Rosh Hashana in the Synagogue
In the minds of many people Rosh Hashana (and Yom Kippur) means spending a lot of time in the synagogue. This is a reasonable conclusion given the many elaborate prayers and poems that are part of the liturgy. Even the name of the prayer book is different. Instead of a Siddur, we use a Mahzor.
Perhaps the most distinctive element of these prayers and poems is the spiritual and often haunting melodies we sing. These beautiful motifs (called nusach in Hebrew) often connect us to our parents and grandparents and are unique to Rosh Hashana.
It is interesting to note that many of the Hebrew poems (piyutim) that are specially written for Rosh Hashana (and Yom Kippur) are written in an acrostic pattern. That is, the initial letters of each successive line form a word, phrase or name. The 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet would thus serve as a “memory aid” especially before prayers books were printed.
Special Psalms – 81 and 27
Also unique to Rosh Hashana is the recitation of Psalm 81:4-5, “Blow the shofar on the new moon on the full moon for our feast day. This is the holiday’s “Call to worship”.
Psalm 27, known as the penitential psalm is not only recited on Rosh Hashana but is recited throughout the entire holiday season beginning with the Hebrew month of Elul (preceding Tishrei) until the end of Sukkot. In it, we express our faith in God and confidence that he will accompany us at all times.
God as King
A subtle distinction of the High Holiday liturgy is the emphasis on the word Ha-Melech (The King), referring to God, the Creator of the universe, as its Sovereign. This word, when recited aloud, brings the theme of God’s majesty to the fore. The idea that God rules the world affirms that the world is not an accident or something mechanical. This imagery allows us, His worshippers, to become subjects of His kingdom.
Avinu Malkeinu (Hebrew: אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ) is a prayer recited from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. Joseph H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, described it as "the oldest and most moving of all the litanies of the Jewish Year. It makes use of two images for God - He is both "Our Father" (Isaiah 63:16) and "Our King" (Isaiah 33:22)..
Each line of the prayer begins with the words "Avinu Malkeinu" and is then followed by varying phrases. The verses are often chanted slowly to represent the pious pleading of the supplicant. The Talmud attributes its authorship to Rabbi Akiva who recited two verses each beginning "Our Father, Our King" in a prayer to (apparently successfully) end a drought.
When reciting Avinu Malkaynu, the congregation stands as the ark is opened. Avinu Malkaynu is not recited on Shabbat (with the exception of Neilah on Yom Kippur).
As mentioned above, the sounding of the shofar is perhaps the most distinctive and anticipated moment of the Rosh Hashana service. Indeed, one of the names for the holiday is יום תרועה – the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar. It is interesting to note that the mitzvah is to hear the sounds of the shofar and not to blow the shofar. It is a privilege to be a בעל תקיעה – the individual chosen to sound the shofar.
A shofar is the natural horn of a kosher animal with the exception of a cow or an ox (which leaves a goat/ram or a sheep). The “ram’s horn” reminds us of the story of the Binding of Isaac who, at a climactic moment, is spared and in his stead, a ram is sacrificed.
The Talmud explains that the shofar should be curved and not straight which is intended to symbolize humility and its sounds should pierce the hearts of those hearing it. Maimonides comment on the sounding of the shofar should resonate within us, “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse yourselves from your slumber and ponder your deeds…” The sounding of the shofar also reminds us of when the Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah (Exodus 19).
Hearing the sounding of the shofar is so important that those who are ill and cannot come to synagogue should arrange to have someone sound the shofar for them at home or, God forbid, in a hospital.
The shofar is not sounded on Shabbat. So, why, if the sounding of the shofar is so important, is its sounding forbidden on Shabbat? Indeed, it is precisely for this reason – its importance – that the sages felt that it might lead to violations of Shabbat laws!
What valuable lesson did our sages teach us? They taught us that Shabbat is holy and that its sanctity and relevance to the Jewish people cannot be underestimated or minimized.
The Many Names of Rosh Hashana
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur together are known as “the High Holidays,” Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is traditionally the day on which human beings are called to account for their behavior in the previous year. God weighs their rights and wrongs and inscribes worthy people in the Sefer Chaim, the Book of Life, for the coming year. For this reason, Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hadin, “the Day of Judgment.” It is also called Yom Hazikaron, the “Day of Remembrance” because Jews pray that God will remember them in the coming year. In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Teruah, the “day of blasting” because it is the day when Jews sound the shofar, a curved ram’s horn. Finally, our tradition refers to Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the day on which God created the world, and is therefore also called Hayom Harat Olam.
In the Book of Life/B’sefer Chaim
B’sefer Chaim is an important addition to the Sim Shalom – Grant Peace – prayer. In this interpolation, we ask God to include us, “In the Book of Life, blessing and peace, (and) may we all be remembered and inscribed before You, we and all Your people, the house of Israel…Blessed are You, the Maker of Peace”.
Kingship of God, Remembrances and Shofar Sounds מלכויות זכרונות ושופרות
Ten biblical verses in each of these three sections mark these special additions to the Musaf service on Rosh Hashana. As noted above, in the first section, Malchuyot, we recognize God as the King of the world. The Zichronot theme emphasizes God as the merciful judge who remembers our good deeds. The Shofarot section refers to the shofar blasts on Mt. Sinai. At the conclusion of each section, the shofar is sounded 10 times. The custom of Sephadic Jews is to also sound the shofar during the silent reading of the Amidah.