Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, marks the start of the Ten Days of Penitence, a period culminating in Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement. Though Reform Jews celebrate just one day, it is otherwise universally observed for two. The dating of a year's beginning is esssentially arbitrary and has varied widely across centuries and cultures. The entrance of Fall, though, seems a particularly propitious time for it. Not only in mostly agricultural societies, but even in the industrialized world, it is a time of new beginnings - the school year, new concert, broadcast and sports seasons, etc. Fall often also serves as a metaphor for advancing middle age, a time conducive, more firmly than formerly, for reflection on past and future days. Among Jews, it is a time for serious introspection and spiritual renewal. Even infrequent attenders are strongly drawn back to the synagogue.
Biblically, the holiday is called 'Yom Teruah' (Day of Shofar Sounding); liturgically, as 'Yom HaZikaron' (Day of Remembrance). These names express two of the holiday's major themes. The central motif throughout these ten days, though, is the Sovereignty of God and His total control of human destiny. Metaphorically, two Books - Life or Death - are laid before Him, the fate of all humanity hanging in the balance. As proclaimed in the famed piyyut (medieval poem) 'Unesaneh Tokef", "on Rosh HaShanah, it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die ... But repentance, prayer and charity can avert the severe decree".
In contrast to worldwide secular New Year's Eve revelry, this is not a time for unbridled hilarity, but rather is one of tempered joy. The predominant mood is one of quiet hope for the year just beginning. A universal custom involves the dipping, at festive holiday meals, of a slice of apple or piece of 'challah' (holiday bread) in honey, in expectation of a "sweet" year. Other distinctive foods, such as seed-laden pomegranates, suggestive of a year full of good deeds, also may be eaten symbolically. "May you be inscribed for a good year" greetings are widely exchanged among family and friends.
The morning service for each day is unusually long, lasting from early morning well into afternoon. The standard Sabbath and Holiday service structure is greatly augmented with embedded piyyutim, developed over centuries. Incorporated in a special holiday prayerbook, called a 'Machzor, these exalt God as the Everlasting King and All-Knowing, but Merciful, Judge. While the conditionality of joy on these days precludes the recitation of Hallel, it still suffices for the pronouncement by Cohanim (descendants of Aaron) of the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:22-27) over the congregation..
A beautiful refrain in one pre-holiday Saturday night Selichot prayer, petitions God "to listen to the song and to the prayer". Cantor-led services, with their familiar traditional melodies, synergistically merge the two, greatly enhancing worshippers' spiritual experience. Though a powerful, melodic voice is a must, much more is to be expected of a 'Shaliach Tzibbur', (Congregational representative). This is reflected in the petitional prayer, 'Hineni' (Here I am), recited by the cantor prior to the 'Musaph' (Additional) service. The word itself is the very expression employed by the Bible to denote readiness to serve the Divine Will. Composed long ago by an unknown cantor, it humbly urges God to disregard his own personal shortcomings and to accept his heartfelt service on behalf of the congregation.
The days' Torah readings recall the faith and devotion displayed by the Patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac. On the first day (Gen. 21:1-34). it is related how, after many years of infertility, Sarah gave birth to Isaac; on the next day (Gen. 22:1-24), Abraham is called to sacrifice that long longed-for son, who totally acquiesces. Upon angelic intervention, a ram, instead, is sacrificed. Echoes of this Patriarchal supreme act of submission continue to reverberate through the sounds of the Shofar (ram's horn).
The accompanying Haftarahs highlight two noble women - Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, and the Matriarch, Rachel. The first day reading (I Samuel:1-2:10) notes Hannah's infertility and prayers for a son. It ends in a triumphant ode of thanksgiving. The message for the second day (Jer:31-1-20), from the Prophet Jeremiah, normally one of gloom and doom, is here one of hope and faith: "A voice is heard in Ramah ... Rachel weeping for her children. Thus saith the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping. There is hope for your future; they shall return to their Land".
The Torah reading is followed by the sounding of 30 blasts of the Shofar: 'Tekiah' - one long rising blast, 'Shevarim' - three short, sighing-like blasts, 'Teruah" - nine staccoto. weeping-like, blasts, ending in a Tekiah Gadola - one extended long rising blast. Why is the Shofar sounded at this point in the service? As the exclusive commandment of the day, it normally would be expected to be performed much earlier. An incident from Roman times, however, explains why it isn't. Mistaking an early morning Shofar sounding as signalling an incipient revolt, Legionnaires committed a massacre. To avoid any repetition, the sounding of the Shofar was moved to late morning. The remaing 70 blasts of the Shofar will come during and just after Musaph. There are differing traditions as to precisely when and how this is to be done, principally between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, who blow a total of 101 blasts, both within the Silent prayer and during its repetition.
The Musaph Silent prayer is unique. Instead of a single central section, sanctifying the holiday, there are three - 'Malchiyot' (Kingship), 'Zichronot' (Remembrance') and 'Shofrot' (Shofar sounding)- corresponding to Rosh HaShanah's triple themes. Each section incorporates ten theme-related Scriptual passages- three from Torah, three from Psalms, three from Prophets, and a concluding Torah verse.
'Malchiyot' is introduced by 'Aleynu' (It is our duty), traditionally ascribed to Joshua, and which has long since been adopted as the concluding prayer for all prayer sevices. It is a profound expression of God's absolute sovereignty over the world and expectation that it will ultimately be accepted by all humanity. During the Reader's Repetition of the silent prayer, there is an act performed only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. During 'Aleynu', at "We bend the knee and bow", the cantor, and many in the congregation, prostrate themselves. Typifying the 'Malchiyot' verses is "Sovereignty is the Lord's and He governs the nations (Ps. 22:29)".
'Zichronot' begins by noting that "There is no forgetting before Thy Throne of Glory; there is not a thing hidden from Thy eyes". There is particular appeal to the still-lasting merits of the ancestors: "I will remember the Covenant with Jacob... with Isaac... with Abraham and I will remember the Land (Lev. 26:42)". Not only the Patriarchs, but the generation of the Exodus: "Thus saith the Lord: I remember your youthful devotion ... how you followed Me into the Wilderness (Jer. 31:19)".
Shofrot moves from the Revelation at Sinai, when "the Shofar blast grew louder and louder ... (Ex. 20:15) to the End of Days, when "a great Shofar shall be sounded ...(Isaiah 27:13)". It concludes with the hope that it soon be sounded "for our freedom; raise the signal to bring our exiles together; draw our scattered people together from among the nations; asssemble our dispersed from the uttermost parts of the earth. Bring us to Zion thy city singing, to Jerusalem thy sanctuary with everlasting joy".
In the Ashkenazic tradition, at the conclusion of each of these sections, there are 30 more Shofar blasts. During the Reader's Kaddish, immediately following the Repetition, a fnal forty blasts are sounded, just before "May the prayer and supplications of the whole house of Israel be accepted by their Father in Heaven".
It is on this high note that the main holiday service approaches its close.