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“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.
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.”
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