HIGH HOLY DAYS
Saturday before Rosh Hashanah
Selichot, a Hebrew word meaning "forgiveness," refers to the special penitential prayers recited by Jews throughout the High Holy Days. Jews recite Selichot beginning late at night on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah and continue each morning on the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah Evening
It has been a year since we have gathered together. The themes of the High Holy Days — renewal, repentance, forgiveness, and redemption — are slowly introduced. The prayer of the clergy, “Hineni,” is sung by the rabbi in front of the open ark, invokes the solemnity of the Days of Awe. The High Holiday “nusach” (special melodies) are presented one by one.
The prayers reach their crescendo on Erev Rosh HaShanah with the words and music of Avinu Malkeinu. “Avinu Malkeinu, hear our prayers and be gracious to us,” we sing. The melody and words are familiar. As we sing we are flooded by emotion. The High Holy Days have arrived and our symphony continues.
Rosh Hashanah Day
Rosh Hashanah Day is the birthday of the world. Our morning service begins with two sections acting as a spiritual “warm-up.” Just as we warm up our bodies before exercise, the Morning Blessings (Birchot HaShachar) and Psalms of Praise (Pesukei d’Zimrah) warm us up spiritually. Many of the prayers are familiar — they are quite similar to what you might read at a Shabbat morning service. However, the melodies are different. These melodies and their settings are reserved for the unique nature of the High Holy Days.
The centerpiece of the morning tefillah is the Kedushat HaYom, the prayer exclaiming the special nature of Rosh Hashanah. It is here we chant the harrowing words of Un’taneh Tokef and B’rosh HaShanah. These ancient texts remind us another year has passed and we have the power to change. This omnipresent theme will be heard over and over, especially on Yom Kippur. The idea of the Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, is presented and the theological premise of God as Judge and Arbiter is reinforced in these prayers. But the liturgy assures us we can “temper the decree” with “repentance, prayer and tzedakah.” This motif in our symphony reoccurs as part of the Yom Kippur service.
The Torah reading recounts the story of the Binding of Isaac. This story has yielded volumes of interpretation. In our High Holiday symphony, we are all essentially Abraham, and Abraham’s struggle with God is also our struggle. The Akedah is a chorus of faith. Faith in the Almighty is echoed in the Haftorah (Jeremiah 31:1-16). In the words of the prophet the people of Israel are assured of their physical and spiritual rebirth and God consoles with hope for the future.
The Sounding of the Shofar is the pinnacle of the morning service. The ancient sound of the shofar transports us through the ages and links us to all the generations before us and all that will come after us. In the Shofar Service we are reminded of God’s sovereignty, God’s abiding presence, and God’s continual revelation as a part of our existence.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, we go to the river and symbolically cast away our sins in the ceremony of Tashlich. This ritual actually acts as a liturgical precursor to the confession of sin of Yom Kippur.
There is an old story that was Kol Nidre the evening when even the “angels stood in awe of God.” For many, the sacredness of Kol Nidre is unparalleled. It is an evening when hearts are opened and souls transformed.
The evening service of Yom Kippur (named Kol Nidre after the prayer of the same name), is hauntingly beautiful. The congregation is somber, a full fast has begun and hearts are heavy and often mournful. The Kol Nidre prayer is a legal formula absolving us of vows or oaths made under duress. It probably developed in medieval times and the melody we hear is equally as old.
Our evening service introduces the confession of sin Al Cheyt, and we will revisit this “melody” over and over as the services for Yom Kippur unfold. As the service comes to a conclusion we ask God to hear our voices with the stirring prayer “Sh’ma Koleinu.”
Yom Kippur Morning
Much of our Yom Kippur morning service bears striking resemblance to Rosh Hashanah morning, but the mood and feeling is completely different. The image of the Book of Life looms large. On Rosh HaShanah we asked to be inscribed, on Yom Kippur we ask to be sealed in this very book. Our confession of communal sins continues and we implore “For all these sins, oh God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.” The Torah reading reminds us that each of us “stands here this day” before God and we are instructed to “choose life” that we and our descendants may live.
Yom Kippur Afternoon
Traditionally, the Yom Kippur afternoon service is a continuation of the morning’s prayers, and our High Holiday prayer book reflects this. The themes are the same, but greatly intensified. The Viddui (confession of sin) appears again, and the machzor links us to the totality of all creation. We are one with our brothers and sisters throughout the ages. In the words of Eileh ezkarah we recall with great sadness all those martyred for no reason other than that they were Jews. Our symphony is despondent; the chants are sad, the music is mournful.
The Torah is chanted again. At this last Torah reading for the Days of Awe we read verses from Leviticus reminding us what it means to be a sacred community: a kehillah kedoshah. The afternoon’s Haftorah is the Book of Jonah. The theme of Jonah is one of forgiveness and God’s compassion.
The Yom Kippur liturgy provides us an opportunity to mourn for those members of our families and community who have died. The contemporary Yizkor service also acknowledges the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, as well as all the martyrs of our people. Our Yizkor service includes poetry and music representing the wealth of Jewish expression. But our hearts ache, and even the most beautiful melodies and most sincere words cannot express our grief. Our tears are intermingled, as we mourn both for personal loss and communal tragedy. Our Yizkor concludes with the words of Psalm 126: “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy…” With these words we move from the depths of sadness to the concluding service of the Day of Atonement and a glimmer of hope.
The word “Neilah” means “to lock” and refers to the locking of the gates of heaven. Many of the prayers are the same as we have prayed earlier in the day, but Neilah introduces yet more new “nusach.” The melodies have an urgency and desperation that seem to implore God to listen to our prayers, to give heed to our voices. Once again the clarion melody of Sh’ma Koleinu asks God not to turn away from us. Hungry and tired, we are presented with a spiritual rebirth with the sounding of the final Tekiah Gedolah. Like the crash of a cymbal in an orchestral symphony, the shofar’s call awakens us. Through prayer, song, and the blessing of community we are spiritually reborn. A New Year has begun, the symphony concludes and we pray, oh God, to have the opportunity to hear it again next year.