An Introduction to the Rosh Hashanah Prayers

An Introduction to the Rosh Hashanah Prayers –

The Rosh Hashanah prayers are divided into three main sections, each focusing on one of the primary themes of the day.  As we progress through the prayers, these meditations help us achieve a mental and spiritual state conducive to real change and self-improvement.  One of the central themes of the Rosh Hashanah prayers is the emphasis on recognizing God as the King.  Since “There cannot be a King without a people” and God created man, His “nation,” on Rosh Hashanah, it is on that day that He was, so to speak, crowned as King.  A famous poem that has become part of the daily liturgy, Adon Olam, expresses this idea in the following words:

Master of the universe, Who reigned,
Before any form was created,
At the time when His will brought all into being —
Then as “King” was His name proclaimed.

In order to impress upon ourselves on this Divine “coronation day” the fact that God is King, with all attendant rights and privileges, we repeatedly refer to Him as King in our prayers.  This is the message of the section of prayers known as Malchiyot, Kingship, which consists of a description of God as King, along with verses from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings about God’s Kingship

God’s knowledge of human events, thoughts and actions is the second theme of the Rosh Hashanah prayers.  This section, called “Zichronot,” “memories” describes God as the One Who “remembers the covenant” that He made with the Patriarchs.  He is the One Who “remembered Noah” in the midst of the flood, the One Who “knows all the deeds of humanity.”  Verses from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings which describe God remembering and knowing everything are included as before.

The third major section of the Rosh Hashanah prayers is called “Shofrot”, shofars. This refers to the sound of the shofar that was heard when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, and to the shofar blast that will herald the ingathering of the exiles and the coming of the Messiah.  These ideas remind us respectively, of our obligations to other people, God and ourselves (the Torah) and of our ultimate destiny (the Messiah).  They encourage us to reassess our priorities and strive to become better people in the coming year.

Probably the most moving prayer of the year, “Unetaneh Tokef” is found in the Rosh Hashanah machzor (festival prayer book).  Written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, about one thousand years ago, the heart-rending story behind this prayer sheds light on its significance and lasting relevance.

The Bishop of Mainz approached his friend and advisor, Rabbi Amnon, a great Torah scholar, and insisted that he convert to Christianity.  In order to buy time, Rabbi Amnon asked for three days grace to consider the offer.  Upon returning home, Rabbi Amnon was distraught at the idea that he may have given the impression that he even considered betraying God.  Rabbi Amnon spent the three days in solitude, fasting and praying to be forgiven for his sin, and did not return to the bishop.  Finally, the bishop had him brought to the palace and demanded an answer.  Rabbi Amnon replied that his tongue should be cut out for the sin of saying that he would consider the matter.  Furious, the bishop answered that the sin was not in his tongue for what he said, but his legs for not coming back as he had promised.  He ordered that Rabbi Amnon’s feet be amputated joint by joint, then did the same to his hands.  After each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was asked if he would convert, and each time he refused.  The bishop then ordered that he be carried home, in his broken state and on the verge of death.  Rosh Hashanah arrived a few days later and Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried to the synagogue where he was placed before the Ark.  With his last strength, Rabbi Amnon cried out the words of Unetaneh Tokef, a testimony to God’s absolute righteousness, his control over all that happens in the universe and still our own ability to change God’s decree through repentance and good deeds.  With this, Rabbi Amnon died.  Three days later, he appeared in a dream to Rabbi Klonimos ben Meshullam, a great Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar of Mainz.  Rabbi Amnon taught him the text of Unetaneh Tokef and asked him to send the prayer to all Jewish communities to be included in their liturgy.  Rabbi Amnon’s wish was carried out, and the prayer became an integral part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.  The text of Unetaneh Tokef, which follows is recited by the cantor and the congregation while the Ark is open:

Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be established with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows and bears witness; Who writes and seals, counts and calculates; Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles — it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar will be sounded and a still, slight sound will be heard.  Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them — and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’— for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment.

All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock.  Like a shepherd inspecting his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall allocate the needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdicts.

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will be tranquil and who will suffer, who will be poor and who will be rich, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

But Repentance, Prayer And Charity Remove The Evil Of The Decree

For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of the condemned, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately.
It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.

But You Are The King, The Living And Enduring God.

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