The High Holiday prayer book emphasize the themes of the Days of Awe--introspection, repentance, and the hope to be
"The great shofar is sounded.
A still small voice is heard. This day, even the angels are alarmed, seized with fear and trembling as they declare: 'The day of judgment is here!'"
In a loud and trumpeting voice, the cantor describes the shofar's blast, then softly and gently describes a "still, small voice." This poignant line from the Musaf ("additional") service sets a tone for the High Holidays. It is a dichotomy that is played out over and over throughout the liturgy of the Days of Awe. On these days, we sing of the king, judge, and awesome sovereign who sits in judgment over us, while at the same time, we appeal to God's mercy and longstanding tradition of forgiveness, likening God to a shepherd sheltering a flock.
Rosh Hashanah is the first day of court. In the liturgy, we see this played out in the number of references to God as sovereign, ruler, and as a most judicious king. Additions and different emphases start as early as the beginning of the Shaharit (morning) service, with the word "Hamelekh" (The King). While these words also appear in the liturgy of Shabbat morning, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they are highlighted in such a way that a new leader begins the service with a powerful note on the word "King" itself.
A man blows the shofar during Rosh Hashanah services. Photo credit: Jack Hazut, JHM Photography.
The structure of the morning service on Rosh Hashanah is similar to weekday and Shabbat services. It is, however, additional piyyutim (liturgical poems) such as L'eyl Orekh Din ("to the God who sits in judgment") or Adonai Melekh ("Adonai is King") that evoke the seriousness with which we would approach a trial with the true judge.
The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is from the story of Isaac's birth, describing God's kindness in giving a child to Abraham and Sara in their old age (Genesis 21). On the second day we read the story of the binding of Isaac, which ends with a ram as a substitute for Isaac (Genesis 22). The shofar that is so prominent on Rosh Hashanah is considered to be symbolic of this ram.
As the continuation of the piyyut U'netaneh Tokef quoted above, tells us, on Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed into the book of life, while on Yom Kippur, the book is sealed. These simple lines open us up to the possibility of teshuvah (repentance) and of reflection of our past deeds. U'netaneh Tokef is recited on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as an introductory piyyut to the kedushah (literally, holiness) in the musaf Amidah. The key line of this prayer follows on the heels of a long rhetorical piece that demands to know who among this congregation will be here next year--how many will perish and how many will be brought high? But, notes the liturgist, even those who are fated for the worst can depend on the following precept: "penitence, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree."
The shofar is perhaps the best-known feature of Rosh Hashanah services. There are two sets of shofar blasts on each day of the holiday, the first following the Torah service, and the second intertwined with three unique sections in the musaf known as Malkhuyot (verses relating to God's Kingship), Zikhronot (verses relating to memory), and Shofarot (verses relating to shofar). Each of these sections contain ten verses on each of the topics--Malkhuyot contains verses that recall that God is king, Zikhronot contains references that recall God remembering us for the good, and Shofarot gives quotes in which the shofar is sounded, in the past but mostly in the future, heralding future redemption. The sounding of the shofar is interspersed through each of these three prayer sections, showing itself to be a part of the prayer itself. In Reform and other liberal congregations that do not recite musaf, these sections--and the shofar sounding--are added to the morning Shaharit.