by translating the phrase Hayom Harat Olam as “Today the world’s potential is seen”.
There is a rabbinic view that Creation began on 25 Ellul, with man’s arrival coming on the sixth day, 1 Tishri. In this sense it is possible to suggest that there was a notional short pregnancy between 25 Ellul and the emergence of humankind on the day we mark as Rosh HaShanah.
This prayer asks that our prayers (including the sound of our shofar) may rise and be accepted favourably On High.
The Hebrew areshet sefatenu is borrowed from Tehillim (Psalm 21:3), va’areshet sefatav bal manata, “You have not withheld his lips’ request”.
Areshet is an unusual word, derived from a notional root alef-resh-shin which Samson Raphael Hirsch connects with alef-resh-sin, to betroth: Ex. 22:15 uses the word for a woman whose betrothal has not been formally constituted.
In the context of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we might understand the word as yearning for a close relationship between man and God in which man’s words of faith in God are answered by the Almighty’s assurance of His love.