Prayer Services of Rosh Hashanah

The unique New Year prayers vividly recall the major themes of the holiday.

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The description of the holiday services for Rosh Hashanah is standard for all the movements with one exception.  Those branches of Judaism that do not have the Musaf (additional) service, such as the Reform movement, add the shofar service and the Aleinu prayer that is part of it, to the morning service, after the reading of the Haftarah (prophetic selection).

As one of the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new Jewish calendar year, is marked by the addition of numerous unique and elaborate prayer services. Understood by the rabbis as an annual coronation of God as the ultimate spiritual sovereign of the Jewish people--and, indeed, the cosmos--Rosh Hashanah worship services are characterized by a pageantry intended to parallel the royal celebrations in ancient kingdoms.

rosh hashanah prayerIn addition, Rosh Hashanah is the formal beginning of the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, in which Jews are called upon to begin a solemn process of introspection and repentance for past misdeeds. Therefore, in addition to the royal images of God prevalent in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, there are numerous prayers dealing with our personal, internal spiritual life and external behavior and conduct.

First and foremost, nearly every prayer and worship service of Rosh Hashanah is characterized by a special nusah, or body of musical themes and melodies. Both evocative and celebratory, the music of Rosh Hashanah is an occasion for great operatic innovation and displays of cantorial virtuosity.

The silent, standing prayers--called Amidah prayers--of Rosh Hashanah are filled with numerous piyyutim, or religious poems, written and interpolated into the services over the span of centuries. Most of these poems emphasize the awesome nature of the coronation of God as king and speak of the inadequacy and terror of mere human beings in approaching God in prayer and praise.

In addition, all of the Amidah prayers include entreaties to God to remember and inscribe the Jewish people in the book of life. In the rabbinic imagination, God was described as a heavenly scribe, recording all of the deeds of human beings and diligently writing them in down various heavenly archives: the book of life, the book of remembrance, the book of livelihood, the book of merit, and so on. On Rosh Hashanah, God records our deeds and on Yom Kippur God judges our spiritual fate for the coming year. Therefore, the Days of Awe are a time when all life on earth is subjected to God’s review and judgment.

Because Rosh Hashanah is a coronation of God as king of the universe, one of the most famous and familiar prayers of this season is Avinu Malkenu (“Our Father, Our King”). Consisting of 20 lines of entreaties asking God to forgive our sins, to help us achieve repentance for our transgressions, to remember us favorably, and so on, it concludes with a haunting congregational melody in which the community sings “Our Father, Our King, graciously answer us, although we are without merit. Deal with us charitably, and lovingly save us.”

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.