Mahzor Contents

The High Holiday prayer book emphasize the themes of the Days of Awe--introspection, repentance, and the hope to be

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Rabbi Michael Strassfeld has written in his book, The Jewish Holidays, that these three sections, unique to Rosh Hashanah, reflect three central principles of Judaism:

1.      The acceptance of God as King of Universe

2.      The acknowledgement that God intervenes in the world to punish the wicked and reward the good.

3.      The recognition that God was revealed in the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and will again be revealed at end of days.

If we were to pick out one piyyut as an archetype of the theology of the Rosh Hashanah, we might choose L'eyl orekh din (to God who sits in judgment). The poem begins by declaring that God "probes all of our hearts" and therefore will always divine our most secret thoughts and fears. The poem moves on to say that God suppresses wrath in judgment so that regardless of the dark nature of our secret sins, God will suppress anger in discovering them. It ends by announcing that God acts with compassion, accepts God's subjects, and guards those who love God. We may take from this that even while we call Rosh Hashanah "Yom HaDin" (day of judgment), we can look forward to the end of the process in which we will be loved, accepted, and forgiven our sins. This is the overall theological message that the Rosh Hashanah liturgy wishes to portray: We still have hope.

If we view Rosh Hashanah as a the first day of a court case, then we likewise would see Yom Kippur as the day on which the verdict is handed down. The tension mounts as we near the Day of Judgment, and this can be seen in the liturgy as well. The evening of Yom Kippur begins with a once-controversial prayer, Kol Nidrei, that has since become the symbol for the solemnity of the day. In this prayer, repeated three times, we pray that all vows and oaths that we have made throughout the year will be forgiven us, so that we might enter into this coming year with a clean slate, forgiven for any promises we might inadvertently have broken. Many rabbis viewed this as an unnecessary absolution which might lead people to sin by taking their vows too lightly in the future. However, this prayer had already proven to be so popular and powerful among the people, it has become a centerpiece of the holiday.

All five services on Yom Kippur include a section known as Selihot (forgiveness prayers) and another one called the Vidui (confessions). The Selihot include a basic confession of sins, an expression of our contrition, and reflections on God's forgiving nature. We recite the 13 attributes, which are taken from a prayer that Moses recited in Exodus 34. In it, we assert that God is a compassionate, patient, and righteous God. Included in the Vidui is the Ashamnu, which is an alphabetical acrostic of different sins we have committed. It is said in first-person plural, because while each individual may not have committed these specific sins, as a community we surely have, and our fates are intertwined on this day. We also read the Al Chet, which is a prayer that similarly lists transgressions we have made over the year. These two sections best reflect the theology of the day: We are in a state of self-reflection. We admit our sins fully, and even beat our breasts while doing so. We place our fates in God's hands for God is Tov V'Salah (good and forgiving).

Yom Kippur musaf (Shaharit for Reform synagogues) is different from Rosh Hashanah, in that we do not add Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot, but instead include a section on the Avodah, a description of the sacrifices and rituals performed by the High Priest in the Temple on Yom Kippur. We also add a piece known as the martyrology, a solemn section where we recall ten martyrs who were killed in most brutal ways, giving their lives while declaring their faith for the world to hear.

It is the final service on Yom Kippur, Nei'lah--literally "locking" (of gates)--which paints an image of the gates of heaven closing, lending urgency to our prayers and our need for repentance and forgiveness. We begin the service with a piyyut that asks God to "open the gate" and let us enter so that we might have a final appeal before God's decree is sealed. There is a silent Amidah prayer, like at all services, which is repeated by the cantor. Throughout Neilah, the language of being "written" in the book of life used thus far in High Holiday liturgy shifts, as we instead speak of being "sealed" in that book.

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Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Rabbi Iscah Waldman is the director of education and family programming at Ansche Chesed in New York City.